In the heart of Missoula...

Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors
Celebrating God's love since 1871

"Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" is not just an advertising slogan, but a statement of how First United Methodist Church of Missoula wants to be seen in our community. First Church is a community of open hearts seeking to be a force for God's grace in the "heart" of Missoula's downtown. We are an open minded congregation, respectful of each other yet unafraid of the issues of our time. And we are a church of open doors, welcoming a wide diversity of people to be a part of our congregation. For those who can't manage our stairs you will find the elevator just inside the street level entrance to the right of the stairs.You will always find a place at First United Methodist Church! Please visit us at 300 E. Main Street.
See Map

Reconcilling logo
MISSOULA FIRST UNITED METHODIST CHURCH WELCOMES ALL PEOPLE

of any age, gender, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status, or physical ability
INTO THE LIFE OF THIS CONGREGATION.

 

Accessibility
Our church is handicap accessible through the door on the southeast corner of the building. There is an elevator there that will bring you up to the sanctuary or down to fellowship hall. We have large-print bulletins with hymns, large print hymnals, and hearing assistance devices for those that are hard of hearing.
We also have video screens for hymns and scripture.
Office phone and E-mail contact information on the CONTACT US PAGE.

Message of Hope: The Pastor’s Back Page
            Lately, in preparation for a sermon, I re-read a little book called “Three Simple Rules,” by Bishop Rueben Job.  The book speaks of the three simple rules John Wesley said would lead to a good and Christian life.  The rules are indeed simple: 1. Do No Harm, 2. Do Good, and 3. Stay in Love with God. 
            We are about to enter the season of Lent.  Lent is a time of preparation for the great celebration of Easter.  It lasts for 40 days not counting Sundays.  The idea is that Lent is a time to get closer to God so that when Easter comes, it really is a celebration of the presence of Jesus in our world and in our own lives.
            I’ve always been impressed with Wesley’s ability to keep it simple when it came to spiritual growth.  I was thinking that Lent doesn’t have to be as hard as we have made it, but simply a time to look at our own lives, to intentionally look at the places where we could “Do Good” for others and for ourselves, or at least where we could “Do No Harm.”  And maybe especially this Lent to look at the ways we could “Stay in Love with God.
            Staying in love takes a little time, as anyone who has been in love for a long time will attest.  Where are the ways we could make a special effort to “Stay in Love with God” this Lent?
Could it be committing ourselves to a time of daily prayer and meditation?  Or perhaps we might make a renewed commitment to coming to church, to receiving communion?  Perhaps we might take a class or recommit ourselves to a program of reading scripture?  There are many ways to stay in love with God.  Lent is a good time to begin again.
            Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on March 5th.  We will have a soup and bread supper at 6 p.m. that evening, followed with a simple Ash Wednesday worship service concluding with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads or hands.  We hope you will join us.  Peace, Pastor Barry


hospital **Please let the office know if you or someone in our church family needs a visit in the hospital or at home. (406) 549-6118.
Office Hours (subject to change - call 549-6118 before coming in or to make an appointment with the pastor)
Monday - Thursday: 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. Friday: Closed

 

Church begins each Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
Children's Sunday School begins following the Children's Sermon in the Sanctuary.
Choir practice begins at 9:00 a.m. (9th grade and up welcome)
Faith and Justice Adult Sunday School begins at 9:00 a.m.

Communion is held each Sunday and all are invited to God's Table to share in the meal.
Click here to see a current sermon
by our minister Rev. Barry Padget.
Nursery care will be available to those 5 and under during the service.
There is always a coffee/fellowship time in the Narthex following the service.
You are invited to join us!

lilyEaster Services April 20th:
7:00 Sunrise Service at Caras Park
8:00 Jubilee Easter Breakfast in Fellowship Hall

10:30 Easter Service in the Sanctuary

For complete details of all that is happening this month in our church click on
the
Tower Tidings Newsletter

Weekly Events
From September till May Children's Sunday School will take place during worship following the Children's Sermon.
Children will leave from the sanctuary following the Children's Time.

Faith and Justice class, Sundays 9:00 to 10:15
Click here for description of new adult classes in 2014 and ongoing groups.
Chancel Choir, Sundays, 9:00 to 10:15
JuBELLation, Wednesdays 6-8 p.m.
FUMY, Wednesdays, 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.
Joyful Noise Children's Choir, Thursdays, 6:00 to 6:45 p.m.

April Events
April 1 - Soup and Bread with Ken Koome, Missionary to East Angola at 6 p.m.
April 3 - UMW Lunch at Perkins at 11:30 a.m.
April 6 - Spring Service at Eagle Watch at 1:30 p.m.
April 10 - Ruth Fellowship at 10 a.m. Bring items for health kits.
April 10 - FUMY Paint Ball. Meet at the church at 7 p.m.
April 11 - Friday Night Out at Barry and April Padget's home
April 13 - Potluck and Easter Egg Hunt after Palm Sunday worship
April 15 - Scholarship Deadline
April 16 - Vespers at 1 p.m.
April 18 - Good Friday Service at 7 p.m.
April 20 - Easter Sunrise Service at Caras Park at 7 a.m. and in the Sanctuary at 10:30
April 20 - Jubilee Easter Breakfast from 8-10 a.m. in Fellowship Hall
April 22- UMW Book Club, noon
April 24-27 - Men's Walk to Emmaus
May 1-4 - Women's Walk to Emmaus

The life of our church includes:
Click on blue letters to find out more information.
Adult Spiritual Growth - summary of 2014 classes
Childrens Ministries - You Tube video
Youth MInistries
U of M Wesley Foundation - Facebook link
Amazing Grays
Choirs
Foundation - donations and scholarships
Membership
Stephen Ministers
UMW - United Methodist Women
UMM - United Methodist Men
Social Action - Family Promise, Habitat for Humanity, Intermountain, Poverello
Walk to Emmaus

Reaching out with love to our community and the world hearts
Host for Homeless Connect
Poverello Dinners 5th Saturdays
Family Promise Host
January MIC Food Bank Drive
Tzedakah Pocket
Habitat for Humanity
East Angola Pastor Support
❤ UMCOR
SERRV & Fair Trade Products
Intermountain Home
Wesley House
Flathead UMC Camp
❤ Cub Scouts
United Methodist Women’s mission projects
Blackfoot Parish
YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter

Daylight savings time ends the first Sunday in November and begins the second Sunday in March

crossStaff
Barry Padget, Pastor - Click here to see a current sermon.
Sharon Jackson and Rhanda Johnson, Administrative Assistants
Leslie Lindley, Treasurer
Kay Duffield, Financial Secretary
John Schaff, Custodian
Nursery Attendants, Faye Gibson (Choir practice / 9:00 Sunday School) and
Audra Clark & Lisa Dworak ( 10:30 Worship / Children's Sunday School)
Junior Nursery Attendants: Madison Lightfield, Austin Skinner, Kade Hedahl and Sophia Clark

Music Team:

Greg Boris, Music Director and Chancel Choir Director
Peter Edwards, Pianist/Organist
Joanna Wallenburn, Handbell Choir Director
Rhanda Johnson, Joyful Noise Director


Choirs
First Church loves music and hopes you will come not only to listen but to participate in it! We sing hymns as well as praise songs, often have special music and enjoy all three of our choirs. Choirs practice from September till May.
We love those who volunteer to provide special music during the summer. Call the office if you would like to bless us with your music.

Chancel Choir
FUMC Chancel Choir will begin the fall season on Sunday Sept. 11th.  Enthusiasm and love of music a must.  Previous experience is not required.  Choir meets Sundays only at 9:00 a.m. before service.  All are welcome.  Please join us!  For more information talk to choir director Greg Boris.


JuBELLation Handbell Choir

Interested in learning/playing a new musical instrument? JuBELLation Handbell Choir, based at The First United Methodist Church, is looking for individuals interested in learning or experienced at playing handbells this season!  There are several ways to get involved and be part of this fun group!  Openings include: Full Time, Part Time, and On-call positions. During the school year practice is each Wednesday from 6-8.


bunnyJoyful Noise Children's Choir

All children from the 1st through the 8th grade are welcome to participate in making a Joyful Noise. During the school year they participate in worship once a month and rehearse on Thursdays from 6:00 - 6:45 p.m. Contact Rhanda Johnson in the office for more information.


Adult Spiritual Growth Groups
Do you feel like you are on a spiritual journey? We hope you will allow us to walk with you on this journey and together we will find the answers to our questions. Classes usually meet on Sunday mornings before and after worship.   
Click here for description of new classes in 2014 and ongoing groups.
  

Interested in online adult classes? Click on UMC classes for more information.
The Book of Discipline is available online for your study and review: The Book of Discipline Index, The Book of Discipline Part 1,
The Book of Discipline Part 2 and The Book of Resolutions 2012 Part III.

Children's Ministries
Sunday School meets during the worship service, right after Children's Time and is for  Preschool - 6th grade. Our Rock Solid program is a
Bible study that enables children to experience God through Jesus Christ.  Activities will include stories, crafts, music and scripture. 

Call the church office (549-6118) for more information. Nursery care is available for those not ready for preschool. kids christmas 2013

You Tube You can watch a You Tube video of the Twelve Days of Christmas given by the children during church December 8, 2013.
 Click on the You Tube logo.



First United Methodist Youth Fellowship (FUMY)
7th through 12th grade students meet most Wednesday evenings from 7:00 - 8:30 p.m. from September until May.
They do service projects, make discoveries about themselves and others, and have fun!

Wesley Foundation - University of Montana Campus Ministry

The University of Montana Wesley House is located across the street from the campus and Miller Hall at 1327 Arthur Avenue.
College students and visitors are welcomed to stop by for a vis
it. Sunday evenings are family style dinners and Thursday evenings are a Bible Study.
For more information E-mail the Wesley House or Phone: (406) 274-3346.
Join us on facebook
Local Churches: Please send the names of U of M students from your local church to the Wesley Foundation
so they can be invited to join the
Wesley House activities.
Students are encouraged to attend either First or Grace UMC in Missoula.


UMW logoUnited Methodist Women
Our UMW is part of the Yellowstone Conference and you can find information
on Conference and District UMW activities on the conference UMW web page.
The Conference covers Montana, 1/2 Wyoming and a slice of Idaho.
The National United Methodist Women also have a website full of information, news, and resources

UMW is open to any woman who would enjoy the companionship of other women and is someone who is dedicated to supporting
missions near and far. Click here for YOUR INVITATION to join.
UMW raises money for mission projects locally, in Montana, nationally and globally.

UMW meets the first Thursday Oct-Dec and Feb-April. All meetings are at 1:00 for dessert, program and business meeting, unless otherwise announced.
Other activities include: March 5th Ash Wednesday Souper Supper, March 29th Flea Market, in July families will attend a community band concert at Bonner Park, September Pizza Party at the Carousel, October Apple Pie sales, and December14th Candy Sale.
Contact President Ellie Barnes 549-1384 for more information.

First Church also has UMW Fellowship Groups which meet once a month. Nothing compares to a small supportive group of women!

GEMS Fellowship meets the third Thursday at 7 p.m. in the church library Sept. - May
This group of working women is particularly interested in the UMW Reading program and are supportive of one another.
Chair: Laela Shimer 721-1960

L.A.N.S. Fellowship meets the second Monday at 11:30 a.m. for lunch at a restaurant from Sept-Dec and Feb-May.
They are women Living Actively in the New Society. They are interested in social action in the community as well as fellowship.
contact: Ellie Barnes 549-1384 or Peg Plimpton 542-1543
Ruth Fellowship meets the second Thursday at 10:00 a.m. in the church parlor Oct. - May
They invite you to come and share their fellowship, a monthly program, and outreach to church members who need a little TLC.

Co-Chairs: Ellen Stubblefield 728-2115 and Ruth Sumner 543-1019.
Vespers Fellowship meets the third Wednesday at 1:00 in homes Sept. - May
They have been meeting together for a long time which has led to many long friendships. They invite you to their program and meeting.
Chair: Dorothy Avery 549-7117

Book Group meets the fourth Thursday at noon in the church library
year round.
Co-Chair: Laurie Ball 926-1252 & Jackie Krahn 543-3979
Knitting Group meets on Saturdays at 10:00 in homes year round.
Chair: Carole Addis 721-1817

Quilting and Crafts Group meets as the need arises for mission projects.
Chair: Kay Norum 721-5750.

UMMen logoMen's Fellowship Group
The Mighty Methodist Men meet 1st & 3rd Saturdays, at 8 a.m. in the Church Library.

Stephen Ministry ChurchSM logo
We participate in Stephen Ministries, where trained Stephen Ministers walk with those whose lives are in turmoil for one reason or another.
Stephen Ministers also help with prayer requests each Sunday and serve communion. Anyone in our church family can request a Stephen Minister for themselves. We hope to offer a new class to train Stephen Ministers. Members of the congregation are encouraged to consider doing the 50-hours of training and helping others in this way. As a Stephen Minister you often find satisfaction in your own life as you nurture your care receiver.
What is a Stephen Minister?
Call Kay at 543-6722 or Peg at 542-1543 for more information.

Amazing Grays
The Amazing Grays are a group of church members who have been blessed with some gray hairs. They get together once a month for companionship and an enjoyable time. They go out to dinner, have a pot-luck and game night at the church, a holiday party or sometimes make a day trip by bus to some place in Montana. Friends are always welcome. Rides will be provided for those who no longer drive. Participants may sign up following church for the current activities.

Membership
New Members are received throughout the year. To learn more, please contact Pastor Barry Padget by stopping by or calling the church office at 549-6118.

Missoula First United Methodist Church Foundation:
Donations and bequests to the Foundation are used for charitable giving, scholarships and fulfilling the church's mission. Brochure with more information on charitable giving and bequests to the Foundation is available by clicking on Foundation Brochure.
Foundation Scholarships: The Foundation offers two scholarships each Spring. The Foundation Scholarship is for an active member of our church and The Katie Payne Scholarship is for a woman pursuing a nursing or medical arts career or a career in law, government or public service. Click on the blue scholarship name above for the application.
The packet containing your application, transcript, and two letters of recommendation must be postmarked April 15th or earlier.

Walk to Emmaus Fourth Day groups for men and women also meet at the church. Walk to Emmaus weekends for men and women are held each spring. Please check out the Walk website at: www.WesternMTWalk.com.
Members from other Walk communities are welcome and encouraged to help with the Walks, come to Gatherings and join 4h Day groups.
More Emmaus Community Information from Upper Room.

Social Action - Love in Motion

Family promise logoFirst United Methodist Church of Missoula is part of 19+ churches who are working to house 3-4 homeless families with children. For more information or to volunteer please contact Barbara Blanchard Mahoney at 493-6713 or go to their website: http://familypromisemissoula.net/

We are a church partner with Missoula's Habitat for Humanity We invite you to join us for a work day! Contact the office at 549-6118 for more information.

Intermountainhttp://www.intermountain.org/
Intermountain is a nationally accredited non-profit organization. They provide mental health and
educational services to effectively meet the diverse needs of children and families facing emotional challenges. Their primary services include: residential treatment, community-based services, and community trainings. Operating for more than 100 years, Intermountain is one of Montana’s oldest child welfare agencies.

I was hungry and you fed me...
Come feed God's people lunch 4 or 5 times a year at the Poverello Center.
We work at the Pov whenever there is a 5th Saturday.
Call the church office to sign up (549-6118).

 

UMCOR
We care about others. We participate in giving relief to victims of natural disasters through UMCOR. Our church gives generously to those affected by natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami and will continue to support UMCOR when it heads to new disasters.
We also give to local agencies such as Poverello and Family Promise, to state agencies such as the Blackfeet Parish and the Intermountain Home in Helena, to national missions through mission shares, and globally we are supporting a pastor in Angola with a monthly check. We are also a Jubilee Church to help poor countries with their debt.

 

Special Days. Special Ways. We reach out to the world with Special Offerings
Human Relations Day -February
One Great Hour of Sharing - March
Native American Ministries - April
Peace With Justice - May
World Communion - October
United Methodist Student Day - November
For more information go to: www.umcgiving.org

 

BACK TO TOP

Sermons by Pastor Barry Padget

April 13, 2014 Prelude to the Passion - Matthew 21:1-11, Philippians 2:5-11

            The people of Kenya have an expression for those very important people, the kind of people who require a motorcade when they come to visit.  They call them, WaBenzi.  They are called WaBenzi because they ride in expensive cars like Mercedes Benz.  People like me are more in the WaHonda category.  Interestingly, even though Mercedes Benz are relatively common in Africa now, the name has stuck for those think well of themselves, and think others should too.
          There was a time when the last Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, visited the Holy City of Jerusalem.  It was a big deal.  His entourage was so grand that he had to have the main gate to the Old City of Jerusalem, known as the Jaffe Gate, widened so that his oversized carriage could pass through.  Sort of the WaBenzi of an earlier day.  It is said that after Wilhelm’s parade had ended, some attached a large sign to the Jaffe Gate.  The sign read:  “A better man than Wilhelm came through this city’s gate.  He rode on a donkey.”
          Touché, he rode on a donkey.  Not a Mercedes Benz, or a royal carriage, or even as impressive stallion.  No, he rode a humble donkey.  He was the kings of kings but he rode a donkey. 
          It was an interesting choice.  Do you remember, at least those who are my age, the days of donkey basketball?  Teachers and other prominent figures in the community would subject themselves to ridicule by playing basketball while riding on the backs of little donkeys usually in order to raise funds for some good cause.  At the time, we found it hilarious.  You don’t see donkey basketball much anymore, probably some animal rights thing.  Okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite so funny for the donkeys.
          Still the whole idea is that there was something ridiculous about adults riding about on donkeys.  I wonder if they felt the same way in Jesus’ time.  Or was this choice of a donkey something very deliberate, even planned.  I think maybe it was.
The story of what is supposed to be Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem appears in all four of the gospels.  It happens on a Sunday morning and Jesus and the disciples started out from Bethany, which was located on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives.  Their destination was Jerusalem.  Now the disciples knew that this was a dangerous thing to do, going to Jerusalem especially in the politically turbulent days around the time of the Passover.  However, I doubt they had any idea what would happen that week, that the adoration of the parade would fall apart in just six days, leading to Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and then crucifixion.
As they get close to town, Jesus sends two of disciples on ahead, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her.  Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.  Matthew comments that this was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Zechariah saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  So the disciples get the donkey and the colt and the rest as they say is history.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem where he is welcomed by a large and cheering crowd, throwing their cloaks on the ground, and waving palm branches as a sign of their allegiance to this new king.  They cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest heaven.”  And when someone asks, “Who is this?” the crowds answer, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
What would this scripture say to us?  First, that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in choosing to ride this donkey into Jerusalem.  The Biblical scholar Marcus Borg would remind us that this parade wasn’t the only one happening in Jerusalem that week.  Pontius Pilate was also coming into town, maybe even that very day and he had a parade too.  It was, however, more of a WaBenzi sort of affair, and if Pilate wasn’t exactly in a Mercedes, he was definitely riding the 1st century equivalent, an elegant warhorse surrounded by legions of armed troops. 
The message of Jesus is clear, “I’m not that kind of king.”  Jesus knew that his real power in this world would happen through humility and grace.  He knew that the kind of power the world respects and which Pilate exemplified was power that results only in more death.  Jesus was looking for a power that brings life from death.  That is the kind of king he wished to be.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of Marco Polo and his trips to the Far East.  The famous explorer was seized and brought before the dreadful conqueror Genghis Khan himself.  Desperate for some story that would impress the great Khan, Marco Polo began to tell him the story of Jesus, pretty much verbatim out of the gospel of Matthew.  Genghis Khan liked the story and listened intently bringing him back time after time.  But as Marco Polo came to the events of Holy Week and told of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, scourging, and crucifixion, the Khan became agitated.  As soon as Marco Polo spoke the words, “And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit,” the Khan exploded.  “What did the Christian God do then?” the Khan asked, “Did he send his thousands of legions from heaven to smite and destroy those who had so treated his son?”  When Marco Polo explained how God did respond to His Son’s crucifixion not with revenge but with resurrection, Genghis Khan was clearly disappointed, and remained unconverted.
The power that Jesus showed is one that will never be understood by the forces of this world, the forces whose only response to violence and death is more violence and death.  Jesus is the one who would bring us from death to new life, something that we call resurrection.  It is the only power that will truly change things.
Pastor Eugene Nelson tells of a retreat he went on led by Fran Geddes.  Fran Geddes is a United Church of Christ pastor in San Francisco.  Now I probably don’t have to tell you that if you are a United Church of Christ pastor in California let alone San Francisco you are probably going to be crowding the liberal side of the theological spectrum as it were.  Well, Fran is nothing if not that, and fairly well known in what might be called New Age Christianity.  Now these are the sort of people who don’t usually have crosses in their churches finding that symbol both archaic and a bit gruesome.   Interestingly, Fran still finds great meaning in the cross of Christ.  That symbol has become vitally important to his faith.  He explained how one morning years before, his son was getting off the bus from school and his coat caught in the door.  The bus pulled away and before anyone could do anything, the little boy was swept under the bus and was gone.  Geddes talked of the incredible dark night of grief he and his wife went through.  He didn’t know how he was ever going to get through this.  And then one day, in church, looking at the cross, he realized “that there was no pain I could feel that God didn’t feel; there was no grief I could feel that God didn’t feel.”   He realized how intimately God shared this painful time in his life.  He knew in that moment, as he said, “Jesus walks with me.  And because of that, I will always affirm the cross of Christ.”
They say that those verses out of Philippians we read today are actually a hymn sung by the earliest church.  It is a hymn that affirms the humility of Jesus and through that humility even to death, he showed a power that is like no other, the power of life and that everlasting.  And thus Jesus is the king like no other.  Jesus is and will always be the one we call Lord.

April 6, 2014 Muddling Through - Romans 8:6-11
            I used to walk,…a lot.  For years I would get up about 5:30 or so, and walk 3 or 4 miles as a form of excersize.  I enjoyed it because it was a time to be to be alone with my thoughts.  I took the time to pray and to listen to the news on Public Radio.  It was also a time to see the world in a different way.  The world is a much different place at that time of the day.  Mostly it was just me and the deer and a surprising myriad of other creatures wandering through the neighborhood in the half-light of the dawn.  Every now and again I would see another walker but not often.  I got  a lot of children’s sermons out of what I saw and experienced early in the morning.  The basic message of those sermons was always the same.  One never knows what one might see when you are paying attention.  Who knows, you might even see God and I did, time after time.
              Americans are not known as walkers.  Our world until just recently has not been made for walking or for that matter riding bicycles but rather driving.  As a matter of fact the word for a person on foot – pedestrian- has also become a synonym for that which is “dull” or “ordinary.”  It was not always so.  John Wesley, who started the Methodist Movement back in Enland in the 1700’s that the wonders of the industrial revolution was not going to make people healthier.  He was a great promoter of walking, and as often as his schedule allowed would walk many miles across London between preaching points when he could as easily taken a horse and carriage.  Even the ministers in early Montana, though we called them circuit riders, were as often in fact “circuit walkers” since horses were relatively expensive and ministers were poor.  Imagine walking across Eastern Montana.  It gives one lots of time to think about what your sermon will be about.
            It turns out that walking is growing in popularity again. There is a new movement in America around the ancient art of walking called Solvitur Ambulando.   In latin it means literally, “It is solved by walking around.”   It is an interesting idea, somewhat akin to the Buddhist idea of walking mediation.  We usually think of moving and even walking as the way to get somewhere, whereas the practice of Solviture Ambulando is going on foot to visit oneself.  As Alred Barron wrote in 1875, “These legs when in motion, are so stimulating to thought and mind, they almost deserve to be called the reflective organs.”
            An interesting idea, and one that I think the Apostle Paul would certainly have  agreed with. 

March 30, 2014 Here’s Mud in Your Eye - John 9:1-41
            If one were to google as I did, the famous old toast, “Here’s mud in your eye,” one would find there are a number of different explanations as to what this might mean.  One gets explanations that this phrase was a toast during World War I in the trenches when there was mud in everything including the drinks.  It could also have been a toast popular with the horse racing crowd since the leading horse would kick mud in the eyes of those following.  Actually what I really found out of my search is that after three or four toasts it doesn’t matter so much what you are toasting anymore. Mud in your eye works as good as anything.
          However, there are some who would say the toast goes back to these verses out of the scriptures, a wish for divine health and spiritual insight.  Or maybe it was just another excuse to drink Irish whiskey, hard to say.
          What happens in the scripture is that Jesus comes upon a man blind from birth.  It was not an unusual situation.  Those who were blind or who had a variety of handicapping conditions begged for help along the side of the road in Jesus’ world.  Beggars would frequently position themselves in public places and, if possible, near the entrance to temples hoping to find passersby in a charitable mood.  What else were they going to do?
          Seeing the man the disciples raised a question.  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  The response of Jesus is interesting.  Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Then Jesus spate on the ground, made some mud, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”  So the man went to the pool, washed the mud out of his eyes, and suddenly he could see.
          It is an amazing miracle and John takes the next about 40 verses to talk about how we are to understand this, and the questions we have about God and of course, Jesus, and about our own reluctance to believe.
          And the first question John would seek to answer for us is the one his disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  It is a version of the question that everyone I know has asked at one time or another, “Why do bad things happen?  Is it someone’s fault?  Ours, God’s, or is it just fate?”  The answer of Jesus, I believe, is that it was neither the man’s fault, nor was it his parents fault, and I believe at least the implication here is that it wasn’t God’s fault either.  The fact is that the world we live in for all its beaut and giftedness can be a tough place in which sometimes tough things happen to good people and bad people alike.  Jesus doesn’t have a great answer here, that is simply the way it is.  But then Jesus says about the blind man, “he was born blind so that God‘s work might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” What I think Jesus is saying here is that it is not the tough things that happen in the world that will determine whether this is a dark place but our and God’s response to them.  And then Jesus cures the man’s blindness.  What God wants to happen is clear here.  He wants the man to see again.  What will our response be?    
          Harold Kushner, the great rabbi wrote a book several years ago, called “When bad things happen to good people.”  I suspect many of you have read it.  Interestingly, no one the title of that book right.  Everyone thinks Kushner’s book was titled, “Why bad things happen to good people?”  I think this is because we think the question that needs to be answered is why?  If there only a reason we could understand, then life would make sense.  Kushner says, some bad things are never going to be okay or understandable.  It doesn’t matter whether life is understandable, especially the bad things, the only question that counts is what are going to do about it?  Do we blame God, do we blame our parents, or even ourselves, or do we seek to change things, and love others especially when the bad things are happening. God is on the side of loving one another.
          The second thing this scripture asks pretty plainly, who is really blind here?  The blind guy or the Pharisees who are just spiritually blind?  And for that matter, which blindness is worse?  One of the things I like about John the gospel writer is that he has a sense of humor.  And it is especially true in this story.  This incredible miracle happens and the crowd and the Pharisees spend 40 verses saying it couldn’t have happened.   First they question whether this is the same blind guy or maybe it was someone who just looked like him.  Then the Pharisees are brought in arguing in about whether or not Jesus should have healed the poor guy on the Sabbath or not.  Then when they don’t get the right answers from the formerly blind guy, they ask his parents even when the poor guy is standing right there and he is a grown up after all.  Then the Pharisees spend some time arguing whether Jesus’ credentials are really good enough to done this healing in the first place, that Jesus is really just a sinner.  And the man formerly blind replies, “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  It is an interesting contrast John draws, that the man who was blind is the one who can see and the ones who supposedly can see are the ones who are the blindest in all the way that count the most.
It is a famous line, T’was blind but now I see.  It was written by John Newton in 1779 in his famous hymn, Amazing Grace.    Interestingly, John Newton knew about blindness.  He had been a slave ship captain when Jesus found him, blinded spiritually as anyone can be.  It was Jesus who made him able to see and he knew it.  Jesus gave him a new life, and he became an Anglican clergy person.  When he wrote those words, he was becoming actually blind.  He knew blindness from both sides, both physically and spiritually, and he could tell you, no doubt, which of those sorts of blindness was the worst.  Another thing you need to know about John Newton.  He was to be appointed as the Bishop of York, when his superiors stepped in and denied him that honor.  Apparently, he had been hanging around too much with Methodists.
Blindness is a terrible thing.  But in the end it is perhaps not the worst thing that can happen to us.  There is another kind of blindness, a spiritual blindness that denies the grace of God from those who need it most, even ourselves.  I think Jesus would be clear about which of blindness is most important to be healed.   

March 23- 2014, Who Owns the “Ahh?”  John 4:5-42
What is “Ahh?” It is not really a word.  It is sort of an instinctive sigh of pleasure frequently uttered after we’ve taken a sip or even a gulp of a refreshing beverage.  You are dying of thirst, figuratively anyway, and you grab a bottle of water, twist off the cap and take a swig.  You swallow and then you say, “Ahh.”  Or AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! You can add as many H’s as you want.
          Now the Coca-Cola bottling company has come up with a new web based advertising campaign all centered on what they call the “Ahh Effect,” which as everyone knows is what you say after your first swig of delicious Coke. They have 61, count them, 61 different “Ahh Effect,” web sites designed to offer brand recognition all centered around the word, “Ahh,
.”  Each web address is differentiated from another mostly by the addition of another “H” to the word “Ahh.”    Cokes description of the “Ahh effect” is that it is literally, the (quote) “multidimensional feeling of happiness, satisfaction and delicious refreshment one experiences after drinking an ice-cold Coke."  Really, who makes this stuff up anyway?  I mean I like Coke, but really, a multidimensional feeling of happiness?  However there appears to be a touch of megalomania going on here.  Says Jennifer Healan, group director of integrated marketing content at Coca-Cola, "We literally want to own the “Ahh.”
          As I was reading the scriptures for today and hearing Jesus talk about this whole idea of living water, I was wondering, who really owns the “Ahh,” that word that Coke says describes a multidimensional feeling of happiness and satisfaction?  Is it really Coca-Cola that owns the “Ahh” or are most people looking a little bit deeper than a glorified bottle of sugar water for their multidimensional happiness and satisfaction?  I would certainly hope so.
          What happens in the scriptures for today finds Jesus sitting beside the well outside the Samaritan city of Sychar.  It is the middle of the day and Jesus is tired and thirsty. A Samaritan women comes along to get water.  Jesus asks her if he could have a drink of her water.  The woman is nothing if not startled.  Jesus in just 4 words has breached a number of social barriers.  She replies, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  It is a short question but there is a lot there.    First, there was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans.  They do not speak.  Jews look down on Samaritans because Samaritans don’t worship correctly and vice versa.  Why would he think a Samaritan would give him a drink of water anyway, even if he asked?  Second, she is a woman.  In this society, women do not speak to unrelated men, neither do men speak to women.  And third, she is not just any woman. She is there in the middle of the day because there is something wrong with her.  She is a social outcast, otherwise she would be there in the morning and the evening, when all the other women get water for their families, but she is not welcome.
          Jesus responds that if she knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to her, ‘Give me a drink,’ she would have asked him, and he would have given her living water.  The woman is intrigued.  She asks him where he gets living water, what is it about?  Jesus replies, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  Though she doesn’t quite understand, she replies, “Sir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty, or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
          So what is this living water Jesus talks about?  Well, let me tell you clearly.  This is a story about God’s grace and acceptance.  And like Jesus says, this grace is a gift from God, a gift that breaks all the barriers we human beings like to place between us and others, and sometimes even between us and God. The wise Sufi elder Rumi said: 'Not only the thirsty seek water, the water as well seeks the thirsty.'. . .  That is what is happening here.
This woman has a lot of those sorts of social barriers going on in her life.  First, she is woman, and in her society that definitely made her a second class citizen.  But there is more. When Jesus asks her about her husband, she says she isn’t married.  Indeed it is true.  She has been divorced 5 times.  What is wrong with her?  In most sermons preached today, ministers will proclaim her a bit shady, a bit of loose woman.  It is not true.  Her problem is that she cannot have children.  In her society this made her an unproductive drain on resources.  To not be able to have children made her worthless.  A practical husband would divorce her immediately, and they did, 5 times, and the person she lives with now doesn’t think enough of her to marry her.  She comes in the middle of the day because she is embarrassed and outcast.  It is her life.
I ran into a story about a present day woman named Aminta Juka.   She had been married and divorced ten times.  Like the woman at the well, this beautiful, statuesque elder had never been able to birth children - an extremely dangerous social reality still for a woman in Niger. The ten husbands who had divorced her for this reason left her lonely, broke and broken, and socially marginalized.  The difference between Aminta and the women at the well was that Aminta did not believe herself to be worthless.  In a bold move Aminta, the unwanted woman adopted Tanya, the foreign orphan, and the two unwanted people became a family.  And Aminta carried water every day for her child.  And even the people of her village give a grudging respect for what she had done, and what she believes about herself.
This is what Jesus wants this woman at the well to believe about herself too, that she is somebody, someone special to God, loved by God, and that eternally.  She doesn’t have to have children or a husband to be someone to God.  Oh, and by the way, speaking of God, she also doesn’t have to be Jewish to be someone to God.
This is that other barrier that people put between her and God, she didn’t worship right.  Jesus said, it isn’t about getting it all right, but about worshiping in Spirit and truth.  If you do that, Jesus says, it is enough.
I don’t know what the woman’s immediate response to Jesus might have been.  I suspect, at least, inside, in her soul, it might have been a little like saying “Ahh,” the kind of Ahh one might say after having a cool drink of water on a stifling hot day.  It might even be the kind of Ahh that signifies a true sense of multidimensional happiness and satisfaction, the kind of Ahh one might get from a large swig of soul saving, grace filled, living water.  We should all drink from that well.
           
           

 

 

March 16, 2014 - “What if you were really ‘Born Again?’?” John 3:1-17 
            The teacher asked little David when his birthday was.  David quickly replied February 20th.  The teacher wrote it down in her book and then looked up and asked. “What year?”  David thought a moment and said, “Every year.” 
          Well, yes that is certainly true.  I wonder what age that is when birthdays become this rather depressing anniversary of how old we are, rather than a celebration that we are, that we are someone special and loved, not of something that happened once a long time ago, but something that happens at least once every year.  I think it must be another one of those things, call it a way of thinking about yourself, that we lose when we grow up.
          It is night when Nicodemus comes to see Jesus there to talk to him not about being born, but about being born again.  It leaves Nicodemus quite confused.  What happens basically is that Nicodemus, who was not just a Pharisee but a member of the ruling council comes to see Jesus.  There is some question as to why someone of Nicodemus’ stature in the community would be visiting Jesus at all.  Thus he comes under cover of darkness to avoid embarrassment.  But this is the gospel of John.  It is never just dark in the gospel of John, it is a sign of a darkness of soul, and Nicodemus is nothing if not in the dark spiritually about who Jesus is.  Nicodemus begins as if they are fellow Rabbis engaged in a polite doctrinal discussion.  Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are teacher sent from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
          Does Nicodemus mean it?  We don’t know, but again this is the gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t have time or patience for idle chitchat.  The scripture says, Jesus answered him, but he really doesn’t.  Jesus cuts to the chase.  Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
          This isn’t where Nicodemus had expected this conversation to go.  He is confused.  He asks incredulously, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus explains, a little more patiently this time, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water, (that is as an actual human baby), and (also by the) Spirit.   What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  And then as if that explains everything, Jesus says, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘you must be born from above.’” 
          It is interesting what we have done to this whole concept of being “born again.”  It is as if we have given the term over to a bunch of literalist Nicodemus’s and allowed them to define what being born from above or being born again means for us.  It is time for people like us to reclaim the term and consider again what it might have meant to Jesus.  And maybe the place to start is that next verse where Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit. 
          What Jesus is saying I believe is that being born physically is only part of the story of life.  To be truly alive is more than mere existence.  It is about Spirit, that when one is born spiritually, life becomes so new and different it is like having a new life, a life so different that we call it salvation, a life so powerful it is eternal.  And it is not about being in control, but about God being in control.
          And Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can this be?”  And the answer of Jesus is perhaps that most famous verse in the Bible, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him my not perish but have eternal life.
          So what would it look like to be really born again, to experience such life changing love?  John Buchanan, who was the editor of the Christian Century magazine and a Presbyterian minister talked about his experiences of being a minister.  He remembered one time baptizing a wide eyed two-year-old boy.  As he put the water on his head, he said the traditional words, “You are a child of God, sealed by the spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.”  The little boy looked up and said loudly, “Uh-oh.”  Every one smiled, but Buchanan thought to himself what an appropriate response that was.  That “uh-oh” was the recognition on the part of that child, whether he knew it or not, that if he took this whole baptism thing seriously, his life was never going to be the same again. 
          Rudolf Bultmann, the famous German Biblical scholar talked about what he called the Kerygmatic imperative.  What Bultmann meant was that just meeting Jesus demands a decision from us from us, not just about how Jesus is, but who we are in his presence.  Jesus wanted followers not admirers.  He wanted people who would catch his vision and the grand promise of new life he offered.   I think Bultmann was right.
          You’ve seen the bumper sticker, “Sit down, Shut up, and hang on.”  That is pretty much what Rudolph Bultmann says that Jesus was asking of Nicodemus and us, for that matter.
          This last week I noticed a change in Missoula, suddenly the Bicycles are out again.  More than that first Robin, Bicycles are a sure sign of Spring in our town, and I found myself thinking I’d better get my bike in for a tune up soon.  One of the best things I’ve run into lately about this birth from above is this piece.  I don’t know the author but he’s obviously a bike rider.
At first, I saw God as my observer, my judge, keeping track of the thing I did wrong, so as to know whether I merited heaven or hell when I die. 
He was out there sort of like the President.
I recognized His picture when I saw it, but I really didn’t know him.
But later on when I met Christ, it seemed as though life were rather like a bike ride, but it was a tandem bike, and I noticed that Christ was in the back helping me pedal.
I don’t know just when it was that He suggested we change places, but life has not been the same since.
When I had control, I knew the way.
It was rather boring, but predictable.
It was the shortest distance between two points.
But when He took the lead, He knew delightful long cuts, up mountains, and through rocky places at breakneck speeds, it was all I could do to hang on!    
Even though it looked like madness, he said, “Pedal!”
I worried and was anxious and asked, “Where are you taking me?”
He laughed and didn’t answer, and I started to learn to trust.
I forgot my boring life, and entered into the adventure. 
And when I’d say, “I’m scared,” He’d lean back and touch my hand.
He took me to people with gifts that I needed, gifts of healing, acceptance and joy. 
They gave me gifts to take on my journey, my Lord’s and mine.
And we were off again.
He said, “Give the gifts away; they’re extra baggage, too much weight.”
So I did, to the people we met, and I found that in giving I received, and still our burden was light.
I did not trust Him, at first, in control of my life.
I thought he’d wreck it; but he knows bike secrets, know how to make it bend to take sharp corners, know how to jump to clear high rocks, know how to fly to shorten scary passages.
And I ‘m learning to shut up and pedal in the strangest places, and I’m beginning to enjoy the view and the cool breeze on my face with my delightful constant companion, Jesus Christ.  And when I’m sure I just can’t do anymore, He just smiles and says....”Pedal.”
It is God’s bicycle, and God is the one in charge, that is why we call it faith.
With most of the people in the gospels, we never know what happens to them, whether they accept the faith Jesus asks of them.  With Nicodemus, we know.  He appears again at the end of the gospel, at the end of the old world.  When all the disciples have fled, Nicodemus comes with burial spices in his hands with Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus down from the cross.  But he is not there to bury Jesus so much as he is there to bury his old world, his old life.  He is there feeling the wind of the spirit blowing into his childlike face, his eyes searching the horizon for the first light of Easter dawn.  He asks us to come and join him looking for that Easter dawn in our lives, to be born into a new world, a new life.

March 9 - The Death of Innocence Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
          The woman had started on her new diet.  And she was doing well.  She had made it through 4 days without cheating once.  And then that day she stopped into her local coffee shop to have a quick cup of coffee, not even having any cream.  And then it happened.  A man sat down beside her with two luscious chocolate covered donuts.  He with great relish ate the first donut.   She couldn’t help but leer at the donuts.   And then checking his watch the man quickly got up and left, leaving one donut behind.  There was  brief internal struggle.  You know how it goes.  There is a donut, a chocolate covered donut right there in front of you.  No one is going to eat it.  It hasn’t even been touched.  And pretty soon the waitress will come and throw it away.  And really what is one donut in the grand scheme of things. Temptation triumphed.  And as her teeth sank into that sinfully delicious donut,  she glanced up to see the man standing there with his second cup of coffee and a napkin.
          Someone has said that ever since the Garden, “forbidden fruit is responsible for many a bad jam.”  I think it was Mark Twain who said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
          The book of Genesis begins with two stories of Creation.  The first story is about why the world was created, and our special in it as human beings.  The second story is that of the Garden of Eden.  Interestingly the second story is undoubtedly  the oldest of the two, though probably not written down until nearly the 10th century before Christ’s birth.  This is ancient stuff here.  It is a story about who we are as human beings, and why our lives are the way they are.  It is the story of the death of innocence.
          And speaking of innocence, I was trying to find just the right picture to illustrate a sermon about Adam and Eve, a remarkably difficult thing to do in a family oriented church if you get my drift.  The first slide I found sort of shows the difficulty here.  Now most slides of Adam and Eve show them naked with the snake and the apple.  This slide says it better, the World begins with God’s creation of the earth, and earth is a wonderful place, a garden of idyllic beauty, of innocence.  And in that garden, God creates and places a human being, an ‘Adamah,’ literally it means, the “earthling.”   And life is easy.  Everywhere there is bounty and goodness.  But there is just this one little restriction.  In the middle of the garden, there is a tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And no, it is not an apple tree.  All the earthling has to do is not eat the fruit of that one tree.
          And the earthling is happy,... well, sort of happy.  He is lonely.  So God creates all kinds of animals for him.   The man names all of the animals, but you know, even a great dog isn’t enough.  The man is still lonely.  God sees this and creates a partner for the earthling, an “Ishah,”, a woman, and a fellow earthling, so they can be happy together.
          But wouldn’t you know it, they still aren’t happy.  So one day, the snake, who at this point still has legs, wanders by, and seeing their unhappiness comes up with a great idea to solve their problem.  He corners the woman, and proposes to her that the earthlings eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The woman counters that God said they would die if they ate that fruit.  And the snake says, “Die, Schmay.  You won’t die.  What you will be is like God, knowing good and evil.”  And sure enough the tree begins to look better and better.  And finally she couldn’t take it anymore, I mean, really what is one apple?   And she at the fruit, and Adam had baked apples for dessert that night, and he liked it.
          So God is out for a walk in the cool of the evening, but he doesn’t see his favorite creatures, the earthlings.  And God senses there might be something wrong here.  God calls to the man, but he is in hiding, afraid and embarrassed because he is naked.  “Who told you, you were naked,” asked God, “Did you eat of that tree I told you not to?”  And the man replied, “It was the woman’s fault, honest!”
          You know the rest of the story.  The snakes legs are taken away, and the amn and the woman are banished from the garden to a life of hardship and toil.  The garden of Eden and its wonderful innocence gone forever.
          The story answers a lot of questions, like, why don’t snakes have legs?  But it also deals with some perhaps more important questions like: Life ought to be good, why is it so difficult instead?  Why do we have to work so hard just to get by?   Why do two people who love each other, who were made for each other, have such a hard time being happy together?  Why do we blame each other instead of take responsibility for our actions?  And its corollary, why am I such a jerk sometimes?  Why is childbirth so hard when your cat can have ten kittens and pretty much sleep through the whole thing?  Why does God seem so far away sometimes?  Why are we afraid of this God who created us?
          It is a lot of questions for a relatively short story to deal with, but there is a truth here that spans eons, that is as true today as it was then.  The Bible says, this is the human condition, like it or not, that is the way it is.  This is the world of adults.  Deal with it.
          What makes dealing with it so hard is that part of the human condition called sin.  To make a very complex thing simple,  sin is caused primarily by self centeredness.  I mean everything starts out fine.  We are born innocently self centered.  We want what we want and we want it now.  And not only that, we are cute, so people like to give us what we want.  It is kind of like the Garden of Eden.   And then about age two, life begins to get a little more complicated, and other people intrude on our wonderfully self centered world, and it only gets worse from there.  I mean these people who used to be so nice are now making your life harder.  And I won’t even deal with what it is like to be a teenager.  What I’m saying is that life is constant pull between an innate self-centeredness and an equally innate need to love, to love others, to love God and even to love ourselves.
Some people, maybe most people at some time, deal with that constant tension by still trying to be two, or at least with that same selfish kind of mindset.  It is a very hard way to live.  But people still try.  We call it sin.  For most people I think this self centeredness is a struggle they live with all their life, recognizing that life could be more than what it is but not knowing how to get there, especially the part about loving oneself, instead of just being self centered.  These really are two different things.
Christianity says there is a better way, and it happens through recognizing God’s grace.   It is not about obeying more rules or working harder, it comes as a free gift through Jesus Christ.  You might even get to love yourself, and others, the way Jesus loves you and those others too.
Do you remember having to read Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey.”  Well, if you don’t, you can just watch “O Brother, where art thou?” which is the same story told with southern hillbillies, instead of Greek sailors.  Anyway, in the poem and the movie, by the way, there are these mythical evil creatures, called sirens who live on an island surrounded by submerged jagged rocks.  As ships passed, the sirens would sing beautiful seductive songs, luring the sailors to their deaths on the rocks.  When Odysseus’ ship approached the Island, he ordered his men to fill their ears with wax to  escape the lure of the siren’s songs.  This done, he commanded them to bind him to the mast as they passed the island so that he could not change his orders.  On another occasion, however, when the ship of Orpheus passed the same island, Orpheus sang a song of his own that so beautiful and divine that his sailors did not even listen to the siren’s song.
So Christian believe it is with Jesus who replaces the siren’s song of sin, that promises life and gives only death, with another more beautiful song, the song of grace that leads to life eternal.  This grace is free gift from Jesus that requires only an open heart to receive it.  Does life become Eden all over again?  Unfortunately not, the gates of Eden are locked forever.  Life is still difficult.  But while life doesn’t perhaps get any easier, it gets a whole lot better, so much so that the gospel calls this life of grace, abundant life.
The questions change a bit with Christianity.  It is not have you resisted the siren song of sin, but have you heard the song of grace?

March 5, 2014 - Ash Wednesday and Alarm Fatigue Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
    Have you ever been to visit someone in the hospital, and they are all hooked up to tubes and machines, perhaps several machines?  Some are checking their blood pressure, maybe respiration and heartbeat, or monitoring that little bag of medicine that is dripping into their arms.  You talk for awhile and all of a sudden an alarm goes off.  You don’t know what it is about, but such an alarm is, well, alarming.  Finally a nurse comes in and fixes something and turns off the alarm.  Well, just about the time you get to talking again, the dumb alarm goes off again, and again you ring for the nurse who turns off the alarm.  Well, by the third or fourth time this alarm goes off, nobodies paying too much attention to it anymore, and this time you kind of just talk a little louder instead of figuring out to get a nurse to turn the alarm off.
          Actually they have done studies about this and determined that these sorts of alarms attached to medical equipment go off an average of every 66 seconds, and the vast majority of these alarms are false alarms or anomalies caused by the patient doing something innocuous like coughing or turning over.  After a while the alarms themselves become sort of background noise, irritating but meaningless; just another part of being in the hospital.  There is now an actual named phenomenon among healthcare professionals called “alarm fatigue.”  Alarms happen so often that it is hard to pay attention of them.  They even turn them down or just learn to ignore them so they can get some work done.  Think of it like that “Check Engine” light in your car that came on a couple of months ago but you were busy and besides you don’t even notice it is there anymore.  I mean the car seems fine.
          Unfortunately there is that one time when you should have been paying attention and it is not just that your car is stranded on the side of the road.  When the alarm goes off in the hospital, someone might actually die.  It happens more than one might think  because health care professionals stop paying attention. 
Ash Wednesday is the day set aside every year by the church to sort of check the alarms; you know, those spiritual alarms in life that have been going off for a while now, but that we no longer hear anymore.  Lets just say that tonight is the time to pay attention to all those alarms that go off but maybe at the time we were too busy, too distracted to find out whether it is a false alarm or the spiritual version of an impending heart attack. 
Tonight we read the scripture out of an odd little Old Testament book called Joel.  Joel is a prophet that lived right after perhaps the most calamitous period in Jewish history.  First there was the invasion of the Assyrians destroying the kingdom of Israel.  This was followed closely by the Babylonian invasion destroying the southern of Judah culminating in 50 years or more of exile of the chosen people in Babylon.  Joel writes during the period after the Jews had returned to the promised land and were beginning the difficult but peaceful process of making a nation for themselves again.  Even though they are at peace, Joel urges the people not to be complacent, for like a plague of locusts one never knows when calamity might strike.  Instead the people should turn once again to the Lord, seeking God’s guidance and care, for as Joel says, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  Joel would tell us that the spiritual alarms are still going off, but the people of God aren’t listening anymore.  His word to his people is that its time to listen, to do something about the alarm.  God is waiting for them.
I think Joel would say that it is a good message for us to hear as well.  So what would the alarms be that we need to be hearing?  On Ash Wednesday, as the ashes are placed on the forehead or hand, the most ancient liturgies have the priest say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  It is a reminder that we have but a short time in this life.  What will our lives be about?  Will they mean anything or will they be lost in vanity.   In 1973 there was a movie called Ash Wednesday.  It starred Elizabeth Taylor as a woman obsessed with beauty and youth.  As she grew older she watched the wrinkles come, and in a desperate attempt to preserve her youth she flies to Switzerland there to undergo extensive plastic surgery.  Following the surgery, her face covered with bandages and in great pain she wanders the streets of Geneva. Finally seeking a place to rest a moment, she enters an old stone church.  It is Ash Wednesday.  She is approached by an elderly priest carrying his bowl of cinders.  He pauses in front of Taylor and intones the ancient words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 
It is a good word.  What are our lives about?  Will they make any difference?
The next alarm we might hear is that sin is real, and we all in some ways get to be a part of this sinful world.  Sin is a difficult thing to escape if nothing else because sin and self-centeredness are usually convenient, and, love, well love can be awfully inconvenient at times.  Sometimes we choose sin just because it is easier or at least it seems so at the time. 
It is interesting because so often the answer to sin, the way to forgiveness is simply letting go of what is dragging you down.  I remember the story of the little boy who, unbeknownst to his father,  decided to catch a ride on the back of his father’s truck.  well, the truck hit a bump and the boy almost fell off catching himself by grabbing onto the bumper.  Finally the father heard his screams and stopped the truck.  While the boy wasn’t hurt badly, he was pretty beat up and bloody after being dragged several yards.  The father, incredulous, asked, Why you didn’t you just let go?   Sometimes I think God would ask us the same thing about our sins, Why didn’t you just let go?  Ash Wednesday, indeed all of Lent might be a time to just let go of those things that drag us down, that hurt us and others, and leave us a bit bloodied in the process.
Of course, the other thing that Ash Wednesday would remind us of is that we are the redeemed, if we want to be.  As Joel said, Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.  It is also a message we need to hear.  And repentance, which means simply stopping and turning around and walking in a new direction isn’t all that hard.  I loved Elie Wiesel’s quote, “When God created us, God gave Adam a secret--and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.  In other words, it is not given us to begin; that privilege is God’s alone.  But it is given us to begin again--and we do it every time we choose to defy death and side with the living.”
It is an important night, this night of Ash Wednesday.  It is a time to hear the alarms; A time to remember that life is short, and we do not have all the time in the world to be alive.  It is a time to remember that our lives are not always the way we wish them to be, that sin is real.  And it is time to perhaps begin again, to choose life instead of death this time.

February 23, 2014 - Interrupted by God - Matthew 17:1-8         II Peter 1:16-19
            Tonight actors will speak and the world will listen—or yawn, or laugh or scoff.  It is the night when the academy awards are given out, or as we more commonly call it, the Oscars.  It is the biggest night in Hollywood.  It is also one of the most widely watched events on television.  And people watch, about 40 million of us, for all kinds of reasons.  Some people just like the drama of the whole thing, the chance to see their favorite stars walking down the red carpet, maybe to see what kind of outlandish and sometimes nearly scandalous dresses starlets will wear.  And then there are the acceptance speeches.  Of course, everyone tries to be appropriately humble, interminably thanking everyone that has ever had an influence in their life, finally being dragged offstage by the time they get to their third grade teacher.  And then every once in a while there is someone who is truly genuine, sometimes even embarrassingly so like Sally Fields gushing, “You like me.  You really, really like me.”  Not often you get that kind of honesty out of actors.  The point is that tonight careers will be made, lives will be changed.
            I was thinking of this when reading the scriptures today for what happens in these verses about the transfiguration is that like winning the Oscar, lives were changed on top of that mountain, and not just Jesus, but also Peter’s life.  What happens on the day of the transfiguration is that Jesus chooses his three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, to go up to the top of a mountain to pray.  This happens three days after Peter has made his famous declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, only to be rebuked by Jesus moments later when he questions whether Jesus should have to die. Perhaps Peter is still wondered just what kind of Messiah Jesus will be as they walk to the top of the mountain.  Jesus begins to pray and suddenly he is transfigured before them, changed.  The implication here is not that Jesus is different but that the disciples in that moment catch a glimpse of who Jesus really is, and that is, of course, the divine Son of God, talking with none less than, Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, and Moses, the great giver of the Law.  The disciples are stunned, and Peter, again in amazement proposes they should build three little houses or booths for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, one presumes to commemorate or preserve the event.  I’m sure it seemed stupid to Peter looking back on it, but right in the middle of his sentence, they are engulfed in a cloud, a sign of God’s presence, and  Peter is interrupted by none other than God, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; shut up and listen to him.”  Okay, so God doesn’t really say shut up, but it’s implied.  The disciples fall to the ground in shock and fear.  And Jesus comes over and touches them, saying to them, “Get up and don’t be afraid.”  They open their eyes and there is Jesus looking just like normal.  As they are coming down the mountain, Jesus tells them maybe they shouldn’t tell anyone about this until later, like after his resurrection.


I was looking at some images that might illustrate today’s sermon.  Let me show you what most of the images of the Transfiguration look like.  The disciples are at the top of the mountain and Jesus is seen transfigured before them, even his clothes are shining, while the 3 disciples are standing there looking up at him, confused and amazed, and this is normally the way we might picture the event ourselves. 
However, in looking at a number of images of the Transfiguration, the one I really thought captured the moment was this Greek icon. We see the disciples not just amazed but literally thrown to the ground by the sight of Jesus transfigured.  I was especially impressed by the image of Peter, the disciple on the far right of the icon.  Peter is pictured as thrown not just upside down but if look closely you will see his shoe lying beside him, as if he has had the shoes just knocked right off his feet by this experience.   I like that image because that is what Peter says happened to him here as well.  His life was turned upside down by the experience of Jesus and it would never be the same again.

 

 

 


Years and years later Peter would write a letter to the early Christians telling them about Jesus and what he would mean to them.  Peter writes that all of this about Jesus isn’t just some nice story people made up.  He says, he saw Jesus himself.   He experienced Jesus transfigured before him.  He saw Jesus for real.  He heard the very words of God from out of the cloud, “This is My Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And then Peter says, you should listen to Jesus.  His word is like a lamp shining in a dark place. If you are paying attention, from Jesus will come light and life for you too.  It will be like a new day dawning.  Jesus will change you, turn your life upside down if you let him. 
So what does Peter’s experience have to say to us?  I think Peter would tell us, it is okay to let God interrupt now and again.  I ran into this great story about Albert Schweitzer, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. Soon after winning the prize, the great missionary doctor, was visiting Chicago. A whole contingent of reporters and politicians had gathered at the train station to meet him. As Dr. Schweitzer stepped off the train -- 6 feet 4 inches in height, bushy hair, large moustache, decked out in his trademark white suit -- news cameras flashed, and city officials lined up to be photographed beside the renowned humanitarian.
Just then, the doctor seemed to see something far off that attracted his attention. He asked the reporters if they would excuse him for a moment. Dr. Schweitzer walked right through the crowd, which parted to make room for him, until he reached an elderly African-American woman who was struggling under the weight of two large suitcases. Smiling, he picked the bags up in his big hands, and escorted her to the steps of her bus. After helping her aboard, he wished her a safe journey.
As all this was going on, the doctor's entourage had tagged along behind him. Turning around and seeing them, he said simply: "Sorry to have kept you waiting."  A member of the reception committee turned and said to one of the reporters: "That's the first time I ever saw a sermon walking."
It is okay to let our important lives be interrupted by God now and again. Schweitzer knew what a gift that could be.  But sometimes it is not as easy as it was for Peter, with the voice booming out of the cloud.  Sometimes, like Schweitzer, we have to look for the interruptions, to take the time to see the places where God might have something to say to us.  We are coming into the time of Lent, those 40 days before Easter.  It might just the right time to as God asks Peter, listen to Jesus, to let our lives be interrupted by God.  God might have something really important to say to us if we will but listen.  Lent is a good time to do that.

February 16, 2014 - The Ethics of God’s World:  3 Simple Rules - Matthew 5:38-48
         “Do no harm.”  Ironically that was the name of the television show that helped sink NBC’s new lineup last winter.  “Do no harm”, a modern take on the classic Jekyll and Hyde story debuted on January 31st of 2013.  You probably didn’t see it.  Nobody did. It lasted a total of two episodes before the network yanked it due to miserably low ratings.  In fact it was the lowest in-season debut of a scripted show on a major network ever.  Partly because of this show NBC’s ratings went from the highest to the lowest in one year.
          One reason they think the show failed so miserably was its name, Do no harm.  Weigh Do No Harm as a show title against Fast and Furious, Falling Skies, Breaking Bad, Sudden Impact; In comparison, “Do No Harm” sounds innocuous, possibly even boring.  People didn’t even give the show a chance.  It was done almost before it started.
          That in mind, one can sort of see the difficulty that Jesus is up against here in the Sermon on the Mount just trying to get people to listen to him, let alone trying to get people to take him seriously.  Is this high standard of ethical behavior Jesus proposes even possible let alone something people might actually want to do?  I mean, really, “turn the other cheek; give to everyone who begs from you; love your enemies; to the one who wants to take your sweater, give him your coat as well.”  Where is the fun in doing something like this?  And then, of course, there is the last verse in this section, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  All righty, then, nothing like setting the bar a little high.  It is enough to write Jesus off as somewhat of a crackpot.  Now most people look at these verses and think Jesus was purposely overstating what he means here, kind of like setting all your clocks five minutes ahead so that you won’t be late.
          However, John Wesley, the person that started our church back in England in the 1700’s, had the audacity to take Jesus seriously, even here, and began to think about this whole idea of perfection, that maybe if Jesus said it, it might actually be possible.  Wesley even thought he knew people who were perfect, at least what he called perfect in love.  His point was that one might not always be able to do the right thing, but at least they could have pure motives, one could always try to be loving.  By the way, Wesley was clear that he wasn’t perfect, not even close. As a matter of fact, he observed that one of the hallmarks of perfection, was not believing yourself to be perfect, even when others thought you were, and that people who thought themselves perfect were usually just fooling themselves.
          So if we are to take Jesus at his word, as Wesley did, and with a large dose of humility, what are we to make of these verses? Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give you cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”  Now this whole eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth thing was meant to introduce some modicum of Justice into disputes.  In other words if someone pokes out your eye, it was considered okay to poke out his eye in return instead of what usually happened, poking out the eye of the person who poked out your eye, and oh, while you are at it, killing him,… and  his brother too.  The law was a plea for justice instead of just the never ending cycle of revenge.  Jesus would ask for more, and it is a most interesting idea, and that is not to let another person’s violent or even merely selfish behavior dictate how you respond to them, but rather to respond in an unexpected way, compassion for example.   Jesus gives several examples, like not hitting someone back when they hit you, not countersuing when someone sues you, not being resentful of beggars, or Roman soldiers.  The point for Jesus is that when we respond like we are supposed to, we end up being just like the people who are being violent and unfair to us.  Is that who we want to be?  There has to be a better way.  I believe Jesus isn’t asking us to be pushovers, or gullible rubes, or to let ourselves be taken advantage of, but rather to ask ourselves in any given situation, how should we are Christians respond?   I think Jesus would say, to respond with love is usually better than just doing what we are expected to do.
          And to make his point, Jesus goes on, “you have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the gentiles do the same?  The question of Jesus is a good one.  Does Christianity make any difference in our lives, or are we just like everyone else?
          So Wesley had this great idea, and that was to keep it simple.  He thought, do you want to do this whole faith in Jesus thing in a way that makes a difference?  Wesley proposed three rules, just three and they are easy to remember.  The first is: Do no harm.  I think he thought that sort of the minimum requirement for Christians.  At least don’t do anything that intentionally hurts others.  I think Jesus would agree.  When someone hurts you, you don’t really have to hurt them back.  Believe it or not you have a choice. 
          The second rule is simple too.  Do good.  Again, it would seem not that difficult, but too often we let the opportunities for doing good pass us by, and usually it is not because we are bad people, it is because doing good is inconvenient.  It takes time, and time is something of a scarcity for modern people.  Doing good is mostly a matter of taking the time.  Now we have a hard enough time loving the people we love, but Jesus says you can even do good to people you don’t like.
          Have you ever heard of a Paraprosdokian?  It is a figure of speech in which the latter part of the sentence or phrase is unexpected.  For example, where there’s a will, I want to be in it.  Don’t argue with an idiot; he will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.  Another:  I didn’t say it was your fault; I said I was blaming you.  One with a little theology: I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way.  So I stole a bike and asked God for forgiveness. And my favorite, I used to be indecisive.  Now I’m not so sure.
          I think Jesus’ favorite paraprosdokian would be, “Be kind to one another.  It will amaze your friends and confuse your enemies.”  I wish there were more people in the world who were confused about why Christians behave the way they do if only because it would be so unexpected.
          But I said there were three rules.  The third is likewise simple.  Stay in love with God.  One thing you learn being married is that staying in love takes time.  You at least have to do things together.  It works that way with God too.  You want to stay in love with God.  Go to church.  Take communion.  Pray.  Read the Bible now and again.  It’s not so hard.
          Three simple rules.  Do no harm.  Be good.  Stay in love with God.  Jesus said it first.  Wesley just summarized.  To live these three simple rules; even though it is certainly harder than it seems, to do these three simple rules is to be alive.
  

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

First United Methodist Church of Missoula / Kay Duffield, Webmaster (hart2u2@yahoo.com)