Church will start at 10:30 during the school year.
Children 3-12 will leave the sanctuary following the Children's Sermon for Sunday School, except for the last Sunday of the month.
Communion is held each Sunday and all attending are invited to God's Table
to share in the meal.
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!
Christmas Eve Services will be at 5:30, 8:00 and 11:00
On Sunday Choir practice is in the chapel next to the sanctuary at 9:00 and the Faith and Justice Class will meet downstairs at 9:15.
Additional Adult Classes are offered during the week.
You are invited to join us!
Our church is handicap accessible through the street level door on the southeast corner of the building. There is an elevator there that will bring you up to the sanctuary or take you 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.
Pastor John Daniels
On July 6, at 9:30 a.m., we welcomed John Daniels as FUMC’s new pastor. Many will recognize Pastor John as the former Western Mountains District Superintendent for the Yellowstone Conference. His July 6th sermon served as an introduction of the new pastor from the DS. You may also recognize his wife Terri, who sings in our choir, and his children Emily, Molly and Ethan. Emily has one year left at the University of Montana, where she is studying music education. Molly is pursuing degrees in journalism and theatre at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Ethan is a student at Sentinel High School. He would like to attend UM and get a degree in a technical field associated with computer graphics.
November 23 - Alternative Giving Opportunities in Narthex after church
November 28 - Book Club, 11 a.m.
November 29 - Fifth Saturday Poverello Lunch Ministry
November 30 - Church Advent Potluck, following worship
December 2 - Tree of Life Lighting at 6 p.m. and service at 6:30 p.m.
December 3 and 10 - Missoula Interfaith Collaborative Legislative Advocacy Training
December 4 - UMW General Meeting 1 p.m.
December 7 - Children's Christmas Program during church
December 7 - Stephen Minister Information Session, noon
December 11 - Ruth Fellowship 10 a.m.
December 11 - Amazing Grays Christmas Party 5 p.m.
December 14 - UMW Candy and Bake sale
December 14 - Eagle Watch Service 12:30 p.m.
December 14 - JuBELLation Hand Bell Concert 4 p.m.
December 17 - Vespers 1 p.m.
December 21 - John Floridis Concert 4 p.m.
December 24 - Christmas Eve Services 5:30, 8:00 and 11:00
December 30 Book Club 11 a.m.
The life of our church includes:
(Click on colored words to find out more information.)
Adult Spiritual Growth - fall classes, online class information,
links to The Book of Discipline
Children's Ministries - You Tube Christmas program video
Youth Ministries - FUMY
U of M Wesley Foundation - Facebook link
Amazing Grays - Trips for seniors
Choirs - Chancel Choir, JuBELLation Handbell Choir, Children's Joyful Noise Choir
Foundation - donations and scholarships
Membership - joining the church
Stephen Ministers - caring for one another and training information.
Information on what a Stephen Minister does
UMW - United Methodist Women schedule and fellowship group information
UMM - United Methodist Men
Social Action - Family Promise, Poverello, Habitat for Humanity, Intermountain, UMCOR
Walk to Emmaus - Link to their website
Reaching out with love to our community and the world
❤ Tzedakah Pocket
❤ Poverello noon meal 5th Saturdays
❤ Family Promise Host
❤ January MIC Food Bank Drive
❤ Wesley House
❤ Host for Homeless Connect
❤ East Angola Pastor Support
❤ SERRV & Fair Trade Products
❤ Intermountain Home
❤ Flathead Lake UMC Camp
❤ Blackfeet United Methodist Parish (BUMP)
❤ United Methodist Women’s mission projects
❤ YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter
❤ Cub Scouts
❤ Habitat for Humanity
Pastor: John Daniels - Click here to see a current sermon.
Administrative Assistants: Sharon Jackson and Rhanda Johnson
Treasurer: Leslie Lindley
Financial Secretary: Kay Duffield
Custodian: John Schaff
Nursery Attendants: Faye Gibson, Audra Clark & Juliette Viera
Junior Nursery Attendants: Sophia Clark, Kade Hedahl, Kayla Leavell, Madison Lightfield and Austin Means
Greg Boris, Music Director and Chancel Choir Director
Peter Edwards, Pianist/Organist
Brynn Bellingham, Handbell Choir Director
Rhanda Johnson, Joyful Noise Director
**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 or Pastor John's cell phone (406) 396-8966.
Office Hours (subject to change - call 549-6118 before coming in or to make an appointment with the pastor)
Monday - Thursday: 9 a.m. - noon. Friday: Closed
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.
FUMC Chancel Choir will begin the fall season on Sunday Sept. 8th. 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 239-1828.
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. For more information call Joann Wallenburn at 677-4424.
Joyful 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 Mondays from 6:00 - 6:45 p.m. Contact Rhanda Johnson in the office (549-6118) 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. Fall classes will meet on Sunday morning, Tuesday morning, Tuesday evening and Wednesday evening. Click on the blue button below for details.
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.
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.
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
New to Campus? Connect with us! Campus Connection
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 visit. 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
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 welcomed at either First or Grace UMC in Missoula.
United 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. UMW raises money for mission projects locally, in Montana, nationally and globally. UMW meets the first Thursday Oct-Dec and Feb-May. All meetings are at 1:00 for dessert, program and business meeting, unless otherwise announced in the church newsletter.
Other activities include: Ash Wednesday Souper Supper, spring Flea Market, July picnic for families who will attend a community band concert at Bonner Park afterward, September Pizza Party at the Carousel, October Apple Pie sales, and December Candy Sale.
Contact President Ellie Barnes 549-1384 for more information.
** UMW Fellowship Circles meet once a month. Nothing compares to a small supportive group of women! All women of the church are invted to visit groups that interest them.
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, coffee, a monthly program, and outreach to church members who need a little TLC and support of missions like the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter.
Chairman: Ellen Stubblefield 728-2115
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
**Special Interest Groups:
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.
Stephen Ministry Church
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.
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.
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.
We give of our time, talent and gifts 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.
First 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/
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).
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.
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.
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 hurricanes and tsunamis and will continue to support UMCOR when it heads to new disasters.
Special Days. Special Ways. We reach out to the world with Special Offerings
Spiritual Quality Control
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
Theme: Many times, we want to think of God as all-embracing, all-gracious, and all forgiving; but today’s lesson speaks of the judgment of God. This may be an aspect of God that we naturally like to contemplate too much, but fear not! The prescription for righteousness before God is surprisingly direct and simple, even if it is not easy – a faith that is consistently demonstrated in acts of love.
Today, we are challenged by a scripture that speaks of that quality of God that, if we’re honest with each other, makes us uncomfortable. We hear Christ describing the aspect of God that we are told to not take on ourselves, that characteristic that is reserved for the divine domain alone, but which we find ourselves tempted by and falling prey to all the time. Today, we hear Christ sharing the message of God’s JUDGEMENT.
Sheep and goats. That’s what you and I are asked to think of ourselves as – sheep or goats. Which would you rather be? What would it be like to be a sheep? Well, you’d always have a wool coat, which means you’d always be warm but itchy. You’d have an endless supply of food in the form of grass, which means you’d never go hungry, although your diet would be very monotonous. And you’d have no responsibilities but to eat and sleep and follow the orders of the shepherd – a comfortable, but very boring, life.
Or would you rather be a goat? If you were a goat, you’d smell bad, be temperamental, not to mention quite ugly, and your non-discriminating palate would mean that you would just as soon eat a tin can as a steak. The only thing they have going for them is that they do just about whatever they want – they don’t have the same knack of following a shepherd, which tends to make them less controllable and more prone to dangerous actions than sheep.
No, it seems obvious to me – much better to be a sheep. Christ agrees. But not for the reasons I just described; it has nothing to do with the individual characteristics of the animals, only that they are different creatures. Sheep and goats – those who follow Christ, and those who don’t. Today’s lesson invites us to consider this situation, of what it means to be a follower of Christ in the light of the judgment to come, of that time when we will be called to account for the lives that we have led on this earth.
Then, the question that logically follows is this: WHAT JUSTIFIES US? What makes us into sheep? What enables us to be the kind of people who have nothing to fear in the face of God’s discernment?
This is trickier ground to tread, if we really want to get down to the business of God’s discernment of our affairs, because we are naturally and deeply biased in our own favor. Let me tell you what I mean by an example from awhile back in time.
I was visiting with a friend of mine. We were catching up on family and friends, on events and situations, and she started to share some things about her family and some choices they were making about their future. They were considering buying a condominium in a rather exclusive resort area up in the mountains of Colorado. I thought to myself, well, yes, that might be nice for them; they already owned three homes around the state, and this was their style. But then she said something that stunned me – she said, “Yes, John, we really feel that God wants us to buy this condominium.” In my mind, I heard the distinct sound of screeching brakes. “God wants us to buy this condominium.” Knowing her, knowing their family, knowing their faith understanding, I couldn’t help but think (not judge, mind you, but I’m aware I’m getting pretty close to that!) that what she was doing was searching for the justification from God toward something she and her family wanted.
It gets things backward. It starts with what we want from life, and tries to listen for God’s voice joining ours in agreement. It’s like the story I’ve told before about the man who was told by his doctor that he needed to lose weight for the sake of his heart. Exercise, smaller portions, balanced diet, lowering stress – he began to do the works. But one habit he knew he had to break was his daily trips to the donut shop. He loved donuts so much, that this turned out to be the most difficult challenge. But he faced it well. He began losing weight. After a few weeks, he wondered if God was ready for him to be rewarded for all of his good work. “I’ll tell you what, God,” prayed the man. “I’ll go down to the donut shop; if I see an open parking space, I’ll know that you want me to have a donut.” So the man drove down to the donut shop. Sure enough, there was an open parking space, which he discovered after going around the block seven times.
What we want in life is a very strong motivator. Sometimes it’s very subtle. Sometimes what we want in life SEEMS to be the same as what God wants for us. BUT SEEMS TO BE WHAT GOD WANTS can be very different from what God ACTUALLY WANTS for our lives. AND WE MUST BE VERY CAREFUL LEST WE ARE GUIDED BY OUR OWN DESIRES RATHER THAN GOD’S. For if the truth were to really be faced, many times our own, personal desires may not parallel God’s.
There is an engraving from the cathedral of Lubeck, Germany, which reflects our Lord's teaching here. Think “goats” as I read these words:
Thus speaketh Christ our Lord to us,
You call Me master and obey me not,
You call Me light and see Me not,
You call Me the way and walk Me not,
You call Me the life and live Me not,
You call Me wise and follow Me not,
You call Me fair and love Me not,
You call Me rich and ask Me not,
You call Me eternal and seek me not,
You call Me just and fear Me not,
If I condemn thee, blame Me not.
We must be careful lest we wind up following the God of our own creation, made out of the things we wish were true about God’s desires for our lives. Where God remains silent, we dare not write what we hope is his will into the script of our lives.
I have a favorite teaching that helps me in understanding this fine point in my own faith struggles, and I’d like to share it with you. This teaching is found in a scene in a Jewish classroom; the class was taught by a rabbi. Let me read you this story as told by one of the students in that class:
One day, the rabbi was asked, “Which act of charity is higher – giving out of obligation or giving from the heart?”
All in the class were inclined to respond that giving from the heart had something more in it, but they knew the rabbi was going to say just the opposite, because in spiritual teaching nothing is logical. They were not disappointed.
“Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing,” the rabbi said, “It is a very high act and should never be demeaned. But there is something much more important that happens when somebody gives charity out of obligation.
“Consider who is doing the giving. When somebody gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of oneself doing something; in other words, heartfelt charity always involves ego gratification.
“However, when we give out of obligation, when we give at a moment that every part of us is yelling NO! because of one reason or another – perhaps the beneficiary is disgusting, or it is too much money, or any of thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving charity – then we are confronting our own egos, and giving nonetheless. Why? Because we are supposed to. And what this means is that it is not us doing the giving; rather we are vehicles through which God gives.” We remove ourselves from the center, and allow God’s act to shape our identity. This is the higher form of doing and giving.
If the act is somehow in your favor, brings a positive light to bear on you which others see, is agenda-borne to work you into heaven, or is anxious for reward in this life, IF IT MAKES YOU LOOK GOOD, BE SUSPICIOUS! The sheep in our parable, the ones who fed the hungry, who gave drink to the thirsty, who welcomed the stranger, who clothed the naked, who cared for the sick, who visited the prisoner … these children of God were SURPRISED that their justification was secure. They had not acted out of self-interest so much as out of a sense of obligation to be good to their fellow human beings, regardless of the condition of their lives OR THEIR RIGHTEOUS STANDING BEFORE GOD. The sheep love first, and ask questions later. They never calculate the benefits of good deeds. The sheep give without counting the cost or probability of reward. The sheep provide as the needs around them demand; they do not waste time arguing about doctrinal standards, church protocol, or how this will look in the eyes of the world. They act out of their love shaped by faith.
Are we sheep, or are we goats? This is the challenge of the Christian faith. This is our task, to scrutinize our hearts as to why we do what we do, and to make sure that our motivation has less to do with pride or ambition or self-justification, and more to do with bringing the love of Christ to life in ourselves and others. This love of Jesus will not bear conditions we place upon it – for once we condition our love, once we choose who to love, who to serve, who to care for, who to pay attention to, we begin to move away from the love of Jesus. It is only in the love that has no condition, the love that is freely given away – even the love that is least likely to be returned -- that we find ourselves practicing how Jesus loved. As we do to the least of these, God’s children, we do to Christ himself.
God’s Investment Policy
Scripture: Matthew 25:14-20
Theme: How we are to invest ourselves – our lives – according to faith may not make sense to the world, but to the follower of Jesus, and in the experiences of following Jesus, they make more and more sense as they are more and more practiced. The dividends paid out are ones only received through application – and then, are to be measured only by means of grace.
I would like to tell you this morning about a certain year in my pastoral career when I made a very bad investment. I had hired an unprofessional crew with negligible resources and almost no skill to engage in a construction project six hundred miles away from their regular places of business; the arrangements for equipment, lodging, transportation, and food were very uncertain. This unskilled labor was to install a sheet-metal roof over disabled woman’s double-wide trailer home – none of the workcrew had ever worked on a roof before, and six of the seven members had never operated power equipment of any kind before. I had to teach three of them how to hammer a nail into wood. One experience says it all – at one point, up on the rooftop, I heard one young worker drilling furiously with a power drill. Wondering what she was doing, I came over to where she was working, and discovered that she was looking for a roof support underneath the roof sheathing – by drilling a series of holes until she hit something solid. Sixteen holes in a nice line are what it took until she hit a rafter – sixteen holes in the roof we were trying to seal up from leaking. How shall we say it? -- This crew measured once and cut seven or eight times.
But this bad investment paid off – at the end of the week, we had indeed installed the roof, and this woman’s home was indeed watertight. We had grown close to her, and she to us – we who were Christians, and she who was Buddhist -- and I recall on our last day, as we found ourselves saying goodbye in her living room, she said to us with tears in her eyes – “I didn’t know people like you existed.” All of us – the workteam, this woman – became spiritually wealthier because of this bad investment.
I would like to tell you this morning about a certain God who made a bad investment in this world. He sent his offspring into this place, into a setting of poverty and foreign, oppressive rule, to work with a people of stiff necks and stubborn nature. This Son was gifted with no earthly wealth or skill, save a heart strangely shaped by an uncommon love.
He spoke in unconventional ways, he traveled to unpopular places, he spoke with unacceptable people, and acted in an unconventional manner. He taught in parables, without clear answers; he healed as much with his willingness to listen and care as with his divine power; he challenged the rulers of this world with an unworldly perspective that threatened the status quo, so much that they sought to kill him – and they succeeded. Or so it seemed. As it turned out, this bad investment of God in the world did not end with the cross; in many ways, it was then that it began paying dividends no one could have foreseen – and has brought to the world a light that may exceed our understanding, yet is accessible to all.
Our God is a God who encourages investment practices that are opposite to those of the world in which we live – and yet, these are the investment practices that give to the world the only hope that may carry it forward. And what are these investments that have the power to change the world?
- Enemies turned into friends by investing in forgiveness and mercy.
- Sorrow met with comfort by investing in companionship.
- Suffering gaining relief by investing in burden sharing.
- Loneliness transformed thorough connection by investing in relationship.
- Hostility turned into peace by investing in nonviolence.
- Oppression moving toward liberty by investing in justice.
- Hatred dissolved with love by investing in grace.
These may seem like very small things on the global scale, but these are the very things that have positively changed the world the most. These are the investments encouraged by God, and demonstrated by Jesus.
By all standards and measurements of this world in which we live, our faith prescribed by God encourages bad investment practices.
- We are to give without counting the cost;
- we are to embrace what common sense says to avoid;
- we are to risk our comfort and our security for the sake of others;
- we are even to die to ourselves as we live to another.
Any good stockbroker would tell you this is no way to invest in the market! But, we are not investing in the market; we are investing in God’s creation, in God’s kingdom. And our capital is the grace of God, offered through Christ. We do not have the luxury of keeping this capital to ourselves, for once saved and protected for ourselves, it begins to die. God’s grace was designed to be shared by all people, in all circumstances, in all places, in all of its fullness. God will never be satisfied until all have received God’s goodness. And we Christians are the ones who are charged with the investing of God’s goodness towards all.
You and I have received a very uncommon gift through Christ. This gift is God’s investment in us. This investment cannot be fully received until it is fully given away, time and time again. There are many, many souls who long to be invested in by us – those who don’t know what it means to beloved unconditionally, who don’t know what it means to be forgiven, who don’t know what it means to matter, who don’t know what it means to have value in another’s eyes, who don’t know what it means to have hope. They are waiting for our investment in them to show God’s investment in all of us. And each of us has a part to play in God’s investment scheme. What, then, is our part? Who, then, are we each to invest in next?
Let us pray: God of Creation, Lord of life, show us the risk that brings us closer to you. Show us the ones who await our investment in them, for the sake of Christ. We think of those who are perhaps hardest to love:
- Someone who wronged us
- Someone who hurt us
- Someone we don’t understand
- Someone we don’t agree with
- Someone we’ve grown estranged from
- Someone we’ve grown indifferent to
- Someone who makes us angry
- Someone who makes us sad
- Someone who stands for what we’re against
- Someone who is easy to dismiss
- Someone who is easy to not love
- Help us, O God, to invest ourselves in the lives of these, your children, who desperately need to be invested in. And help us, O God, to leave the dividends to you.
11-9-14 - Defeating Worry by Preparation
Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13
Theme: Preparation for life can defeat worry, for if we are prepared for life – having done all we can and should – we can be at peace, which is the best condition to be in regarding the unanticipated and unpredicted.
This past week, something happened that caused me great worry. It happened this last Tuesday; I was going about my business as usual, when suddenly there it was – and my heart began to race, my thoughts began to grow anxious, there was sweat on my brow. I began to worry about what was going to happen, how things would turn out; I worried that I might have to change my routine, that I might have to cancel a meeting or two; I thought about my wife and kids, what this would do to them if things developed as I feared. On and on I went, when this worry arose – and, you might ask, what was this worry? It was this (on the screen) – my engine warning light went on in my car. They say it’s an engine warning light, but in reality it is a “begin worrying now” light, which is precisely what I began to do – worry, worry, and more worry. Then, two days ago, something happened which caused me even more worry – can you guess what it was? THE ENGINE WARNING LIGHT WENT OFF ON ITS OWN. And, I didn’t do anything to fix whatever was wrong. Now, I’m really worried!
Worry is a bad thing. Do you agree? Many people have told me so, and I have preached many a sermon affirming the truth, that our worries can undo us, that worry can rob us of life.
Worry has been defined in many ways:
- In the dictionary, worry is defined as “to torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts, cares, anxieties, or troubles; to disturb or interfere with someone’s comfort or peace of mind;” I found it interesting that worry is also defined as “to seize, especially by the throat, with the teeth and shake or mangle, as one animal does to another; the action of the hounds in tearing to pieces the carcass of a fox.”
- Worry is the cancer of the soul, the salt in the wound of possibility, the vulture awaiting to devour our good intentions, the darkness awaiting to absorb any light that dares to shine.
Can we all just agree on this one thing? WORRY IS BAD! WORRY IS NOT DESIRABLE! WORRY IS YUCKY, FRUITLESS, EMPTY, HOPELESS, POINTLESS, AND NOT TO BE ENGAGED IN! Much better to follow along the profound philosophical wisdom to be found in that pop-music guru Bobby McFarrin, who taught us the wonderful mantra in his famous song – DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY.
But today, we hear the astonishing message from Christ himself that WE ARE SUPPOSED TO WORRY ABOUT SOME THINGS! The lesson comes in the form of a parable – ten bridesmaids anticipating the arrival of the bridegroom. Without going into great detail, this fits with the context of the day – weddings in ancient Palestine (and I am told this is still the case in present day Palestine) were not a one-moment, one-hour affair, but could cover the time-span of a week or more, with a very loose schedule of events. There were festivities, preparations, and the like, but the bridegroom was to choose the time for his arrival as he desired; everyone else was expected to be ready at any moment to meet him, and proceed to the ceremony. It was a closed ceremony, once it began. It was essential to be prepared to expect to join in the moment.
There are the ten bridesmaids, five wise, five foolish. Both groups worried, I believe, but worried in different ways. The five wise maids worried before anything really began, and translated their worry into action; this we call PREPARATION. They got things ready in case there was a delay. The five unwise maids worried after it was too late to do anything about it; their worry was translated into DESPAIR over what they could no longer influence.
Translating worry into preparation. It’s something to think about, yes?
There is a proverb which follows along these lines. An older man was being rowed across a wide river by a young boy one afternoon. The older man glanced in the river, and saw a leaf floating there. “Boy,” said the man to the boy, “What do you know about biology?” “Nothing, sir,” said the boy. “You’ve wasted 25% of your life,” said the man. The man gazed up at the sky, and noticed a couple of stars beginning to shine. “Boy,” he said, “What do you know about astronomy?” “Nothing, sir,” said the boy. “You’ve wasted 50% of your life,” declared the man. Gazing at the rocky hills in the distance, the man said, “Boy, what do you know about geology?” “Nothing, sir,” said the boy. “You’ve wasted 75% of your life,” said the man. Just then, they both heard a terrible noise coming from upstream; the dam had burst. Seeing the floodwaters bearing down on them, the boy turned to the man and said, “Sir, do you know how to swim?” The man said, “No.” Whereupon the boy, jumping out of the boat, said, “Sir, you’ve wasted 100% of your life!”
The lesson is quite clear – there are some things worth worrying about. Things that help us to live. Things that help us to grow. Things that enable us to be in this life effectively, both spiritually and physically. Now, this is not to say that these are things to remain worried about, to stay in that worry; appropriate worry is very short lived, a very temporary thing useful only in its motivation to a higher purpose. Worry is helpful only as it is translated into preventative and positive action; it is only helpful if its life is short, as it motivates us into a life neither imprisoned in the past nor avoidant of the future. Worry has its proper place as it moves us into action that will change what we are able to change or accept what we cannot.
Preparation. Readiness. To change what we can. To accept what we cannot change. Doing what is necessary for the likely future. Now, the scripture lesson is of course speaking about being ready to meet with Christ, for that is the one thing we know for certain is coming our way; we all know that we each shall die. We thus think about being prepared for the moment of salvation, being prepared to be found worthy and acceptable through faith.
But I believe there is another type of preparation Christ is pointing out, consistent with his earthly ministry. PREPARATION not only for salvation, but for the road that gets us there, for the life we have in this world. This is the kind of life that lives by the habit of Christ’s love, the kind of life that is anxious to meet with the bridegroom on the bridegroom’s terms for the sharing of earthly joy and fulfillment. I think the lesson is pointing to this kind of preparedness too.
I love the story of the husband who had been laid off for a long time. Finally, he responded to the perfect job – he felt he was qualified, but when he investigated, he learned that hundreds of other persons were applying for the same position. With great worry, he went ahead and applied; he went to his interview, which seemed to go on forever. At the end of the interview, the panel shocked the man by offering him the job! He was so relieved. After accepting the position, he ran home; when he walked in the door, he discovered his wife had prepared a sumptuous feast; the table was all set, and on his plate was a card from his wife. The card said, “Congratulations! I knew you’d get the job. I never had any doubts in your abilities and integrity, and am proud of all that you are! I prepared this meal to say I love you, and am proud to be your partner in life. Love, Mary.” They had a wonderful meal; the air was full of celebration and joy. When dinner was over, he began helping clear the dishes. His wife began to protest, but before she could stop him, he had lifted his plate from the table. There was another card. He opened it and read the following: “I’m so sorry that you didn’t get the position. I know you better than anyone else, and that you deserve only the best. They are missing out on a great thing by not hiring you. But never mind – we will look forward to the time when the affirmation you are due comes. I prepared this meal to say I love you, and am proud to be your partner in life. Love, Mary.”
She was prepared. Love had prepared her. Not knowing what the future would hold, she nonetheless took action in all the ways she could. This is what our lesson is talking about – not knowing the future, but considering the possibilities, and responding as we are able. This defeats worry. This calms the anxiety. This makes us as ready as we can be for whatever may come.
Ian Maclaren, the Scottish author and theologian, put it this way:
“What does worry do? It does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, but it does empty today of its strength. It does not make you escape the evil; it makes you unfit to cope with it when it comes. God gives us the power to bear all the sorrow of His making, but He does not guarantee to give us strength to bear the burdens of our own making such as worry induces.”
Let us put the burdens of our own making to rest; and let us trust that, whatever burdens remain, we do not have to carry them alone.
10-26-14 - Concise Christianity
Scripture: Matthew 22:34-46
Theme: Here’s Christianity in a nutshell – “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
This morning, I wanted to get straight to the point. The scripture lesson is so very clear, the writing so familiar, the message so comprehensible, that it can be summed up in simply one straightforward sentence. So the sermon today takes the form of only one, very important, and very straightforward sentence: Here it is:
“Mbimpe a.nyi, tudi dis.nka mu kike.nga kufi.ka munda bua.nji tshilejelu.” Amen.
Wait – I hear murmuring. Didn’t you get that? Let me say it again.
“Mbimpe a.nyi, tudi dis.nka mu kike.nga kufi.ka munda bua.nji tshilejelu.” Amen.
Are you having trouble with this? Don’t you understand? Of course, I bet you don’t because I’m speaking another language – I’ve spoken this message in the language called Tsheluba, which is used in the Republic of Congo. When my family and I visited there, my sister gave me a book of translation, and that’s what I used to translate today’s message.
Would you like me to translate the tsheluba for you? Again, it’s very simple – “love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Simple. Clear. Straightforward. BUT MUCH SUFFERS IN TRANSLATION INTO LIFE. Just as we had to be taught what the message was in the tsheluba language, we need to translate just what God is saying in this greatest of all commandments into real life.
Now, we may think that this is no real challenge. We’ve all heard time and again this commandment, this guide for life, and we may think we have really grabbed its significance for our lives. But I believe it deserves constant redress. I think we all incline towards the one love and not the other.
We all incline towards the love of God, but away from the love of the neighbor, especially the more distant or undesirable or unlikeable that neighbor is. We prefer to choose the ones whom we lavish our attention on, choosing them indirectly through the way we have decided to live our lives, or directly through the application of our judgment of who deserves our attention, and who does not.
A wife took her husband to the doctor; he was pretty worn down. The doctor examined him, and then took the wife into another room. “Your husband is very ill,” said the doctor, “He will die unless you do the following things. He needs to do no work, not even washing the dishes or folding laundry. He needs to eat three very healthy meals a day. You must wait on him hand and foot, see to his every need, and never upset him. You need to do this for the next year, without fail. Unless you do, your husband will die.” On the ride home, the husband turned to his wife, and asked, “What did the doctor say?”
She turned to him and said, “You’re going to die.”
LOVE COMES HARD! Well, yes and no. Those whom we like, those who are easy to deal with, those whom we’ve had life experiences with, in our family, our close friends, those who are popular, good looking, famous, what-have-you – these are easy to love. But our neighbor may be none of these. They may be cantankerous, boisterous, unpopular, unkind, smelly, rude, angry, self-centered, even dangerous. They are not loved easily by us because they do not fit our idea of lovable persons.
But they do fit God’s idea of lovable persons. Jesus prioritized the outcast. God favors the marginalized. Blessed are the meek, the poor, the mournful, the persecuted – for God is lovingly interested in them – and invites us to be as well.
The challenge of the greatest commandments is simply this: YOU CANNOT LOVE GOD UNLESS YOU LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR. The converse is true as well: YOU CANNOT LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR UNLESS YOU LOVE GOD. These two truths are inseparable; they cannot be pulled apart. Any time we distinguish between who we will pay attention to, care for, help out, or be kind to, we hinder the love we have for God. This does not mean that we are to be personally responsible for all the possible love in the world, but it does mean that we are to be active in loving others beyond our determination of whether they deserve it or not. That is only for God to determine; our task is to try to love others, WITHOUT CONDITION. PERIOD.
This is what we do as Christians – not because we have to fulfill a quota, but because this is the pleasure we are invited into through our love of God. Now, I know this might seem like a strange thing to say, that loving someone who seems unlovable, unkind, unworthy of our love is a pleasure and privilege, but I’m going to stick with it. In my opinion, and based upon my experience as a pastor and a Christian, I have found that to love the unlovable works miracles.
Having Chris here and George here speaking about Intermountain made me recall a short story written by author Mary Ann Bird. The story is entitled "The Whisper Test." It is a true story from her own life. These are her words:
"I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I must look to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth and garbled speech.
"When schoolmates would ask, 'What happened to your lip?' I'd tell them I'd fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.
"There was, however, a teacher in the second grade that we all adored -- Mrs. Leonard by name. She was short, round, happy -- a sparkling lady. Annually, we would have a hearing test. I was virtually deaf in one of my ears; but when I had taken the test in past years, I discovered that if I did not press my hand as tightly upon my ears as I was instructed to do, I could pass the test. Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something and we would have to repeat it back ... things like, 'The sky is blue' or 'Do you have new shoes?' I waited there for those words which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life. Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper, 'I wish you were my little girl.'"
--As told by Spencer Morgan Rice, "The Drama of God," Trinity Church, Boston.
I believe that God has made every person lovable. And I believe that every person is loved by God. And I believe many, many people do not know this, or don’t believe this, or somehow have been told otherwise. You and I can change this, as we make God’s manner of love our own. God invites us to do so, not as a demand, but as an invitation to directly experience something of the divine.
As we challenge the notion that anyone is unlovable, WE CAN EXPERIENCE HOW GOD LOVES US – WITHOUT STRINGS ATTACHED, DIRECTLY, NOT BECAUSE WE DESERVE IT, BUT BECAUSE WE ARE WHO WE ARE, AS GOD CREATED US.
When we love the unlovable, when we truly care for others beyond social acceptability, we begin to see things as God does – AND HELP OTHERS DISCOVER THAT NO ONE – NO ONE – IS UNLOVABLE.
I close with one of my favorite quotes – this is from Frederick Buechner’s work, The Magnificent Defeat. Buechner qualifies the types of love that are possible in this life. It is entitled
The Love That Conquers the World
The love for equals is a human thing--of friend for friend, brother for
brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.
The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing--the love for those who
suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This
is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.
The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing--to love those who succeed
where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of
the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is
always bewildered by its saints.
And then there is the love for the enemy--love for the one who does not love
you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured's love for the
torturer. This is God's love. It conquers the world.
- Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat
Let us be about conquering the world. Amen.
10-12-14 Checking Our Spiritual Attire
Scripture: Matthew 22:1-14
Theme: What does it mean to respond to the invitation of God? Many have thought of it in terms of profession of faith; but I believe today’s scripture lesson speaks more about profession of life – “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Come to the wedding feast, but come appropriately, dressed in the adornments of faith.
Recently I learned that there’s a new program going around in many main-line, side-line, and off-line Protestant churches. It’s a program I think we may try to implement in our church, contingent upon Administrative Board approval (we have our meeting in a couple weeks), but I thought I’d bounce it off of you this morning first, to see what you think. The program is called the No-excuse Sunday, and it would involve the following.
- cots would be placed in the narthex for those who say, “Sunday is my only day to sleep in.”
- there will be a special section with lounge chairs for those who feel that our pews are too hard.
- Eye-drops will be available for those with tired eyes from watching TV late Saturday night.
- We will have steel helmets for those who say, “The roof would cave in if I ever came to church.”
- Blankets will be furnished for those who think the church is too cold, and fans provided for those who say it is too hot.
- One section will be devoted to trees and grass for those who like to seek God in nature.
- Ipod mp3 music players with headphones will be provided for persons to personally choose hymns that are their favorite, or at least easier to sing.
- Doctors and nurses will be in attendance for those who plan to be sick on Sunday.
- The sanctuary will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who never have seen the church without them.
- We will provide hearing aids for those who can’t hear the preacher and ear plugs for those who can.”
Now let me ask you, COULD ANYONE PASS UP AN INVITATION TO CHURCH IF WE DID THIS? Of course they could! There would always be some excuse not to come to church, always some reason that might keep people from coming – some more acceptable than others, I suppose.
Much like the church is always inviting others to attend -- and there are a multitude of excuses not to come -- the same holds true regarding faith as outlined in our scripture passage today. The king invites, and everyone has an excuse. Something’s going on, the calendar is full, time-clock’s need to be punched, routines must be followed, and the messengers from the king are nothing more than an annoyance to be rid of.
Well, it is quite apparent that the king represents God, God who gives the invitation to his banquet, his heavenly domain, his eternal glory, to his children. Some refuse to respond, and even demonstrate their hostility towards God; in so doing, they seal their fate. A second round of invitations goes out; this time, everyone is included. Everyone includes us.
Thank goodness you and I have responded! We may breathe a sigh of relief. We are here because we have said “yes” to God, yes to obeying his will, searching for his truth, learning of his love, sharing his compassion. We have accepted the invitation, and all is well with our souls.
Such a nice thought. And it could be true, if we could do just one thing right now. Would you mind doing this with me? Take out your Bibles, even the ones in the hymnal racks. Open up to Matthew 22:1-14, our passage for today. Do you have it? Good; now, to retain this nice thought of our having accepted the invitation of God to his heavenly banquet, CROSS OUT VERSES 11-14. Got it? Ah, now that feels much better. We don’t have to worry about the rest of that lesson.
A part of us each one of us would like to do this, but of course we cannot. We’d like to cross out verses 11-14 because it states clearly that responding to the invitation in our presence alone is not enough. FOR WHEN WE RESPOND, WE MUST ALSO BE PROPERLY DRESSED. And of course we are not talking about tuxedoes and flowing gowns, formal wear with lace and ribbon; we are speaking about being properly dressed in our living out of that faith, wearing that faith in life so that it becomes no token effort simply to gain access to that banquet, to that salvation promised to the faithful. Responding to the invitation is no one time affair, but a daily affair that must embrace every corner of our being. It must show in the daily lives that we lead.
What I’m doing here is what is called “moving from preaching to meddling.” And I’m meddling as much if not more in my own affairs. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, says the following: “Ask the average person which is more important to him, making money or being devoted to his family, and virtually everyone will answer family without hesitation. But watch how the average person actually lives out his life. See where he really invests his time and energy, and he will give away the fact that he does not really live by what he says he believes. He has let himself be persuaded that if he leaves for work earlier in the morning and comes home more tired at night, he is proving how devoted he is to his family by expending himself to provide them all the things they have seen advertised.”
We can take these words and apply them to our lesson today, and reach the central point: Ask the average Christian which is more important to them, success in the world or devotion to God, and virtually everyone will answer devotion to God without hesitation. BUT WATCH HOW THE AVERAGE CHRISTIAN ACTUALLY LIVES OUT HIS OR HER LIFE. As Rabbi Kushner says, “See where they really invest their time and energy, and they may give away the fact that they do not really live by what they say they believe.” OUCH! I know this applies to me, in my personal journey of faith – sometimes, when I take inventory of my actions, I discover that they just might not be purely faith-inspired, but inspired by emotion, or selfishness, or fear, or anger, or convenience, or any number of things less than what I profess to believe – how about you?
It is not enough to say the words. It is not enough to profess the faith. It is not enough to simply show up at the invitation to the Christian life. WE MUST LIVE IT. Day and night, good times and bad, through comfort and discomfort, safety and danger, risk and security. St. Francis’ is attributed with saying it this way – “Everywhere you go, preach the gospel of Christ. And only if absolutely necessary, use words.”
Our spiritual attire is the demonstration of our faith in life – to put it in terms of our scripture lesson today, our spiritual attire is that which God sees when God looks at a person, seeing whether or not they are living the life they profess. We have been invited to that banquet outlined in the gospel, and we have in our possession the adornments that will have us dressed appropriately – honesty, truth, confession, repentance, humility, integrity, conviction, sacrifice, worship, service, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, patience, initiative, hope, and above all Christian love.
- The measure of our response to God’s invitation is directly linked to how often we are found wearing such items when interacting with God’s world.
- The test of our response to God’s invitation is wearing such items when they are the least convenient and comfortable adornments in this world.
- And the validation of our response to God’s invitation is to never be found naked, spiritually devoid of intention, physically devoid of loving action.
I’d like to close with a prayer given by Dag Hammarskjold, one of my spiritual mentors who tried to live out the premise of daily focus on God.
Let us pray:
“Have mercy upon us.
Have mercy upon our efforts,
That we before Thee,
in love and in faith,
righteousness and humility,
may follow Thee, with self-denial, steadfastness, and courage,
and meet Thee in the silence.
Give us a pure heart that we may see Thee,
A humble heart that we may hear Thee,
A heart of love that we may serve Thee,
A heart of faith that we may live Thee,
Thou whom I do not know But Whose I am.
Thou Whom I do not comprehend
But Who hast dedicated me to my fate.
Thou be my guide.” Amen.
10- 5-2014 "Faith’s Stock Market Devaluation Principle”
Scriptures: Philippians 3:4b-14
Theme: Backwards fiscal maneuvering usually ends in loss. But backwards spiritual maneuvering carries with it a wisdom that is profound. Or something like that. The economics of heaven make sense only to the heart tuned to the frequency of faith.
Today, I’m going to do something different with you. I’m going to read you a story. The story is the sermon. So I want you to relax, take a couple of deep breaths in and out, and try to immerse yourself in the imagery, focus, and color of this story, and see if and how it may parallel some challenges we all face as Christians. The story title is “The Richest Family in Church”.
The Richest Family In Church
By Eddie Ogan
I’ll never forget Easter of 1946. I was 14, my little sister Ocy was 12, and my older sister Darlene was 16. We lived at home with our mother, and the four of us knew what it was to do without many things. My dad had died five years before, leaving Mom with seven school kids to raise and no money.
By 1946 my older sisters were married and my brothers had left home. A month before Easter the pastor of our church announced that a special Easter offering would be taken to help a poor family. He asked everyone to save and give sacrificially.
When we got home, we talked about what we could do. We decided to buy 50 pounds of potatoes and live on them for a month. This would allow us to save $20 of our grocery money for the offering. Then we thought that if we kept our electric lights turned out as much as possible and didn’t listen to the radio, we’d save money on that month’s electric bill. Darlene got as many house and yard cleaning jobs as possible, and both of us babysat for everyone we could. For 15 cents we could buy enough cotton loops to make three potholders to sell for $1. We made $20 on potholders. That month was the best of our lives.
Every day we counted the money to see how much we had saved. At night we’d sit in the dark and talk about how the poor family was going to enjoy having the money the church would give them. We had about 80 people in church, so we figured that whatever amount of money we had to give, the offering would surely be about 20 times that much. After all, every Sunday the pastor had reminded everyone to save for the sacrificial offering.
The day before Easter, Ocy and I walked to the grocery store and got the manager to give us three crisp $20 bills and one $10 bill for all our change. We ran all the way home to show mom and Darlene. We had never had so much money before.
That night we were so excited we could hardly sleep. We didn’t care that we wouldn’t have new clothes for Easter; we had $70 for the sacrificial offering.
We could hardly wait to get to church! On Sunday morning, rain was pouring. We didn’t own an umbrella, and the church was over a mile from our home, but it didn’t seem to matter how wet we got. Darlene had cardboard in her shoes to fill the holes. The cardboard came apart, and her feet got wet. But we sat in church proudly. I heard some teenagers talking about the Smith girls having on their old dresses. I looked at them in their new clothes and felt rich.
When the sacrificial offering was taken, we were sitting on the second row from the front. Mom put in the $10 bill, and each of us kids put in a $20.
As we walked home after church, we sang all the way. At lunch Mom had a surprise for us. She had bought a dozen eggs, and we had boiled Easter eggs with our fried potatoes!
Late that afternoon the minister drove up in his car. Mom went to the door, talked with him for a moment, and then came back with an envelope in her hand. We asked what it was, but she didn’t say a word. She opened the envelope and out fell a bunch of money. There were three crisp $20 bills, one $10 bill and seventeen $1 bills.
Mom put the money back in the envelope. We didn’t talk, just sat and stared at the floor. We had gone from feeling like millionaires to feeling like poor white trash. We kids had such a happy life that we felt sorry for anyone who didn’t have our mom and dad for parents and a house full of brothers and sisters and other kids visiting constantly. We thought it was fun to share silverware and see whether we got the spoon or the fork that night. We had two knives that we passed around to whomever needed them. I knew we didn’t have a lot of things that other people had but I’d never thought we were poor.
That Easter day I found out that we were.
The minister had brought us the money for the poor family, so we must be poor. I didn’t like being poor. I looked at my dress and worn-out shoes and felt so ashamed. I didn’t even want to go back to church. Everyone there probably already knew we were poor! I thought about school. I was in the ninth grade and at the top of my class of over 100 students. I wondered if the kids at school knew that we were poor. I decided that I could quit school since I had finished the eighth grade. That was all the law required at that time.
We sat in silence for a long time. Then it got dark, and we went to bed. All that week, we girls went to school and came home, and no one talked much. Finally on Saturday, Mom asked us what we wanted to do with the money. What did poor people do with money? We didn’t know. We’d never known we were poor. We didn’t want to go to church on Sunday, but Mom said we had to. Although it was a sunny day, we didn’t talk on the way. Mom started to sing, but no one joined in and she only sang one verse.
At church we h ad a missionary speaker. He talked about how churches in Africa made buildings out of sun-dried bricks, but they needed money to buy roofs. He said $100 would put a roof on a church. The minister said, “Can’t we all sacrifice to help these poor people?”
We looked at each other and smiled for the first time in a week. Mom reached into her purse and pulled out the envelope. She passed it to Darlene. Darlene gave it to me, and I handed it to Ocy. Ocy put it in the offering.
When the offering was counted, the minister announced that it was a little over $100. The missionary was excited. He hadn’t expected such a large offering from our small church. He said, “You must have some rich people in this church.”
Suddenly it struck us! We had given $87 of that “little over $100.” We were the rich family in the church! Hadn’t the missionary just said so? From that day on I’ve never been poor again. I’ve always remembered how rich I am because I have Jesus!
“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss, because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ.”
May we each be rich in Christ.
9-28-14 Trading Minds
Scriptures: Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
Theme: We are asked to do something quite unnatural if we are to be followers of Christ – empty ourselves for the sake of another. This does not mean martyrdom, but the exercise of the uncommon, yet essential kind of love that brings God’s impact down to earth through us. This is God’s desire – to become something for someone else. After all, that’s the exact model of Jesus – becoming flesh for our sake.
Not long ago, there was a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who pulled into a service station to get gas. He went inside to pay, and when he came out he noticed his wife engaged in a deep discussion with the service station attendant. It turned out that she knew him. In fact back in high school before she met her eventual husband, she used to date this man.
The CEO got into the car, and the two drove in silence. He was feeling pretty good about himself when he finally spoke: “I bet I know what you were thinking., I bet you were thinking you’re glad you married me, a Fortune 500 CEO, and not him, a service station attendant.”
“No,” his wife replied, “I was thinking if I’d married him, he’d be a Fortune 500 CEO and you’d be a service station attendant.”
OUCH! That must have hurt! It always hurts when we are brought to our senses in such a way, a way that reminds us that we are often very preoccupied with who we are – or, more correctly, WHO WE THINK WE ARE.
Take this gentleman, for instance (slide). His name is Kevin Baugh. From his picture, can you tell who he is? Let me read this article about him:
“Kevin Baugh has his own country—The Republic of Molossia—and if you don't mind, he'd prefer you call him "His Excellency Kevin Baugh." After all, he has an impressive khaki uniform with six big medals, a gold braid, epaulets at the shoulders, and a blue, white, and green sash. Oh—and a general's cap with a gold starburst over the bill.
Never heard of The Republic of Molossia? That's understandable, because it consists of Baugh's three-bedroom house and 1.3 acre yard outside of Dayton, Nevada. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, "He has a space program (a model rocket), a currency (pegged to the value of chocolate-chip cookie dough), a railroad (model size), a national sport (broomball), and—in his landlocked desert region—a navy (an inflatable boat)."
The newspaper goes on to say: "Baugh, a 45-year-old father of two, is a micronationalist, one of a wacky band of do-it-yourself nation builders who raise flags over their front yards and declare their property to be, as Baugh puts it 'the kingdom of me.'"
THE KINGDOM OF ME. How interesting. How funny. How disturbing! Yet, how human! For he has done what most humans want to do and try to do – build a “kingdom of me.” None of us is entirely immune from this tendency, to build a kingdom around ourselves – our land, our property, our relationships, our wealth, our rules, our opinions, our ways of thinking, feeling, and even believingl. We’d much rather live by our own laws instead of anyone else’s, of regarding ourselves in our quiet ways as “His Excellency” or “Her Majesty.”
Now, most of us wouldn’t dream of following the example of Kenneth Baugh ourselves – to actually raise a flag over our front lawn and declare our sovereignty over our kingdom. But we do perhaps raise a flag over ourselves in other ways that are being challenged by our scripture lessons today. They both have something to do with the way we choose to think. Paul says “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” In our passage from the gospel, we hear Jesus describing two different approaches to life – one that says the right thing but in the end does not act, and one that doesn’t say the right thing but in the end changes his mind and does the right thing.
Both of these passages are talking about the God-given ability we each have to orient our minds. We can choose how we think about things. We have great power over how we perceive reality. We can change our minds, align our thinking, and shape our attitudes to a high degree. And perhaps most significantly -- we have great autonomy in how, or if, we translate that thinking into action.
Now, here is the $64 question (it’s more like the $64 million question…..) – HOW DO WE CHOOSE TO THINK? We are given very clear guidance on this matter as followers of Christ, if scripture be our guide –WE ARE TO REGARD OTHERS AS BETTER THAN OURSELVES. It’s not a matter of counting their achievements, them saying the right words, or their being the right kind of people – it is the laying aside of all such considerations, all such judgments, for the sake of Christ’s love, a love which never measured worthiness of being loved by worldly standards.
We say this, we believe this, we think we do this, but do we really? And here’s where we have the second $64 question, just as important as the first – DO WE MOVE OUR THINKING INTO ACTIVE LIVING? Do we really love others as if they were better than ourselves? I hate to admit this, but sometimes – oftentimes? – I find myself with tainted love – love tainted by judgment or irritation or impatience or avoidance or inattention. And such taintedness diminishes love.
I think, “They don’t really mean what they say,” – and my love for them drops a notch.
I think, “They’re wrong, wrong, wrong!” – and my love for them drops a notch.
I think, “What an arrogant, unpleasant person!” – and my love for them drops a notch.
I think, “I hate the kind of music they like,” – and my love for them drops a notch.
I think, “That person smells really bad,” – and my love for them drops a notch.
I think, “Aren’t they ever going to listen to me?” – and my love for them drops a notch.
I think, “What have they got against motorcycles?” – and my love for them drops a notch.
I think, “Don’t they understand what’s really important?” – and my love for them drops a notch.
Now, let me ask everyone here, if you perhaps share some of my experience in life -- Do you ever “drop a notch” in your love for others?
Paul says to us, BEWARE, LEST WE FALL FROM GRACE!
BEWARE, LEST WE LOSE CHRIST!
BEWARE, LEST WE WORSHIP OURSELVES MORE THAN GOD, WHO HAS TOLD US THE GREATEST FORM OF WORSHIP IS TO BE LIKE CHRIST, WHO SHOWED US THE PRIORITY OF LOVE FOR EACH OTHER, REGARDLESS OF STATION, STATUS, OR LOVEABILITY. We are to be the change God works in the world, the conduit through which grace is offered to all, ESPECIALLY THOSE FOR WHOM OUR LOVE TENDS TO “DROPS A NOTCH.”
Let me tell you about another man who raised a flag of sovereignty over a kingdom – but it was not his own flag nor his own kingdom. His name is Terry Lane; he lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Mr. Lane was a successful cabinetmaker, so successful that he and his partner needed more space to expand their business. They found what they thought was an ideal location in northwest Jacksonville and built a 25,000 square foot state of the art building for their 40-employees. Business was good for awhile, but soon problems erupted. Broken windows, shots fired, bullet holes in the walls, stolen equipment, vandalism – even incinerated cars in the parking lot. That’s when Terry discovered that his choice for his new building was next door to a 200-unit apartment complex even the police avoided due to the intensity of drug dealing, prostitution, and violent crime. The complex was called “The Rock” because of the tremendous amount of crack cocaine sold and used within its premises.
Terry thought about moving his business again.
He thought about tripling security, high fences and surveillance cameras.
He thought about the possibility of suing the city to close down those apartments.
None of those thoughts went very far. Here’s what Terry says happened to him in the midst of wondering what to do.
“As I sat mulling over the situation, from out of nowhere came a thought so clear it was almost audible: If you’ll love those who despitefully use you, I’ll take care of things. Stunned and shaken by God’s admonition, I wondered how I’d obey this gentle command. Then I sensed God say, “Forget about all the shooting and all the garbage…..look at the children…..”
He changed his mind. He focused on and prayed for the children of those apartments. And he took action.
He bought basketballs , wrote “Jesus loves you” and “Mr. Lane loves you” on them, and threw them over the fence into the complex.
He went outside more, catching children as they were beginning to get into mischief on his property – and offered them a cold can of soda.
He invited them into his business during working hours, where his employees had to work around children coloring in coloring books or working on craft projects.
These children, who had nothing to go home to, decided to adopt Terry; a regular 35 children would come to his office every day after school.
To make a long story short, within 10 years, Terry had sold his share in the cabinet business; he established a community center in one of the apartment complexes called Metro Kids Konnection; he developed the program until it fed 145 children each day; and he watched his efforts measurably improve the lives of those toss-away children.
Terry says, “There is so much to do, but I’m excited and grateful for the direction God chose for me. My wife and I have gone from enjoying a six-figure annual income to subsisting on $12,000 a year, but God faithfully meets every need. And the rewards are incomparable….nothing can replace the joy of having a little child crawl into my lap with a hug for “pastor Terry,” or for a young man who has been rescued from a potential life of dealing drugs to look me in the eye, shake my hand with a firm grip, and say, “Thanks, P.T.” (taken from Today’s Christian, cr 2007, Christianity Today International.)
What does God give us for life? A real world in which to live. This real world is no Hollywood construction of a Mayberry or a Walnut Grove or a Lake Woebeggon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." (Andy Griffith, Little House on the Prairie, and Prairie Home Companion). No, God gives us a real world in which we and others are broken, confused, irritated, sorrowful, and all too often less than appealing. Yet, it is a world in which we and others are able to work renewal, healing, and possibility with any life that crosses our path – if we but choose to love any life that crosses our path. It’s a very simple thing to do, to love anyone – just consider them better than yourself. Simple – but certainly not easy! Yet, completely possible through God – and required of all who follow Jesus.
Real love – active love, intentional love, even sacrificial love – is what is needed for a real world.
Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as you ever can.
9-21-14 - The Unbalanced Scales of Righteousness
Scriptures: Matthew 20:1-16
Theme: According to the world, we are an unbalanced lot, we Christians; but we lean toward the weight of Christian love and righteousness, which is concerned with how God sees things through Christ. That perspective will not always make sense to the world, but will always be shaped and accompanied by grace – grace to endure, persist, and thrive spiritually.
A man came across a lamp one day while walking along a beach. He picked it up and began to wipe off the sand, when a genie suddenly popped out. “Who are you?” asked the man, astonished. “I am the genie of the lamp,” said the figure, “and I will grant you one wish.” “Wow,” said the man, “you mean, I can wish for anything?” “Yes,” said the genie, “but there is a condition. With the wish I give you, your worst enemy will get double what you get.” Now, it just happened that this man had someone he despised greatly, and as the genie mentioned this condition of the wish, this enemy’s face appeared in this man’s mind. Oh, how he hated him! “You mean,” asked the man, “if I wish for a million dollars, my enemy would get two million dollars ?” “He would get two million.” Said the genie. “If I wish for a mansion?” “He would get two mansions,” concluded the genie. This really didn’t sit well with the man; he couldn’t bear the thought of this horrible enemy of his getting more than he got. The man thought for a moment, and then made up his mind. “I’m ready to make my wish,” said the man. “What do you wish for, O master?” asked the genie. “I want you to scare me half to death.”
Today’s gospel lesson hits us where it hurts – right in the center of our human nature. For in the center of our human nature, we have a concept, an idea, a standard rule for living that says the ultimate goal of life has something to do with balance, harmony, or some kind of foundational justice. To put it briefly, we believe in FAIRNESS. Things ought to be fair. Things ought to be measured out equally for all. About the same amount of goodness, blessing, hardship, burden, or what have you should be given to all. Otherwise, life seems to be out of balance.
And so it is that the unfairness of this Gospel parable stuns us. Workers who give different effort receive the same pay – and the master, God, proclaims this just. It’s outrageous! It’s backward! In any event, it’s un-American! It stuns us even in the face of our full awareness that life simply isn’t fair. It is sometimes terribly unequal, and can be seriously out of balance Those who do all the right things can still fall prey to suffering; those who deserve blessing receive its opposite. And the issue of fairness goes far beyond proper working wages.
I can think of many times when I was, as a pastor and a Christian, personally struck by the lack of fairness in God’s creation:
- A one and a half year old child in my congregation, afflicted with spina bifida, who tragically falls down the stairs and dies of her injuries;
- Talented, ecumenical, faithful church leaders I worked with in my past, kicked out of their church where they served for eleven years because they are gay and got married;
- A college student from my congregation driving home for Easter who hits ice at just the wrong place in the highway, and winds up a fatality.
- A church nursery worker falsely accused of inappropriate contact with a child – yet losing her job all the same;
- A scouting parent my age who was a picture of health – jogged, ate right, attended church regularly – developing ALS, Lou Gerig’s disease, dying a slow and very painful death over the course of a year;
- A young couple from the South, driving their semi-truck load through my town when their infant son dies of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome;
These instances, and many others, have me scream in my head and my heart, “It just isn’t fair.”
All of us can think of such examples – death, injustice, loopholes, mistakes, calamities or so-called acts of God. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for these things, perhaps especially as they occur to God’s people, faithful people who seem to have done absolutely nothing to deserve their suffering. Doesn’t it seem logical, practical, sensible that more should be given to the righteous than to the unrighteous, that those who follow the dictates of God, who study the Bible, who pray and worship and tithe and help others and are humble in stature, never tell a lie, etc. etc., etc. – shouldn’t these type of people have a greater portion of God’s spirit available to them? Shouldn’t life work out better for them? Isn’t that fair?
There was a famous book written many years ago entitled “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner. I believe that there is a sequel out there which will hit a topic that might even perplex us more – the title of that book will be “Why Do Good Things Happen to Bad People.” Be honest with me, now – wouldn’t you be interested in a book of such a title? Haven’t we wondered, silently or out loud, why so-and-so gets all the breaks? Haven’t we scowled at someone who accomplished something we failed at, secretly wishing them future failure? Haven’t we watched the game shows or reality shows on TV, like “Jeopardy” or “Survivor,” and compared ourselves to those contestants– Haven’t we all thought, perhaps deep in our hearts and minds – “how much more qualified I truly am?” Personally, I hope that they someday invent a two-way television. I’d be one of the first to buy one, because when I shout out my answers to Jeopardy way before the other contestants, I’m sure I’d be the new world champion.
WE EXPECT GRACE TO BE FAIR, more given to we who believe and follow Christ, than
to those who don’t, or at least don’t do it as well as we do.
But here is our God, who makes grace wondrously, amazingly, and even disconcertingly unfair, accessible and possible to all, even the worst wretches of the world; maybe even especially to the worst wretches of the world. This parable is talking about the nature of God’s grace, God’s willingness to give unreasonably towards his people, to give not based upon our merit, but upon God’s character.
What are we to make of this? What is it about this fairness issue that can serve us in our faith? How is it that we might make enough sense of this imbalance expressed in the Gospel?
One way that I see it is as follows: The world tries to balance its scales on the fulcrum of social expediency, economic vitality, and power manipulation – all things that we can control to some degree. God balances his scale on the fulcrum of grace, over which we have no control at all. This means that grace cannot be judged. Grace cannot be measured. It cannot be controlled. It cannot be manipulated, twisted, improved upon, increased or diminished by anything we can do ourselves. It is God’s domain, alone. As such, Grace can only be received or denied by us. And we automatically deny grace when we assume it is under our control or judgment.
I’ve lost the name of the author who wrote a favorite quote about grace. He or she said, “Grace that can be calculated and “expected” is no longer grace. Grace that depends upon our success in the world or our accomplishments in this life is not grace. Grace that is the sole possession of those who have made the grade, wear the right clothes, speak the right words, drive the right cars, choose the right stocks, or live in the right places is not grace. Grace is amazing because it does not obey our rules – it obeys God’s rules, God’s challenging, mysterious, yet indispensable rules. Even the lowest of the low can receive God’s spirit. Even the worst of the worst has access to the bounty of our Lord. It is not an issue of our sense of fairness, but of God’s sense of love.”
I came across something yesterday which I hadn’t really thought about – less about God’s sense of justice, and more about the different senses of justice in different people, in different contexts. In his book Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes ( [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996] 62-63), Justo Gonzales notes that this parable elicits surprisingly different reactions when read to typical, middle-class audiences in America compared to Hispanic audiences.
“Most people are perplexed that someone who had worked for only an hour should be paid the same as someone who has worked for eight hours. It seems patently unfair. Moreover, most people don't understand the fuss. The logic is so clear, typical Americans cannot understand on what grounds one could argue the fairness of Jesus' approach.
“When the story is read or studied by a Hispanic audience, however, the reaction is quite different. These are people,” Gonzales says, “who identify with the problems of the field workers. They understand the laborer who travels in his pickup truck trying to find work with little success, or, even if he finds work, he is standing around waiting until the job materializes.
“At the end of the parable when the landowner pays the wages, the Hispanic congregation applauds when the laborers who worked for only one hour get paid a full day's pay. They are not confused by this, but understand that the people looking for work and who have been waiting for work need a day's pay to survive. They rejoice, then, at the grace that is not contrary to justice, but that flows with justice. They are paid what they need and deserve rather than the wages they might have been paid had society's concept of justice prevailed.”
You and I, as Christians, make a trade. We trade the good sense of the common world for the ridiculous sense of God’s love. We trade the good sense of society’s justice for the radical sense of God’s justice. It forgives where the world does not. It shares where the world does not. It cares where the world does not. It has compassion where the world does not. It does not prevent hurricanes, earthquakes, and ebola outbreaks, but it motivates us to respond without counting the cost ourselves, to love beyond the norms of safety and convention. It lays a greater claim on future hope than on present reality. It has these qualities beyond common sense. It stretches out the boundaries of life in ways that seem extreme to the world because it looks beyond this world, and into the reality of a hope that does not depend upon this world, but upon God alone. It cannot be shaken. It cannot be manipulated or controlled by us. And it therefore cannot be measured by our standards. It can only be received by a truly grateful heart.
Bob Benson, in his book See You At the House, has this to say about the fairness of God: “Sometimes I talk to people who seem to think that God is playing musical chairs and that every so often, he just stops the music. There isn't any rhyme or reason or fairness to it, it's just whether you were around the corner when it stopped. And whether or not you can now beat some big guy to the last chair, and every time the music stops, somebody has to drop out. No wonder they don't like God. I wouldn't like him either if I thought he was playing musical chairs with us.
But God has a chair for everybody. If you end up on the floor, it won't be because God didn't have a chair for you. It will be because you won't sit in it. And God plays the music on and on to give you every opportunity to find your place.” (--Bob Benson, as told in See You At the House: The Very Best of the Stories He Used to Tell (Nashville: Generoux, 1986), 58.)
God’s plays a strange melody called grace – and he plays it on and on. He plays that melody in his own way, using his own timing, his own meter, his own emphases – and sometimes it does not resonate in our understanding. God’s Grace cannot be fully understood; it can only be received or denied. Much of the world denies God because God cannot be fully understood. But those who have been touched by grace know that God doesn’t have to be fully understood to receive fully what God offers. Indeed, faith is the practice of living by what cannot be fully understood, but what can be fully received from God.
Wesley’s covenant prayer:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
9-14-14 - The Art of Forgiveness
Scriptures: Matthew 18:21-35
Theme: On the thirteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, what does this message from scripture have to say for us? Forgive, not forget. Indeed, true forgiveness never forgets (for that is impossible), but reconciles the past into the present, and translates the past into the future. These things are not possible until we have let go of the past’s strong inclination to control us – and that is what forgiveness really is. Getting to the point where the past does not control us, but where we control the past, and put it to use in life, in ways that are constructive, productive, deepening, nurturing, and reflective. In other words, putting the past to use in ways that are pleasing to God.
Every now and then, a person comes to this church seeking help. They are seeking food from the food pantry or a restaurant meal; they hope to have us cover a tankful of gas; they are looking for resources to help cover rent, or utilities, or bills of various natures. I’m very proud of the fact that our church has ways in which we can assist these individuals – the Tzedakah pocket ministry, the connection with the Poverello center and the John 3:16 center; Homeless Connect; as well as the Missoula Interfaith Colaborative which is working with us to better coordinate our efforts. We have these intentional outreaches in place to help people in need.
Awhile ago, we had a kind of interesting situation; a gentleman had come to our church in search of help. He told me that he needed gas. Well, I sat down with him and began a conversation about his situation. Now, when a person has a request for help, I usually ask a lot of questions – my purpose is not to be nosy or judgmental; my purpose is to initiate a relationship where the possibilities of hope can be explored together. I ask questions like:
- What’s going on?
- Where are you from?
- What family do you have?
- What friends are close by?
- What seems to be the trouble?
- What kinds of things are you looking for?
But all of these questions have their root in one question which is the heart of the matter:
- why do you need what you are asking for?
- what are you going through? (circumstantial inquiry)
- what do you need the assistance for? (life application inquiry)
- what is it that you are hoping for? (ministerial inquiry)
- why do you need what you are asking for?
With this one gentleman who needed gas, Our conversation went as follows:
“Hello,” I said, “so what’s going on?”
“My tank’s empty,” he said to me.
“So, I see that you need gas,” I said.
“Yeah, my tank is right on empty,” he said.
“OK, “ I said, “well, we may have funds in place to help; tomorrow I can have my secretary look and see if we can do that.”
“Tomorrow? Man, is there anyway that you could check tonight? My tank is right on empty.”
“Oh, do you need to get somewhere tonight?”
“Well, my tank is just right on empty.”
“Is there some place you need to get to right away?”
“All I know is that my tank is right on empty.”
“OK, well, we may not be able to get you any gas tonight, but I think if you can check with us tomorrow morning early, we may be able to help you, or connect you with someone who can.”
“Could you call other churches to see about gas tonight? My tank’s on empty.”
“It sounds like you need to get somewhere right away. Do you need to be someplace tonight ?”
“No, but my tanks on empty.”
“Could you wait until tomorrow?”
“I suppose. But my tank is just about completely empty.”
We went over things like this for some time.
I kept asking him the same questions over and over, and couldn’t get a firm answer from him. I really was asking only one question, and I never really got a solid answer:
- why do you need what you are asking for? Or another way of putting it……
- Where do you hope to get to with what you are asking for?
He couldn’t get past the fact that his tank was empty, even though he didn’t need to get to anywhere immediately.
I couldn’t help thinking that this gentleman was like most people when things are not the way they ought to be – in that we tend to fester in a kind of nebulous anxiety, without any real need to be in that anxiety. This is like what happens for many of us when we face the wrongs in our lives. We have a hard time letting them go. We have a hard time forgiving. We hold onto our grudges, resentments, anger, and desire for revenge or payback.
- But the same question applies: WHY DO WE NEED SUCH THINGS? WHAT PURPOSE DOES RESENTMENT SERVE? HOW DOES A GRUDGE IMPROVE OUR LIVES? WOULD VENGEANCE, IF ACCOMPLISHED, CHANGE THE PAST AT ALL, OR GUARANTEE A BETTER FUTURE?
- Where do you hope to get to by holding onto such things?
Refusing to forgive wastes tremendous spiritual, physical, and emotional resources. Choosing to forgive frees us from our bondage to the past. But let us be careful here – being free from our bondage to the past does not mean being free of our past or losing sight of what has been.
Jesus has a message for us today about forgiveness. It is a rather strange, thought provoking message that has Peter asking how many times we ought to forgive someone who wronged us, suggesting that seven times might be sufficient – the engineer in me delights that Jesus seems to give a formulaic answer. Seventy-seven times, or in other versions of the scriptures, seven-times-seventy, or 490 times. Of course, he is really not talking about a certain number of times to forgive, but blowing that concept itself out of the water, essentially implying that forgiveness is unending, a process that might have us daily for the rest of our lives perhaps revisiting in some form the wrongs that have been done unto us, and letting them go. But then, Jesus shares another thought, one which is levied against the servant in today’s passage – the thought that the only ones who will not be forgiven by God are the ones who do not forgive others themselves.
These are hard teachings; just what is Jesus talking about, in this most difficult of practices called forgiveness? When I struggle with forgiveness, of others or of myself, I find it very helpful to consider what forgiveness is not. I came across some thoughts along these lines recently, which helps me clarify the confusion which easily enters when we face the past and even the present wrongs in our lives. What forgiveness is not:
- Forgiveness is not forgetting – deep hurts can rarely be wiped out of one’s awareness.
- Forgiveness is not reconciliation – reconciliation takes two people, but an injured party can forgive an offender without a return on their effort.
- Forgiveness is not condoning, or approval – forgiveness does not necessarily excuse bad or hurtful behavior.
- Forgiveness is not dismissing – it involves taking the offense seriously, not passing it off as inconsequential or insignificant.
- Forgiveness is not pardoning – a pardon is a legal transaction that releases an offender from the consequences of an action, such as a penalty.
Forgiveness is not forgetting, reconciling, condoning, dismissing, or pardoning what was done. But what, then, is forgiveness? I have found that forgiveness is a personal transaction – a personal choice -- that releases us from the offense’s ability to rob us of the future. I believe this is what Jesus is getting at in our scripture passage for today, where he makes it clear that it is the choice of the servant to not forgive that is the problem, especially after he had been forgiven by his master. Rather than dwell upon revenge or hatred, we can choose to learn and grow out of the experience a stronger desire and effort for peace and justice, on God’s terms and not our own.
Lewis B. Smedes said, “Love lets the past die. It moves people to a new beginning without settling the past. Love prefers to tuck the loose ends of past rights and wrongs in the bosom of forgiveness – and pushes us into a new start.” To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Forgiveness is often more a blessing for the victim than the perpetrator. It is a releasing of the bondage to the past, a refusal to allow what has been control what could be. It returns the power of hope to its rightful owner – God – and allows us a part in its construction, through the living out of our lives by faith. Forgiveness opens a doorway to hope.
It can also be very helpful to know what the process of forgiveness is like. I’ve heard it very often from people – “Pastor John, I have tried to forgive this wrong done to me, but I still have a hard time letting it go. It doesn’t feel very good to me. I still get angry, frustrated, think bad thoughts, and can’t find peace very easily or very often.” And here we have what I think is a very central teaching of the gospel lesson for today. Peter asks Jesus how many times to forgive someone; seven times? And Jesus says, no, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Other passages say seventy times seven, or 490 times. The message is clear – FORGIVENESS TAKES PRACTICE! FORGIVENESS TAKES TIME! Forgiveness is a repeated function of faith; it must be returned to time and again, to become a habit of the heart.
Corrie ten Boom told of not being able to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven the person, but she kept rehashing the incident and so couldn't sleep. Finally Corrie cried out to God for help in putting the problem to rest. "His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor," Corrie wrote, "to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks." "Up in the church tower," he said, nodding out the window, "is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there's a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we've been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn't be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They're just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down." "And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force -- which was my willingness in the matter -- had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether: we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts."
Corrie ten Boom.
Forgiveness may take many dings and dongs to finally settle in. It takes practice to get to the point where the sound no longer rings in our ears, where the pain no longer causes our hearts to wince. Forgiveness is a life-process that continues for awhile, based upon how long we have had resentment in our hearts, how deep that resentment went, and how willing we are to work towards its release. When Christ was on the cross and said those eternal words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” God made it clear that we are capable of forgiving any offense in this life; choosing to do so is probably our greatest challenge. But it is a challenge we are made equal to in Christ.
Forgiveness is not forgetting, reconciling, condoning, dismissing, or pardoning the past. Forgiveness is choosing not to let the past control the present or future; influence, yes, but control, no. And forgiveness is no momentary event, but a practiced habit, a pattern that must be worked into the fabric of life intentionally. Forgiveness is God’s practice towards us, and as such, is the foundation for all grace.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, union.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. In Christ’s Holy name we pray; amen.
7-6-14 - A Final Word from the District Superintendent
Scripture: Colossians 1:1-14
Theme: The DS has some insights on the new pastor appointed under his watch – and there are concerns! But not if we remember what God has said to us consistently, constantly, as reflected in today’s scripture – we share in the inheritance of the saints in the light; we are given the opportunities to grow in the knowledge of God; and God is with us every step of the way.
Recently, I made a request of our Bishop Elaine Stanovsky – that she would grant an extension to the position of Western Mountains District Superintendent until 10:30am, July 6th, 2014. She graciously extended that privilege, and so I stand here before you as the Western Mountains District Superintendent for the next 25 minutes. I felt this was an important request to make, for as District Superintendent overseeing the new appointment to this church, the First United Methodist Church of Missoula, Montana, I needed to raise up to your awareness some things about your newly appointed pastor. I am uniquely qualified to make commentary, I believe, for I know this new pastor fairly well – we talk on a regular basis, and have done so for over 40 years. Let me put it to you directly – there are some things you really ought to know about him.
First and foremost, let’s start with the most worrisome – for one, he is………….a motorcyclist. (picture) He’d like to think is a Harley-Davidson type, leather chaps and bandana sort of biker, but, in reality, he rides because of the gas mileage and low cost of the machines, which are held together by duct tape and bailing wire. But still, this is something you ought to know.
Second, you ought to know he is prone to somewhat irrational acts. Some cases in point – at last year’s Annual Conference, he was asked to be the dunk-tank victim for the cause of eradicating Malaria; this may be thought of as admirable, were it not for the fact that he sat in the dunk tank fully clothed in suit and tie. And yes, he did get dunked, nine times.
Several years ago, he spent ive years building a nineteen-foot boat out of reclaimed materials; when asked why he did such a thing, his best response was “because it was a twenty foot garage.”
A final example involves an outdoor wedding he performed with a couple obsessed with football – and he mistakenly dressed as a clergy basketball player. These are the kinds of things you ought to know about him.
Third, you need to know that this pastor is prone to mistakes – more than once, he got the date wrong for a meeting. More than once, he mispronounced the word “Melchizidek.” More than once he called a person by the wrong name (isn’t that right, Kay or Barb?). But more egregious examples abound. There was the time when he went to worship one morning, and sensed that something was wrong. Throughout the service, there were murmurs and whisperings and tension. At the end of the service, as people left the church shaking this pastor’s hands, he could still tell something was wrong; it was not until the last person came up to him that all was revealed. This parishioner said “Pastor John, I can’t let you go from here without knowing something – look down.” Whereupon this pastor discovered he was wearing different shoes on his feet. These are the kinds of mistakes you ought to know about.
Fourth, you ought to know that this pastor tries things outside of the norm, which are, shall we say, sometimes controversial – he has been known to play a hard rock song in worship; he has been known to recite his own poetry; his own poetry has been known to make people ill; he has initiated such things the yuckfest, where the youth group gathers for an annual event involving shaving cream, alphabet soup, and worm pies; he has helped to start a tissue paper airplane contest, which he won five years ago in a contest that was surely rigged. You ought to know that he tries things outside of the norm.
What you really ought to know about this pastor, however, is the fact that he has confessed to me that he continues to need to grow towards God. He has told me that sometimes he struggles with his faith – when he faces suffering, injustice, violence, hatred, deception, or animosity, in his own life or in the lives of those in his congregations; he struggles to make sense of why such things exist, and what can be done about them. And he needs others involved in his life and faith in order to make progress in his journey towards God.
I lift up these concerns so that you may be more aware of what you are getting into with this pastor; but I share with Paul in our scripture reading today why this pastor was appointed to this congregation. It is not because he is perfect. It is not because he is eloquent. It is not because he is charismatic. He is really none of those things. But what he is is committed to Christ even in his limitations; he is devoted to God even while he struggles to understand God; he has found the greatest fulfillment in life to be centered in the authentic relationship of love between human beings based on the principles demonstrated and taught by Jesus, meant for every human being. And he is determined to do his best to serve God as he serves you, as pastor of this church.
This pastor did share something with me that I think may give you a sense of his priorities. These are what he calls his personal faith priorities:
- Agree to disagree for the sake of the greater love
- Prioritize the vulnerable
- Check your ego at the doorways leading to other’s lives
- Ask the questions no one else is asking
- Pray before and after all things; seek to make prayer as regular as breath
- Work to make forgiveness assumed and automatic, never optional
- Embrace doubts as pathways to deeper truth
- Aim for the right question rather than a convenient answer
- Treat self-righteousness the same as lethal radiation
- Replace correct doctrine with faithful, loving action
- Seek profound substance rather than personal satisfaction
- Always seek to add value to the lives of others
- Never settle for happiness before meaning or truth
- Always do the right and good thing, especially when no one will find out
- Remember, in all things, it’s between you and God
As Paul states in our scripture for today, “do not cease praying for him, and pray that he may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may all lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power. And may you and your new pastor grow together as you grow towards God. Amen