Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Gift of Prayer (Mark 1:35-37; Phil. 4:4-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Dear God, so far today, I’ve done alright.  I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.  I’m thankful about this Lord.  But in a few moments, I’m going to get out of bed, and then I’m going to need a lot of help.  Amen!

This morning we are focusing upon prayer.  Why?   Three reasons.  Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the Patron Saint of Ireland, a Roman Catholic Bishop in 5th century Roman Britain, whose life is well worth studying.  Prayer was central to the spiritual life of the Celts of Ireland.  God used Patrick to evangelize Ireland and to synthesize the Roman Catholic Faith with the culture of the Celtic people.  This synthesis has come to be known as Celtic Christianity.   Second, because today Christians are observing the season of Lent, with its emphasis upon the interior spiritual life.  Third, because prayer is indispensable to following Jesus and it’s crucial to the ministry of the church.

I am convinced that if a Christian is to be spiritually alive, if a Christian is to have a vibrant faith, if a Christian is to be joyful, faithful, Spirit filled, Christ centered, one must be continually immersed in prayer.  I believe the same thing about the church.   Is prayer important?  The Gospel of Mark says: “And in the morning, a great while before day, Jesus rose and went out to a lonely place and there he prayed.   It was important to Jesus.  Prayer was fundamental to his life and ministry.  Jesus personally prayed.  He taught the disciples and crowds how to pray.   He commanded his followers to pray.

What is prayer?  It's not an empirical science, based upon observation and experimentation.   Thousands of books have been written about prayer.  But prayer remains shrouded in mystery; we don’t finally understand it.   But that’s OK.  There is a plethora of things we don’t understand about life, but we keep on living it.  We don’t fully understand the human brain, but that doesn’t keep us from thinking.  We don’t know how to raise children, but we learn and keep having them and do the best we can.  We don’t fully understand human biology, but the medical field continues researching.  We don’t understand ourselves fully or what motivates others.  We don’t understand why the universe exists and we only have theories about how it came into existence.  We don’t know if life exists anywhere else in the universe except on earth.  We don’t know what happened to the dinosaurs.   I love what one scientist said:  It’s easy to focus on what we know, yet to me the wonder of the cosmos, the awesomeness, is never greater than when we contemplate all that we don’t know.  I feel exactly the same way about prayer.

I believe prayer is the highest activity of the human spirit.  Prayer is a gift of God's grace.  Prayer is a spiritual bridge in the divine-human relationship.   Prayer is the soul's approach to God.  Prayer is an encounter with God.  Prayer is communion with God, an intimate meeting with God.  Prayer is conversation with God which involves speaking and listening.  Prayer is a spiritual discipline which needs to be practiced.  Prayer is the path to a deeper relationship with God and to a deeper knowing of ourselves.  Prayer, transforms our minds, lifts our spirits, and enlivens our hearts.  Prayer is a way for our spirit to get in tune with God's Spirit.   Prayer is an expression of love.  Intercessory prayer is a way of loving others whether members of your family or friends or strangers.    Prayer builds our faith up in God and expresses our faith to others.  Prayer is a way God achieves His plans and purposes for human lives and the world.  Prayer is a way God changes us and circumstances around us.  Prayer keeps us dependent upon God which is a good thing.

Prayer says:  I need you God, I belong to you.  I want to be in constant touch with you.  My heart is restless until it rests in you.   Prayer helps us to be a better human being, a better follower, and to see God more clearly, follow God more nearly, and to love God more dearly.

I like what author Richard Foster says about prayer: “Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life.  Prayer brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit.  Real prayer is life creating and life changing. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.  If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.

From where does prayer flow?  Prayer flows from a heart of Thanksgiving.  I thank you God.” “I praise you God.  Prayer flows from a heart of fear and need.  Help me God.  I am sorry, forgive me God.  Prayer flows from a heart of love.  Help this person God.   Prayer is our response to God’s word and activity in our lives.

I thank God for prayers which have been answered in my life: prayers about Nancy and our sons, and our daughters in law and grandchildren; prayers for protection in frightening situations; prayers for healing and health; prayers for surprises of grace which I didn’t expect nor deserve, but isn’t that what grace is all about; prayers leading me, guiding me, inspiring me and encouraging me in ministry as a pastor serving four churches in 42 years.

I am thankful for prayers for others which God has answered over the years.   Prayers for healing, for employment, for marriages becoming healthy, for parenting challenges which were resolved, prayers for older parents who reconciled with their grown children, prayers for grown children stepping up to care for aging parents, prayers for people who discovered direction and purpose in a life that had been aimless and lost.  Prayers for persons who came to faith in Christ as their lord and savior.

And yes, there have also been prayers that were not answered, at least in the way I had hoped they would be.  Some of those are the questions I hope to have a conversation with Jesus about one day.   I like some of you have questions as well.   In my own case I can think of prayers God did not answer in the way I prayed, but in looking back, I am grateful God didn’t, because things unexpectedly turned out better.  I am thankful for the prayers of others for our family over the years.  Yes, we learn a lot about patience and trust in the life of prayer.

I think of an older member in one of our congregations who was having severe back pain.  Two highly qualified doctors informed him of the diagnosis and the recommendation – lower back surgery.   He prayed about it.  We prayed about it, because he still had doubts in his mind.  He finally went to visit one of the Mayo Clinics.  They told him it was an issue with a leak in the cerebrospinal fluid and required a stint and that he needed a totally different surgery.  He recovered fully.   This is not to disrespect the doctors at all.  We all know diagnostics can be extremely difficult.  The point is my friend continually prayed and listened and was guided by God to the right place and the right doctor for him.

We know that prayer can be spontaneous or read, memorized, silent and spoken.  I love classic prayers, like the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  I love The Prayer of St Francis: “O Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is doubt, faith, where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light, where there is sadness, joy.   O master grant that I many not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood, as to understand, to be love as to love, for it is giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, and in dying that we are born to eternal life.  I love the Lord’s Prayer:  Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I close with the inspiring words from the letter of Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I say rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen!

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Message of the Cross (Romans 5:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

How do we measure the size of a fire? By the number of firefighters and fire engines sent to fight against it. How do we measure the seriousness of a medical condition? By the recommendation’s the doctor’s make in prescribing antibiotics or surgery or radiation. How do we measure the gravity of human sin and the vastness of God's love for us? By looking at the magnitude of what God has done for us in Jesus, the Son of God who became like a common criminal for our sake and in our place. The cross is the most familiar, the most recognizable symbol of the Christian faith.

People have long asked - who killed Jesus? History has blamed the Jews.   Jews have been called Christ-killers since the first century. I wonder if this charge is behind the anti-Semitism which has followed Jews throughout their history.  The New Testament Gospels tell us that the Jewish political and religious leaders and crowds brought Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor of the province of Judea, under Roman Emperor Tiberius, and shouted - “Crucify him, Crucify him.” The Jews accused Jesus of committing blasphemy, because he claimed to be God, an egregious offense against the one God and a charge which deserved capital punishment.

History has also pointed to the Romans.  Roman soldiers, under orders, beat and whipped Jesus and then hung him on a cross to die a slow and agonizing death.  The Roman's charged Jesus with treason; that he claimed to be King, king of the Roman Empire.  Such a claim was sedition, which meant that Jesus was a traitor.  Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar was the only King. The derisive inscription on the cross mocked Jesus – “King of the Jews.”   The place where criminals were crucified was at a site just outside of the walls of Jerusalem called Golgotha, an Aramaic name for “place of the skull.

Theologically, to contend that the Jews and Romans killed Jesus, means that human sin took the life of the Son of God.  Due to sin, humanity dishonored God, disobeyed God, rebelled against God and followed other gods.  Humanity rejected Jesus the Christ, rather than believing in him and following him as the Messiah.  Scripture asserts that humanity, represented by the Jews and Romans, executed Jesus.

In the N.T. the letter of Romans says: “What then?  Are we Greeks any better off than the Jews?  Not at all, for we have already charged that all, Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  The Bible declares: “For the wages of sin is death.” Because of humanity's sin against God, humanity deserves the penalty of death.  Human sin was responsible for Jesus’ death.

But scripture further announces a third word.   It declares this astounding truth; that out of love for the world. It was God’s will that Jesus died on the cross.   I Timothy says: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  The letter of Romans says: “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  Jesus death was a vicarious sacrifice.  Jesus took our sin, guilt, our shame, our punishment, our death upon himself.  Jesus the judge, was judged in our place.  The cross, an instrument of torture, became in God’s hands a means of redemption, of freedom, of forgiveness to all who come to the cross in faith.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah, chapter 53 written centuries before Jesus appeared on the human scene proclaiming: "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he bore our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

When someone deeply hurts you, what are your options?  You can choose to ignore the offense, or reject the person, or seek revenge and punishment, or decide to forgive and to strive to reconcile with that person.  The last option is the most difficult option of all.

Rather than punishing humanity, God decided to do something about this broken relationship and mend the relationship, reconcile it, restore it, through the life and death of His Son Jesus Christ.  Scripture uses different metaphors to portray this.  Jesus' death was a means of redemption or deliverance from sin.  It was a sacrifice, a ransom, a debt paid, a satisfaction, a substitution, an act of forgiveness, an ultimate price paid to bring us back to be at one with God.

The letter of Romans says:  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Now that’s grace.   Scripture and our Christian faith, are saying that Jesus’ death is a paradox; it was the result both of the sin of humanity and the will of God.

John 4:9 declares:  This is how God showed his amazing love among us; He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” Jesus’ death is an atoning sacrifice, it made us at one with God, it was the price Christ paid because of human sin, to bring us back to be at one with God. The crucifixion, made us right with God and through faith in the crucified and risen Savior, we can experience new life, a new beginning, a fresh start now and forever.

For centuries, the message of the gospel has radically changed people's lives.  People who have heard and believed this message experienced a transformation and were never the same again.  At the same time, this same message has been rejected by people over history.  People have distained it and called the message sheer folly.    People have mocked and ridiculed the gospel.

The Bible calls this message a mystery.  We read in I Corinthians where the apostle Paul writes:  I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom.  I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Scripture says human wisdom alone, apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, cannot believe or receive this message. Scripture says: “We speak of God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.

I close with this story from the Rev. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. He tells about a Vietnam veteran‘s parade in Chicago to commemorate a mobile version of the Vietnam Wall, which like the original wall in Washington D.C. bears the names of all the American service men and women who died in Vietnam.

A reporter asked a veteran why he had come all the way to Chicago to visit this memorial and to participate in the parade. The veteran looked straight into the face of the reporter and with tears flowing down his face said, "Because of this man right here." As the veteran talked, he was pointing to the name of a friend that was etched in the wall.  He traced the letters of his friend's name in the wall with his finger saying: "This man right here gave his life for me.  He gave his life for me." And the sobbing veteran let the tears flow, as he stood there with his finger on the name of his friend.

As we approach holy week, beginning with Palm Sunday, let us both remember and testify to this central truth:  The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to but to all who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Jesus calls you and me to come to the cross this Lenten season.  Amen!

Friday, March 9, 2018

It is Better for You! (Mark 9:43-48) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Change isn’t easy!  Like the story about when Lloyd quit farming and moved to a new town in Minnesota.  He discovered he was the only Lutheran in a town of all Catholics.  Since Catholics couldn’t eat red meat on Fridays, the neighbors had a problem with his barbecuing beef every Friday. The tempting aroma was getting the best of them.  They decided to confront him.

"Lloyd, since you are the only Lutheran in this whole town and there's not a Lutheran church for many miles, we think you should join our church and become a Catholic."  Lloyd thought about it for a minute and decided they were right.  He talked to the priest and they arranged it.  The day arrived and the priest asked Lloyd to kneel, put his hand on Lloyd’s head and said, "Lloyd, you were born a Lutheran, you were raised a Lutheran, and now, as I sprinkle this incense over your head, you are a Catholic!"

The whole town was delighted. But the following Friday evening, the aroma of grilled beef still wafted from Lloyd’s yard. The neighbors went to talk to him about this, and as they approached his fence, they saw his hands raised and heard his voice saying: "You were born a beef, you were raised a beef, and now as I sprinkle salt over you, you are a fish!"  Yes, it takes more than a ceremony to change the human heart.

The season of Lent is a period intended for believers to take stock of their relationship with God.  It is a time to look inwardly, to examine one’s soul and decide what needs to change, where one needs to grow spiritually. Are we who and where God wants us to be and doing what God wants us to do?  Lent is a time to exclaim – “O Lord I repent, help me to change this about me, I am sorry for straying away from you, create in me a new heart and bring me back to you.

The Bible says the first step in getting right with God is repentance.  Jesus began his preaching in Galilee saying: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come, repent and believe in the good news.

Our scripture passage from the Gospel of Mark is often referred to as one of the hard sayings of Jesus.  It says if anyone puts a stumbling block before a child, it is better for you, if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  Jesus loved children.  There are severe consequences for anyone who intentionally hurts a child or leads a child astray.   Jesus is speaking about human sin.   Jesus says: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, if your foot causes you to stumble cut if off, if you eye causes you to stumble, cut it out. It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God maimed than to be whole and go to hell.

This passage shows that Jesus takes sin seriously.  In my opinion there is a growing coarseness in our society, a growing insensitivity, intolerance, an aversion to taking personal responsibility, an expanding “me centeredness” and violence such as the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida.  To the question why, there are many different answers and perspectives.  The biblical/Christian answer is theological; the answer is sin. It is the sin of idolatry, the worship of other persons or things than God.  It is putting other things or persons at the center of one’s life instead of God.  More people are turning away from God and Christ and repentance and faith.  I don’t see or hear a lot of repentance today.

How do we interpret Jesus' words?   One way is to take Jesus' words literally.  If you sin against God or someone with your hands or feet or eyes, cut them off or pluck them out.   Jesus is teaching us to maim ourselves when we sin.

But I have never read about anyone in the history of the church maiming themselves because of Jesus’ words.  Jesus you recall commanded us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Maiming ourselves is hardly an act of love.  So I don't believe, and neither do biblical interpreters, that Jesus meant for his words to be taken literally.

Another approach is to ignore Jesus’ words, pass over them.  But that shows a disrespect for Jesus’ teachings and a disregard for the Bible, the word inspired by the Holy Spirit and God’s word to us.  It is a way of cherry picking the Bible.  You pick and choose what verses you will listen to.

So a third approach is to interpret Jesus’ words.  And we start by remembering that Jesus often spoke in hyperbole.   Like he does on the subject of judging others.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you do not notice the log in your own eye.  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see the speck in your neighbor's eye.  Jesus called the Scribes and Pharisees white-washed tombs and snakes and a brood of vipers.  Jesus said: “You can lift up a mountain and throw it into the sea.   Jesus said: “You are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth.

Most people in Jesus’ day were illiterate. Jesus used vivid imagery, symbols, metaphors in his teaching to inspire his audience to listen to him.  Jesus’ taught in word pictures and parables to get people's attention so people would remember his teachings.   To tell an audience: “I’m Jesus, don’t sin, OK, any questions,” is probably not the most persuasive preaching technique.

So we must interpret Jesus' teaching figuratively, metaphorically.   We are hearing a word picture that Jesus is painting to teach us about repentance from sin.  He is calling people to repent, to change, to stop thinking in some way or behaving in some manner.  He is saying whatever is causing you to sin, whatever is leading you to sin, separate yourself from it, sever yourself from it, cut it out of your life, remove it from your life.   Jesus is not calling people to literally cut off limbs or poke out their eyes, but to repent of anything in your life that is causing you to sin, that is becoming a barrier between you and God or you and others.

The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe in the good news.”   “It is better for you!  Repentance is the first step toward becoming a new follower of Jesus and committing ourselves to Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Jesus calls us to repent against the sin of pride for example: “I don't need God in my life.  I can lead my life without God.   Repentance includes three movements:  Recognition of your sin, remorse for your sin, and reform or changing your thinking and/or behavior.  Repentance opens the way to receiving the gospel, the good news of God’s forgiveness in Christ. There is no new life without repentance, there is no possibility for change without repentance.  There is no chance for experiencing God's love and joy without repentance.  Faith and repentance, repentance and faith are inseparable.

Jesus also calls long-time Christians, believers who have walked with God for many years, to repent at different times along our spiritual journey when we have sinned against God or someone else.  We are to confess our sin and seek God's and the person's forgiveness.  Scripture says: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God is just and may be trusted to forgive us and cleanse us from every kind of wrong.

Repentance puts us back on track with God, it gets us back in sync with God, it puts us back into a right relationship with God.  Repentance opens the door of our hearts to the Holy Spirit.  The sole purpose of repentance is not to make us hate ourselves, or loathe ourselves, or despise ourselves, but rather to turn away from sin and put us back into a right relationship with God.  It’s so that our attitudes, our behavior, our hearts and minds, our soul, will become more and more like Christ.

Psalm 51 says it beautifully: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions, and cleanse me from my sin.  You desire truth in the inward being, teach me wisdom in my heart.  Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, or take your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.

What is God calling you to change in your life?   Lent is a good time to make these changes. Amen.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Lessons about the Kingdom (Matt 13:1-9;31-33;44-46) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Listen to these maxims about life: “Life is like a rollercoaster, tighten your seatbelt, and try to eat a light lunch.” 19th century Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.   Where do you turn when you need guidance or wisdom?

In Fulghum’s book:  All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten, he offers these lessons:   Share everything.  Play fair.  Don't hit people.  Put things back where you found them.  Clean up your own mess.  Don't take things that aren't yours.  Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.  Wash your hands before you eat.  Flush.  Play and work some every day. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

Jesus’ teachings too are a source of wisdom about living a God-centered life.  Jesus taught his disciples lessons about the Kingdom of God in the form of parables.  These truths apply to you and me as well in our journey of faith.

What is the Kingdom of God?  In Greek, basileias tou Theos, refers to God’s reign or rule in our lives and in the world, God’s sovereign power occurring in some circumstance, God’s will being fulfilled in some event or situation.  It’s wherever and however God’s loving purpose is being accomplished whether in the life of an individual, a family, a community, a nation or in the world.   Yes, even in the church.  Today we are referring to God’s Kingdom when we say: “God answered my prayer, only God could have made this happen, it was a God thing.  The Kingdom of God is wherever God is doing something or saying something.

Jesus says:  A sower went out to sow; a planter went out to plant.   Who is the sower?  God, Jesus or the Risen Lord.  This parable shows that God isn’t lazy, oblivious, indolent and passive.  God isn’t sitting in a rocking chair sipping a mint julep, while watching his servants, you and me, slave away in the blistering sun.  God is working, busy, active, involved, intervening in the world planting seeds.  This is the God we worship.  This is the God we serve.

What is the seed?   The lesson is that seeds vary.   The seed is God’s word or God’s purposeful activity in our lives:  It may be: the gospel, a word of forgiveness, a word of encouragement, or love, or peace, or courage, or comfort or joy or justice.  It may be God fulfilling His will or calling us to work for justice.  it may be a call to repentance and faith, it may be a call to obedience, it may be a test or challenge, it may be God’s calling you to help or support someone, it may be a surprise of God’s grace.  The seed may be a coincidence.  In the Kingdom of God, coincidences are small miracles in which God chooses to remain anonymous.

Listen, Jesus says, a sower went out to sow!   What is the lesson?  That there are different types of soil or to put it into today’s language, different responses from people to the word of God.  People’s spiritual receptivity varies widely.   Jesus experienced this in his ministry.  We too should not be surprised.  When you seek to share Jesus’ word expect different reactions.  The sower faithfully sowed the seed, but he encounters hard hearts, shallow or superficial hearts, distracted or preoccupied hearts, and finally open, ready and receptive hearts.  The seed only took root in the last soil which was open and receptive to the good news.  No, not everyone is ready to receive the seed that God plants or the seed God calls you and me to sow.

Don’t become discouraged.   This is a painful lesson to experience.  But people are free to respond or not to respond.  This is a truth I suspect most of us have experienced at one time or another.

We sometimes blame ourselves for not witnessing effectively or not being a good example.  We blame ourselves for not resolving some conflict in a relationship or saving a relationship or failing to guide someone to make better choices.  You try to help.  You do your best.   You pray.  Remember this parable.  You or I may not be the one who will be successful in planting the seed.  Even Jesus, the Son of God, didn’t always win people as his followers.

I recall when I was the pastor at another church, and I regularly talked to a visitor who worshipped with us and said he was discovering a new interest in faith.  I met with him, prayed with and for him, but he didn’t make a confession of faith.  I wondered where I went wrong.   We returned to visit the church years after I had left, and there he was very involved in the church.  Someone else sowed the seed that took root in his life.  You and are I are not responsible for the response.   God does hold us responsible to sow, to scatter, to plant.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed or like yeast.  It’s the truth that great things start from small beginnings.  A mustard seed was the smallest seed planted in Israel to grow food.   When it grew it became a towering plant reaching 12 to 15 feet high.  Big, large, splashy gets our attention.  Mt. Everest, at 29,000 feet, the tallest mountain in the world, CA redwood trees topping 350 feet high, salt-water crocodiles reaching twenty feet, and the tallest skyscraper in the world in Dubai, which stands over 2,700 feet high.

But scripture teaches that God affirms small efforts and small things.  Every important accomplishment requires a willingness to begin small.   World-wide Christianity began like a mustard seed.  The Christian faith began with Jesus an itinerant preacher and 12 ordinary followers.   No Rhodes scholars or Hollywood celebrities or politically powerful people in this group.  And Christianity has flourished.

In the early 20th century there was a widespread belief, based on the theory of evolution, that religion would eventually die out as the human race became more sophisticated and technologically advanced.  Religion was needed early on because humans were ignorant and superstitious, and didn’t comprehend the world.   Science, technology and modernization would eventually eliminate the need for religion because humans would come of age, outgrow the need for religion and learn to understand and control their environment.  This universal evolution of secularization never materialized. The seed of the Christian faith is deeply rooted and growing in the world.

Christianity has lost ground in parts of Europe, true, but not everywhere in Europe.  There are over 2 billion Christians in the world and those numbers are growing.  A recent article reported Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in Iran, at around 20% each year.  Christianity is growing rapidly in Lebanon and Afghanistan.   The Christian faith is exploding in South Korea.   The church is growing rapidly in China and experts are predicting a half billion Chinese Christians fifty years from now.   Africa is close to being 50% Christian today.    Yes, the mustard seed of Christianity has grown into a towering plant.

The truth is that little things count!    God values those little seeds you plant, those little efforts you make for Jesus, because they can open up possibilities and opportunities for some future growth.  They matter in what God seeks to do through your life and in the lives and events around you politically, socially, economically, and religiously.  Small seeds you plant with your children or grandchildren, friends or colleagues, matter in the realm of God.

Like the story of a ninth grade teacher, Helen Mrosla, who was having a terrible time controlling her class and getting the students to cooperate.  Then she had an idea.  She instructed the students to list each person’s name in the class on a sheet of paper and then write something nice about each one.  The next day, she took those papers and compiled a list for each student and passed them out. The atmosphere in the class changed instantly.  One student said:  I never knew that I meant anything to anyone.  The students began to be happy with themselves and one another.  The class began to work together.  Years later, at a class reunion, some of Helen’s former students gathered around her.  One opened his wallet, and carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper which contained the list of all the good things of each classmate.  Another told Helen that she kept her list in the top drawer of her desk at home.  Another had placed his list in his wedding album.  Helen was simply overwhelmed.

Don’t say: “But who am I or what can I alone do? You never know how something you do or say, however seemingly insignificant, can have such a powerful and transforming affect upon someone for God’s Kingdom.  Remember, the Kingdom of God grows secretly, quietly, undetected.  Growth is occurring even when you or I don’t perceive it.  For God gives the growth.  I believe with all my heart and soul that one-day God will reveal to you and to me, the difference we made with the seeds we planted over our lifetime for His Kingdom.

The kingdom of God is like someone finding a treasure hidden in a field or a merchant finding a pearl of great value.  People in Jesus’ day buried their valuables in the ground.   No safety deposit boxes in that day.  Here a man finds a treasure hidden in a field.  He buries it and is so filled with joy that he sells everything and buys the field.   He did nothing wrong.  Jewish law clearly stated: “What one finds belongs to the finder.   A merchant stumbles across a pearl of great value.

God’s kingdom appears like that; it often comes as a complete surprise.  God’s will surprises you and brings incredible joy and can lead to our making important changes in our lives.  Walking daily by faith with God can lead to your setting new priorities and goals or cause you to change your attitude or behavior because you have experienced the surprising touch of God’s grace.

Think of a seed a person planted in your life and the difference it has made.  Can you think of a seed you planted in someone’s life where God used it for His purpose?  What a joy, what an honor and privilege to be surprised by God and to be used as a means of grace.     God has a passion for people and He wants us to share that passion.

Have you ever heard of a preacher named Mordecai Ham?  Very few people have heard of him.  He was a small town evangelist and traveled throughout the south during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  He never made a big name for himself like for instance Billy Sunday.  One day he arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina.  A Billy Frank went to hear his preacher, accepted the gospel, turned his life over to Jesus Christ, and became a Christian.  The name Billy Frank later came to be known as Rev. Billy Graham.

Take a chance, step out of your comfort zone, take a risk.  Trust God. Don’t underestimate God’s awesomeness.   Listen, a sower went out to sow.  God plants seeds.  What seed is God calling you to plant?   Amen!

Friday, February 16, 2018

The First Rule is Love (Matt. 22:34-40) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

On Valentine’s Day, a group of children were asked, "What does 'love' mean?" Here are some answers:
·         Rebekah, 8, said, "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore.  So my grandfather does it for her all the time—even when his hands got arthritis, too. That's love."
·         Bobby, 7, says, "Love is what's in the room at Christmas, if you stop opening presents and listen."
·         Nikka, 6, says, "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with someone you hate."
·         Tommy, 6, says, "Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well."
·         Cindy, 8, says, "During my piano recital, I was on a stage, and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and I saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. And I wasn't scared anymore."
·         Jessica, 8, says, "You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot."

Life in the ultimate sense or in the most fundamental sense is about love.  According to our Christian faith, according to the Bible, what matters most in life is love.  Why, because God is loving, because God created us to love, because God sent Jesus to show the model of love, and to atone for our sins by his sacrificial death on the cross, because God commanded us to love, because God wants us to learn the greatest lesson in the short time we spend on earth, how to love.

Jesus commands us to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Why?  Because we strengthen our love for God when we love our neighbor and we strengthen our love for neighbor when we love God.  We love because God first loved us.  Love is not an isolated act; it’s interconnected, intertwined.  When we love others, God’s love flows in and through us in a free and powerful way.  When we love God in worship and prayer, we are inspired and motivated to love others.  We live a holistic life, when we share our lives with others.  Living a life of love is life-enhancing and enriching, inspiring and rewarding. Living a loving life achieves the purpose for which God made you and God made me.  Scripture says faith, hope and love, these three remain, but the greatest of these is love.

Of course we know loving others doesn’t come naturally, it’s something we learn.  It takes time to learn to love.  Where do we learn it?  Where have you learned to love? From people who have loved us.  We learn from Jesus himself.  We learn from the indwelling Spirit who teaches and guides us in life.  It is not an easy task, because it runs counter to our self-centered nature.  God gives us a lifetime to learn to love.  Jesus never promised that following Him would be easy. This is especially true when other persons hold different values or different ideas.

Today is an extremely challenging time.  One example today is our intense political differences.  The challenge appears to be nearly impossible for democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives, to listen to one another, to agree to disagree, to care for, to compromise, to respect one another, to work together for the nation’s good. There are constant personal attacks, rather than a robust debate on the merits of the ideas.   We see and hear such contempt, heated rhetoric, distrust, charges and distain for one another, but rarely much love.  I have never seen America more polarized than today.  I pray, like you do, for this nation.

Jesus sets the highest standard and one that is daunting for anyone who strives to follow Jesus.  Jesus says: “If you only love people who love you what is your reward?  Anyone, even tax collectors are capable of that.  If you greet and welcome only your brothers and sisters, how hard is that?  Even Gentiles do the same.

True, loving others is complicated; if it was easy everyone would be doing it.  Loving someone can evolve into enabling their bad behavior.  You find yourself being manipulated, being used, becoming a co-dependent. Forgiveness is an expression of love.  But so is setting boundaries, ground rules, ultimatums, and tough love.  Tolerating bad behavior is not love.  Allowing yourself to be bullied is not love.  Saying no, not helping someone in the way they expect, can be the most loving response, it can be just the thing to change another’s bad behavior.  Spoiling a child or abusing a child is not love.  There are of course no cookie-cutter models for loving a family member, a friend, a child, a colleague.  It’s case by case. That we are to love is indisputable, but how we are to love is the question, and is open to debate and discussion.  That's why we must rely upon God for courage and wisdom, a deep and abiding wisdom.

Loving others is never learned by thinking alone; it is only learned by doing, which as you have probably experienced is sometimes learned by trial and error.  Loving your children as parents, at least in our experience, involved a lot of trial and error.  Loving grandchildren is much simpler.  Simple acts of love can have a tremendous impact.

A student sent a note to one of his former teachers.  He received this reply: “Dear William:  I can't tell you how much your note meant to me.  I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and in poor health.  I taught school for 50 years and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received.  It came on a blue, cold morning and it cheered me up in a way you can never know.  Thank you with all my heart.   Bringing consolation to the lonely, a meal to a neighbor, comfort to the grieving are ways of ministering to those who are hurting.

Scripture says that loving others is the primary witness to the world for Christians.  Jesus said:  Your love for others will prove to the world that you are my disciples.  I’ve had nurses in hospitals and staff in nursing homes say: “We are so impressed with the many caring visits by the people of your congregation.  You have a caring congregation.  Loving others is a powerful witness to Jesus Christ.

Scripture says that life without love is really useless.  Why?  Because we were created to be used by God.  Relationships must be a top priority in our lives.   Scripture says:  No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.  We talk about finding time for our children or making time for people in our lives.  God says relationships are what life is all about.  The 10 commandments include four in our relationship with God and 6 in in our relationships with people.  But all are about relationships.  We learn to love God in worship and prayer and we learn to love others by actions and doing.  Busyness is the enemy of relationships.  Yes, accomplishments, achievements, reaching goals are important.  But relationships, loving others, trumps these things.

Scripture says love leaves an invaluable legacy.  How you treated other people, how you encouraged, how you opened doors of opportunities for others, how you listened, how you taught and trained others, how you shared your time, talents and treasure with others, how you supported others is a powerful legacy.  Love is the secret of a lasting heritage.  Like one writer said:  I’ve observed that when people are in their final moments of life, they don’t ask to be surrounded with objects, their trophies, and diplomas, and symbols of their accomplishments and successes, they want to be surrounded by people they love and who love them.  Don’t wait until you are on your deathbed to discover this important truth – relationships matter most.

Scripture says that we will be evaluated by God in the final judgment on our loving of God and others during our lifetime.  Recall Matthew 25.   Jesus says: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry, and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me, sick and you to care of me, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto me.  In our text, John says: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refused help? Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

A woman whose husband had died years earlier and who raised her teenage children alone, tells how difficult it was when her children had all grown and left home.  She writes:  I felt so lonely and the house was so empty.  I didn’t know what to do, where to turn.  I felt worthless and confused; my life didn’t seem to have any value, because I was no longer focused on raising my children.   When I was away from the house I didn’t want to return home and when I was in the house I could hardly stand the thought of leaving.  I felt like I was living in a cocoon.   So I began to pray, as I had done throughout my life.  And as the days passed, I began to feel some stirrings inside of me, a kind of inner restlessness. I began to see in my mind options for my life, people I could help, that I had never before considered and for the first time since the children had gone, I began to look ahead with some anticipation.  I didn’t know what was to happen, but I sensed God’s Spirit leading me and calling me out of myself, and I knew that I was about to break out of the cocoon I’d been living in and begin a new and meaningful chapter in my life.

It’s true that time, time for relationships, always seems to be in short supply.  We are always pressed for time.  I wish I had more time.  Are we victims of time?  Are we helpless to change that?  Pray to God to help you manage and prioritize your time.  Pastor Rick Warren writes: “The best expression of love is time.  Relationships take time. Investing in relationships takes time and effort.  Words alone, about how important relationships are, are empty.  The best way to spell love is T-I-M-E and the best time to love is now.  Amen!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Come to Me (Matthew 11:28-30) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A young man forgot to notify his grandmother of a change in his cell phone number.  Wanda Dench texted a number that had originally been her grandson's, inviting him over for dinner.  Instead of her grandson, the text went to 19 year old Jamal Hinton.  The two figured out the mistake quickly, but Hinton, a lonely college student, far from home, asked if it was still possible to "come over for dinner.”  In grandmotherly fashion, Dench responded, "Of course you can. That's what grandmas do."  When asked about the dinner, the young man said, "I'm thankful for all the nice people in the world.   I’d never met her and she welcomed me into her house, so that shows how great of a person she is."

Receiving a personal invitation from someone is one of the joys of life, whether it’s being invited to someone’s home for dinner, to an anniversary party, out to the theatre or to a rock concert.  The only exception I can think of is being invited to a meeting with the IRS.   In this morning's text, Jesus extends a personal invitation -“Come to me!   Jesus extended this invitation to his disciples, and as the Risen Lord Jesus has extended it to His followers down through the centuries and he extends this invitation to you and me this morning – “Come to me!

How will you respond?   In times of trial, in times of stress, in times of exhaustion, in all times, Jesus’ words are like a song to our soul, like cold water to a parched tongue. They are the most welcome and comforting words in the world.  Come to me!

Jesus says:  All who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens!” To be human is to carry burdens, we understand that well.   The question is not if you are carrying burdens but what burdens are you carrying?   Burdens of broken relationships, of guilt or shame, of unrealized dreams, of stress, of pain, or fear, of failure, financial burdens, burdens of grief, loneliness, jealousy or anger, burdens of poor health.   Are you carrying a burden this morning?

Sometimes, even religion becomes a burden.  This was the context in which Jesus spoke to the people.  From the time the Law was given to Moses in the 13th century B.C, where the fourth commandment instructed the Jews to remember the Sabbath and rest from work on the seventh day, over centuries Jewish teachers had added rules regarding Sabbath observance – the time between sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  The Hebrew word Sabbath means rest.

It was difficult to rest when you were worried about breaking the religious rules of the day.  For example, you were prohibited from working on the Sabbath, but how was work defined?  You couldn’t carry anything, you could only walk a certain number of steps, you couldn't cook, you couldn't talk about business, and you could only help people or rescue animals, if their lives were in danger, because in all these things you were working, you were exerting energy and violating the command to rest.   Yes, anything, even religion, can become a burden.

Jesus continues: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart."   Jesus is gentle and humble and offers us the opportunity to take on his yoke and to learn from him.   Do you find it surprising that Jesus offers burdened people a yoke?  When we are burdened we need an escape, a party, a day at the beach, a walk in the park, not a yoke.

What is Jesus saying here?  He offers to share our burden, to shoulder our load, to be our burden-bearer.  No one else can do that like Christ because he is portrayed in the New Testament as the supreme burden-bearer.  Jesus bore our burden of sin by His sacrificial death on the cross.  Scripture says: "Behold the Lamb of God who bears our sins away."

Jesus offers us a new kind of yoke.  Jesus compares the crowds he is addressing to oxen struggling under a heavy load.  He is borrowing an image from the agriculture of his day.  A yoke is the piece of farm equipment that binds the ox to the plow.  Whenever a young ox needed to be trained, he would be attached to the yoke of an older ox. The older ox would pull the yoke and the younger ox would follow in his footsteps and learn all the steps, even though he wasn't actually pulling any of the load.

Jesus calls us to take on his yoke: to submit to his authority, to commit ourselves to him through faith, to follow his teaching, to ask for his peace, to obey his word, to seek his strength, to surrender our hearts and minds to him, to turn to him in prayer.  Jesus is saying: “Yoke yourself to me.  Let me help you carry your load and I will lead you and teach you how to live."  "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Jesus concludes his invitation with these words: “I will give you rest.  You will find rest for your souls.  What a comforting word, rest.   Jesus here uses the Greek word anapauo, which means “to cease from any activity or labor in order to recover and collect one's strength.  It’s a time to be renewed, to be refreshed, to be re-energized, in order to prepare to return to work. The Hebrew word Sabbath means rest.  Does that word resonate with you?  Do you ever get tired - physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually and you simply need a time to rest?  Take a Sabbath. Spend quiet time alone with God.

So you ask why do I feel tired?  Here’s why.   In the last 24 hours your heart beat 103,680 times?  Your blood traveled 168,000 miles.  You breathed 23,040 times.  You inhaled 438 cubic feet of air.  You gave off 85.6 degrees in heat.  You turned in your sleep 25-35 times.  You spoke 4,800 words.  You moved 750 major muscles.  You walked 10K steps.  You exercised 7,000,000 brain cells.    Is fatigue beginning to set in?

In 2013 the news reported that many orthopedic surgeons had noticed a disturbing trend—a serious spike in debilitating knee injuries among teenaged athletes.  Dr. Frank Cordasco called it "an epidemic."   Cordasco said that he and his team were operating on 200 to 300 kids a year, unheard of a decade before.  Doctors reported also on an increase in serious shoulder and elbow injuries among young baseball and softball players.

What's causing this epidemic of reconstructive joint surgeries?  The article put the blame on one factor; the lack of rest.   The current emphasis on playing one sport all year long leaves virtually no time for muscles and joints to recover from the micro-trauma that occurs during practice and play.

Our bodies, our minds, our emotions can go on overload.   They weren’t designed by God to go 24 – 7.   We need time to recover from the "micro-traumas" of life.   Jesus invites us to find rest for our souls.   Jesus makes a promise: “If you accept my invitation and come to me; you will have a respite.  You will experience spiritual renewal, relief, refreshment, a time of peace.

Will you accept Jesus invitation?  Will you say: "Yes, Jesus, I need your strength and your peace.  I will go to you.   Take a Sabbath.  Spend some quiet time alone with God.

I close with Jesus word's from the Message, a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible: “Come to me.  Get away with me and you'll recover your life.  I'll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me, watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

Jesus' personally invites you to come to His table.  The Lord’s Supper is one place where Jesus promises that we will find rest.   Let us prepare our hearts to come to the table of the Lord.  Amen!