Friday, September 16, 2016

Count for Something (Matthew 25:14-30) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In January 2010, Jeff Miller, an independent businessman from Rogers Park, Illinois clinched his third consecutive “Ultimate Couch Potato” title Chicago's ESPN Zone. "It's all about determination," said Miller, who watched TV sports programming for 72 straight, sleepless hours.

Miller, 26, bested three other competitors and pushed himself beyond the Guinness World Record for nonstop viewing.  The venue controlled the remote from the time the four contestants first reclined on New Year's Day, and 72 hours later Miller sat alone. His superior sluggishness earned him a new recliner, a $1,000 gift card toward the purchase of a television, money for one year for his cable/satellite bills, and the Ultimate Couch Potato trophy, adorned with an actual spud just like the trophies he won in 2008 and 2009.  Ambition, you gotta love it.

From a Biblical and Christian perspective, God has created each one of us, so the question is, is winning the ultimate couch potato title what God desires for our lives or does God have something else in mind?  One philosophy goes something like this:  When someone calls for a volunteer look the other way, turn away, keep your head facing downward, don’t make eye contact, don’t look up.  Follow, never lead.  Strive for mediocrity.  Aim low.  Do the least, do the minimum, just get buy.  Stay in the center of the crowd so you won’t get chosen; whatever you do, don’t stand out.  Sadly, this is some people’s philosophy today.

So why has God created you and me, to glorify God and not ourselves? We are called to accomplish something for the Lord?  We are called to live for something larger than ourselves?   We are called to achieve?   God has created us for significance, for our lives to count for something?    Are you reaching your full potential as a follower of Jesus Christ?   Are you investing in the Kingdom of God?

We read in psalm 8 – “What are human beings O God, that you are mindful of them, mere mortals, that you care for them, and yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.   You have given them dominion over the works of your hands you have put all things under their feet.

In our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew we read about a master going on a journey who leaves his servants in charge of his property.  He gives give talents to the first servant, two talents to the next servant, and one talent, to the third, each according to his ability.  Clearly Jesus meant this parable to apply to his followers.  And we quickly see that we all have talents and abilities, but they are different, and that some people have more abilities and others have less, but God has given abilities to everyone.

After a period of time, the master returns and asks his servants to give an account of what they have done with their talents.  The master is pleased with the first servant and says: “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You did something positive with your talents.    You have been faithful and I will give you other responsibilities.  Come and share in your master’s happiness.”  The servant with the two talents receives the identical response.  But the master is not happy with the third servant.  The servant makes excuses, and accuses the master of being hard and unpredictable.  He blames the master for his doing nothing with his abilities.  He fails to take personal responsibility for his lack of action.  Out of fear, he buries his talent and doesn’t attempt to use or invest it.  The master takes the talent away and gives it to another servant.  Then the master has the servant thrown out into the darkness.

This is a parable about life, life matters, it counts for something, it is significant.  What does a significant life look like?  That’s what’s wonderful. Significance comes in all sizes.  There is no one standard or ideal, no one size fits all, no blueprint or template.  There is no cookie cutter measure.  It looks differently.  It might even look like your life right now.   Are you living a significant life?  Are you reaching your God given potential as a follower of Jesus?

I suspect that there are people in our society who feel insignificant.  They think, “I don’t really matter.  I haven’t done anything important. I haven’t contributed anything of value.   I don’t have anything special to offer the world.  I’m nothing special.”   Of course there are also those whose ego is so colossal, that they fill a room all by themselves.   They believe they are God’s gift to anyone who has the good fortune to meet them.  Maybe you know someone like that.

Living a life that counts for something means that our lives are accountable to God, that we will be held accountable for the stewardship of our lives.

The truth is that God has given each of us something to work with.  We don’t enter this life empty handed.  God has imparted to us a mind, ears and eyes, a heart, wisdom, knowledge, experience, health, compassion, influence, relationships, freedom to make choices and set priorities, the ability to see needs and address them.  God passionately wants us to achieve something in the limited time that He has given us on this earth.

God says: “I created you in my image, your life is a gift, you are special, you are my child, that’s why you have the capacity to excel in life?  I have given you my Spirit.”  That’s why we can lead a life that is noteworthy in God’s eyes.  God has graced us with abilities and talents.

Living a life that counts for something also means that our view of God affects how we perceive ourselves.   Your view of God will directly affect your ability to step out in faith.  The first and second servants respected the master, they trusted his word, they trusted his mercy and love, they trusted his leading, they obeyed him, they stepped out in faith.  Even when the master was gone, they proved trustworthy and wise in their work.  They knew this was a chance to do something significant.

You’ve seen old cars driving around with a bumper sticker that says my other car is a BMW?  Well a young man was seen pedaling around a college campus with a T-shirt reading “I’m going to be a doctor.”  A sign on the back on his bicycle proclaimed, “I’m going to be a Mercedes.”   Now that’s positive thinking.

Actor Hugh O’ Brian died last Monday.  He was 91.  Now I don’t know about you, but he was one of my childhood heroes.  He played Wyatt Earp, in the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp which ran six seasons, from 1955 – 1961.  That series made him a star.  He also acted in many other television shows.  Now that in itself is quite an accomplishment.

But his most enduring legacy is off-screen.  He organized the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership organization, founded to inspire and develop youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service, and innovation.  More than 375,000 high school sophomores selected by their schools have gone through this organization.

How did it start?  It grew out of an invitation to O’Brian from Dr. Albert Schweitzer to visit the medical missionary at his hospital in Africa.  O’Brian spent 9 days working at the hospital in the summer of 1958.  It was a life changing experience for him.  He and Dr. Schweitzer spent hours talking each night after dinner.  As O’Brian was getting ready to depart, Schweitzer asked asked: “Hugh, what are you going to do with this?”  On the plane flight home, the vision of an educational organization for youth came into his mind.

On the other hand, I also think of people whom you never heard of, people who were not famous, but significant in my personal life – Like Ms. Moe, my third grade teacher, Mr. Armundson, my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Malone, my Sunday School teacher, and Rev. Hamilton, my pastor.  Your significant life can be known by the world or by a single person whom you were there for and supported at just the right time.   The life we lead depends upon our understanding of, our view of God.  If you believe God is a couch potato, chances re you too will adopt a similar life-style.

Living a life that counts for something means that what we do in life has eternal significance.   Your influence stretches beyond this earthly life.  It touches other people for generations after we are gone.  Our life has an immeasurable impact on this world.  When we invest our lives glorifying God, God will honor our investment and multiply our efforts beyond anything we can know or imagine.

You never know when your seemingly small task is actually a part of God’s big plan.  Remember there are opportunities all around us – in our neighborhood, our community, our church, our family and even in politics.  God calls us to lead important lives, and we need to respond.  Because ultimately only God can see the big picture and how you fit into that picture.  God calls us not just to survive but to thrive.  Not just to lead lives of mediocrity, but of reaching our God given potential.  That whatever the task or challenge, to give our most and not our least.

Herman Cain, CEO and president of Godfather’s Pizza, was raised in poverty.  He credits his hard working father for his success in life.  Throughout Herman’s life, his father worked 3 or 4 jobs at a time in order to support his family.  Cain also received inspiration from a poem taught to him by Dr. Benjamin Mays, a former president of Morehouse college.   This poem has guided Herman through the ups and downs of his life.

Life is just a minute, only sixty seconds in it, forced upon you, can’t refuse it, Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it, But it’s up to you to use it.  You must suffer if you lose it, give an account if you abuse it, just a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.”

God’s word is powerful – your life matters, it counts for something.    Remember the psalmist’s words:  God has crowned you with glory and honor.  Let us pray: “God, here I am, open my eyes, open my ears, use me for something significant, that you will be pleased, that you will be glorified and that we too may hear those word:  ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, well done.’”   Amen

Friday, September 9, 2016

Our Perspective and God’s Perspective (I John 3:1-3; Col.1;1-2) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Last week we received this letter in the mail.   “Subject:  Notice of Data Security incident.  Dear Alan and Nancy: We are writing to inform you of a data security incident that may have involved your payment card information.  We take the privacy and security of your identity protection seriously.  Here are the steps that we have taken to protect your payment card information.”  We called the bank and after a discussion closed the account and opened a new one.  Have you ever received a letter like that?

As we know, identity theft occurs when someone steals your name and other personal information for fraudulent use.  Thieves can open up checking accounts, charge your credit cards, drain your bank accounts, buy cars or houses, take out loans, all on you and me.  This is a serious cyber-age crime invading our personal privacy and identity.  Why don’t these people put their skills to positive use?

Identity is both collective and individual.   Our collective identity is the shared sense of belonging to a group, belonging to something larger than ourselves.  I am an American is perhaps the most obvious example.  Belonging to a street gang is another.  There are some 30,000 street gangs which are responsible for 80% of the crime in America.  Gang members will do anything to maintain their position in the gang.  But what about our personal identity?

How we think about ourselves matters, right, it matters a great deal.  Baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser, in his book Out of the Blue, tells about an encounter he had with Dodger’s manager Tommy Lasorda.  Lasorda called Hershiser into his office one day and shouted at him.  “You don’t believe in yourself!  You’re scared to pitch in the big leagues!  Who do you think these hitters are, Babe Ruth?   Ruth’s dead.  You’ve got good stuff.  If you didn’t, I wouldn’t have hired you.  I’ve seen guys come and go, son, and you’ve got it!  Be aggressive.  Be a bulldog out there.  That’s gonna be your new name, Bulldog.  With that name, you’ll scare the batters to death.  “Starting today I want you to believe you are the best pitcher in baseball.  Look at the hitter and say, ‘There’s no way you can ever hit me.’”  Two days later, Orel pitched relief and in three innings, he gave up only one run.  Lasorda’s talk, Orel called it the sermon on the mound, had worked.

Identity is an elusive and challenging part of being human.  More precisely, it is a fluid part of who we are, a dynamic aspect of our lives.  We begin to feel like we know ourselves, we begin to feel comfortable with who we are, we believe we can finally define ourselves, and then something occurs and we find that we are in the process of re-defining ourselves yet once more.  We can’t seem to hold on to whom we understood ourselves to be.   Maybe we must answer the question, who am I, throughout our life.  Perhaps we are continually redefining ourselves.  Is the question of identity a lifelong process.  What do you think?

Who am I?  One way to answer that question is to go to  Genealogy is popular today.   I think knowing your lineage is a positive aspect of life.   I like the commercial where this guy says that for all of his life he thought of himself as being of German extraction.  So he often danced around in lederhosen.   Then he went on and made the alarming discovery that he was primarily of Scottish descent.  So as he said: “I traded in by lederhosen for a pair of kilts.”

So many factors contribute to our identity. Our family defines us. Our gender defines us.  Our race/ethnicity defines us.  Our social status defines us.  Our work, our careers, define us.  I remember a professor who had long since retired, but still insisted on being addressed as professor.  Our roles define us.  I am single or married, a son or daughter, father or mother, wife or husband, a grandfather or grandmother, widow or widower, working or retired.   Our physical dimensions, our size defines us, our intelligence defines us, our success or failures define us, our accomplishments and achievements define us, being dependent or independent defines us and the list goes on.

Human beings face many challenges in life.  And one of them, practically from the moment of birth, is to try and figure out who the heck we are in this world and in comparison to other people.  I think this is a critical goal or process in life.  I think we continually battle between defining ourselves and allowing the world around us to define us.  I think we should be proactive, not passive.  We also know the way we see ourselves, is not always, though sometimes it is, the way others see us. The problem is that our identity is often a moving target.

For example, two American psychologists, Pauline Clancy and Suzanne Imes, observed what they called "the impostor syndrome." They described it as a feeling of "phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative, despite evidence of high achievement." While these people "are highly motivated to achieve," they also "live in fear of being 'found out' or exposed as frauds."

The gifted American author and poet Maya Angelou wrote: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'" Despite winning three Grammys and being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, this huge talent still questioned her success.

So we turn to the scriptures:  In the letter of I John we read this astonishing truth about identity, our new identity: “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.  Beloved we are God’s children now.  What we do know is this, when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”  This is the word of God.  Ponder this word for a moment.

In the letter of Colossian’s we again hear God’s amazing word: “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.”  Both of these passages speak about our new identity from God’s perspective.

An author writes: “In August, 2009, we got a rather amazing email from my brother in law, John. Six or seven years ago, when John and his wife, Lori, were working with a youth group in Nebraska, they met Amanda—a teenage girl.  Amanda came from a terribly abusive home and was eventually taken from her parents by the state.

After conferring with their two sons, John and Lori legally adopted Amanda. She is 22, and her name is now Amanda Foote. She will even get a new birth certificate!  Now John and Lori have three legal heirs, and Amanda has two new brothers.   When it was official, John said:  There was a huge change in Lori and me—sort of like when you see your newborn for the first time.  And for Amanda, there was a big change in her, too. Now she knew she belonged. She knew we were her parents."

The author continues:  The beauty of it all made me offer a word of thanks to Jesus, God's Beloved Son. God has given us a new name, a new standing in a new relationship, we are God’s responsibility and God’s heirs, we are a new family of brothers and sisters in Christ, and God is our true Father.”

The irony is that when you become a Christian, you take on someone else's identity.  You are a brother or sister of Christ; you are a child of God.  Through faith in Christ, You and I have been given a new identity that we weren't born with or that we didn't earn or purchase.  By grace, God has adopted us in Christ.  And this is a gift which is true now and forever.

Don’t you walk just a little taller, don’t you stand just a little straighter, when you hear this about how God sees you.  God sees you in a new way now.  And God’s new way of seeing you will never change.  God will never forget about us or who we are.  We may see ourselves one way, the world may see us another way, but ultimately what matters is how God sees us, how God sees you and me.  May we live each hour, each day remembering this, being encouraged by this, and being secure in the knowledge of God’s perspective. Amen!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Celebrate the Journey (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

An elderly man had some serious hearing problems.  His family tried repeatedly to convince him to get a hearing aid.  Finally, he went to the doctor and was fitted for a set of hearing aids that dramatically improved his hearing.  A month later he went back to the doctor for a checkup. The doctor said with a smile, "Your hearing is perfect. Your family must be really pleased that you can hear again."  The old man replied, "Who said I told them?   It’s been fascinating just listening to their conversations.”

Welcome to celebrate the journey.  I want to thank Mavis Qualsett, our former Coordinator for Congregational Care, who due to health problems is not able to be with us today, but who organized this celebration of life and is still very involved in our caring ministry.  Today we are recognizing 17 members of PBPC who have reached the exceptional age of 90 or older.   Yes, they have been on life’s journey longer than the rest of us, but don’t despair, keep breathing, keep moving, keep praying, for one day it will be our honor to recognize you when you reach this esteemed age.

The number of senior citizens, a club of which I am a member, is rapidly increasing in America.   By the year 2030 one out of every five Americans will be a senior citizen.   Life expectancy in the United States in 1900 was about 47.  Today, the average lifespan for men is 75 and for women about 80. By 2040 its projected that the life expectancy for men will be 86 and for women 91.

We value life.  From diet to exercise, from advances in medicine to the finest hospitals and doctors, from cosmetics to plastic surgery, we strive to look and feel younger and extend our days upon this earth.  One’s lifespan depends upon several of factors: genetics, family history, social and environmental factors, health care, positive social relationships, a positive mental attitude, a healthy lifestyle, finding effective ways to cope with stress, the grace of God and more.

Yes we are getting older and living longer.  But are we also getting younger?  We constantly hear that today’s 70’s are yesterday’s 50’s.  Studies show that today’s 70 year old’s are performing physically, mentally and attitudinally the way 50 year old’s did in the past.  So it looks like we are getting older and younger at the same time.

Studies also point out the positive role that spirituality/religious faith, prayer and worship play in our journey of life.   Many books and articles have been published on the subject of retirement, aging, reaching the final years of our lives.  Some call it the twilight or sunset of life.  Now are sunsets beautiful or what?

Many articles focus upon the material aspects of growing older, encouraging traveling, spending your money on fun things, etc.   But often the literature excludes or downplays the spiritual values of aging, developing faith in God, service in God’s name, which brings joy, meaning and purpose as one ages.  I know our 17 special people today would all affirm how indispensable faith has been to their journey.  The spiritual realm is important for all people, but as one’s mortality and the reality of death draws nearer these questions often become more significant.  I believe God has placed this spiritual characteristic or instinct or need into our nature because we are made in God’s image.  God earnestly desires for human beings to be in fellowship, in a right relationship with Him, but sin, sin blinds us to it or buries it.

C. G. Jung, the famous 19th and 20th century Swiss psychoanalyst, wrote: “Among all my patients in the second half of life, that is to say, over 35, there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not finding a religious outlook on life, and none of them has been really healed, who did not regain his religious outlook.  We grow old unsatisfactorily when our personalities are deprived of such a basic need.  To go through the later stages of life without any thought of the meaning of life and the author of our existence is a situation fraught with danger.”  St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, in the 4th century wrote: “O God our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.”

What insights do we gain from scripture about life’s journey and especially its final stage?   Human life is a gift from God our creator.   We didn’t create ourselves, we didn’t will ourselves into existence.  You and I exist by the grace of God.  The book of Genesis says: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female God created them.”  Your life is unique; there is no one else in the universe exactly like you.

Life is transitory.  Our mortal lives have a beginning and an end.  The psalmist writes: “O God, we are like a dream, like grass which grows up, that in the morning is fresh and flourishing, and in the evening fades and withers.”  When you look back over the years, don’t you agree.

Suffering, pain, and disappointment are part of life’s journey.  Because of human sin and evil life is not always fair and just.  So we depend upon God, we depend upon Jesus, and one another to help us get through the upsets, the hurt, the challenges of life.

We were created for positive and lasting relationships with God and one another.  The role of family, friends and the family of God, the church, is crucial along the journey.  The psalmist says: “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing God’s praise in the assembly of his faithful people.  For the Lord takes pleasure in his people.”

God establishes seasons or special times in our lives.   We need to recognize them, to grow in them, to learn from them, to be patient in them, to persevere in them, to maintain courage and a positive outlook in them, and to trust in God’s guidance.  Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”   We must seek to understand God’s timing, God’s lessons, God’s moment, God’s purposes and plans in the seasons of our lives.

God has given us physical bodies to care for.  I regularly see people in their 60’s,70’s and 80’s working out at 24 Hour Fitness as well as young people. We may not be as agile as we once were, or as strong, but that should never stop us.  An elderly husband writes: “One day as my wife and I were walking our two-mile course, I secretly determined to keep up with her--a feat thus far never accomplished.  I huffed and puffed most of the way trying to keep pace. I figured that with some effort, I could hold out until we got to her usual slow-down point. When we finally reached it, Deb kept right on walking at the same rate. Breathlessly, I asked, "Honey, aren't you going to slow down like usual?" She cheerfully replied, "Sweetheart, I never sped up!"

God wants to use us for His glory and Kingdom throughout our lives, yes even in the twilight years.   I think of people I’ve known over the years, like Bob, who started a prison ministry at a former church I pastored when he was 65, Katherine who was visiting Alzheimer’s patients in her eighties, Jan who in her nineties was writing letters to church visitors, and Virginia who in her nineties was active on the church prayer chain.  Such people are an inspiration.  We must always maintain a willingness to grow at whatever stage we find ourselves.

Some persons become bitter as they age and withdraw from those around them.   They isolate themselves, cut off ties with family and friends, and become virtual hermits.   Don’t do that.  Stay positive, stay connected, stay engaged.  Believe that God has something to offer others through you.

When John Quincy Adams, our 6th president, was an elderly man, a young friend asked "How is John Quincy Adams today?" Adams replied: “John Quincy Adams is very well, thank you.  But the house he lives in is sadly dilapidated. It is tottering on its foundations. The walls are badly shattered and the roof is worn. The building trembles with every wind, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out before long. But he himself is very well, thank you.”

God will let you know when he’s finished with you, but in the meantime keep moving, keep breathing, keep serving, keep glorifying and sharing in His Kingdom.

The Bible speaks of the importance of maintaining a positive and hopeful attitude along life's journey.  I Thessalonians says: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you.”  Life is to be lived in thankfulness and appreciation and joy for God’s grace and mercy.

In psalm 90:12 we read: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”   Lord teach us to number of days, to think about them, to examine them, in light of our faith.  God earnestly wants us to gain wisdom.  For how you spend your years matters, it matters a great deal to God.

The late Dr. Norman Cousins wrote: “Death is not the greatest tragedy which can befall a person; rather, the tragedy is in what dies in a person, while he or she is alive.”

What is God’s purpose for the years before you?”  How and where can you put your experience, wisdom, talents and resources to use in God’s kingdom?  William Courtenay wrote: “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."

Let us celebrate life’s journey in light of the one who is our dwelling place in all generations, from everlasting to everlasting, until the last trumpet sounds and Jesus welcomes into glory.   Amen!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Can I Forgive (Matthew 6:14-15; Ephesians 4:29-32) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Christian author Max Lucado tells the story of being dropped by his insurance company because he had one too many speeding tickets and a minor fender bender that wasn't his fault.  As he reflected on how he wasn't good enough for his insurance company, the spiritual tie-in was obvious.  He writes this imaginary letter sent from the Pearly Gates Underwriting Division:

Dear Mr. Smith,
“I'm writing in response to your request for forgiveness. I'm sorry to inform you that you have reached your quota of sins. Our records show that, since employing our services, you have erred seven times in the area of greed, and your prayer life is substandard when compared to others of like age and circumstance.  Further review reveals that your understanding of doctrine is in the lower 20 percentile and you have excessive tendencies to gossip.  Because of your sins you are a high-risk candidate for heaven. You understand that grace has its limits. Jesus sends his regrets and kindest regards and hopes that you will find some other form of coverage.

How would you like to receive a letter like that?

Think of a person whom you are having trouble forgiving.  From families to friendships, from the workplace to worship places, the potential to be hurt or wronged or wounded by another is always present.  Someone hurt you, maybe yesterday, maybe many years ago, and you cannot forget it.  You did not deserve the hurt.  It went deep, deep enough to lodge itself in your memory.  And it keeps on hurting you now.  The question is – will you forgive, should you forgive, can you forgive?

Yes, forgiveness is a beautiful notion, a lovely ideal, until you are faced with the messy reality of having to actually forgive someone who has wronged you.  And yet, if the gospel says anything; it’s the message of God’s forgiveness of us in Jesus and God’s call for us to forgive others.  For who are Christians but believers who recognize that are forgiven sinners.

As human beings God did not give us the power to change the past.  God did give us the power to forgive the past.  God did not give us a delete button to erase the past.  God gave us memory.  God gave us the power to forgive.

What does forgiveness mean?  Biblically it speaks about changing your head, your heart, your attitude toward someone who has sinned against you.  It doesn’t mean you must forget what has happened or minimize it.  It doesn’t mean you deny the other person’s responsibility in hurting you.  It doesn’t mean you must make an excuse for their action.  It doesn’t mean the other person is not accountable for his or her actions. It doesn’t mean you must become best friends.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report them to the police if they are physically hurting you.  It doesn’t mean allowing or tolerating abusive or bullying behavior toward you.  Remorse, repentance, making things right is also a part of the biblical understanding of forgiveness.

In the Old Testament there are some Hebrew words for forgiveness – nasa - means “to remove or lift up or carry away” a barrier or obstacle which stands between you and another person, which then opens up the possibility for restoring the relationship.

Another Hebrew word is – Salach - means to “let go,” to let go of the resentment or anger you harbor toward another.  Forgiveness is a means of letting go of bitterness and thoughts of revenge.   Forgiveness can sometimes lead to feelings of understanding for the one who hurt you.

How do we forgive?   I like the way the late theologian Lewis Smedes answers the question: “How, you do it slowly, with a little understanding, in confusion, with anger left over, a little at a time, freely or not at all.”

We forgive slowly.  Forgiveness is an intellectual, emotional and spiritual process.  You might forgive someone in your head, but in your heart you are still wounded.  It takes time for your heart to catch up with your head.  Today we like things to happen fast: fast food, fast computers, fast cell phone service, but some things take time and forgiveness is one of them.  Forgiveness is a journey.  It happens a little at a time. It requires patience.  One's commitment to it has to be renewed every day.  Late theologian Lewis Smedes writes: “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”

We also forgive freely.  You cannot be forced to forgive someone.  The person who hurt you may try to pressure you into forgiving him or her or even your friends might pressure you to forgive, they might plead with you, beg you, but no one can force you.   It must come freely from inside of your soul.

I remember a cartoon where one guy has his hands around another guy’s neck and is choking him.  The guy in the chokehold says: “But you’re a Christian, you have to forgive me.”  The other guy says: “I know, I’m trying, I’m trying.”   For me, the bottom line is that the ability to truly forgive someone is an act of God’s grace.  The power comes from God.  It’s an answer to prayer.  God empowers us to do what we cannot do ourselves.

Scripture teaches about forgiveness.  “Don’t keep a record of how many times someone has hurt you and how many times you have forgiven them.”   Have you ever done that?

Jewish scribes in Jesus’ day taught that one should forgive someone three times.  Peter in the Gospel of Matthew approaches Jesus and asks him: “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me, up to seven times?”  Peter thought he was being more than fair given the custom of the day.   But Jesus answers: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”  That equals 490 times, is that the limit?  No, this is a Jewish maxim that means “without limit.”  There is no limit to forgiveness.

Why forgive?  First, remember who you are – a child of God, a follower of Christ.  Jesus commands us to forgive in His name.  We in the church are a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners.  We aren’t perfect, far from it.  I like that old bumper sticker – “Christians are perfect, just forgiven.”  Christians haven’t earned God’s grace; we didn’t earn a bronze, silver or gold metal before God in the Spiritual Olympics.  God forgave us in spite of ourselves.  We have received God’s free gift of salvation by grace through faith.  Forgiveness is one of the marks of being a Christian.  It’s a sign of living in-Christ.  It is a witness to the world.

God’s forgiveness abolishes the walls that separate us from Him and restores our relationship with God.  Because God has forgiven you, Christ says I want you my followers to forgive others.  Jesus says: “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you don’t forgive others their sins, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your sins.”  Forgiveness is serious business in the mind of Jesus.

Second, we are to forgive because our ability to share the forgiveness of God possesses an incredible power to change and impact lives.  There is power in a parent forgiving a child or a child forgiving a parent.  There is power in a wife forgiving a husband or a husband forgiving a wife.  There is power when a friend forgives another friend.  The power to erase shame and guilt.   It is a potent gift you can give to another.  “I forgive you.”

You never know what a difference that can mean in another person’s life.  It can totally change a person’s life.   There are many stories which bear this out, like the woman who was mugged in broad daylight, her purse was stolen in the robbery.  The man was arrested.  She visited him in jail for over a year after he was sentenced for the crime.  He came out of jail a changed young man because of the love he experienced from her in the form of forgiveness.

Third, forgiveness opens up the possibility, and I say possibility, for restoring a broken relationship which you once valued.  You invite the person who hurt you back into your life.  If the person is remorseful, repents, comes honestly there is a chance for creating a new beginning.  Nothing else can do this.  No, there are no guarantees.  Forgiveness brings a hope for reconciliation. If the person refuses to acknowledge his or her responsibility, you have to be healed alone.  We know sometimes reconciliation happens and sometimes it doesn’t, it’s as they say, complicated.

Third, we are to forgive because you shall ultimately find healing, renewal and peace in forgiveness. You will discover healing inside of you from the hatred, the resentment, the anger, the desire for revenge.  The inability to forgive the past robs you of joy and gladness for today.  It can sour your soul.   Forgiveness, as a friend told me - “Is in the long run the only remedy for the pain which you didn’t deserve and the pain that will not go away.”

When you ask God to help you forgive another person, then you open yourself up to experience God’s grace and peace in your heart.  Bitterness, unresolved anger or hostility slowly fades.  If not, such negative emotions will poison your soul. They will become toxic and bring sickness to your body. God’s grace can begin to bring healing to our lives.  “Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were,” wrote Cherie Carter-Scott.

Forgiveness can change the power that a negative past experience can have on our lives today. Lewis Smedes wrote: “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past.  A healed memory is not a deleted memory.  Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember.  We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”

A good way to begin the process of forgiving someone and to begin healing is to pray for that person.  What?  Pray you say!   This is difficult, I know, I know this personally, but ask God to give you the strength to pray for that person.  And God will.   And remember the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

I believe forgiveness is a paradox.  It is something you can do only on our own.  At the same time, we can only truly forgive, when we open ourselves to God’s grace and allow God’s Spirit to empower us to forgive.  God began by forgiving us in Jesus.

I close with these words from Ephesians: “Get rid of all bitterness, passion and anger.  No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort.  Instead, be kind and tenderhearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.” Amen!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Facing Goliaths (I Samuel 17:1-11; 48-51) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Who is the tallest person you have ever met?  I remember years ago seeing this tall guy in San Diego.  I asked a friend who he was and my friend said that’s Bill Walton.  He is 6’11”.  He played basketball for the San Diego Clippers in the early 1980’s.  Now that’s tall.  Our son Matthew told me that years ago he saw Shaquille O’Neal (Shaq) in L.A.  He is 7’1” tall.  Now that’s really tall.

But do you remember a man by the name of Robert Wadlow?  He was an American from Illinois.  He was known of the Giant of Illinois.  He died in 1940.  He was 8’ 11”.   According to official records Robert is confirmed as the tallest human being to have ever lived.

Would you consider these people giants?  Do giants exist?  And I’m not talking about the San Francisco Giants.  No, giants don’t exist.  Giants are the stuff of folklore and legend.  They are an archetype, a universal mythic character of the collective unconscious, a product of the fantasy and superstition of ancient cultures.  Giants are the characters of stories like the English fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, the trolls of German literature, the Cyclops of Greek and Roman literature and Paul Bunyon of American literature. They are the myths of ages past when people personified evil or fear of the unknown or the unexplainable in the form of giants who walked the land.   In these modern sophisticated times we know that giants aren’t real or are they?

What is our traditional image of giants?  They are superhuman aberrations of prodigious size and power.  They possess extraordinary strength and physical proportions, they can inflict havoc and destruction at will, and it’s nearly impossible to stop them, which leads us to our story from I Samuel about a giant, Goliath.

Goliath, a Philistine, was a real person. He was an historical figure.   He was not a figment of the Jewish imagination.   In our story the armies of the Israelite tribes of King Saul, the king of Israel and their enemies, the Philistines, are lined up preparing for battle, each camped on a mountain with a valley between them in the area we know today as the Gaza strip.  The year is about 1000 B.C.

Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, we are told was 6 cubits and a span, a little over 9 feet tall.  A height that is believable.  Reaching a little over nine feet is not much of a stretch of the imagination.  A giant of a man, he was heavily armed, was a champion soldier, had fought in many battles, and was obviously a terrifying adversary.

Goliath shouts to the Israelites: “Why have you come out to draw up for battle?  Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul.  Choose a man for yourselves and let him come down to me.  If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants, but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.  Today I defy the ranks of Israel. Give me a man that we may fight together.” The story says:  “When King Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.”  Can you blame them?

David, a boy and servant of the kind approaches King Saul and offers to fight Goliath.  Saul tells him he is just a boy and is no match for the warrior Goliath.  But David argues that as a shepherd who has taken care of sheep for many years, he had become skilled with the slingshot.  He tells Saul that over the years he has killed lions and bears with his slingshot to protect the sheep.  He says this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them.  David goes on to say:  “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.  So Saul said to David, Go and may the Lord be with you.”   David’s faith in God is strong.  He believes God has called him and is sending him for just such a time as this.   Saul has David put on a heavy coat of armor, but David says:  “I cannot walk with these, for I am not used to them.”  So David removes them.  Then he takes his staff in his hand, and selects five smooth stones, he puts them in his shepherd’s bag, takes his sling in hand and goes to meet Goliath.

Goliath begins to taunt David. “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?”  David replies:  “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand.”  And David puts his hand in his bag, takes out a stone, slings it and strikes Goliath on his forehead, and the giant falls dead to the ground.

It’s a factual account, an inspiring story.  But that was a long time ago.  Are giants still a threat today?   Yes, they may take other forms, but giants do exist today.  I consider crime, where you or I can become a victim any time of a robber or mugger or murderer a giant.  I consider life-threatening illnesses giants which we must face with today.  I consider problems that we wrestle with, problems which seem overwhelming and insolvable, giants of today.  I consider fears which haunt you and sap your courage and energy giants of today.  I consider bullies as modern day giants; whether on the school playground or in the workplace.   I consider radical extremist Islamic terrorism a giant, a giant which continues to stalk, and wreak havoc and murder at will in America and around the world.  The attacks are increasing.  And if we are honest, people are afraid.  Governments are trying to figure out a way to come together and with their collective wisdom and strength defeat this terrifying giant.

Giants are things that appear beyond our ability to control alone, they overwhelm us, they are powerful.     Giants make us feel small and insignificant.  And giants can be real or imagined.  They may exist in reality or in our minds as irrational fears, delusions, but if we believe them to be true, they are real to us.   Are there giants you are dealing with in your life?

Dr. David Jeremiah, pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church writes: “Listen, can you hear them coming?  You can run, but you cannot hide.  You might as well come out and fight.  Yes, the giants are abroad.    They cast their long shadow over everything we aspire to do, every new land we seek to inhabit, every dream we hope to pursue.  They have long intimidated us.  There are other kinds of giants that lurk around every corner to bring ruin and destruction in the land of our lives?   If we think a little more carefully, if we think a little more deeply, we might begin to identify some modern day giants in our lives.”

Giants may be real or in our minds.  Like the bus driver who was driving along his usual route.  Everything was going well.  And them at one stop this large burly man boarded the bus.  He was built like a wrestler.  He glared at the bus driver and told him, "Big John doesn't pay money!" Then he sat down at the back of the bus. The driver was a short slender man, so he didn't argue with Big John.  But he wasn't happy about it.

The next day big John boarded the bus again, said he didn’t pay money, and sat down. It happened day after day. The bus driver began to lose sleep over the way Big John was taking advantage of him.  He felt Big John was intentionally intimidating him and taking advantage of him.

Finally, the bus driver couldn’t stand it any longer. The next Monday, Big John stepped onto the bus and declared, "Big John doesn't pay money!" Enraged, the driver stood up, got into Big John’s face and bellowed, "And why not?"  With a surprised look on his face, Big John replied, "Cause Big John has a bus pass."   Yes, some fears and problems aren’t real, but become giants in our minds.

Dr. David Jeremiah writes about emotional giants in his book: Facing the Giants in your Life. He identifies 12 of them: Fear, Discouragement, Loneliness, Worry, Guilt, Temptation, Anger, Resentment, Doubt, Procrastination, and Failure.  Yes, giants do exist in different forms today.  They still pose a threat to our existence.  They are still a menacing presence.  I think there are lessons to be learned from our O.T. story.

First, like David, face the giants in your life.  Don’t deny them, or try to run away or hide from them and hope they will magically disappear.  No, it isn’t easy that’s true.  Denying or trying to escape always seems like the best path.  But I believe God is saying in this story that we need to stand up and stand tall and face those giants which threaten our lives today.

Second, practice self-discipline, stay in regular training, intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually for you never know when a giant will appear.  David had years of training as a shepherd in using the slingshot and staff to defend and protect sheep before God sent him to face Goliath.  God desires that we continually prepare ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ.  We must be forewarned and forearmed.

That can mean to prepare ourselves physically in terms of regular exercise and eating a healthy diet.  It can mean preparing ourselves spiritually in terms of regularly practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, reading the Bible, growing and developing and maturing in our faith.  It can mean facing little challenges, mini-giants in life, addressing them and gaining confidence for the larger challenges to come.   It can mean making close and trusted friendships, people whom you can count on for support, love, strength and encouragement in a time in which you will face a giant.  What else comes to your mind in terms of training and preparation for the giants of life?

Third, like David, fully and completely place your trust and confidence and future in God.   Remember this.  God himself makes you and me two promises.  God is with you when you face a giant.  God goes with you.  You will never walk alone.

Hear again this promise from the letter of Romans: “What are we to say?  If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else.  In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, and I would add giants, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God will empower you. You will never walk in weakness.  Jesus says:  “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”  Jesus says: “Be of good courage.  I am with you.”  God has the strength and will give you the strength you need when you must face a giant.   You are not alone.  The church, the family of God surrounds you and will support you in a variety of ways.

Do you need to confront a giant in your life?   Have you put on the helmet of salvation and the shield of faith?    Or perhaps you are carrying a slingshot?  Yes, giants are real.  But so is God.  And our sovereign God is greater than any giant that you or I will ever face in life.  Amen!

Friday, July 15, 2016

God Has Brought Laughter (Genesis 21:1-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Do you ever have a senior moment?  Those of us who are seniors know all about them, and you younger people will one day learn about them.  Like the man who telephoned the newspaper office and shouted: “Where is my Sunday paper, I’ve been waiting all morning?”  ”Sir,” said the calm employee, “today is Saturday. The Sunday paper is not delivered until tomorrow, on Sunday.”   There was a long pause on the other end of the phone and then the man replied: “Well, heck... so that's why no one was at church today.”

There are some key propositions which pertain to life.  One life is hard. Don’t think anyone would argue with that.   Two, life is not always fair.  Sadness, tragedy, injustice is a part of life like we saw in Dallas last week.  Proposition three - Life is also enjoyable and can be humorous.  I believe all three propositions are true.   What about you?

Which takes us to our morning lesson.  First, laughter is a gift from God, a marvelous gift, which God has blessed us with!  We may infer that God has a sense of humor since we are made in God’s image.  Sydney Harris wrote: “God cannot be solemn or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter.” I agree. God must have a sense of humor because He made aardvarks, orangutans, and me.  I truly believe God has a sense of humor which He has passed on to us.  Comedians play an important role in our culture.  They get us in touch with the humorous said of our nature.

Second, having a sense of humor is critical in life.  If you don’t have a good sense of humor, I suggest you work on it.  It is an invaluable resource, an essential quality, which can help get one through many of the trials we face.  It means we need to remember not to take ourselves too seriously.  It means we need to be able to laugh at ourselves.   It’s important to recognize and appreciate our own imperfections and idiosyncrasies, and not get all worked up when others tease us, or when we say or do something foolish or when we don't get the respect we believe we are due or when we make a mistake and feel embarrassed or frustrated with ourselves.    I remember when our family first came back to visit FPC Santa Monica, after we were in CO for a couple of years.  We knew the people in Santa Monica well having served there as pastor for many years.  I walked in and people crowded around Nancy and me welcoming us back.  It felt good to be back and to get all this attention.  Then one woman looked at me and said: “Hi pastor, welcome back.  You look about the same, except your cheeks are chubbier.”  There are times when we take ourselves and the things which happen to us too seriously.   English author G.K.  Chesterton said: “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.”

We need a balancing factor in life with all of the bad and sad things that are part of life and one of the best is humor.  Humor is one of the most important qualities for good mental health and a balanced state of mind.   I get a little suspicious when I'm around someone who never laughs, who doesn't seem to see humor in anything, especially in themselves.

What a joy to not only see something that strikes you as funny and sets you laughing, but to see and hear others laugh around you.  What a gift to have a friend whom you can laugh with.    Laughter is contagious.  It brightens the day.  It lifts the mood.  Being around such people is a blessing from God.

Our granddaughter makes us laugh.  I’m sure you who have grandchildren know what I mean.  Our 3-year-old granddaughter Haven was down last weekend.  She calls me Hopper.  She loves to listen to stories and read stories to you.  Of course she makes up the words since she doesn’t know how to read.  She was reading me a story and I said something and she said: “Hopper, don’t talk, the other children’s can’t hear.”  Then I stood up for a second, and she said: “Hopper don’t stand up, the other children’s can’t see.”  Then I apparently broke another rule and she asked me to leave the room and sit in the hallway with the toys in a time out.

Being able to see some humor in life’s surprises or unexpected twists and turns is indeed a blessing.  There are people who live unhappy, miserable lives because everything is serious and they can't seem to see humor.  A life without laughter, is empty and barren and joyless.

So how is your sense of humor?   What kinds of things strike you as funny?  God has created us to be able to appreciate irony, satire, to see humor in the mundane, to see hilarity in the ordinary and be amused by amusing things.

If one can learn to see humor in life's events, one will be able to experience the joy and happiness which is fundamental to the life God has given to us.   Laughter generates the equilibrium we need, it becomes a stabilizing factor, when things begin to reel out of control around us.  Laughter is an essential ingredient in one's life survival kit.

You never know when funny things will happen.  At another church I was serving, I was wearing my robe and had a cordless mic underneath.  The receiver was hooked on my belt.  Somehow the receiver dropped off my belt and was dangling down.  The weight of it began to tighten the cord around my arm.  I was leading communion at the time.  As I tried to loosen the cord, and break the bread at the same time, the cord tightened around my arm and began pulling my hand toward my shoulder.  I had to lean down to try to pour the wine and break the bread but as I did I became more and more twisted up and tangled up and realized I now had only one hand to use for communion.  At first I started to panic, I thought, do I say hold on a second, and take my robe off and untangle myself, or just push on through.  Finally, I just relaxed, saw the humor in it, and God somehow guided me to finish the sacrament.  I don’t know if anyone noticed or not.

I like the stories in the book of Genesis where Sarah, Abraham’s wife, speaks about laughter.  In Genesis chapter 18 mysterious visitors come to visit Abraham and he offers them the customary hospitality.  One of them tells Abraham that Sarah will have a son.  Sarah overhears the man and laughs at this preposterous idea given her advanced age.   The visitor says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”  Sarah quickly says, “I didn't laugh.”  The visitor says, “Oh yes you did laugh.”

In Genesis 21 we celebrate the joy of the birth of a son and Abraham names him Isaac.  The name Isaac in Hebrew means – he laughs.    The earlier promise of the three mysterious visitors is fulfilled.  And Sarah exclaims, “God has brought laughter for me, everyone who hears will laugh with me.  Who would ever had said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children.  Yet, I have borne him a son in his old age.” God surprises Abraham and Sarah with the gift of a son in their old age.  And they are filled with joy.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, we read in the third chapter: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven, a time to weep and a time to laugh.”  The psalmist in psalm 126 writes: “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with shouts of joy.”

We read in the book of Proverbs: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.”  Laughter is good for the soul.  Having a sense of humor helps to keep us healthy: spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically.  It’s a powerful antidote to stress, pain and conflict.  It lightens your burdens, inspires hope, connects you with others, and keeps you grounded.

Studies have shown that laugher has healing properties and powers.   Norman Cousins, a well-known writer at the time was diagnosed in 1964 as having a serious disease involving the connective tissues.  He was told that his chances for survival were 1 in 500.  Dr. Cousins’ decided to design his own plan for recovery.    He designed a program which required daily use of all the positive emotions.  Among them were faith, love and hope and laughter.  He asked: “How do you laugh when you’ve been told you have an irreversible disease and don’t have long to live?”

Cousins’ developed a systematic program for getting daily doses of hearty laughter.  He watched reruns of the old Candid Camera programs and the Marx Brothers movies, anything which would make him laugh.  Later on he wrote of his healing experiences in his book Anatomy of an Illness. He writes: “It worked.  I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain free sleep.”  Yes, laughter is good medicine.  It stirs up the blood, it expands the chest, it electrifies the nerves, it clears the brain and renews the body and mind.

A sense of humor contributes to healing, to changing attitudes, to reducing oversized egos, to expanding undersized egos, to deflating inflated pride, and putting a smile on a solemn face.  It opens up a fresh breeze of humility and spontaneity, self-acceptance, gratitude and appreciation for life.

Thomas Edison attributed his success in the seriousness of life to appreciating the less-serious.   He was renowned for working long hours and enduring thousands of frustrations.   What’s not well known are his methods for sustaining himself while working on scientific experiments.  He discovered that humor put his mind at ease.  In addition to maintaining hundreds of notebooks full of scientific equations, he filled several others with nothing but jokes.  He found that comic relief was valuable for both him and his staff.  He used it as a tension breaker and as a morale builder.  He said that people who laugh together can work longer and more effectively together.

The Psalmist says: “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with shouts of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ May God fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.”  Amen!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Free in Christ (John 8:31-32; Galatians 5:1-2, 13-14) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Do human beings desire freedom more than anything else?  Is freedom what human beings value most?   Thirteenth century Scottish knight William Wallace led Scotland in a war for independence from England.  In the movie, Braveheart, he inspires his warriors before the battle with these words: “Aye, fight and you may die.  Run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!”   If people are willing to die for it; it is all-important.

In the Mariners' Museum in Newport News Virginia, there's a special display of a rickety, home-made aluminum kayak. This tiny makeshift boat seems out of place among thousands of Navy vessels from significant battles throughout history.  But there is a story behind this kayak.  In 1966, an auto mechanic named Laureano and his wife Consuelo decided that they could no longer live under the oppression of Cuba's totalitarian regime.  After spending months collecting scrap metal, they pieced together a boat just barely big enough for two small people. Then Laureano jerry-rigged a small lawn mower engine on the back of the kayak.

On a moonless night, they set out in their kayak toward the treacherous Straits of Florida. They had only enough water and food for a couple of days.  Finally, after they had floated in open water for over 70 hours, the U.S. Coast Guard found and rescued the couple in the Florida Keys.

Laureano was asked if the risk was worth it?  He replied: “When one has grown up in liberty, you realize how important it is.  We lived in the enormous prison which is Cuba, where one's life is not worth one crumb. Where one goes out into the street and does not know whether or not one will return to one's home, because the political police can arrest you without any warning and put you in prison. Before this could happen to us, we thought that going into the ocean, and risking death or being eaten by sharks, is a million times better than to stay suffering under political oppression.”    Yes, freedom is everything when you see people willing to risk their very lives for it.

Tomorrow America will celebrate its Independence Day.  It's a day worth celebrating.  It's a day which should be remembered.   According to many global observers freedom is what America still represents to the world.   Historically, political, economic and religious freedom was the motivating force in the American Revolution.  Voices cried out for independence from Great Britain, for self-government, freedom of worship and fair representation.   You recall the words from our famous declaration in authored in Philadelphia:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   Ideally liberty can't be taken away or given up because it is an unalienable right, a right that comes from God not man.

Our nation was founded upon the Judeo/Christian covenant, a covenant with and under God.   We believe that freedom is an indispensable right and gift from God.  We believe freedom is worth sacrificing for.  We believe freedom must be protected and defended.  We believe freedom always comes with a cost.  We seek God's guidance and blessings as we strive to live out what freedom means in our nation in a changing and complex world.   We see this example and spirit epitomized in the military, and in first responders, who stand on the front lines of freedom.

Today, in the light of increasing terrorist attacks both here and abroad, the government and public debate many issues, such as individual privacy vs. the government's right to know, individual liberty vs. national security, the Second amendment's right to bear arms vs. the governments role to protect its citizens, and racial profiling vs. civil liberty for all.

We value both freedom and security for ourselves, our children and grandchildren.  In regard to immigration, the emotional debate continues about the God given human right and freedom to travel, to move from one country to another, verses a nation's right and duty to protect its borders, and ensure an orderly process of immigration.  The immigration issue is made more complicated in the light of Islamic terrorists who take advantage and use it as a means to gain entry to our nation.

The Bible also speaks to the notion of freedom.  The Bible is the source of the idea in the Declaration of Independence that freedom is an unalienable right which comes from God.  But it goes a step further.  It further spells out what true freedom is.

The Bible doesn't romanticize the notion of freedom.  It declares that we are never so free that we can do anything we want.  It declares that we are never totally free.  We human beings are always subject to some dominating power, we are always vulnerable to some yoke of slavery.  If not God's lordship, then some other ruler or power or person in this earthly life, that is, our own weaknesses and vices, culture, tradition or to a political system.  Why - scripture says human beings are slaves to sin, that is, to self-centeredness, to self-worship, to idolatry, to rebellion against their creator.  Sin is what drives people to dreams of world conquest or to dominate another human being.  And yes, we can become slaves to the evil one, to Satan.

But the good news is this – in Christ we can find freedom.  Through faith in Christ, we can begin to experience the freedom which God intended for us.  What is biblical freedom or independence?  It is a paradox, Judeo Christian freedom is becoming a slave to Christ.  Judeo Christian freedom is being a servant to God.   We are truly free, when we are bound to God and God alone.

Our scriptures state that human freedom originates from God, not from a powerful human, like a king, but from God.  The letter of Galatians says:  “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”   John's Gospel says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”  Faith in Christ set's us free; the truth of Christ makes us free.

We are free from the paralyzing power of sin, free from the power of evil, free from the fear of death, free to love our neighbor, free to care for others, free to worship God, free to be honest, free to practice justice and morality, free to sacrifice for others, free to even give our lives for others.  You and were created by God to live free lives in our relationships with God and one another.  Christian freedom is a divine gift; it is rooted in the liberating work of God in Jesus Christ.  We receive it by faith, and it's sealed upon our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Author Elden Trueblood writes:  “We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom, to the effect that we are most free when we are bound.  But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matters is the character of our binding.  The one who would like to be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or on the track. His failure to train rigorously and to practice abstinence denies him the freedom to go over the bar at the desired height, or to run with the desired speed and endurance.  Slavery to self-discipline is the price of freedom."

The Christian faith declares that God sent Jesus, who submitted himself to the slavery of death, so through faith in Him Jesus' followers might be set free from the power of sin and free to serve God.   Christ has set us free.   Let us use our freedom not for self indulgence but to glorify God.  Amen.