Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent 2: The Coming Celebration (Hebrews 1:1-14) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A father writes: “For two months before her third birthday our daughter Sandie said, "I'm going to have a party" countless times a day.  When her birthday was over, Sandie then told everyone, "I had a party countless times a day."  Finally we told her not to talk about the party any more.  For one whole day, no mention was made. But as I tucked her into bed that night she prayed, "Dear God, I can't talk about it, but thank you for my birthday party."  Amen!  Yes, birthdays are joyful occasions.

In the Gospel of Luke the angel announces: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”  Christmas is about joyful news for all people.   Christmas is a time for celebration.  How did the Christmas Holy Day start?  The Bible says: “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of woman.”  We don’t know the precise date of Jesus’ birth.  Christmas was first observed by the church as the birthday of Jesus somewhere around A.D. 325 or later.  St. Chrysostom says that Pope Julius I of Rome, was responsible for establishing December 25 as the birth date of Jesus. 

A Roman pagan festival had been held on this date to celebrate the Winter Solstice, when the North Pole is farthest away from the sun.  It was the feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, which was starting to turn northward once again.   In a bold action, the Church re-instituted a Christian celebration for a pagan feast.   The church was making the culture conform to the faith and introduced a Christian holy day.    From that time to today, December 25th has honored not the unconquerable sun, but the birthday of the Son of God. 

For centuries Christians have promulgated arguments for and against this historical fact.   One argument is that since the roots of Christmas are pagan, with pagan symbols and trappings still attached to it, like feasts and trees and lights and ornaments representing stars and planets, we should not celebrate it.   The Puritans outlawed Christmas in Boston for 22 years and it wasn’t fully accepted until the mid 1800’s.

The counter argument is that the church was being faithful to the commission of Christ to go out and convert the world, to win the world for Christ.  So it was a good thing to turn a pagan festival into a Christian holy day.  This argument asserts that trees and symbols representing stars or planets are good, God made them; lights on the tree are good, God created light and Jesus is the light of the world; singing is good, the angels sang; giving gifts is good, the Magi brought gifts to Jesus.  So you decide which argument you agree with.

Why are birthdays special?    Birthdays say: “We’re happy you were born.  We are glad you are alive for another year.  You count among us and we want to honor you.”   We don’t commiserate with someone on their birthday, dress in black clothing and say: “Oh no another birthday, I’m so sorry for you, I feel terrible for you and immediately burst into tears; no, we say Happy Birthday!”  We don’t say: “Miserable Christmas; we say Merry Christmas!”   Christmas is about a birthday party, the birthday of Jesus the Savior of the world.   There are some spectacular Christmas celebrations of Jesus around the world in cities like San Juan, Puerto Rico, Rome, Italy, and Rio de Janero, Brazil

Yes, Jesus’ birth was forgettable and pedestrian on the one hand, and yet on the other it was an extraordinary birth of historical and cosmic significance.   Remember every time you check your calendar you are using Jesus Christ as your reference point, because history is divided into B.C. and A.D. 

Other holidays recognize but one day; Christmas is celebrated for 12 days.   That seems right to me since it is about the coming Savior of the world.   We celebrate the good news of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds.  It’s good news, no matter who you are or what you have done.  It’s good news, not for a select few, but for all people. 

What is the heart of the good news of Christmas.  It's not –“ Whew, I made it through another year,” or “I'm celebrating that I've finished all my shopping.”   It's not about Rudolph, or Frosty, or Santa, or The Grinch, its this: Emmanuel, God is with you, God is for you, and God loves you.  It’s the good news that God saw that because of sin and evil, the world needed a savior and God sent one.

Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback church writes:  “Christmas reminds us that God is not mad at you.   God is mad about you.”  Jesus said:  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.” 

Christmas declares that God knew that the best way to communicate with us would be to come in person.  If God had wanted to communicate with birds, he would have become a bird, if God had wanted to communicate with dogs, he would have become a dog, if God had wanted to communicate with cats, he would have become a cat, but God wanted to communicate with human beings, so God became one of us in Jesus.   Like when comedian Billy Crystal’s daughter got a call from him saying there was a birthday present waiting for her on the front porch.  She was on the east coast and thought her father was calling from the west coast.  She walked out and saw a large box on the porch.  When she opened it, out jumped Billy Crystal?  

Listen to how the Gospel writer John speaks of Christmas:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”    

Listen to what the letter of Hebrews says about Christmas:  “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, who sustains all things by his powerful word.” 

Christmas announces that God the creator condescended, bent down and got involved with His creatures.  That the God of the heavens decided to get his hands dirty.  The immortal God took on human mortality.   God stepped out of eternity into our time.  God showed up in our neighborhood.   Christian music like George Frederick Handel’s Messiah, Christian art like the Adoration of the Magi and the Adoration of the Shepherds, and Christmas carols honor and rejoice in the greatest birth the world has ever known.

Christmas celebrates God’s love. God loved us so much, that he came to earth as a human.  Christmas celebrates God’s revelation, God revealed himself to us in Jesus so we could see who God is and what God is like and come to know him and trust him and follow him and worship him and love him.  Christmas celebrates God’s purpose - God sent Jesus as our Savior to save us from our sins, to enlist us in Christ's service, and to instill hope and joy and strength and peace for our lives today and forever.

Christmas declares the truth that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human.  It affirms the unique unity of God and humanity in this one person.  That is a theological way of saying as scripture does that Jesus was born of a virgin.  Being born accents Jesus’ humanity and being born of a virgin accents his divinity.   Christmas declares that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, the anointed One of Israel, as foretold by the prophets.

A Pastor writes:  “I had to go to church and our 5 year old daughter Lauren remained home with her mother.  When I arrived back home later that day, I saw that our daughter had placed figures of her miniature nativity set at each person's plate.  Apparently shepherds, wise men, cows, and sheep would be joining us for dinner.  Then she raced into the kitchen. "Daddy, Daddy!" "Jesus is missing!  We've looked everywhere and can't find him!"  As I glanced at the supper table, I didn't see baby Jesus anywhere!" We looked high and low.  Then I zeroed in on her backpack which she carries everywhere she goes.  In it she transports her hair bows, her Barbie, her plastic wallet, and gummi bears.  And there, at the bottom of the pack was baby Jesus, ready to go with her to preschool the next day." 

“I later realized that Jesus wasn't "missing in action" at all.  He was in the middle of the action. His place in Lauren's backpack was divinely appropriate.  In the midst of all the symbols of my daughter's interests and activities was the Lord of life.”  “Christmas reminds us that Jesus is right there in the middle of it all.  We are not alone.  God sent Jesus to us and He remains with us in all our days.”   

Don’t let the pressure and stress and preparations of the season, cause you to miss out on the good news, the joy of Christmas.  In the light of this busy season, in closing, listen to a version of the 23rd Psalm that I think is so appropriate for Advent.  “The lord is my pace setter . . . I shall not rush.  He makes me stop for quiet intervals, He provides me with images of stillness which restore my serenity.  He leads me in the way of efficiency through calmness of mind and his guidance is peace. Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day, I will not fret, for his presence is here, His timelessness, his all importance will keep me in balance.  He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity by anointing my mind with his oils of tranquility. My cup of joyous energy overflows. Truly harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours, for I shall walk in the Pace of my Lord and dwell in his house for ever.  The author is Mother Teresa.

Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, who sustains all things by his powerful word.”  This is the one we shall honor in the coming celebration.  Amen!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent 1: Maranatha (Revelation 22: 12-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I remember an author who told his story about being adopted.  He barely remembered his birth parents.   He learned as he grew older that his father had abandoned him when he was a baby, leaving him alone with his mother, who gradually descended into the dark world of drugs.   Parents are supposed to care for and protect children, but this didn't happen in his case.  Eventually his plight came to the attention of child protective services.  At age 3 he was removed from his home and became a ward of the state and was placed into the foster care system.   He lived with different families but the situations were less than ideal.   He said it just never seemed to fit.  

He said that from the time he could remember, he had dreamed about a loving family coming to adopt him.  He said he wanted desperately to find someone to belong to and to be able to call them mother and father and to be called son.  He waited and waited and hoped that day would come.  When he was 10 years old, a Christian family came to visit him.  He said the meeting was surreal, it was like they were always meant to be together.  Eventually the family adopted him and raised him with love and guidance and Christian faith.  He said that he was forever grateful to God for sending these people to adopt him after all the years of waiting and hoping to finally belong to a family. 

Yes in life we often find ourselves looking to the future for something.   Sometimes we await with optimism and hope.  Other times we are fearful and anxious about what the future holds, we are pessimistic and gloomy.   How do you look to the future?

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent and Advent is all about looking to the future.  That the future belongs to God and that God will fulfill His purpose for the world are fundamental truths of our Judeo Christian faith.  The future of this world does not belong to the devil, to sinful human eings, to evil, to any political system, to any nation, to any dictator, or terrorist organization, no, it belongs solely to God. 

What does the Bible say about the future, Christ is coming?  God who created this world has a plan for the consummation of all creation.  At Christ's return, the world as we know it will come to an end, and in its place, a new or transformed universe will be established.  No, the world will not be totally annihilated by God, but rather the world will be restored and set right. This is the Christian Biblical world view. 

The Bible paints different pictures about how God will usher in this future – Armageddon, the final victory of God over evil, the Apocalypse, resurrection, rapture, second coming, universal judgment, and glorification.  

It's ironic that another word which occurs only once in Scripture, has become a popular word in the language of the church and the Christian vocabulary about Advent.   Maranatha!  It is an Aramaic word – and it means “Come Lord,” or Our Lord, Come”.  It expresses a profound desire and hope among Christians down through the ages for the cosmic return of Christ to the world.  It is perhaps the shortest of all Christian prayers.  It is a one word prayer, a petition to God, “Maranatha, come Lord.”   I'm sure you appreciate being able to leave church today knowing how to speak some Aramaic.

You see this word, this prayer, this notion everywhere.  There are Maranatha schools in San Diego and around the country, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, Maranatha music out of the 70's, Maranatha Book stores, Maranatha chapel,  Maranatha Volunteers International and more.

Jesus said: Watch, hope, wait for God’s future!   Yes, Jesus said watch out for false prophets and false messiahs, but he also said watch for the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus also said watch out for wars, famines, pestilences, and natural disasters but he also said wait for the coming Messiah.  Jesus further said watch out for times of persecution, but also watch out for the glorious return of the Lord of Lords.   Jesus always kept the accent on the victory, the triumph, the defeat of evil, the positive outcome, God's fulfilled purpose, the ultimate sovereignty of God. 

And we should too.  Often I hear all about bleak and dire predictions about the future.  We look with fear, with terror, with anxiety, with despair, about tomorrow.   But we as people of faith need to remember who holds the future, who the future belongs to, and whose plans and purpose will ultimately prevail in the future.

I believe with all my soul that Jesus’ is coming again in glory?   Why?  First, I believe it because Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord, the Savior, the Word incarnate declares it to be so!  Jesus says: “You will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.  It is like a man going on a journey when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the hour will come, in the evening, or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn.”   

Second, I believe it because this truth is attested to in the Bible and the Bible is the unique, authoritative and inspired Word of God!  Entire chapters and books of the Bible are devoted to this promise about the coming end of the world.   There are 216 chapters and well over 300 references to the return of Christ.    

Third, I believe it because the Biblical and Christian view of history predicts it!   The ancient Greeks believed that the world  was eternal and cyclical, going round and round like an eternal merry-go-round.   According to our Judeo/Christian tradition only God is eternal. Once there was no world, no matter, no life, no organisms, no cells, no atoms.  God created the world.   Our Judeo/Christian tradition describes it as teleological.   The world is moving toward the end time, to the destination which God has appointed when God’s final purpose for His world will be realized.   Life and history are meaningful not meaningless.   There is one divine, far-off event toward which the whole creation is moving; the final triumph of God.   

Fourth, I believe it because the Biblical view of justice declares it.   We see in history and today as well that righteous and innocent people have suffered and been oppressed and persecuted.   The wicked have prospered.  We have seen horrific examples of evil in the rule of dictators and tyrants of countries who have murdered millions.  Yet, the Bible says we are not to despair.  God is holy.  They will be held accountable before the judge.  You reap what you sow.   Justice declares that Christ there will be a divine reckoning.   

Jesus’ judgment will be a universal judgment, all of the living and the dead.  God will judge humanity’s behavior, good and bad, moral and immoral, good deeds and misdeeds.  He will judge how much light humanity has about God and morality and what we have done with that faith and knowledge.  God will judge cruelty, injustice, oppression, disobedience and faithlessness.   And unlike human beings, and our judicial system, which though a good system in many respects, is imperfect and flawed, God’s judgment is perfect.   God will judge with consummate fairness and even handedness.  

Acts 17:31 says:  "God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

Finally, I believe in Christ’s coming because God loves His creation. God is a loving God, a forgiving God; merciful and kind, empathetic and compassionate, patient and slow to anger.  The God we worship is one who brings hope and new life and new beginnings in the future.    God loves the world and the people he created.   And that’s why the Bible is clear – God will judge the world and purge the world, but God will not destroy it, God will not annihilate the world.  I believe contemporary prophets of only doom and gloom are wrong.   God will renew the world. God will restore the world. God will re-create a new and glorious world.

In the mean time we must keep watch, keep awake, and wait, for we don’t know when Jesus will return.  We must look to the future with hope and not hopelessness, with courage and not fear.   Christ is coming and a new indescribable, unimaginable, and spectacular world will be established forever. 

I close with these inspiring words from the Book of Revelation:   “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  Maranatha!  Amen!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Where are They? (Luke 17:11-19) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Comedian Louis C.K.  whose known for his biting, acerbic and sacrcastic humor, became famous for the following routine.   By November 2011 the clip was burning up the internet and had over 4 million views.  Here's what he said to poke fun at our ingratitude and impatience:

"Everything's amazing right now, but nobody's happy."  In my lifetime the changes in the world have been incredible. When I was a kid, we had a rotary phone. We had a phone you had to stand next to, and you had to dial it.  Do you realize how primitive that was?  And you would actually hate people who had zeroes in their number because it was more work.   And then if you called and they weren't home, the phone would just ring lonely by itself.

And then if you wanted money you had to go into a real bank—and it was open for like three hours, and you'd stand in line and write a check.  And then if you ran out of money, you'd just say, "Well, I just can't do any more things now."  Now we live in an amazing, amazing world, and it's wasted on a generation of spoiled people that don't care. This is what people are like now: they've got their phone, and they go, "Ugh, it won't work fast enough."  Give it a second!  It's going to space. Will you give it a second to get back from space?  Is the speed of light too slow for you?

I was on an airplane, and there was high-speed internet …. And I'm sitting on the plane, and they say, "Open up your laptop, you can go on the internet."  And then the thing breaks down. They apologize, "The internet's not working we apologize." And the guy next to me says, "O, great this stinks." Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago.

People come back from flights, and they tell you their story, and it's a horror story …. They say, "It was the worst day of my life.  First of all, we didn't board for twenty minutes.  And then we get on the plane, and they made us sit there on the runway for forty minutes." And I say, "O, really, and what happened next?  Did you fly in the air, incredibly, like a bird?  Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?"  Everybody on every plane should be constantly screaming,"WOW!" We're flying.  We're sitting in a chair in the sky!  Here's the thing: People say there are "delays" on flights. Delays, really? New York to California in five hours!   It used to take thirty years to do that, and a bunch of you would die on the way.”

The season of thanksgiving, of giving thanks, is upon us.  Clearly, the origin of Thanksgiving Day was never meant to be a generic holiday, a day to give thanks in general, but a day to specifically give thanks and praise to God, to seek God’s intervention in ending the civil war which had torn the nation apart and to bring reconciliation and healing between the States.

President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, established a special day called Thanksgiving.  He wrote: “I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the united States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.  And I recommend that they fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty’s hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”   Inspiring words.

The season of Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity to examine our hearts and attitudes and to honestly reflect on some important questions: Am I a thankful person?  Do I live a thankful life?  Do I have a thankful heart?  What am I truly thankful for?  How do I give thanks?

I assert that being thankful, the trait or quality thankfulness, is not natural to human beings.  It must be taught and caught.  You see it in children – one of the first lessons parents teach their children is to say thank you.  Our Gospel story about lepers further illustrates this  assertion.  Lepers were  feared and loathed in Jesus’ day.  They were despised and repulsive to gaze upon.   Their mere presence horrified people who feared they would become infected with the dreaded disease.  They were socially ostracized, cut off from family, prohibited from entering the temple, and banished to outlying caves or valleys or villages away from the community.  They were literally the zombies, the walking dead of their day.

In our story Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and as he approaches a village, ten lepers confront him.  For the average person meeting one leper one be terrifying enough, let alone being surrounded by ten lepers.  The story says: “Keeping their distance, they cried out in desperation Jesus Master, have mercy on us.”   The law required that lepers keep a distance from people.  For example when the wind was blowing the law said lepers must stand at least 50 yards away.  The law specified that if a leper saw someone approaching, they had to cross to the other side of the road and yell unclean three times, to warn people.        

These lepers knew in their hearts that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi.  They call him master and believed that Jesus had the power to heal.  And out of compassion and by the divine power pulsating within him, Jesus heals them.  

Now if Jesus healed me of a dreaded disease, I would be ecstatic.  How about you? I would fall on my knees and kiss his feet and say thank you God.  And yet though ten lepers were healed, only one leper returned and gave thanks.  “A Samaritan, seeing that he was healed, turned back and with a loud voice glorified God, fell down on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.”

Jesus exclaims: “Were not ten made clean?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give God praise except this foreigner?”  You can hear the sadness and disappointment in Jesus’ words.   Why was Jesus disappointed that only one leper had returned to give thanks?   Were his feelings hurt that they didn't return to thank him and show their appreciation?  No.  Jesus was deeply concerned about their spiritual life, the condition of their soul and heart.   An ungrateful heart, a cold heart, a callous heart is a form of spiritual death.  Jesus healed the lepers so that they would give glory to God.  “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God?”  He had wanted them to come to a living faith in God, to walk with God, to worship God for their miraculous gift of healing.   But alas, only one praised God in a loud voice.

Author Jim Stovall in his book, The Ultimate Gift writes:  “I have always found it ironic that the people in this world who have the most to be thankful for are often the least thankful, and somehow the people who have virtually nothing, many times live lives full of gratitude.”  Do you agree?    Is that your observation?  Have you found that to be true?
Look inside yourself for a moment.  Is your heart thankful, if yes, ask yourself why?  Why are you a thankful person?  Since thankfulness is not intrinsic to human nature, what has formed your heart?   I suspect a growing and maturing faith has something to do with it. 

Or is your heart thankless?  If you have an ungrateful heart, repent, tell God you are sorry, seek God’s forgiveness and ask God to change it.  And God will.  A contemporary praise chorus says:  “Change my heart oh God Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be likeYou. You are the potter I am the clay, Mold me and make me, This is what I pray.  Change my heart oh God, Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be like You.”   Yes, a growing, dynamic and genuine faith in God has a way of stimulating and producing a grateful heart.   

The quality of gratitude is key to a healthy life.  First, a thankful heart reduces stress in your life by making you more content with who you are and what you have.  You are able to see something to give thanks for in every situation.  You will discover that God can bring something good out of your situation, and that God can save you from descending into the pit of resentment and bitterness.  Second, a grateful heart can increase joy in your life.  Focusing on blessings, focusing on the positive, rather than the negative, helps to produce joy.  Third, a grateful heart builds positive relationships.  Thank-less, ungrateful people repel; thankful, appreciative people attract.  Exuding a spirit of gratitude draws people closer to you.  And fourth,  giving thanks for the gift of life brings you ever closer to the Giver of life.  Praying steadily to God for a thankful heart, for a thankful spirit, is a good prayer.  It is a prayer God will answer because it is His will for His people, for you and for me.

The closer our walk with God the greater our ability to sincerely give thanks from the heart.  Someone wrote: "What a gift it is to be born with an outlook toward the bright side of things!  And if not so by nature, what a triumph of grace to be made thankful through a renewed heart. It is so much more comfortable and rational to see what we have to be thankful for and to rejoice accordingly, than to have our vision for ever filled with our lacks and our needs. Happy are they who possess this gift! Blessings may fail and fortunes vary, but the thankful heart remains. The Happy Past at least is secure...and heaven is ahead.”

Jesus asked, "Were not all ten healed? Where are they?”  Let us give thanks to the lord with our whole heart, for God's steadfast love and mercy endures forever.  Happy Thanksgiving, Amen!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

To Make a Promise (Ruth 1:15-22) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A father was skeptical of his teenage son's new found determination to start weight-lifting, but drove his teenager to a sporting goods store where they admired a set of weights.  “Please, Dad," pleaded the teen, "I promise I'll use 'em every day."  "I don't know, Michael. It's really a commitment on your part and they're not cheap either," the father said.  "I'll use 'em, Dad, I promise. You'll see."  Finally won over, the father paid for the equipment and headed for the door. After a few steps, he heard his son behind him say, "What! You mean I have to carry them to the car?"

To make a promise.  There are of course different levels of promises that we make in life. For example, over the years I have heard people complain about RSVP's.  What does R.S.V.P. mean?   It is a French phrase  "respondez, s’il vous plaĆ®t," which means "please reply or respond." The person sending the invitation wo­uld like to hear whether you accept or decline the invitation.   Will you be coming to the event or not?   It is simple courtesy to someone who was nice enough to invite you, not to mention knowing how much food to provide.  Nowadays, invitations often carry a "regrets only" notation at the end so the host will  count on your being there unless they hear otherwise.

Making and keeping promises is fundamental to human relationships.   When companies break their promises strikes occur.  When there is a breakdown in confidence between the government and the people, revolutions occur.  When there is a general breakdown in the structure of the family, an entire society is threatened.  What is a family but a community of promises made and kept?   A family is not just two or more people related by blood who happen to live under one roof.  Families dare to make promises to one another and love each other enough to keep them no matter what.  A family is held together by promises; where promises fail, families fail, where promises are honored, families thrive.  

Honoring promises says everything about building trust, about one's character, about keeping one's word, about fulfilling one's responsibility, about one's values, about respect.  People talk about the old days when your word was your bond or a deal was sealed with a handshake.  Now it takes lawyers and pages of legalese.  

According to our Christian faith, because of sin, human nature is commitment adverse.  We try to avoid making commitments or promises in the first place to ourselves, to others and to God and have little or no shame in breaking those promises we have made.    Some people spend their lives either struggling against making commitments or in frantically trying to get out of them.   They say:  “I’m not a joiner,” “I don’t get involved.”  “Maybe, but I can't promise.”  “Sorry, I forgot, something else came along.” “It's your problem, not mine.”  “Find someone else.”  “I like to keep my options open!”  Honoring promises says far more than any words we speak.  Yes, in the final analysis words are cheap.  “Don't tell me how much you care until you show me how much you care.”  Actions do indeed speak louder than words. 

Are there promises or commitments you have had trouble keeping?  I suspect that's true of most of us.  Can you think of someone who made and kept a promise to you?  Can you think of someone who broke a promise to you?  Can you think of a promise you have kept?  Do you recall a promise you have broken?   There are no short cuts in becoming the person God created and intended you and me to become.  It is about seeking God's help and doing the right thing, even if the right thing isn’t the easy or most expedient thing.   Is there a commitment you are wrestling with today?

A pastor sent a letter to a family that had not attended worship for sometime to indicate that they were missed and that he hoped to see them back soon. A letter came back in response which said: "Rev. Anderson, nice to hear from you, we have discovered a mega church near us and now go most Sundays.   They have outstanding music and nationally known guest speakers.  We had not heard such music and preaching as that before.  Our children enjoy the many other kids who attend.  But best of all, there is no membership, no pledging, and no expected involvement.  So if you don't mind, we'll just leave our membership at Hyde Park and continue to enjoy what we have here.”

Ministers just love getting letters like that, it really makes our day, it really lifts our spirits.  It reflects a current attitude on the part of some which says:  “I may join the church, but don’t expect anything of me, don't expect me to be involved, don't expect me to support the church, I'll stay as long as I'm happy here, but if something a little more exciting comes along, well!”

And yet, according to the truth of scripture, commitment is the secret of a joyful, fulfilling, meaningful and faith-filled life.  It is the key to moral, spiritual and emotional growth.  We won't grow if we don't make commitments.  Honoring commitments and promises is the means to building character and authentic and lasting relationships.  As followers of Jesus Christ, commitment should not be resisted or avoided but instead be embraced.   God came into the world in Jesus Christ to restore our broken relationship with Him, and expects us to respond with faith, gratitude, love, and obedience. 

God expects us to stay the course, as His witnesses amidst life’s problems and struggles, unexpected twists and turns, challenges and difficulties.  Romans 6:13 says: “Give yourselves completely to God, every part of you.  You want to be tools in the hands of God to be used for His good purposes.”  

Which leads us to the book of Ruth, one of the most popular stories in the Old Testament.  It is a story of personal tragedy and, yet, hope that comes from faith in God and God’s plan and purpose for our lives.  We encounter a young Moabite woman named Ruth, and her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi.  Naomi and her husband, Elimelech leave Bethlehem, in Judah, because there is a famine in the land, and set out for the country of Moab.  
Soon tragedy strikes the family.  Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, dies and then about ten years later, her two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, who had married Moabite women, also die.  That leaves Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law. 

Naomi decides to return to Judah and encourages her two daughters-in-law to remain in Moab.  She prays: “May the Lord show kindness to you as you have shown kindness to me.”  Orpah, one daughter in law, leaves and returns to Moab

But Ruth was determined to stay with her mother-in-law; they had formed a special bond and she pledges her loyalty and love in the famous words from this story: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”   It is a story of incredible devotion.

My friends, God has so loved us, that He made an eternal, an everlasting, an unbreakable commitment to you and to me in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And God wants a response from us that is hot, not luke-warm, full-hearted, not half-hearted, daily, not occasional, joyful and positive, not negative and resentful.  

Why be committed to God? Because God created us and breathed life into us, because God knows what’s best for us, because God has shaped us for a purpose, because commitment expresses our gratitude for our salvation, because our character is forged and shaped by the promises we make and the commitments we keep, and because God promises to reward commitment.  Yes, God will bring us blessings and benefits, when we put God and his will first in our lives.

Sometimes God calls us through life-changing events to make new commitments.  I recall an interview with the late television host Art Linkletter.  He made a life-commitment, as a father and Christian, to reach young people ensnared in the deathtrap of drugs.  Why – because his daughter died from an overdose and his son died in a drug-related car accident.  Art said this: “Until you are hurt, you can never truly understand the hurt of others.  When you accept the deep pain, then you begin to realize that you have expanded your own capability of loving and caring for others.  In my own case, the pain in my life started me on a crusade against drug abuse-trying to help young people and families.  Not everybody may be called to start a crusade as I was, but everybody can reflect love and caring.  Every person’s life touches some other life that needs love today.” 

Today is our Day of Commitment.  Today is a day to make our promises to God and each other as brothers and sisters in Christ in response to God's promises to us through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Our lord wants us to commit not only our money, but beyond that, our hearts, our minds, our bodies and our souls our time, talents and faith. I invite you to commit or re-commit your life to God at this time in prayer.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Vanity or Not? (Hebrews 6:10-12; I Corinthians 15:58; Ecclesiastes 1:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I recall a story about a college student who walked with the aid of crutches.  He was graduating from a small liberal arts college.  He was ordinary in appearance, but extraordinary in intelligence, friendliness and optimism.  His friends had never asked him why he ended up walking with crutches.  It was the elephant in the room.   On graduation day, a close friend got up the nerve and asked what had caused his disability.

The young man explained that it was infantile paralysis, a disease of the motor nerves of the spinal cord and brain stem, caused by a polio virus, resulting in severe muscular and skeletal problems.  His friend asked: “With misfortune like that, why are you usually happy and optimistic?”  The young man said: “You know, I used to think that I was the only person with a disability.  That everyone else was perfect.  Why me.  I’ learned after I became a Christian, that God didn’t make anyone perfect, everyone has a disability or a deficiency of some kind, you just don’t always see them, like you do with me.  My disability only crippled by legs, it never touched my mind or heart.” 

What an inspiring young man.   Why, because there are times in life when we allow our limits to limit us, when negative thinking and attitudes rather than positive hold us in their grip, when pessimism subverts optimism, when hope in possibilities and opportunities evaporates.    We feel like there is nothing we can do to change things, to make a real difference, no matter how much we want it or how hard we work.   All of our energy and efforts seem fruitless. This pessimistic attitude about life is by no means new.  

For some, if we are honest, its how we feel on a bad day.  For others, it is a philosophy of life, like the author of the book of Ecclesiastes.  The word Ecclesiastes is translated as The Preacher, one who preaches to an assembly.  Listen once again:  “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.  What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?  A generation goes and a generation comes but the earth remains forever.  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun and see all is vanity and a chasing after wind.  What is crooked cannot be made straight and what is lacking cannot be counted.”

When people study Ecclesiastes I usually encounter two reactions -  “How depressing, or how egotistical or prideful.”  The other reaction is: “Yes, when I consider the tragic realities of life, I think he has a point.”  Where do you stand?

Do you ever feel like Ecclesiastes?  I do on occasion.  Especially when I see time and again instances of evil and injustice, oppression and discrimination, human cruelty and suffering, war and disease.  When I see examples of political corruption or self-serving leaders at all levels of government, when I see how polarized we are politically in this country, I think will things ever change?  Perhaps you have had such thoughts.

Has human morality attained a higher level today?  Are human beings progressing morally and spiritually?  Obviously civilization has made enormous strides in terms of technology.  The Smart Phone alone shows us that.  But the real question is – is the human spirit, is man's character, is human morality making progress?   These questions have been debated for  generations.

The preacher declares that all is vanity – that our work, our efforts, our thinking, our toil bring no lasting positive change or reward or benefit.  But to be fair, later on in this book, he says all is vanity  - without wisdom, which comes from the fear of the Lord, that is, having an attitude of holy awe, of holy respect for God, of believing that God is the creator and that you are the creature.  Yes, if you are feeling down, if you are having a bad day, I recommend Ecclesiastes to lift your spirit and put a spring in your step.

It calls to mind the mythical Greek figure Sisyphus, who was sent to Hades, and sentenced to push a boulder up a steep hill where it would almost reach the top and then it would come plunging down.  He was condemned to repeat that useless gesture day after day, for eternity.  

But now let's hear another word, a word from I Corinthians. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”  Hear a similar word from the letter of Hebrews: “For God is not unjust, he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.” 

What a contrast.  What a dichotomy.  This second word is the complete antithesis to the first.   It's a totally different sentiment.  But it's more than a feeling, it is true.  God's truth.   It’s a foundational word we need to remember and to stand upon. 

The ironic thing is that the apostle Paul who wrote these words, personally knew not only success and joy in his life and ministry, but failure, discouragement, disappointment, frustration and suffering.  And yet, at the same time, he knew in his heart, that God would honor his call to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.    He writes:  “I have been shipwrecked on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, in cold and exposure.  And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.”  

In spite of these hardships Paul writes: “In the Lord your labor is not in vain.”   We see behind these words a wise faith, a mature faith, a faith revealing wisdom.   It is a faith which sees not only with finite eyes, but with the eyes of faith, made possible by the grace of God.   We too have the power to endure, to not allow ourselves to be defeated.  We too have the power to persevere.   We too have the power to devise new plans, new approaches, new strategies.  We too have the power to cast off bad habits and practice good habits.   And that power is the power of our Lord, and the power of his victory over death which comes to us through faith.  

Spiritual wisdom is the conviction deep in your soul, that whether your efforts and energies bring results or not, whether they produce results or not, they mean something, they weren't wasted.  Your life counts, your life as one created in God's image matters in God's Kingdom.  We must never forget that we are in a spiritual battle, a spiritual warfare with powers and principalities.  The book of James says – “Resist the devil and the negative thoughts which can poison our life.”  Why - because Satan loves a defeatist attitude.  The devil knows that a discouraged Christian is ineffective, your power and influence to be a vital witness to Jesus Christ is compromised.   You can’t share Christ’s joy with others when there is no joy in your heart to share.  

What is your source of deepest frustration?   When do you feel like you’re just spinning your wheels?  God’s word is clear.  First, God wants us to be steadfast, immovable; to persevere and be strong.  Don't allow others to push you in a direction you don't want to go or to entice you off track.  Stand firm and steady.  Don't give up, or give in or give out.  Second, always abounding in the work of the Lord, giving yourself daily and fully to God, praying for how God wants to use you in His service.   Sometimes we are completely surprised with how God decides to us us.   Eighty-seven year old Actor Dick Van Dyke, a recovering alcoholic, said: “My retirement is just not working out. I keep working.” Galatians 6:9 says:  “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.”  

And third, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain. When through prayer you commit your efforts to God, when you ask for God's inspiration and power and blessing, your work will be useful in the plans and purposes of God.   God will honor it.

I like the way the book of Hebrews puts it.  “God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints.”    God never forgets work done in His name.  God remembers your labor.   God knows your efforts to love and serve and glorify Him.  God sees what you have done and are doing and what these things mean for His kingdom.     

When you seek to serve God and others rather than to only advance your own interests, when your earnestly pray to God for blessing, when you humbly and sincerely try to do your best for God, even though at times you fail or don’t reach your goal,  your time and efforts are useful in God’s purposes and plans.  They will bear fruit.  I love Jesus parables about the mustard seed and the yeast.  You don't see them growing, you don't see them at work, but in time they produce for all to see.  

I recall a family intervention I was involved in.  One of the family members had been an alcoholic for over 20 years.  They had tried everything but to no avail.  This time it worked.  This time it was successful.  After all that time, this family had the joy of seeing the results of their prayers and work over the years come to fruition.  It was not in vain.  Praise God.

I remember a mother I knew whose daughter was estranged from the family.  She had refused to have any communication at all for many years.  The mother continued to pray and reach out through the mail and occasional phone calls.  After 10 years, one day, the daughter phoned her and invited her mother to lunch.  It was a glorious day and they have long since reconciled.  Praise God.

Over the weekend here in San Diego, there were three 5K Walks – for Homeless Youth, Suicide Prevention, and Alzheimer's Disease.  The purpose was to raised awareness, funds and to support those involved in these issues.  Our scripture is clear – God will honor these noble efforts.  They are not in vain.

I believe God's word encourages us to keep a Christian perspective on our goals and work and efforts.  God may bless you and you get to see results immediately.  Hallelujah.  God may bless you and you see results later on in your life.  Things were percolating, things were happening out of eyesight and suddenly they surface.   Hallelujah.  God may bless you and you see results, not in this life, but in the life to come.  Hallelujah.  

One amazing tree is the Chinese bamboo tree.    Plant a bamboo sprout in the ground and for four or five years, sometimes longer, nothing happens.  You care for the sprout but see no results.   In about the fifth year things take a dramatic turn.  In a six-week period, the Chinese bamboo tree grows to be a staggering ninety feet tall.  World Book Encyclopedia records that one bamboo plant can grow three feet in a 24 hr period. 

May we be patient and trust in the Lord with all our hearts, reassured that one day, either in this life or the life to come, we will witness the results of our labors.  May God's name be praised.  Amen!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Best Friends Forever (I Samuel 20:1-13; Luke 5:17-26) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Do you know what the acronym BFF means?  Best friends forever.  It was coined in the 1980's.  On emails, texts, face book people often sign off with this descriptor.  It's a positive sentiment because without a doubt  - we need friends.  Writer Mark Twain said:  “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell—you see, I have friends in both places.”  Author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:  “A true friend is one who multiplies joys and divides grief.”    You may recall the popular sitcom Cheers in the 1980's, it was about friends and the theme song was - “Where everybody knows your name.”  There was another sitcom in the 1990's titled Friends and the theme song was “I'll be there for you.”

The debate continues today about whether social media actually builds and expands genuine friendships or whether it is an illusion which creates virtual and superficial friendships.  It certainly raises many questions.   An article in Hemispheres magazine explored a number of sites that are dedicated to helping you find online "friends." For instance, on the site you can buy 500 friends for $30 or 20,000 friends for $699.

I remember reading an article that discussed the overall decline of friendship in our society.  It stated that fewer and fewer people have real friends and described a growing phenomenon about loneliness.  Do you agree or disagree?  The article particularly addressed the issue as it related to men.  It pointed to studies and surveys which have shown that men are far less likely to have meaningful relationships than women are.  They have fewer friends, first of all, and the friends they do have are not nearly as close.  What do you think?

Whom would you call a true friend in your life?  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I didn’t find my friends, the good Lord gave them to me.”   Yes, when we think about our friends, old and new, past and present, we too are moved to say:  “I didn’t find them, God gave them to me.”   I know one of the sad realities of life is losing our friends to death as we age.  I have had many conversations with people over the years, who have talked about seeing their circle of friends shrink as they age, how they miss them dearly and that its not easy to make new friends. 

I thank God for my wife Nancy, my best friend (who else would put up with me) and our sons who now as adults, are our friends.    I know you won't believe this but Nancy and I didn't feel we were our sons Best Friends Forever when they were teenagers.   I am grateful for longtime friendships that we have renewed since returning to SD and for new friends we have made here during our seven years at PBPC.  

God created us as social beings.  God made us for relationships and for community.  Norman Cousins wrote:  “The highest expression of civilization is not its art, but the supreme tenderness that people feel and show toward one another.  If our civilization is breaking down, it is not because we lack the brainpower to meet its demands, but because our feelings have been dulled.” 

Someone said, “You can always tell a real friend because when you’ve made a fool of yourself he doesn’t feel you’ve done a permanent job.”  The Bible is filled with inspiring stories about friendships.   Today we will examine two stories, one from the O.T. and one from the N.T.    What are some lessons from these stories?

First, friends are faithful, loyal, they stick by one another, even in times of adversity.    Friends don’t give up on each other when the journey gets tough or even dangerous.  In the story of David and Jonathan, we discover that King Saul of Israel has turned against David. David raises his deep concerns with his friend Jonathan.  

Why is David frightened?  David was a young man, a shepherd.  He had become Saul's armor-bearer, and also entertained Saul by playing the lyre.  But King Saul has become insanely jealous, he is consumed with jealousy.  For it was David, not king Saul, who slew Goliath, the giant leader of the Philistines, the enemies of Israel.   There is a new hero in town.  The people are beginning to chant the name of David in their poems and songs.  “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”  Saul becomes outraged with jealousy and plots to kill David.

David asks Jonathan, King Saul's son, to help him, to intercede with his father, to find out what’s going on and what Saul has against him.   And Jonathan replies: “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do for you.”  Jonathan warns David about his father from then on.  It was a dangerous thing that David was asking Jonathan to do.   Jonathan was risking his father’s wrath by doing this, but Jonathan’s answer is,  “Whatever you want me to do, I will do for you.”   Are you a friend like that for someone?  Do you have such a friend?

Further, friends are honest with one another and speak the truth in love.    Jonathan and David make a covenant.  David is trying to find out if or when Saul truly plans to kill him.  He asks Jonathan:  “What have I done?  What is my guilt?  What is my sin against your father they he is trying to take my life?” Jonathan replies that David will not die.  David asks Jonathan a favor.  David tells him that he is not going to sit at a meal with the king, but instead go and hide out in a field.  He asks Jonathan to tell him Saul's reaction, if the king is angry or accepting that David is absent.  Jonathan promises by the Lord, the God of Israel, even upon his own death, to tell Jonathan the truth either way.  And he follows through with his promise.    

I mean imagine picking your car up from the shop after a routine tune-up, and the technician says, "This car is in mechanically sound. Clearly you have an automotive genius to take great care of your car." Later that day, your brakes fail. You find out you were out of brake fluid. You could have died or injured someone else.  You go back to the shop, and you say, "Why didn't you tell me?" The technician replies, "Well, I didn't want you to feel bad.  Plus, I was afraid you might get upset with me about the brake problem.  I want this to be a safe place where you feel loved and accepted."  Wouldn't you be upset? You'd say, "I didn't come here for you to make me feel good, I want you to be honest about any problems with my car and repair them.

Or imagine going to the doctor's office for a check-up. The doctor says to you, "You are a magnificent physical specimen. You have the body of an Olympian. You are to be congratulated." Later that day while climbing the stairs, your heart gives out. You find out later your arteries were so clogged that you were one jelly doughnut away from the grim reaper. You go back to the doctor and say, "Why didn't you tell me?" The doctor says, "Well, I know your body is in worse shape than the Pillsbury doughboy, but if I tell people stuff like that, they get offended. It's bad for business.  You might not like me.   I want this to be a safe place where you feel loved and accepted." You'd say:  “Doctor, I could have died, tell me the truth.” Do you have friends who speak the truth in love to you?   Are there friends you can be truthful with?

Friends also support each other, encourage one another and are willing to sacrifice for one another.  In a story from Luke Jesus is teaching in a house jammed with people.  People are stepping over one another to hear what he has to say.   Suddenly a group of men interrupt Jesus and bring a man who is paralyzed into the house.  They believe in their hearts that if they can get him near Jesus, the man could be healed.  The only obstacle was in making their way through the crowd of people.

Not to be deterred, they climb up on top of the house, rip out a section of the roof, made out of tightly bound twigs mortared together between heavy wooden beams, and start lowering the man down on a stretcher right in front of Jesus.  Now that’s creative problem solving.  What ingenuity.   No obstacle is too big when it comes to helping a friend.  The friends don't care if they are causing a big commotion.  They are resourceful and imaginative.  They are willing to go to great lengths, to persevere,  even to dismantling  a roof.   A friend says: “I’m here for you, and if I can’t help you, then I will find someone who can, but with God’s help, I will get it done.”   These were true friends.   And I want to believe they also paid the owner of the house for the damage to the roof.   Do you have friends who would go that far for you?   Are there friends you would go to that extent for? 

The story finally reminds us that friends care about your spiritual life and seek to bring you into the presence of God.  This man was paralyzed, totally helpless.  His friends realized that his hope lay in bringing him to Jesus.  They are committed this end.  Just as this man needed his friends to help him make a life-changing connection with Christ, so do some of your friends today.   We were not created by God to make our spiritual journey alone in this life.  Friends contribute immeasurably to our spiritual formation.  Think of friends whom God has used to shape your faith.  Jesus was extraordinarily impressed with the faith of these friends.  The story says:  “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man:  “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” 

Most people come to God or to a worship service at the invitation of a friend.    They need someone who cares enough about them to bring them into the presence of Jesus Christ.  You can do this by praying with and for them, by ministering to them in the name of Christ, by inviting them to church, by offering them the encouragement of Jesus Christ.

Best Friends Forever.  I close with this surprising and astonishing word of the Lord.   Scripture declares that we were God’s enemies because of our sin, but all that has changed through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.   Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business, instead, I have called you friends.”  Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the world, calls you friend.    Amen!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Challenge of Peacemaking (Matthew 5:9) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

 A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday Sabbath service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the young rabbi said or did helped solve the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi went to visit the synagogue's 99-year-old distinguished founder.

He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles. "So tell me was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?"  "No," answered the old rabbi.  "Ah," responded the younger man, "then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers." "No," answered the old rabbi. 

"Well," the young rabbi responded,  “I don't understand, what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout and the other half sit and scream."  "Ah," said the old rabbi, "that was the tradition."

Blessed are the peacemakers!  On this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate our membership as Presbyterians in the world-wide Christian family.  Today we affirm our unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.  Yes, we acknowledge our differences, but we recognize that we have so much more in common.   We have a common faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and one church, the body of Christ, and one baptism, the sign of forgiveness and admission into the church and one mission to love our neighbors and reach unbelievers for the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

A central theme of World Communion Sunday is Jesus’ call to his followers to be peacemakers.  Jesus declares: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  It is a high calling, a holy calling, a sacred calling, it is God’s calling upon those who follow Jesus. 

Without question it’s not an easy calling in a world filled with conflict.   We see it in partisan politics, where Republicans and Democrats are polarized and instead of cooperating and working together to solve the nation's problems continue to blame each other for the ills of our economy and everything else which has led now to our current government shut-down.  We see it in violence in our society, shootings in schools,  in movie theaters, and on our city streets.   We see examples of conflict in families, in business, in our jobs, and in the church.

We have the perception from what we hear daily in the media that strife and violence is on the rise and rules the day.  But the facts speak differently.  According to the Crime in the United States 2011 report, the estimated number of violent crimes reported by law enforcement decreased for the fifth year in a row, while the estimated number of property crimes reported by law enforcement, decreased for the ninth year in a row.

The new preliminary Uniform Crime Reporting statistics for 2012 indicate that when compared to data for 2011, the number of violent crimes reported by law enforcement agencies around the country increased 1.2 percent during 2012, while the number of property crimes decreased 0.8 percent.  So it appears,  that last year broke a five year decline of violent crime in America.  Clearly that is not a good change.  But there is a caveat. 

The last time the crime rate for serious crime – murder, rape, robbery, assault – fell to these current levels, gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon and the average income for a working American was $5,807. That was 1963.   The Christian Science Monitor reports that the US crime rate is at its lowest point in decades.  They ask - Why America is safer now.  The crime rate for serious crimes has dropped significantly in part because of changes in technology and policing.  So even with the uptick in crime, America is actually safer now that it was decades ago.  Nevertheless, human conflict is a reality which stretches back to the time of Cain and Able in the story in Genesis.   Discord makes life uncomfortable, miserable, and frightening.   It takes the joy out of life.  Yes, civil conflict in race relations has led ultimately to positive and just changes in our society.  No one would deny that.   But conflict can also degenerate into destructive and violent behavior.

And yet, in the midst of all this, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, whom God sent to make peace with humanity, to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, to reconcile humanity to God, whose peacemaking work led to a cross, calls us to the holy work of peacemaking – to build bridges between people, to bring healing, to seek reconciliation, to work for unity, to labor for justice and fairness in His name and in His Spirit. 

What do you do when you find yourself entangled in conflict?  We are faced with two options – fight or flight and sometimes we flee, we avoid it, we run away, we look for an escape route, and in certain situations that is the sensible thing to do.   Another response is denial.  “What problem?”  “I don’t see a problem?”   “Do you see a problem.”  That might be the first clue that you are in denial.   We pretend that nothing is wrong.  We don’t admit it to ourselves or to others.  It’s the elephant in the room.   At other times we decide to break off the relationship, to cut off contact, and stop communication.    The saddest and most tragic flight response is suicide.  People lose all hope of resolving a conflict and succumb to despair.  I have personally ministered to families where this has occurred.  

The other reaction is to fight.  The situation quickly escalates and becomes adversarial.   Our goal is to defeat the opponent and win the battle at any cost.    One may engage in verbal attacks, threats, gossip, slander, and attempts to ruin a person’s reputation or destroy a person financially or professionally.   Litigation, lawsuits, is a common weapon today.   And of course by far the most extreme fight response is murder.

We read in the letter of Romans that Christ summons us as His followers to a new attitude and behavior. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  A peacemaker is one who strives to live peaceably with everyone.  The famous Scottish theologian Dr. William Barclay puts it succinctly: “He who divides is doing the devil's work, he who unites is doing God's work.”   I wish I would have said it.

If you follow Jesus then peacemaking is your work and it’s my work.  It's not an option.  And its some of the most difficult work Jesus calls us to.  The circumstances are usually overflowing with intense feelings.  We must listen carefully and balance striving for peace and reconciliation with principles of truth and right and justice and fairness.  Making peace doesn't mean peace at any price.  Making peace doesn't mean making everybody happy.  It means finding the way to do the right thing.  It is finding common ground.  It doesn't mean abdicating your principles.  We must speak out for justice and not be silent.  It doesn't mean tolerating unjust and bad behavior in order to keep the peace. 

Peacemaking also acknowledges that there are situations where no matter what you do or how hard you try reconciling with someone and finding a peaceful solution it just doesn’t work.  Despite our prayers, despite our attempts, and the time we invest there are situations that are beyond our power and ability.  And we must give it over to God. 

Is there someone you are striving to make peace with today?  The first step always is to go to God in prayer and ask God for wisdom and guidance and inspiration and courage.  I read an article about the persecution going on in Egypt by the Islamic militants against Coptic Christian families.   Christians in some towns have been ordered to leave their farms and shops.  Churches have been bombed.  The government is doing virtually nothing to protect these Christians.  I came across this story:  “Mamdouh Nasef, a Coptic shop owner, who recently came under attack, said his Muslim neighbors are urging him to stay and pledging to protect him.  Nasef said he doesn’t want to move his family and that these Muslims are like his brothers.”  These Muslim neighbors show incredible courage and are putting their own lives at great risk as peacemakers. 

Jesus says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”   What does Jesus mean in these words?  You of course must ultimately decide and apply them to your own life.  It might mean overlooking some small offense instead of making a big production about it.   Some things are just not worth bringing up.   It might mean taking the initiative as a reconciler.  Scripture says, “If your brother has something against you, go and be reconciled.”  First, go to the person directly and talk about the situation and try to reach a resolution, rather than talking to everyone else about it.  It might mean finding a mediator if after you have talked to the person you find that you can't reach an agreement.  Secure a trained mediator to meet with the two of you to help resolve your issues.   You also might want to enroll in a course on mediation training.

It might also mean securing an arbitrator.  When you and another person cannot come to a voluntary agreement, you may appoint an arbitrator and give that arbitrator the authority to render a binding decision to settle the issue. 

The challenge of peacemaking.  Peacemaking is indeed a high calling, a holy work, it is your work and it is my work.  Trust that God's Spirit will be with you in this work.  Where is God calling you to be a peacemaker? 

I close with the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the 12th century Franciscan order of monks:   “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; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying   that we are born to eternal life.”  Amen!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Be Strong and Courageous (Mark 4:35-41; Joshua 1:1-9) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I remember reading an article which said that in 1973, 26-year-old director Steven Spielberg was hired to make a movie based on Peter Benchley's novel about shark attacks called Jaws. The movie was so scary, and I can testify to that, that even to this day, millions of Americans panic, when they hear that a shark might be present in their beach area.   But studies clearly show that on average less than one American dies each year from a shark attack.   So to relieve you of this fear, I'm giving you a list of other things more likely to take your life:

  • Trampolines account for an average of 1.1 deaths per year.
  • Roller coasters take 1.2 lives per year.
  • Free-standing kitchen-range tip-overs cause 1.3 deaths per year.
  • Vending machines account for 2.1 deaths per year.
  • Riding lawnmowers take 5.2 lives per year.
  • Fireworks cause 6.6 deaths per year.
  • Skydiving accidents account for 21.2 deaths per year.
  • Getting crushed by a television or furniture causes an average of 26.4 deaths every year.
  • Smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity and alcohol kill 87% of Americans prematurely.
  • Bathtub drownings and lightening strikes are far higher than shark attacks.

The article concludes with this challenge: “So face your fears, get off the couch and go for a swim.”  I hope I have now calmed your fears about going into the ocean.

Fear is of course something common to all of us.   We all know what its like to be afraid.  According to scripture, the antidote to fear is courage.  What is courage?  The ability to do something that frightens you.  The ability and willingness to face or confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty or intimidation.   Yes, living can be hazardess to one's health as they say.  Life is no place for cowards.   A life well lived requires many things – including courage. 

We think of physical courage.  The courage to rescue someone from a burning car or house.  The courage to physically stop someone who is hurting another person.  We think of moral courage.  The courage to speak up for what is right despite opposition, to speak the truth when others are silent, to take a stand, when others shy away.  And there is spiritual courage.  To courage to believe and trust in God, when things are collapsing around you, the courage to believe in God's love and mercy  amidst disappointment and loss.

Yes, the quality, the attribute of courage is essential for life.  Courage means different things to different people.  For one person it is tackling a seemingly overwhelming problem or dealing with the fear of failure.  For someone else, it is simply getting out of bed and facing the day.  It takes courage to be a parent, to raise children or to work or look for work if you are unemployed, or to get out of a rut and try something brand new. 

We all know what it means to be afraid, to have a failure of nerve.  Two little boys walked into a dentist's office.  One said: “I want a tooth taken out and I don't want any gas because we're in a hurry.  The dentist said: “You're quite a brave young man.  Which tooth is it?  The boy turned to his smaller brother, and said:  “Show him your tooth, Tommy.”

Who comes to mind when you think of courageous people?  I think of the men and women of our military who put themselves in harm's way in service to our nation.   I think of police and firefighters and lifeguards who put their lives on the line every day for you and me.  I think of acts of heroism like that of the young man who heard the cries of those three women in Cleveland who had been kidnapped and held captive for 10 years and broke down the door and freed them.  I think of Christians living in hostile environments surrounded by radical Muslim neighbors who continue to claim the name of Christ as Lord and Savior and worship at a local church.  I think of Muslims who stand up for Christians despite intimidation by other radical Muslim neighbors.  But it also takes courage to introduce yourself to a stranger, or to reach out and help someone in need in a modest way.  Who or what comes to your mind when you think of courage?

Both of our lessons this morning are stories about fear and courage by the people of God.  In our O.T. Lesson we learn that the great prophet Moses, who by the power of God had led the Israelites out of Egypt has died.  After wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years, the people are poised to enter the promised land.  The Lord decides to call a successor.   God calls Joshua.  Joshua as you might expect is filled with fear at taking on such a daunting task.  Wouldn't you be?  I mean how does one follow in the footsteps of the great Moses?  Seeing the fear in Joshua's heart, the Lord speaks to Joshua:  “My servant Moses is dead.  Now proceed to cross the Jordan you and all this people into the land that I am giving to them as I promised to Moses.  As I was with Moses so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.  Be strong and courageous, for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.  Only be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

In our N.T. Lesson the disciples suddenly find themselves caught up in a storm out on Lake Galilee.  The waves begin pounding and crashing against the side of their boat.   Water is gushing over the sides and they are terrified. 

The Sea of Galilee has long been notorious for its storms and this is true today as well.  Terrible squalls appear without warning, even when the sky is clear.  The disciples are frantic.  Their fear is  clearly justified.   They knew the boat could capsize and they would be lost at sea.  The disciples see Jesus asleep in the stern.  They cry out: “Jesus, wake up, don't you see what's happening, don't you care that we are going to drown, help us before we all perish.”  Jesus awakens, hears their cry and commands the wind and sea to be quiet.  And the wind ceases, and there was a dead calm.  Jesus says to them: “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?

As followers of Jesus, there are times when out of obedience and love, you must find courage, the courage to speak up for Jesus, for your faith, to let others know you are a follower of Jesus, that you are doing something because Jesus is the Lord of your life.  The courage to  say something, to intervene in someone's life, to be frank and honest with someone.  Like saying to your child, “no”, even if they get angry with you, even if they say: “I hate you.”  Or saying to a friend, or family member, to a neighbor, or colleague, to somebody that you care about: “I must tell you that I think you are making a major mistake.  You’re on the wrong path.  I care about you so much that I must tell you this.  I can't stand by and let you hurt yourself or someone else.  It may upset you or offend you.  It may put a strain on our relationship, but its because I value our friendship that I must be honest with you.”  

If you see somebody doing something wrong or behaving in a way that hurts themselves or others, as followers of Christ we have a duty to speak the truth in love.  We are not much of a parent, we are not much of a friend, if we stand silently by and do nothing.  And saying or doing something we know requires courage.

I like what a preacher wrote:  “A young man had gone bankrupt due to a failed business venture.  He told this preacher he had lost everything.  The preacher replied:  “Let me correct you  You haven't lost everything.  You had something before you had a business.  You had a dream and you had the nerve to try to make it happen.  You haven't lost that.  Nobody ever loses courage.  Courage isn't something you lose because courage is always an option.  Courage is a choice.  And by God's grace, it is always there for you to choose.  My friend, God wants you to choose courage?  Will you choose it?”

In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy you recall performs brave deeds for the mysterious wizard who rules Oz, in the hope that he will use his magic to send her home.  Later she finds out that he is no wizard, but merely a circus performer, who has convinced the people that he is a wizard.  Dorothy has three companions, a scarecrow who wants brains, a tinman who wants a heart, and a cowardly lion who wants courage.  The wizard pretends to give these things to them, but the irony is that they possessed them all along without knowing it.  The wizard helped them find what was inside them all the time.  My friend, look deeply into your heart, you too will be surprised that by God's grace, Christ has given you more courage, than you ever imagined.           

I believe these two biblical stories inspire hope when we face times of fear.  They tell us that God is present with us in the midst of the storms of life and when we are called to take on some project or task or mission.  They are an affirmation of God's promise -  “Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Pray for boldness.  Courage is not the absence of fear.  It is acting in spite of your fear.  It is doing the right thing in spite of your fear. Courage is doing something, despite being afraid out of love: your love God, your love for some person, your love for the truth.  Following Jesus requires courage and courage comes from trusting in Him:

Scripture says: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of courage, of love and of self-discipline.”    Be strong and courageous.   Amen!