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.