Friday, October 31, 2014

Count Your Blessings (Numbers 6:21-27; Romans 15:22-29) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I remember a minister in CO, who whenever you would greet him and say, “Hi, how are you,” his standard answer was – “I am blessed.”  His response stood out to me, because I don't think I have ever heard anyone reply in that way.   You may remember an old song that Christians have sung for years that goes like this: "Count your blessings / Name them one by one / and it will surprise you what the Lord has done."  When someone sneezes, we say, “Bless you.”  This custom dates back to the 6th century, to an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Rome.  Sneezing was thought to be a symptom of the plague.  Saying “Bless you” “God bless you,” was a petition to God to bring His divine blessing of healing upon the person.

Blessings are such a vital part of life and faith.  Blessings were important in the Bible and in Judaism and Christianity.  We read in Genesis 1: “God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said:  “Exercise dominion, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”  God blessed human beings and called us to go and be a blessing in all the earth.  

In our Old Testament lesson from the book of Numbers, we are introduced to a famous benediction called the Aaronic or Priestly benediction.  God spoke these words to Moses and commanded him to tell his brother Aaron to use these very words to bless the Israelites.  “The Lord bless you and keep you, or the Lord favor you and protect you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; or the Lord smile upon you and be pleased with you and be merciful and compassionate toward you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace, or the Lord give his approval to you and grant you His peace in the inner life and the outer life. So they shall put my name on the Israelites and I will bless them.”

In our New Testament Lesson the apostle Paul is writing to the church at Rome telling them that he hopes to visit them soon, but that for now he is on a mission to bring material resources, which were donated by Gentile Christians in Greece, to the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.  Paul says he knows that when he comes to see the believers in Rome, he will come in the fullness of the blessing of Jesus Christ.

What are some of the blessings according to the scriptures which God imparts to us?   We find a plethora of blessings.  Some examples are:  longevity, God's forgiveness, affirmation and acceptance, God's dunamis or power, God's comfort, healing and reconciliation, God's protection, God's guidance, God's peace, God's call to a mission, God's granting authority, God's blessings of gifts and abilities, God's word of promise, and warning,  God's imparting of courage, God's blessings of faith, hope and love.   God's blessing is the message of the gospel and in hearing it and receiving it by faith.

Blessings deepen our relationship with God and enhance our relationships with others.  Blessings release people to build productive lives and free them to bless others.  God blesses us every day and gives us opportunities to be a blessing to others. 

Scripture reminds us to joyfully receive all the blessings God gives us.  Look for, embrace and celebrate God's blessings in your life, because we cannot pass on to others what we do not have.  A mature faith is where you see yourself as richly blessed by God.  Scripture reminds us that God's blessings often come as surprises and to people who don't think they deserve them.

In Jesus' day, Jews were committed to paying in their daily lives to the blessings that God had given them.   I know Christians who actually keep a journal and write down all the ways God daily blesses them.  That is a good spiritual practice for us today, don't you think?  Joyfully receive God's blessings and then pass on those blessings to people around you.

Which leads us to our Stewardship Theme for this coming year – “Count Your Blessings!”  Of course, one of the realities of human beings, is that we too often take our blessings for granted.  Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote the following piece:  “When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris in 1911 and was missing for two years, more people went to stare at the blank space in the museum, than had gone to look at the masterpiece in the twelve previous years it had hung there unmolested.  It points to our all too human tendancy to fail to take adequate note of precious things while we have them.  But let one of them be taken from us and we become painfully aware of the blank space in our lives, and our attention is sharply focused on that blank space.  The walls of our lives are crowded with Mona Lisas, but we are unmindful of them.” 

One of my constant prayers is for God's blessing, I pray it before visiting someone in the hospital or in their home, before a session meeting, or deacon meeting, or worship service, or class I'm teaching or counseling situation I'm involved in or when we visit our children and grandchildren.  And for me it means God use this time for your glory, use this time for the work of your Kingdom, God use this time in surprising ways, God speak to or touch someone in a powerful way.  And may I not be a hindrance or barrier for your purposes, but use me to be an instrument for your will.

As I reflect upon our ministry here at PBPC, I give thanks to God for His blessings in our life and ministries and how God is blessing our community through our congregation.   Like our mid-week Youth and Kingdom Kid’s programs, where children and youth from the preschool, community and our congregation, are growing in their faith and enjoying fellowship under the leadership of  Robert and his dedicated helpers.  And our excellent Pre-school under the capable leadership of the director Brigitte.   Our Preschool now has an enrollment of over 50 children and babies.  It provides a healthy spiritual, intellectual and social foundation for children and builds community among the preschool families.  Some of those families have joined the church.

We rejoice in our Sunday Evening Roots worship service and ministry, reaching young adults in our community under the leadership of Grant.   Some of these young adults have joined our church.  We celebrate the blessings of our music program, the Sounds of Worship and our Chancel Choir, under the leadership of Esther and our organist Anne.  
We enjoy the music of handbells which enhance our worship under the leadership of Robin Mayo and Judy Whiles.
We see God at work in our prayer and healing ministries with Helen Sterling and in our congregational care ministry under the leadership of Mavis, which brings Christ’s love to members and friends.  We see blessings in Bible studies and Christian education for all ages during the week and on Sunday mornings.  We have faith-filled and committed leaders – deacons and elders, who enthusiastically serve Christ in our church.  

We bless our community by outreach events such as hosting Graffiti Day to clean up Pacific Beach.  We highlight the faithful Friday Pizza and Movie Night ministry, which for over 5 years has reached families in our preschool and new families in our community.  Just a few weeks ago, at Friday Night Pizza and Movie night, we had 24 kids, 18 parents and 4 volunteers. 

God has long blessed the community through our Sunday Night Ministry, by feeding over 100 homeless people each week for over two decades under the leadership of Dolores Shoemaker and through our mail service for nearly 275 homeless people during the week.  I often hear people living on the streets say:  “God bless you, thank you, as people are able to get their mail and in response to the caring assistance which Meri and the volunteers provide them.”  

God blesses people through a variety of mission projects -  we provide resources, volunteers and financial support for CCSA, Meals on Wheels, Voice of the Martyrs, Urban Youth Collaborative, Baja Presbyterian Ministries, Military Outreach Ministry, Intervarsity, Heifer Project, Presbyterian Urban Ministry in downtown San Diego, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and missionaries like Esther Wakeman in Thailand.   We are blessed by your generous giving to our Endowment Fund which annually contributes substantially to our ministry.

These are some ways God both blesses our congregation and uses our congregation to bring blessings to others for His purposes and glory.   I give thanks to God for all He is doing in our life together.  God’s Spirit is among us, guiding us and empowering us and inspiring us.  And yes, there are always more challenges before us,and there are sometimes disappointments and setbacks, but we keep moving forward striving to fulfill God's will.

I want to both personally and on behalf of the elders, thank you for your generous commitment and support this year.  We are blessed by your giving.  As I have said:  “When the treasurer is happy, the pastor is happy.”  We are asking for your prayerful and generous financial support for this coming year, as together, we serve and witness to Christ, and reach people for His Kingdom. 

Thank you for filling out the Count Your Blessings forms, which the stewardship team handed out over the past couple of weeks.   They are inspiring.  You will find them posted on the walls in Calvin Hall and I encourage you to peruse them during our luncheon time this morning. 

In response to God's blessings let us bring our time, our talents and abilities, our money and our faith and offer them to God in humble adoration and gratitude.  Jesus Christ cares deeply about your life and growth in faith and your participation in His Kingdom.   And be confident that Christ will continue to use you for His work and glory in His mission in this community and world.  Every pledge, every donation, every gift, every offering God honors.  Commitment Sunday is next Sunday, November 2. 

Count your blessings / Name them one by one / and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”   Amen!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Loving Neighbors and Self (Matthew 22:34-40) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Can loving your neighbor ever be taken a bit too far?  A couple approached the pastor in the greeting line after church one Sunday:  The young woman said:  “Rev. Jones, Toni and I just met during this morning's 'Greet Your Neighbor' time, we started talking, one thing led to another and we fell in love.  We'd like you to marry us.”

St. Augustine, the 5th century Christian bishop, theologian, philosopher, and church father from North Africa, whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity, said something rather profound: “Love God and do whatever you please, for the soul trained in love to God, will do nothing to offend the One who is beloved.”  Rather than commenting, I'm going to let you think about that for a moment. 

Last week we focused upon Jesus' command to love God with our heart, soul, strength and mind.  Jesus took that command from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and he linked it with another command from the Old Testament book of Leviticus in a novel way, saying  - And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

What is the definition of a neighbor?  The dictionary has two definitions.  First, someone who lives nearby, someone who lives next to or near another person.  The second is your fellow man.   The second definition is the one found in the New Testament, for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan.   Neighbor is not to be interpreted in a limited way or narrow way.  My neighbor is any person who is in need of my love, any person who is in pain, any person to whom I can give encouragement to or hope through my personal presence or my resources. 

Jesus commands us to love our neighbors.  Be concerned for them and pray for them and express active goodwill toward them.  Why?  Because one way of strengthening our love for God is to love other persons and one way to strengthen our love for neighbor is to love God.  The two principles are bound together.  When we love others, God’s love can flow in and through us in a free and powerful way.  God is able to give us greater wholeness of life when we are sharing life in an unselfish way with others.   It is both a life-enhancing and an extremely demanding command. 

Jesus command is clear, but not easy.  But who promised that Jesus commands to his followers would be easy?  It’s easy to give in to hate.  It's easy to be contempuous of those with whom you disagree.  It’s easy to demonize those who see things or think differently.  But loving another person, especially one who holds different values, now that is a challenge.  Jesus sets the highest standard. It is Jesus’ radical ethic and one that is daunting for anyone who strives to follow Jesus.

Jesus says: “If you only love people who love you what is your reward?  Anyone, even tax collectors are capable of that.  He says: “If you greet and welcome only your brothers and sisters, how hard is that?  Even Gentiles do the same.”

For instance, loving someone, helping someone can sometimes become enabling behavior.  You find yourself being manipulated, being used, becoming a co-dependent.  In some situations tough love, saying no, is the appropriate loving response.  Sometimes saying no, not helping someone in the way they request, is the most loving response.     There are of course no cookie-cutter models for loving one's neighbor.  It is case by case.  That's why we rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit.

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

Loving one's neighbor implies taking some action.  I recall years ago when I was living in San Diego and attending my home church.  One of the members of our young adult group had been beaten in a random attack and sent to the hospital.  Our group prayed for him.  We were very concerned.  When he returned to church, I said we were sorry it had happened and I hoped it didn't negatively affect his faith.  He said:  “My faith is fine.  But I was in the hospital for a week, and not one of you came by to visit, no one called to see how I was, or sent me a card, or showed any concern at all.  My faith is fine, but I wonder about the faith of this group.”

Another way of loving our neighbors is to work to correct social conditions which cause suffering and injustice.  Jesus preached that the Spirit of the Lord is uon me, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.  It is working to change or correct social conditions of our society which victimize and oppress people.  It is loving our neighbors by working for social justice.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example of this form of loving neighbor.   I think also of whistle blowers, who are never popular, people like Frank Serpico, and Karen Silkwood and Erin Bockovich. 
Jesus in this command said further:  “As you love yourself.”  A preacher tells this story.  “One day I was reflecting on last weeks’ sermon.  I will never forget it.  I think it was my finest hour in the pulpit.  Unequalled eloquence seemed to roll off of my lips.  My brilliance even surprised me.  Afterwards he commented rather modestly to his wife, “I wonder how many great preachers there are living today?”  She replied, “Well, there is one less than you think there is.”

It is crucial to have a healthy attitude about yourself?   We recognize that there are many depersonalizing forces in life, events and experiences, which threaten our self-esteem, which call our self-worth into question.  We are tempted for example to compare ourselves with others.  I recall a speaker who said: “If you compare yourself with others, you will be vain or bitter, because you will always find there are persons lesser or greater than yourself.”  One writer said:  “Self-esteem is that deep-down inside the skin feeling you have of your own self-worth.   It’s how you truly feel about yourself even when no one else is around or regardless of what others say.” 

As children our identity and self-esteem is profoundly influenced by others: parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, relatives, etc.  But what about when we become adults?  A writer said: “It’s what we believe about ourselves that counts.  Whether we were treated rightly or wrongly as children, our self-esteem is now our responsibility.”   Do you agree?

Growing to appreciate one-self is a process.  We all need to be told and shown from time to time that we’re loved, appreciated, and valued.  But at the same time it’s true that loving-ourselves is our responsibility.  You can be told you are wonderful, but ultimately you must believe it deep-inside your skin.  Self-love means to appreciate your worth, to have self-respect.    Eleanor Roosevelt said:  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

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

The challenge is to not allow what others say about you to change your opinion about yourself?   Are you going to give them that kind of power?   Jesus didn’t allow what others said about him to change his opinion of himself.  Jesus was slandered.  He was falsely accused.  They said he was possessed with devils.  Countless accusations were hurled like stones against Jesus every day of His life, but it didn’t change what Jesus believed about himself and what he believed about His mission.  Jesus taught people to love God and to love their neighbors and to love themselves.  Jesus reminds us that there is the sin of thinking too highly about yourself and the sin of thinking too lowly about yourself.  

So why should we love ourselves and respect ourselves and believe in ourselves?  God created you!  God made you in His image.  Psalm 8, a beautiful psalm says: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them, yet you have made them a little lower than angels and crowned them with glory and honor.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hand and put all things under their feet.”  God breathed life into you.  Knowing and believing this truth gives value and worth and meaning to our lives.

Why love yourself?  Our lives are new in Christ!  God is making us new people.  II Cor. 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, everything old has passed away, so everything has become new.  All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”   God sees us and through our faith is transforming us into a new being, a new creation, a new creature. 

 Why love yourself? God forgave you and me!  God forgave your sins and mine by dying on the cross.  Our sin is forgiven, erased forever.   Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Christ took the consequences for our sin upon himself, our guilt, our punishment, our judgment our death and restored us to a right relationship with God.   Knowing and believing this truth gives value and worth and meaning to our lives.

Why love yourself?  Because God truly, fully, enthusiastically and passionately loves you.  Clearly, God’s will is that we have a healthy attitude toward ourselves.  Jesus’ greatest command is something we should believe in, remember, trust in and stand on everyday of our lives. 

Love neighbors and love self.  As one writer put it:  “Without love, all that you say is ineffective, all that you know is incomplete, all that you believe is insufficient, all that you give is inadequate, and all that you accomplish is insignificant. God's greatest aim for your life and ministry is love.”  Amen!

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Greatest Command (Deuteronomy 6:1-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One of my favorite movies is Fiddler on the Roof.   Golde, the wife of Tevye, asks her husband, “Do you love me?”  Tevye replies, “Do I what?”  Golde repeats, “Do you love me?” Tevye responds - “Do I love you?”  “With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town you're upset, you're worn out, go inside, go lie down!  Maybe it's indigestion.”  Golde again says, “Tevye, I'm asking you a question...  Do you love me?”

The question for this morning is - Do you love God?  We as believers regularly hear the biblical truth preached and taught that God loves you.  And what a powerful and awesome and comforting truth it is.  But today we ask another question  – Do you love God?  Do you ever say - “I love you Lord, I love you God.”  If not try it.  Practice saying it.  If it feels a little uncomfortable, start to say it in your prayers and devotions.  Why?  Because we are talking about ultimate things.

What is the purpose of life?  What is the reason for living?  What is the meaning of existence?  A mother writes:  “Our eight-year-old son was reading on the couch one morning when he discovered a new word. "What does ponder mean?" I wished for a dictionary. If you don't nail the odd impromptu definition perfectly, you hear about it later—and regret it!   So, I told him, "Ponder means you're wondering or thinking about things.  Like, you might say, 'I'm pondering the meaning of life.'" Oh, no, mistake,  mentioning "the meaning of life" is going to lead to one of those twisty, theological discussions, where I have to finish by saying, "I don't know; it's a mystery!" But to my utter amazement, my son was way ahead of me. "I know the meaning of life," "It's to love God!"

The ultimate question for faith is what does God, the creator of the universe, want from human beings?  What does God the Father want from us?  What does God want from you?  Which leads us to our passage from Deuteronomy.   In chapter 6 verse 4 we read the Shema.  Repeat after me – Shema!   Shema means “hear, listen.”   Now you know some Hebrew.   Here’s a suggestion.  Sometime when you can tell the person you're talking to isn’t listening, just say: “Hey, Shema!”  That will get their attention.

Shema Israel, that is, listen Israel, hear Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”   Moses has gathered the Israelites before him and addresses them: “This is the commandment that the Lord Your God, charged me to teach you to observe in the land you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children's children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, so that your days may be long.” 

Moses was proclaiming the truth of monotheism, one God, rather than polytheism.   Monotheism, is the unique and powerful divine truth which Judaism contributed to the world. 

And God charged Moses to command the Israelites, whom God had freed after 100's of years of Egyptian slavery, to love Him with every fiber of their being.  Was this command paramount?  Absolutely, so much so, that Moses offers some ni-monic devices:  “Keep these words in your heart, tell them to your children, talk about them wherever you are, bind them as a sign on your hand, attach them as an emblem on your forehead, write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.” 

Mezuzah is a Hebrew word which means “doorpost.”   A Mezuzah is a small wooden, metal or glass case which contains the Shema and which Jews place on the doorposts of their homes.  It's a constant reminder of God's command.

Jesus reaffirms this central truth of Judaism and Christianity, that there is one God whom God's people are to love fully, in the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, when he was asked: "Of all the commandments from God which is the most important?"  Now there were 613 commandments in the Law and Jesus, not being wishy-washy, immediately quotes the Shema, but then adds the word “mind” in addition to heart, soul and strength.  

"The premier command is to love the Lord your God, with all your heart with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind.”    Jesus further connects this command from Deuteronomy with another command from the book of Leviticus 19:18 saying:  “There's a second like it, "Love your neighbor as yourself."    Your entire life should be an expression of your love for God.  Today, we are looking at the first part, the command to love God.

Why is this command the preeminent command?  An author writes:  “The more you love something, the more you become like it.  For example, I have a friend that loves tennis. He wears tennis stuff. He reads tennis magazines. He has tennis talk. He has a racket, and his hair looks like a tennis ball.  I have another friend that loves surfing. He dresses with surf stuff, and he reads surf magazines. He talks surf talk. He's even starting to smell like seaweed. Everything about him is starting to go that way. But isn't it true whatever you love, you start moving that way? That's why this is the greatest commandment of all. Because we become what we love.”

Second, this is the premier command because God alone is worthy of our ultimate loyalty, our ultimate allegiance, our ultimate love.  Everyone and everything else is penultimate.  There are many people and things we love in this life.  There are many things worth loving, family, friends, home, country, chocolate.  But God says, “I am first,” God is first, everything else and everyone else comes after God.  God isn't saying  - don't love other things in life.  God is saying love Him before everything and everyone else.  If we don't, if we don't love God first, there is a danger, the danger that we will make an idol of other things or persons that we love.    The first commandment says: “You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make for yourself an idol.”   We must keep things in proper perspective, in cosmic balance.  We must keep our priorities straight.

Now though we are commanded to love God wholly, fully, completely, if we are honest, we know we don’t.  There is a constant battle, an invariable competition, between putting God first and putting other things first.  Why, because it’s not natural to our sinful human nature.  Our nature is to be self-centered rather than God-centered.  It takes the Holy Spirit working in our hearts through faith, to slowly transform us into persons who are growing into loving God more fully.    It is a process of spiritual growth.  Our ability to love God fully is a work in progress.   It depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts through faith.

But I believe, isn’t believing in God enough?  No.  People say:  “I’m a Christian, I believe in God or I believe that God exists or I believe there is a God.”    Comedian Louis C.K. writes: “I have a lot of beliefs .… And I live by none of them. That's just the way I am. They're just my beliefs. I just like believing them—I like that part. They're my little "believies." They make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, I sure as heck just do what I want to do.”  Moses and Jesus are raising the bar, declaring that the faith God desires for us, is more than believing, it is loving God with our whole being.

God I love you, God we love you?”  Do you tell God you love him?   Oftentimes, we don't say it to people close to us.  Like the woman who says to her husband: “Honey, you never tell me you love me.   He replies, “Dear, I told you I loved you when we were married 30 years ago and until I take it back, it still stands.” 

When one becomes a Christian, when we confess Christ as Lord and Savior, when the Holy Spirit enters our being, God gives us a new heart.    This is the beginning of a spiritual journey.  A journey of a growing desire to love God, to please God, to worship God, to obey God,  to glorify God, to follow God's will in your life, to lead a life that is good, just and righteous.  It arises from a thankful heart, in response to God's gift of sacrifical love and salvation.  

How do we love God with all our heart and soul?  It means desiring to know God and His will more closely.  It means sharing yourself with God, asking for God's guidance and inspiration in your decisions.  It means trusting God.  It means praying to God and worshipping God either alone in prayer or meditation or in worship with God’s family. It means spending time and taking time for God.  It means opening up and allowing God to know you. 

It means loving God with our emotions.  It means recognizing the importance of your interior life.  It includes times of repenting and confessing your sins and seeking God's forgiveness.  It is turning to God when your heart is broken.  Loving God with your heart and soul means seeking to please God, to honor and celebrate God and enjoy God.   The psalmist says: “Praise the Lord oh my soul.  I will praise the Lord as long as I live. I will sing praises to my God all my life long.”

Loving God with your might, your strength, is to obey God physically, yes, using your physical strength to glorify God.  I have been exercising recently at World Gym in PB.  Wow, there are some rather large intimidating dudes there, muscle bound guys and gals, who can lift enormous weight.  Their degree of physical strength is amazing. 

But this command also includes mental strength.  And sometimes life requires more mental strength than physical strength.  It means to learn to love God not only when your strong, but when your weak.  It means to love and trust God not only when life is good, but in times of disappointment, unrealized expectations, illness, discouragement, set-backs or even in crisis.  The threat which we all must deal with is giving up in despair. For in such times we need sheer spiritual and mental strength more than ever?  Loving God with all our might, our strength is critical.

Loving God with your mind means using your intellect in your relationship with God.  Faith is more than feeling, it is also an intellectual journey, a quest.  You are committed to learning, to studying the scriptures and the Christian faith.  You ask questions. You seek answers.  You seek understanding about your theology, the beliefs, truths, and tenents of your faith.   You are not afraid to wrestle with the moral dilemma's and tough questions about life in relation to your faith in God.   Loving with your mind is striving to integrate your faith into your life.    C.S.Lewis writes: “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.  If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you that you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.”     

Some contemporary critics think Christianity or any religion is for the simple minded, a crutch for people who don’t think for themselves, for mentally weak people who want to be spoon-fed religious nonsense.  Loving God meants to use our minds to seek to know the nature and will of God and the mind of Christ.  God wants us to love him with our our thinking, with seeking understanding, with our questions, and with reflecting upon our experience in life in light of our faith.

What does God want from us?  I close with these words from C.S.Lewis. “When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now.  Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”   Amen!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Which of the Two? (Matthew 5:33-37; 21:28-32) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A gravely ill man was speaking with his doctor. His doctor told him, "You are very sick, but you'll pull through." However, the patient was scared for his life. "Please, doctor," he said, "do everything you can. If I get well, I'll donate $10,000 to the fund for the new hospital." Several months later the doctor met the patient on the street and asked him how he felt, the man told the doctor that he felt great. "Good!" the doctor said, "because I have been meaning to speak to you about that money for the new hospital." The man said, "What are you talking about?" The doctor replied, "You said that if you got well, you would donate $10,000 to the new hospital fund." The man shook his head. "If I said that, doctor, then I must have really been sick!"

Which leads us to our story from the Gospel of Matthew about a father who had two sons.  He went to one and said, “Son, go and work in my vineyard today.”  The boy said, “No, I'm not going, but later he changed his mind and went.”  The father went to the second son and made the same request and the son answered: “Yes Sir, I will father, but he didn't go.”  Jesus asks the crowd, which of the two did the will of the father?  The listeners reply, “the first.”

This is a parable that all of us, including children, can understand.  Hasn't every parent asked his child to do some household chores and has heard: “OK, I'll do it,” except that the child never does it.  I certainly remember my father telling me to mow the lawn or take out the trash or do the dishes and I readily said: “OK, just a minute,” but then got distracted and never got around to it.  After he badgered me, I finally did the chores, but without his badgering, it never world have happened.   I can remember my mother calling me to come in for dinner, and I would say, “OK, be right in,” but I didn't go, until she said, “OK no dinner for you tonight I'm throwing it out,” and that motivated me to break away from my friends and go in for dinner.  Stalling is a learned skill.  Right.  It's a skill we learn early in childhood.  Children can be masters at learning how to stall their parents when we don't want to do something.   Let's examine Jesus' parable a little more closely.

First, Jesus is speaking about how paramount integrity is in our relationships.  What we say should match what we do.  Is that ever an issue for you?  Jesus is appealing for integrity in our relations with others: in our friendships, in our families, with our neighbors, in our business, in our volunteer service, in the workplace, and yes, in the church. 

Jesus expects consistency between what we say and what we do.   What we say should match our actions and what we do should match our words.  Jesus expects us, as his followers, to be Christ-like examples to others, and to honor our word, our promises, our commitment, to follow through on what we say to someone. 

The price we pay for not following through is big.  We lose the respect, trust and confidence of others.  We are seen as persons whom you can’t count on or depend on.  The word people use today is flake.  He or she is a flake, you can't count on them, so don't even bother to ask.  Conversely, when we keep our word, you gain the respect and trust and confidence of others, who feel you can be counted on in the best of times as well as in the worst of times.  

In Matthew 5, Jesus was condemning a social problem where some Jews were making empty promises to one other in the legal, social, political and personal realms – and sealing these promises by swearing by heaven, or by the earth, by Jerusalem, or by one’s head and then breaking these vows as a matter of course.  In Matthew 21, Jesus was criticizing some of the Jewish leaders who claimed they loved God and were committed to fulfilling God’s will and yet they treated the poor unjustly, led unrighteous lives, used their offices for personal profit, and lorded their authority over others.   Their religion had become counterfeit.

Making a promise is easy; keeping a promise or honoring your word is another story.  It's essential to strive to be faithful to our word – our word to God and to one another, as a husband or wife, friend, mother or father, grandfather or grandmother. 

Someone wrote:  “Integrity is the ability to carry out a resolution long after the mood in which it was made has left you.”  Yes, it’s true that to err is human, to make promises that go unfulfilled is common.  But it is also true that Jesus, whose Spirit dwells in those who commit their lives to him and follow him, who call themselves Christian, expects more of believers.

Dr. William Glasser tells this story:  “Our family home included one of those big bathtubs, and we filled it one evening and asked our five-year-old son if he wouldn’t like to get in to splash and play.  He did want to, and we knew he wanted to, but as five-year olds sometimes do, he said, “No” and threw a giant sized fit, screaming and crying that he wanted his own little baby bathtub. 

During the howling, his seven-year old sister said she would like to get into the big tub and quickly hopped in and proceeded to have a delightful time.  At that point, the 5 year old changed his tune, demanding to go into the big tub also.  Dr. Glasser said he gently picked up his son, and put him in his infant tub.  When the boy’s crying subsided, Dr. Glasser said: “After this son,, don’t say no, when you mean yes, and don’t say yes, when you mean no.”  Dr. Glasser ended the story with the comment of how important it is to teach children this lesson.”

Jesus says: “I tell you, on the day of judgment, you will render account for every careless word you utter.”   There is nothing more damaging to our Christian witness, to our credibility as followers of Jesus, than when we lack integrity in our lives.    

The second lesson I believe Jesus is teaching deals with motivation.  Anyone ever face this in your life?  If only I could get motivated.  I just need a little inspiration.  I just need something to charge me up.  Knowledge isn't the issue.  You know what's right, you know what should be done, you know what you should do, but for some reason you don't do it.   Inaction, passivity, procrastination wins out.  We make excuses.  We justify our in-action. 

Yes, I am all too familiar with this problem in my own life.   Why do it today when you can put it off until tomorrow.  Why do the right thing when you know its going to be uncomfortable or unpleasant?  “Yes, I know I said I would, but”...The problem is not one of commission but omission.  We have good intentions, our intentions are admirable, the problem is implementing our intentions, putting them into action. 

I think of unchurched couples over the years whom I have married who will say: “Thank you, pastor, we loved your church, we liked you, you really helped us, we are going to start worshipping here, see you Sunday, and unfortunately, you never see them again.”  

Oh, those beautiful things - good intentions.  You intend to spend more time with your children, but don't do it because you're too busy at the intend to do some volunteer work in the church or community, but don't because things just seem to keep piling intend to spend more time reading the Bible or going to a Bible study, but don't because you're just too busy… we all, including myself, are aware of how good intentions can be a bridge to nowhere. 

Does this mean that we are bad people?  No.  Is the truth that we are liars?  No.  It is that age-old battle with motivation, with the self-discipline of actualizing what you really intend to do. 
The right thing begins with an idea, a thought, a desire, a goal.   God is pleased with our desire to do the right things, in fact, God expects it.  But there is more.  God has high expectations of us, not low expectations.  God wants you to have high expectations.  God is not satisfied with intentions only, because God knows that by his grace working in us, we are capable of so much more. 

And that's the key, to pray for God's power, to pray for God's grace, to pray for God's Spirit to hold us accountable and to work in us, when we are wrestling with something we know is the right thing to do, but we are just not doing it.  For by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can lead lives of integrity and we can find that motivation we need.  

Jesus is saying – “My followers I want the best in you and in your relationships and I will give you my Spirit to help you reach those standards.”  God’s purpose for the Christian life is that it be filled with energy, enthusiasm, love and integrity.

What moves you from good intentions to taking action?   I read an article about a man who regained his focus thanks to his love for his daughter.  Anyone who's ever tried to lose weight knows what a frustrating, nearly impossible battle it can be.  It is hard to find the motivation to lose weight and keep it off.

Randy Leamer found the motivation.  He knew if he didn't lose weight, he might lose his daughter.   At only 18 months, Meagan Leamer was diagnosed with severe kidney disease.  No matter what treatment the doctors tried with her, the toddler just kept getting worse.  By age 5, Meagan desperately needed a kidney transplant.

Megan's parents were more that willing to donate an organ to their daughter and both were found to be good matches.  But her mother's family had a long history of kidney problems so an organ donation would be risky on her part.  That left Meagan's dad as the only possible donor.  There was only one problem, he weighed well over 300 pounds.  Doctors were afraid that in his condition, he wouldn't survive the surgery to harvest his kidney.  So Randy determined to lose at least a 100 pounds in order to prepare for surgery. 

He began exercising and eating a low-fat diet.  Friends at work cheered him  on, and even brought in their clothes when his clothes became too big for him.  Within eight months, he had dropped over 100 pounds.  Megan's kidney transplant surgery was successfully performed and both father and daughter made a full recovery.

Love for his daughter was his motivation, not to mention that losing weight gave him a longer and healthier life.  It is amazing how love, our love for God and our love for others, incuding  ourselves, can be a poweful motivator in life.

Right now, think about a relationship in your life.  Is there someone whom God is calling you to follow through with on a promise which you made?   Is there someone whom God is motivating you to serve or help or share with or honor in some way.  Is there something you know you need to do?

Jesus said go out into the world, make disciples, serve others, love your neighbor, witness to people in my name.  Christians are those who have said “Yes, Father I will go.”   Christians are those who have made a commitment and said, “Yes, Jesus I will go.”  Christians are those who have made a promise and have said “Yes, Holy Spirit I will go.” 

Praise God for a faith filled with integrity and motivation.  Praise God for his power, grace and call upon our lives.  Praise God when no matter what our words may be, we like the first son, go.  Amen!