Friday, January 27, 2017

A Time to Speak (Exodus 20:16; Matthew 21:28-32) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Is communicating with people easy?  Do you ever have communication problems?  A mother writes: “My husband and I were taking turns teaching our 4 year old daughter Sarah how to ride a training-wheel bike.  Every time I went with her, Sarah would bounce on the seat. I asked why she was doing that and she replied, "Daddy said."  “I told her, honey, you don't need to bounce."   I was curious about my husband's instructions.  A few minutes later, trying to encourage her, I said Sarah try to balance yourself a little more.  Immediately, she started bouncing again.”

The challenge of communication is constant.  The late Peter Drucker, called the Father of American Management, claims that 60% of all management problems were a result of faulty communication.  Without question good communication is critical?  We know that communication problems are a fact of life.  Sometimes the people closest to us, family members, close friends, are the hardest ones with whom to communicate. Have you found this to be true?  Do we find any help from Scripture about communication?  We do.

The first biblical principle is that words have power.   In the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs says: “Reckless words pierce like a sword.”  Proverbs also says: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”   Now that’s a sobering thought.   In the New Testament the letter of James says: “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire.  And the tongue is a fire.  With it we bless the Lord and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”

We certainly see this in politics.  Think of all the things that were said by President Trump, and Hillary Clinton and the candidates for president over the past year.   Incredible.  Our words can engender hurt and pain or comfort and healing.    Words unite and divide, words build up and tear down, words can coerce or care, and words can manipulate or collaborate.  Words can spread lies or tell the truth.

A man writes: “When I was eight years old I broke my arm playing football in the backyard.  When I was eleven I broke my leg playing sandlot baseball.  Both of these were painful experiences, but as I look back on them, I don’t remember what the pain felt like.  However, there are other scenes from my childhood - like the time at a Little League game when the coach yelled at me and told me I was an embarrassment to the team, or when my dad said I was stupid and that I would never amount to anything.  The pain of those moments remain fresh, even after all these years.”   Yes, death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Jesus wants us to be known for our graciousness.  As someone said: “Kind words cost little, but accomplish much.”

A second biblical principle is that God calls upon us to tell the truth.  We read in the letter of Ephesians – “Speak the truth in love.”  Proverbs 15 says: “Those who walk blamelessly and do what is right speak the truth from their heart.”  How we communicate the truth is equally as important as the truth we communicate; not out of anger, or spite, or jealousy or revenge, but in love.  God calls us to communicate to another person out of concern for this person.  And the ability to do this requires spiritual maturity.   It requires going to God in prayer, seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, before we engage in a difficult conversation.

Yes, there are sensitive and insensitive ways to tell the truth.  Like one Sunday in the greeting line after worship, a man shakes hands with the pastor and says: “Reverend, that sermon gave us food for thought, but we prefer fast food."  We are to speak up for truth when we witness injustice.  We are to speak up for truth when we witness corruption.  And this of course requires courage.

Can you think of examples in your life where you regret saying something to someone?  Yes, you can never take it back.   Do you recall when someone said something hurtful to you?  Can you recall when you spoke in a positive and constructive way to someone or someone spoke good words to you?  An author writes: “We create an environment for either good or evil with our words and we will have to live in that world we’ve created.”

It is amazing to me that out of 10 commandments, God includes two that warn us about false speech:  The third command says: “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” that is, don’t dishonor God by disrespecting and abusing His name and the Ninth command: “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”   God is deeply concerned that people tell the truth in court, because without truthfulness there can be no justice.

But this command goes beyond the courts.  This command demands respect for persons.  We are commanded to respect other people and treat them fairly and we do so by speaking the truth.  A person’s reputation is a priceless possession.  To destroy a person’s good name is in a sense to destroy the person.  So this command also speaks to the destructive power of gossip, and slander, and defamation.  Propaganda and lies have led to wars and riots and genocide such as we saw in Nazi Germany.  And we see the terrible cost of false speech on race relations today.

I believe it’s a worthy goal to think before you speak, and to try to say the right thing at the right time or to keep from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, although admittedly this is a work in progress.  Proverbs says: “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.”  And James says: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”

A third biblical principle is keep your word.   Jesus says be reliable.  Be dependable.  Honor your word.  Jesus was deeply concerned about how insincere communication was having a negative effect upon relationships.   Matthew tells a story about a father who had two sons.  The father went to one and said, “Son, go and work in my vineyard today.”  The son 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 crowd replies: “The first.”

This is a parable that all of us, including children immediately understand.  I 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 would have happened.

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 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 wants us 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.   Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Let your yes be yes and your no be no.

We pay a big price when we don’t follow through.  We lose the respect, trust and confidence of others.  We are seen as persons whom you can’t count on or depend on.   People say: “She or he is a flake, you can't count on them.”  Conversely, when you keep your 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.

A final biblical principle is to listen.   Someone said: “When it comes to communication, there are two kinds of people in the world - those who love to hear others talk and those who love to hear themselves talk.”   You can tell if someone is really listening to you, can’t you?  Of course it goes without saying that all of you are listening to the pastor this morning.  Communication is more than talking.   Listening is an integral and essential element of communication.   When we listen, we are showing respect, we are showing we value the thoughts, feelings and ideas of the other person.

The letter of James says: “Dear friends, be quick to listen, slow to speak.”  Ecclesiastes says: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven, a time to speak and a time to keep silent.”    Communication is so important.  May we strive to follow Jesus in our communication with others.  Amen!

Friday, January 13, 2017

In My Father’s House (Luke 2:41-52) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Are there ever conflicts or misunderstandings between children and parents?  Is the Pope Catholic?   A frustrated father said to his teenage son: “When George Washington was your age, he had surveyed half of Virginia.”   His son replied, “And when Washington was your age, he was president of the country.”  Sam Levenson once said, “Childhood is a time of rapid changes.  Between the ages of 12 and 17, a parent can age thirty years.”  Robert Orben put it this way: “Sound travels slowly. Sometimes the things you say when your kids are teen-agers don’t reach them till they’re in their 40’s.”  My wife Nancy says: “God made teenagers so that parent’s will be ready when they leave home and go off to college.”

A mother was tearfully saying goodbye to her son who was returning to college after spring vacation, she pleaded with him to write often.  Another woman standing nearby gave this advice.  “The surest way to get your son to write home is to send him a letter saying, ‘Here’s $50.00 spend it any way you like.’  “And that will make my son write home the first woman replied?”  “Yes, indeed, you just forget to enclose the money.”

We are all concerned that our children and grandchildren grow up to be kind, mature, responsible, and moral individuals, with a strong work ethic, a clear sense of who they are, and with values and a Christian faith that shapes their character and their soul.

Our story from the Gospel of Luke is about Jesus and his family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  It’s the only story in the New Testament that tells us about an incident in Jesus’ early life.  Jewish law stated that every adult male Jew who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem was obligated to attend the annual Passover Festival.  Luke tells us that every year Jesus’ family traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.  This presumably was Jesus’ twelfth trip to Jerusalem.  By now he was becoming more comfortable with visiting this imposing city teeming with people from around the Mediterranean world at Passover.  In Judaism, a boy becomes a man when he reaches the age of 12.  He was expected to assume his religious obligations.  So this was a very special trip for Jesus and his family.  The distance from Jerusalem to Nazareth is about 100 miles.  That’s not far, except that your feet were the only mode of transportation, everyone walked.

When the religious festival is over, the family sets out on their journey homeward to Nazareth, but somehow Jesus is left behind.  Apparently the movie “Home Alone,” wasn’t about the only family who forgot one of their children. But it wasn’t through the parent’s carelessness.

In that day, such trips involved risks and dangers, so people traveled in large extended family groups.  Mary and Joseph were part of a large caravan composed of many relatives and friends.  The tradition was that the women, who watched out for the babies and children, started out early in the morning.  The men set out later because they walked faster and usually caught up with the women and children sometime in the evening.

As the late Scottish scholar William Barclay explains:  “No doubt Joseph thought Jesus was with Mary and Mary thought that Jesus was with Joseph, and they didn’t realize he was missing until it was evening.”    Perhaps you can identify a time when a similar situation occurred in your family.

Upon making this shocking discovery his parents immediately head back to Jerusalem.  Mary and Joseph search for 3 days.  Can you imagine how horrible that would be?  Finally, they locate Jesus in the temple.  They see him sitting among the learned rabbi’s and scribes, listening to them and asking questions.  This was clearly no ordinary twelve year-old boy.  Luke tells us that all who heard Jesus were astounded at his intellectual understanding and the insightfulness of his questions.

Mary, frantic by now, worried sick, asks what any frazzled mother would, “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been terribly worried trying to find you.”  Some parents would have expressed it a little more graphically.  Jesus rather non-chalantly replies:  “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  I can imagine his parent’s reaction to that reply.  “Why would he say that?”  You might expect Jesus to say: “Well, I looked all over for you, but when I couldn’t find you,” Or “I’m sorry, I just needed some time by myself,” or “Well I am 12, you know, I’m old enough to take care of myself.”

No, Jesus instead spoke about being in his Father’s house.  At that moment, his parents didn’t understand what Jesus’ meant.  But, we read, Mary treasured all these things in her heart.  I suspect there are some mothers here this morning who can readily identify with Mary.

What does this story say to you?  What does this story tell us?  First this story is about identity.   Now identity is a complex concept. It’s multi-dimensional, it’s about the character, it’s about personality, it’s about having a sense of self, knowing ourselves, it’s that inner core of a person which is consistent over time amidst a world of constant change. Was finding the answer to the question, Who Am I, difficult for you?    Identity is a complex process which is central to our personal, moral, spiritual and social development.

The late Dr. Erik H. Erikson, professor of Human Development at Harvard, writes about the six stages of Human Identify development, from infancy to adulthood.  He states that in adolescence the identity challenge is trust, trust in people and trust in ideas.  Developing trust in oneself and trust in others is key.  So the adolescent looks fervently for people, parents, other adults, peers, to trust in and also for ideas that he or she can believe in, and wrap one’s mind around.

In our story Jesus comes to an incredible realization.   He says to his parents: “Did you not know that you would find me in my Father’s house?”  Now that’s a typical teenager’s reaction, why are you questioning me, don’t you trust me?  Our initial reaction is to see Jesus’ words as an impertinent, the insolent remarks of a twelve-year-old adolescent to his parents.  In looking back as a father of two sons, I remember some of those times.

But in reflecting upon Jesus’ words, we see something much deeper, Jesus has found his true identity.  He gently but directly says God was his father.  “My Father’s House.” Here in the temple, at Passover, at the age of 12, when a boy became a man according to Judaism, Jesus publicly stated for the first time, his self-understanding, he was truly the Son of God.  He was declaring his unique and intimate relationship to God.   In a sudden blaze of realization, he was telling his parents who he was.  Jesus, this boy, this human being, was also one with God.

Luke says that his parents did not understand what he said to them.  And as a parent I totally get where they were coming from.  If one of our sons had said this, I might have said, “Really, and I’m Elvis, you need some rest and if this continues, we’re going to see a doctor.”

Second, this story is about family.  It’s about God’s affirmation of the family, of the role and promise of the family, and the place the family plays in the plan of God.  In this story God has sanctified the family.  It affirms that God uses normal, ordinary, fallible families to form and shape and raise children.   Mary and Joseph immersed Jesus in the traditions of Passover and their faith.

Raising, providing for and protecting our family is a constant challenge.  When asked how he will handle his 12-year-old daughter's future boyfriends, NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley responded, "I figure if I kill the first one, word will get out."

As one writer said: “Families do not have to be picture perfect to be used of God.  Family life is at risk of being relegated to a low priority in our society.  The church needs to pray for and support families, inside and outside the church.  Families are not add-ons to other things in life; they are foundational, growing us into what we become.”  Parents and grandparents: never forget this, always remember it.

Even though Jesus knew he was the unique son of God, rather than going off on his own, he returned to Nazareth with his family.  We can imagine his life growing up in Nazareth.  His parents would have provided for his religious education.  We can imagine a home filled with love.  We can imagine Jesus as a boy working alongside his father Joseph in the carpenter shop, learning a trade.  Luke says: “Then Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and he was obedient to them.”  Jesus, the son of God, grew up in a family.

As an individual and as a part of a family, God seeks to bring you into a life-giving relationship and to shape your identity.  The story concludes: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.  That is God’s desire you and for me.  Amen.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Magi’s Story (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In January 2013, Sabine Moreau, a 67-year-old Belgian woman, set out on a trip to pick up a friend in Brussels, about 90 miles from her home.  But due to faulty directions she got from her car’s GPS, she drove all the way to Croatia—nearly 1,000 miles away. The journey took the woman across five international borders.  She stopped several times to get gas and take naps, but she kept pressing onward until she hit Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.  After a few days her son got worried and called the police, who located Sabine by following her bank statements. She told a Belgian reporter, "I was distracted. I saw all kinds of signs, first in French, then in German, and finally in Croatian, but I just kept following my GPS."  I think she was in what we call a zone.

Welcome on this Sunday January 1st, 2017, the beginning of our journey into a new year.   Whether you are ready or not, the trek begins today.  God says:  “I am a God of new beginnings!”    God says: “Last year is behind you, wipe the slate clean and begin with a fresh start.”   God says: “Don’t carry the burdens and baggage of last year with you.”    God says:  “Set a course, don’t be pushed and pulled and blown hither and thither by the exigencies and circumstances of life.”

In this context, we turn to the story of the Magi or Three Wisemen.  I think this story captures our imagination because we too are on a journey. No, we don’t ride camels, thank goodness, we have more comfortable modes of transportation, but we too are heading into uncharted territory.   What is this story saying to us?

The Magi’s story teaches that God calls us to lead purposeful lives.   Matthew says: “The wise men came from the East to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to worship Him.’"

The magi journeyed far for a single purpose, to find and worship the Messiah.  God calls us as Christians to live purposefully and intentionally.  We are to seek God’s priorities, God’s goals, God’s guidance, God’s will and light for our lives.  Start with hopes and dreams for the future. The Wise men’s journey was not an aimless and pointless meandering.  Ours doesn’t have to be either.   They moved forward with a sense of direction and with a destination in mind.  They could not predict where the journey might take them or what fortunes or disappointments or detours they would encounter along the way, but they relentlessly followed that star to the sacred place where they could worship the child born King of the Jews.

A poet said: “The future is an opportunity yet unmet, a path yet untraveled, a life yet unlived.  How our future will be lived, depends on the priorities and purposes of our lives today. The direction we take right now, determines where we will end up in the future.”

Having a direction certainly saves time, time isn’t wasted.  Having a direction reduces stress.  I would love a navigation app to get me in and out of hospitals without getting disoriented.  I am so grateful for my navigation app when I’m on the road.  I can reach destinations directly rather than driving around lost and confused, hunting for an address.  Except in those times when it says, recalculating, recalculating or lost signal.

Cecil B. de Mille said: “Most of us serve our ideals by fits and starts. The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly.” Hannah More said:  “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.”  Proverbs 17:24 says: “An intelligent person aims at wise actions, but a fool starts off in many directions.”

You may already have a direction planned for this coming year.  You may sense that you are to continue the path that you walked last year.  Things are yet unfinished which need to be completed.  Or you may feel you have accomplished some important things, and it’s time to set some new goals.

In the book of Job we read: “We can choose the sounds we want to listen to; we can choose the taste we want in food and we should choose to follow what is right.  But first of all we must define… what is good.”  So a relevant question is, are my goals worth reaching for, are my goals worth pursuing, are they pleasing to God?

How do we set our goals?  How do we find our purpose or purposes for this coming year?  How do we figure out what we want to reach for or change or accomplish this year?   God says: “Life is more than thinking ‘I just want to be happy.”  God wants us to ask: “Lord, what do you want me to do with my life this year?”   Such a question always begins with prayer.  In the context of prayer, here are some practical ideas to consider:

THE INTELLECTUAL:  Ask yourself, “What do I want to learn this coming year?”  God gave you your mind.   Is there a subject you want to become knowledgeable in?  How about learning a new language?   Is there a new skill you want to acquire?  Maybe rock climbing, but then again, maybe not.  Proverbs 19 says: “Do yourself a favor and learn all you can.  Remember what you've learned and you'll prosper.”

THE PHYSICAL: What will improve your health this year?  A change of attitude?  Lose some weight?  Go to bed earlier?  Get a physical.  Get on an exercise plan?  Change your eating habits.  Find a way to relieve some stress.  Proverbs 17 says: “Being cheerful keeps you healthy.  It is a slow death to be gloomy all the time.

THE SPIRITUAL:  What will deepen my relationship with God?  Join a prayer group, join a bible study, get involved in a service ministry, worship faithfully, join the choir or Sounds of Worship.  The Bible says: “Grow in spiritual strength and become better acquainted with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

THE SOCIAL:   Whom will you reach out to?  Positive relationships are critical in life.   Rather than being alone or isolated, friendships meet deep seated needs.  You love God by loving others and serve God by serving others.  Whom would you like to spend more time with?  Write down someone who needs your encouragement.  God may be calling you to spend more time deepening a particular friendship.   Share your faith with someone, invite them to church.  The Bible says: “God has given you some special abilities; use them to help each other.

For example, you may decide to focus more on your family this year.  Last year you were very involved in the church or community but this year you think there are some family issues which need to be addressed.  

I recall the story of Rev. Robert Schuller who visited 14 cities in one week to promote one of his books.  His office notified him that when he got home, he was scheduled for a luncheon with the winner of a charity raffle for a “lunch with Robert Schuller.”  He prepared to squeeze the luncheon into his crowded schedule, and was stunned when he learned who had bid to have lunch with him.  He knew the $500 represented the individual’s entire savings; it was his own daughter.

Finally, the Magi’s story says God sends stars to guide us and we are to follow them to our destination.  “The Magi set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

God sends stars to guide us along our journey.  We are not heading out alone.  God desires to lead each of us to those destinations that are important.  What are some of these stars?  The words of the Bible, inspiration, prayer, talking with others, discovering something we are passionate about, dreams.  Sometimes stars take the form of needs, problems which arise, challenges before us.   Remember God’s purposes can be short-term or long term, a single purpose for the year or multiple purposes within a year.

And please here this.  When you face those times where there appears to be no light, no star, no direction, then fall on your knees and pray: “God help me to trust in you now more than ever.”

I close with this quote: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown, and he replied:  Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.  That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” Amen!