Friday, February 16, 2018

The First Rule is Love (Matt. 22:34-40) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

On Valentine’s Day, a group of children were asked, "What does 'love' mean?" Here are some answers:
·         Rebekah, 8, said, "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore.  So my grandfather does it for her all the time—even when his hands got arthritis, too. That's love."
·         Bobby, 7, says, "Love is what's in the room at Christmas, if you stop opening presents and listen."
·         Nikka, 6, says, "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with someone you hate."
·         Tommy, 6, says, "Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well."
·         Cindy, 8, says, "During my piano recital, I was on a stage, and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and I saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. And I wasn't scared anymore."
·         Jessica, 8, says, "You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot."

Life in the ultimate sense or in the most fundamental sense is about love.  According to our Christian faith, according to the Bible, what matters most in life is love.  Why, because God is loving, because God created us to love, because God sent Jesus to show the model of love, and to atone for our sins by his sacrificial death on the cross, because God commanded us to love, because God wants us to learn the greatest lesson in the short time we spend on earth, how to love.

Jesus commands us to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Why?  Because we strengthen our love for God when we love our neighbor and we strengthen our love for neighbor when we love God.  We love because God first loved us.  Love is not an isolated act; it’s interconnected, intertwined.  When we love others, God’s love flows in and through us in a free and powerful way.  When we love God in worship and prayer, we are inspired and motivated to love others.  We live a holistic life, when we share our lives with others.  Living a life of love is life-enhancing and enriching, inspiring and rewarding. Living a loving life achieves the purpose for which God made you and God made me.  Scripture says faith, hope and love, these three remain, but the greatest of these is love.

Of course we know loving others doesn’t come naturally, it’s something we learn.  It takes time to learn to love.  Where do we learn it?  Where have you learned to love? From people who have loved us.  We learn from Jesus himself.  We learn from the indwelling Spirit who teaches and guides us in life.  It is not an easy task, because it runs counter to our self-centered nature.  God gives us a lifetime to learn to love.  Jesus never promised that following Him would be easy. This is especially true when other persons hold different values or different ideas.

Today is an extremely challenging time.  One example today is our intense political differences.  The challenge appears to be nearly impossible for democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives, to listen to one another, to agree to disagree, to care for, to compromise, to respect one another, to work together for the nation’s good. There are constant personal attacks, rather than a robust debate on the merits of the ideas.   We see and hear such contempt, heated rhetoric, distrust, charges and distain for one another, but rarely much love.  I have never seen America more polarized than today.  I pray, like you do, for this nation.

Jesus sets the highest standard 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.  If you greet and welcome only your brothers and sisters, how hard is that?  Even Gentiles do the same.

True, loving others is complicated; if it was easy everyone would be doing it.  Loving someone can evolve into enabling their bad behavior.  You find yourself being manipulated, being used, becoming a co-dependent. Forgiveness is an expression of love.  But so is setting boundaries, ground rules, ultimatums, and tough love.  Tolerating bad behavior is not love.  Allowing yourself to be bullied is not love.  Saying no, not helping someone in the way they expect, can be the most loving response, it can be just the thing to change another’s bad behavior.  Spoiling a child or abusing a child is not love.  There are of course no cookie-cutter models for loving a family member, a friend, a child, a colleague.  It’s case by case. That we are to love is indisputable, but how we are to love is the question, and is open to debate and discussion.  That's why we must rely upon God for courage and wisdom, a deep and abiding wisdom.

Loving others is never learned by thinking alone; it is only learned by doing, which as you have probably experienced is sometimes learned by trial and error.  Loving your children as parents, at least in our experience, involved a lot of trial and error.  Loving grandchildren is much simpler.  Simple acts of love can have a tremendous impact.

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 ever 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, a meal to a neighbor, comfort to the grieving are ways of ministering to those who are hurting.

Scripture says that loving others is the primary witness to the world for Christians.  Jesus said:  Your love for others will prove to the world that you are my disciples.  I’ve had nurses in hospitals and staff in nursing homes say: “We are so impressed with the many caring visits by the people of your congregation.  You have a caring congregation.  Loving others is a powerful witness to Jesus Christ.

Scripture says that life without love is really useless.  Why?  Because we were created to be used by God.  Relationships must be a top priority in our lives.   Scripture says:  No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.  We talk about finding time for our children or making time for people in our lives.  God says relationships are what life is all about.  The 10 commandments include four in our relationship with God and 6 in in our relationships with people.  But all are about relationships.  We learn to love God in worship and prayer and we learn to love others by actions and doing.  Busyness is the enemy of relationships.  Yes, accomplishments, achievements, reaching goals are important.  But relationships, loving others, trumps these things.

Scripture says love leaves an invaluable legacy.  How you treated other people, how you encouraged, how you opened doors of opportunities for others, how you listened, how you taught and trained others, how you shared your time, talents and treasure with others, how you supported others is a powerful legacy.  Love is the secret of a lasting heritage.  Like one writer said:  I’ve observed that when people are in their final moments of life, they don’t ask to be surrounded with objects, their trophies, and diplomas, and symbols of their accomplishments and successes, they want to be surrounded by people they love and who love them.  Don’t wait until you are on your deathbed to discover this important truth – relationships matter most.

Scripture says that we will be evaluated by God in the final judgment on our loving of God and others during our lifetime.  Recall Matthew 25.   Jesus says: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry, and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me, sick and you to care of me, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto me.  In our text, John says: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refused help? Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

A woman whose husband had died years earlier and who raised her teenage children alone, tells 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, 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, people I could help, 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.

It’s true that time, time for relationships, always seems to be in short supply.  We are always pressed for time.  I wish I had more time.  Are we victims of time?  Are we helpless to change that?  Pray to God to help you manage and prioritize your time.  Pastor Rick Warren writes: “The best expression of love is time.  Relationships take time. Investing in relationships takes time and effort.  Words alone, about how important relationships are, are empty.  The best way to spell love is T-I-M-E and the best time to love is now.  Amen!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Come to Me (Matthew 11:28-30) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A young man forgot to notify his grandmother of a change in his cell phone number.  Wanda Dench texted a number that had originally been her grandson's, inviting him over for dinner.  Instead of her grandson, the text went to 19 year old Jamal Hinton.  The two figured out the mistake quickly, but Hinton, a lonely college student, far from home, asked if it was still possible to "come over for dinner.”  In grandmotherly fashion, Dench responded, "Of course you can. That's what grandmas do."  When asked about the dinner, the young man said, "I'm thankful for all the nice people in the world.   I’d never met her and she welcomed me into her house, so that shows how great of a person she is."

Receiving a personal invitation from someone is one of the joys of life, whether it’s being invited to someone’s home for dinner, to an anniversary party, out to the theatre or to a rock concert.  The only exception I can think of is being invited to a meeting with the IRS.   In this morning's text, Jesus extends a personal invitation -“Come to me!   Jesus extended this invitation to his disciples, and as the Risen Lord Jesus has extended it to His followers down through the centuries and he extends this invitation to you and me this morning – “Come to me!

How will you respond?   In times of trial, in times of stress, in times of exhaustion, in all times, Jesus’ words are like a song to our soul, like cold water to a parched tongue. They are the most welcome and comforting words in the world.  Come to me!

Jesus says:  All who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens!” To be human is to carry burdens, we understand that well.   The question is not if you are carrying burdens but what burdens are you carrying?   Burdens of broken relationships, of guilt or shame, of unrealized dreams, of stress, of pain, or fear, of failure, financial burdens, burdens of grief, loneliness, jealousy or anger, burdens of poor health.   Are you carrying a burden this morning?

Sometimes, even religion becomes a burden.  This was the context in which Jesus spoke to the people.  From the time the Law was given to Moses in the 13th century B.C, where the fourth commandment instructed the Jews to remember the Sabbath and rest from work on the seventh day, over centuries Jewish teachers had added rules regarding Sabbath observance – the time between sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  The Hebrew word Sabbath means rest.

It was difficult to rest when you were worried about breaking the religious rules of the day.  For example, you were prohibited from working on the Sabbath, but how was work defined?  You couldn’t carry anything, you could only walk a certain number of steps, you couldn't cook, you couldn't talk about business, and you could only help people or rescue animals, if their lives were in danger, because in all these things you were working, you were exerting energy and violating the command to rest.   Yes, anything, even religion, can become a burden.

Jesus continues: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart."   Jesus is gentle and humble and offers us the opportunity to take on his yoke and to learn from him.   Do you find it surprising that Jesus offers burdened people a yoke?  When we are burdened we need an escape, a party, a day at the beach, a walk in the park, not a yoke.

What is Jesus saying here?  He offers to share our burden, to shoulder our load, to be our burden-bearer.  No one else can do that like Christ because he is portrayed in the New Testament as the supreme burden-bearer.  Jesus bore our burden of sin by His sacrificial death on the cross.  Scripture says: "Behold the Lamb of God who bears our sins away."

Jesus offers us a new kind of yoke.  Jesus compares the crowds he is addressing to oxen struggling under a heavy load.  He is borrowing an image from the agriculture of his day.  A yoke is the piece of farm equipment that binds the ox to the plow.  Whenever a young ox needed to be trained, he would be attached to the yoke of an older ox. The older ox would pull the yoke and the younger ox would follow in his footsteps and learn all the steps, even though he wasn't actually pulling any of the load.

Jesus calls us to take on his yoke: to submit to his authority, to commit ourselves to him through faith, to follow his teaching, to ask for his peace, to obey his word, to seek his strength, to surrender our hearts and minds to him, to turn to him in prayer.  Jesus is saying: “Yoke yourself to me.  Let me help you carry your load and I will lead you and teach you how to live."  "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Jesus concludes his invitation with these words: “I will give you rest.  You will find rest for your souls.  What a comforting word, rest.   Jesus here uses the Greek word anapauo, which means “to cease from any activity or labor in order to recover and collect one's strength.  It’s a time to be renewed, to be refreshed, to be re-energized, in order to prepare to return to work. The Hebrew word Sabbath means rest.  Does that word resonate with you?  Do you ever get tired - physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually and you simply need a time to rest?  Take a Sabbath. Spend quiet time alone with God.

So you ask why do I feel tired?  Here’s why.   In the last 24 hours your heart beat 103,680 times?  Your blood traveled 168,000 miles.  You breathed 23,040 times.  You inhaled 438 cubic feet of air.  You gave off 85.6 degrees in heat.  You turned in your sleep 25-35 times.  You spoke 4,800 words.  You moved 750 major muscles.  You walked 10K steps.  You exercised 7,000,000 brain cells.    Is fatigue beginning to set in?

In 2013 the news reported that many orthopedic surgeons had noticed a disturbing trend—a serious spike in debilitating knee injuries among teenaged athletes.  Dr. Frank Cordasco called it "an epidemic."   Cordasco said that he and his team were operating on 200 to 300 kids a year, unheard of a decade before.  Doctors reported also on an increase in serious shoulder and elbow injuries among young baseball and softball players.

What's causing this epidemic of reconstructive joint surgeries?  The article put the blame on one factor; the lack of rest.   The current emphasis on playing one sport all year long leaves virtually no time for muscles and joints to recover from the micro-trauma that occurs during practice and play.

Our bodies, our minds, our emotions can go on overload.   They weren’t designed by God to go 24 – 7.   We need time to recover from the "micro-traumas" of life.   Jesus invites us to find rest for our souls.   Jesus makes a promise: “If you accept my invitation and come to me; you will have a respite.  You will experience spiritual renewal, relief, refreshment, a time of peace.

Will you accept Jesus invitation?  Will you say: "Yes, Jesus, I need your strength and your peace.  I will go to you.   Take a Sabbath.  Spend some quiet time alone with God.

I close with Jesus word's from the Message, a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible: “Come to me.  Get away with me and you'll recover your life.  I'll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me, watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

Jesus' personally invites you to come to His table.  The Lord’s Supper is one place where Jesus promises that we will find rest.   Let us prepare our hearts to come to the table of the Lord.  Amen!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Worry, Who Me? (Matthew 6:25-34) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A father passed by his teenage son's bedroom and was dumbfounded to see the bed nicely made up and everything neat and tidy.  He saw an envelope propped up on the pillow.  He picked it up and started reading.

Dear Dad:
I decided to elope with my new girlfriend because I wanted to avoid a scene with you and Mom.  I've been finding real passion with Joan, and she is so nice.  Even though I never told you and mom about her, I knew you would not approve of her because of all her piercings, tattoos, tight motorcycle clothes, prison record and the fact that she is so much older than I am.  She really gets to me.  She says I’m old for my age and that we are going to be very happy. She owns a trailer in the woods and has a stack of firewood—just enough for the whole winter.  We share a dream of having many children.

Please don't worry, Dad. I'm 15 now and I know how to take care of myself.  I'm sure we'll be back to visit someday so you can get to know your grandchildren.  Your loving son.  P.S. None of the above is true.  I'm over at Tommy's house.  I just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life to worry about than my report card which you will find in my desk drawer.  I love you Dad!

So do you ever worry about things?   Worry, Who Me?   Someone said: “There are three kinds of people in world – those who worry about little things, those who worry about big things, and those who worry about everything.”   Which category do you fit into?

Why do we worry?   I'll tell you why, because there is a plethora of things to worry about in this life.  We worry about our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, our health, the flu, aging, our jobs, our finances, our education, college tuition, social security, Medicare, government shut-downs, disease, illness, crime, floods, fires, earthquakes, environmental threats, the economy, global warming, terrorism, nuclear war, and the Padres winning.  If you weren’t worried when you came into church this morning you are now.

We worry about things we can control and about things we can't control and often are confused about which is which.  We worry about things that might happen, that have rarely happened, and that have never happened.

Worry appears to be intrinsic to human nature.  It reflects our basic insecurity as humans about the world that we inhabit.   So if this is true, is worry a trivial subject?   Isn’t life is worrisome?   Jesus thought so.  Jesus included the subject of worry when he preached the Sermon on the Mount to the crowds.   It was a real issue, a genuine concern for Jesus as he listened to the crowds.  Jesus says: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.”

Why is worrying about things a problem?  It saps our strength and drains us of energy, joy, and hope.   We know it’s detrimental to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.   Worry can paralyze us with fear.

Now think about what Jesus is NOT saying in these words.  He is not saying: “Life doesn't have any troubles or problems, it's just your imagination.”  He is not saying: “Life is always fair.”   He is not saying: “Everything always turns out all right.”    Jesus is not saying: “It's OK to make irresponsible decisions and to lead a reckless life.”  He is not saying: “Poor choices don’t have consequences.”   He is not saying: “You don't have to work hard; you can get by on your charm or good looks.”  He is not saying: “Don’t plan things out for the future.”  Jesus isn't saying any of these things.  What is Jesus saying?

First, the Greek word Jesus uses is merimnan; it means to “worry anxiously.”  Jesus is not speaking about our daily normal passing worries and concerns.   Rather, a good translation of the Greek is: “Anxiety, anxious-worry, fearful, fretful, vexing worry.”  It’s the kind of worry that plagues you, that haunts your every waking moment, that negatively affects your spirit and health, that can harm relationships, that confounds your thinking, that wakes you up at night.  It’s the kind of burdensome, tormented, and all-consuming anxiety that sucks the joy out of you.

I remember my wife Nancy telling me about taking her seat on a flight bound to California.   This woman sits down next to her, extremely agitated.   The woman said:  “I hate to fly. I just saw something extremely upsetting but I won't say what, until after we land.”  She proceeds to order drink after drink during the flight.  After the plane lands, the woman turned to Nancy and said:  “Did you know a woman was flying this plane?

Second, Jesus says that “anxious worry” is useless, futile, pointless, unproductive.  It is a colossal waste of time and energy.   Matthew 6:27 points this out.  The meaning is ambiguous.   It can mean that no one by worrying can grow taller or add a cubit or 18 inches to his height.   It can also mean that no one by worrying, can live longer or extend one’s life.  You may add time to your life by eating a healthy diet and exercise, but you won't add one day, or one hour or one minute by worrying.  Someone said that worry is like a fog bank.  Fog can blanket a city for blocks and be as much as 100 feet deep.  But if we were to take that fog and change it into water, it would only fill up a single glass.

Third, Jesus is saying remember this truth, you are of ultimate value to God, you are precious in God's sight.  “Look at the birds of the air, your heavenly Father feeds them, are you not much more valuable than them?”  Knowing this, believing this, trusting this is crucial for faith.  It is saying be assured that God gave us life and God will give us that which we need to sustain life.

One way to remember this is through prayer.  Worry is passive, prayer is active.  Pray unceasingly.  Pray for a life-giving faith.   Phil. 4:6-7 says:  “Don’t worry about anything, instead, pray about everything.  Tell God what you need and thank Him for all He has done.  If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand.  His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”  I love this verse.  Peace is one of God's greatest gifts.  You are of ultimate value to God, don't lose your humor and your joy.  Include God in the details, in the little problems, as well as in the major crises.

The letter of I Peter says: “Cast all your anxiety on God, because he cares for you.”  There is that same word again, anxious worry.  Ask God to unburden you, to free you, to deliver you from the anxious worry that is weighing you down.

Fourth, Jesus is saying that you and I are to put God first in our lives.  God is to be the center, not ourselves, not our family, not our career, not our money.  “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given you.

We are to center our lives on God.  Is God at the center or at the periphery of your life?   If we let something or someone else become our number one priority, it will eventually become our number one worry.  Concentrating upon God, upon God's kingdom, upon accepting and following God's will, will help to defeat the burden of worry that you are carrying.

Finally, Jesus is saying cultivate the art of living one day at a time.   Live each day as it comes, handle each demand as it comes, carry out each task as it appears, and don't worry about the unknown future.  “Don’t worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will bring worries of its own, today's trouble is enough for today.”   I say amen to that.   Plan for tomorrow, set goals for tomorrow, dream dreams for tomorrow, think about tomorrow, take action for tomorrow, but don't allow tomorrow to consume you with worry.

I close with this bit of Irish wisdom about worry titled “WHY WORRY  There are only two things to worry about - either you are well or you are sick.  If you are well, then there is nothing to worry about.  But if you are sick, there are two things to worry about.  Either you will get well or you will die.  If you get well, there is nothing to worry about.  If you die, there are only two things to worry about.  Either you will go to heaven or hell.  If you go to heaven hands with friends, you won’t have time to worry.  Amen!