It’s tough to say goodbye.
It’s hard to believe this is our last Sunday together. After six years of being on this journey, today we worship with one another one last time. I’m going to miss all of you and what this place has meant to me and my faith. I hope that in some small way, I have helped you in yours, too. I am so honored to have been part of what we are doing here and I will keep praying for this place and for all of you. I hope you will do the same for me and my family. It’s easy to think of “goodbye” as something sad, but maybe there’s another way to look at it. We tend to see it in light of “what could have been,” missed opportunities, things we didn’t get to do. But it’s important to look forward to what life has in store for us instead of holding on to the past. It’s not that we can’t look back or even remember fondly what has gone before, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from also looking toward the future. If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phone, if you would go to Acts 1:1. Here we read about an ending, and a new beginning. This takes place right as Jesus is about to ascend into Heaven for the final time. Now for those of you who don’t know, most scholars believe that Luke, the same guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke, also wrote the Book of Acts and in fact, Acts is almost like a sequel to the Gospels. It tells about what happened AFTER the resurrection and recounts the history of the early church. The words we’re about to hear mark Jesus’ final ascension into Heaven and the moments that happen right after.

From our first month in Dinuba – two welcoming churches

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:1-11

I want to challenge you today to think of goodbyes in a different way.
Over the centuries our culture has turned goodbyes into endings, but that’s not the origin of the word. In fact, the word “goodbye” comes from the phrase “God be with you.” It was meant as a prayer and a blessing for God’s continued grace, that God would bless your journey! It was a salutation to the future! Not a tie to the past. And the danger of holding on to the past is that we never allow ourselves the opportunity to live into the present, to fully embrace the opportunities that God has before us. So instead I want to challenge you to look at goodbye not as an end but as a new beginning.

Could not have been ordained without my church family in Dinuba

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the disciples when Jesus left.
It’s probably the complete opposite of what they were expecting. Jesus, risen from the dead, resurrected into new life has spent the last forty days performing miracles, proving he was alive, and speaking about the coming Kingdom,. His followers must have said to each other, “Wow! This is AWESOME! Not even DEATH can stop him!” But they assumed Jesus’ return meant the people of Israel would take over the world. And they would, but not in the way short-sighted human beings imagined and still imagine today. Somebody asks, “Is this the time, Lord? Is this when it’s going to happen? Because, we noticed you haven’t done it yet and it’s been like over a month and we just figured that if you could come back from the dead, that you could pretty much restore Israel whenever you wanted.” And he tells them not to worry about “when” it’s going to happen. Instead he says, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He lays it out for them. The Holy Spirit is going to come and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth! And then he just vanishes.

Celebrating Aiko winning the Bishop’s Award – definitely one of the highlights of ministry here in Dinuba

The Apostles must have been dumbstruck.
Like they just got hit by a Mack truck. I imagine that the disciples were staring up into the clouds much like a child watches after a balloon that floats away. You watch it float higher and higher until it floats so high you can no longer see it, but in your mind, you can picture it continuing to go higher still. That’s probably what the disciples were doing – looking up, even when they could no longer see Him. They’re just fixated in that moment, the way a lot of us get when we say goodbye to someone or something we love, especially if it happens suddenly the way it did for the Apostles. But there’s new opportunities waiting for them and so God sends two men, two ANGELS down to bring them out of it. “’Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” These two men, these two angels, sort of tap them on the shoulders and say, “Don’t worry about it. God has a plan for you.”

Jesus LEAVING brought about a new BEGINNING.
He left so that the Holy Spirit could come down and bless them and empower them to spread his word. He left because the Apostles needed to start a new chapter in their lives. And Jesus did what any wise parent, wise teacher, or sage guide would do – he trained them, he helped them, he gave them the tools to succeed, but then he left them on their own. And it’s in those moments that we are tested. Do we cling to the past and become afraid to step out on our own? Or do we embrace the future?

One of my favorite family pictures at Palm UMC. So many awesome memories

Embracing the future doesn’t mean forgetting the past.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t honor the past. But it does mean we can’t let the past hold us back from the future. Remember what we shared before, “The last seven words heard from a church are ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’” Don’t be afraid of change. Not in your life and not in this church. Every ending marks a new beginning and even though I won’t be with you any longer, that doesn’t mean the work we’ve been doing together is over. In fact, it’s just beginning. It might look differently than it does today, but as long as you keep looking forward instead of looking back, this church will continue to progress into the future and reach new people for Christ. As I learned from our friends in the United Church of Christ, they have a saying, “God is still speaking. Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Let him speak through you. Be the witnesses he commands us to be. Find your own voice to do it. It’s up to you. It’s up to you to find new ways and new ideas to help people understand the love of Jesus Christ. It’s up to you to invite and encourage people into a deeper relationship with God. And it’s up to you to pursue that for yourselves.

I challenge you in the days to come to embrace this mission and find ways to be witnesses for Christ in your daily lives. I challenge you to go and invite friends and family and neighbors to come with you to church and experience for themselves the kindness that comes from being in a community dedicated to loving one another. I challenge you to lead such transformed lives that those around you will long to find out what secret it is you’ve discovered that brings you such happiness, joy, and contentment. And then I hope you lean over, and whisper in their ear. “Jesus loves even me.”

It’s not easy to say “goodbye.”
Not just to each other, but to old habits, to comfortable ways of living, to things we need to leave in the past. It’s hard. But sometimes necessary as Jesus showed us this morning. But like I said earlier, the word “goodbye” actually means “God be with you.” It is a hope and a promise for the future. So when we say “goodbye” to each other this morning, let it be in that vein. That the mighty God who sacrificed himself on the cross for us remains within each of us and supports us as we embrace life in a different way. I leave you today with these words from a song by the Muppets. “Somehow I know, we’ll meet again. Not sure quite where and I don’t know just when. You’re in my heart. So until then. It’s time for saying goodbye.” God be with you.

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Selections from Matthew 9 and 10
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

It doesn’t take a lot of people to make a difference – just people with heart

Twelve people. That’s all it took to change the world.
Jesus chose twelve ordinary people to be his messengers of hope and today more than 2 billion people consider themselves Christians. But it started with just twelve. He sent the twelve out to minister to those in need without money, a suitcase, a change of clothes, or reservations at a nearby hotel. They didn’t have a support staff to help them make arrangements or to proclaim their arrival. They didn’t have a marketing team to promote who they were or what they planned on doing. Literally, all they had were the clothes on their backs. When you came to church this morning, what did you bring with you? I had my Bible, my phone, my wallet, my keys, and my car. My phone now has the power of an entire computer inside of it and can instantly communicate with people all over the world. My car can take me within minutes what it would take hours for the disciples to traverse. And my wallet can help me buy food, water, gas, and more. But the disciples, had literally the clothes on their backs. Can you imagine trusting in God so much that you would carry nothing with you but your clothes? Christ told them to trust in the Lord to provide for their needs because “the worker is worth his keep.” And so they did. Twelve people. It’s not like there were tons of Christians around that they could go and stay with someone on the road. These were the FIRST twelve so they were pretty much on their own. Now, we have churches with anywhere from a handful of members to literally tens of thousands. But these twelve stepped out in faith and were willing to do God’s work and together they changed the course of history.

Worship service during Catalyst 2017 – over 12,000 people in attendance!

I wonder if those early disciples could see some of our churches today what they would think?
Could you imagine being Peter or John and walking into a modern mega church like Saddleback or Mariners or North Point Church where literally thousands of people gather together and worship God? There is something incredibly powerful being in a room the size of a concert hall where everyone is singing, praying, and listening to the Word together. It makes you feel connected to something much bigger than yourself. But bigger isn’t always better. Bigger doesn’t mean that you are more in touch with God. Bigger doesn’t mean that Christ will come into your life in a deeper way. There is a reason why successful large churches rely so much on small group ministries. There’s a reason why they want you to get involved in Sunday School, in mission work, in local charities. It’s because God doesn’t appear to us in anonymity. God is reaching out all the time to you, to me, and to all of us, but if all you do every week is walk into a mega-church, sing a song, and leave, do you know Christ any better than you know Paul McCartney or Beyonce by going to one of their concerts? Christ walks with you and wants you to have a deeper relationship with him that you cannot get in a 20 minute sermon. He wants you to know him and to experience His love for you first hand. Big churches mean more people and more resources, but that doesn’t mean small churches can’t do big things, too.

Our churches in Dinuba have been around for over 100 years and have done some incredible ministry – size is not a factor in God’s work

Size alone is not a measure of worth to God.
If God only cared about size or wealth or prestige or any of the other things the world generally measures “success” by, he never would have chosen Israel to be his chosen people. Abraham and his children would have been just any family of Joe Schmoes wandering the desert. Moses himself told the assembled peoples of Israel in Deuteronomy,“The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). We see in the Bible, time and time again how true this statement is; that God does not pick the mightiest or the smartest or the strongest of people to be his messengers. Often they are normal, flawed people like you and me. Take for example the story of Samuel. If you remember, God rejects Saul as King of Israel and tells Samuel to go looking for a new one. So during his search he goes to meet Jesse of Bethlehem and immediately, he thinks he’s found the new king in Eliab, Jesse’s oldest son, but the Lord hears Samuel’s thoughts and says to him in 1 Samuel 16:7, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at outward appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart.” So in a scene reminiscent of Cinderella, Samuel asks to see each of Jesse’s other sons. But as each one walks by, God says “Nope, not the one.” And after all seven of Jesse’s oldest sons walk by and having the Lord reject them all, Samuel asks “Are these all the sons you have?” and Jesse admits, “There is one more, but he’s out in the back tending the sheep.” Tending the sheep! Could there BE any more clear sign for Samuel? It was like the glass slipper fit right on this youngest son’s foot. And when the youngest son walks in, God tells Samuel, “That’s the one.” And so began the reign of King David, slayer of Goliath and long considered the greatest king of the Israeli people. David wasn’t the biggest or the oldest or the smartest nor was he free of sin, but God did say that David was a man after His own heart, and THAT’S what was important to God. His heart, not his size.

Most of us know the X-Men, but God has superheroes of his own like Gideon, Moses, and David

In our earlier reading, we heard about Gideon, one of God’s heroes.
In fact, I would say one of God’s first super heroes. If there were comic books back in those days, he certainly would have been up there with the Avengers and Batman. They would have called him The Amazing Gideon or The Incredible Gideon or something like that. Gideon is one of my favorite characters in the Bible because to me, Gideon is the everyman. He has doubts. His faith doesn’t come easy. He feels unworthy. And he’s afraid of failing. When the angel appeared, Gideon even said, “But Lord, how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” But God tells Gideon, “I will be with you…” So God puts Gideon in charge of saving Israel from the Midianites, who are not a small clan and an incredibly violent one. By this time, the Israelites have had to hide out in caves in the mountains to try and avoid them. To make it worse, the Midianites teamed up with the Amalekites and a bunch of other people. The Bible says there were so many of them that they were “thick as locusts” and that “their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.” So Gideon calls up an army of 32,000 men hoping that’s enough to defeat these overwhelming odds, and God tells him, “That’s too many.” Now if I were Gideon, I’d be thinking that God was kidding. But instead Gideon tells them that if they have fear they may leave, and 22,000 go away. I wonder how many of us would have been in that 22,000. And then the Lord says, “Still too many.” And he tells Gideon to divide them up by how they drink at the river. So in the end, Gideon is left with 300 men. That’s it. 300. To take on the grains of sand on the seashore. And you know what? He wins. Gideon, this guy who threshes wheat, who has doubts, and who is afraid of failing. This guy who is the least of his family in the weakest clan of Manasseh. Because it’s not size that matters to God, but if you have a heart for God.

Inspiration doesn’t just come only from the Bible, though.
God gives us many real life stories to learn from. too. When I was in seminary, I read about a small-church of only 86 members who started a program to feed every school-aged child during the summer for six-weeks. St. Andrews UMC saw a need in the community and wanted to fill it. They petitioned for assistance from the county and were told that if they were willing to commit to the project, the county would, too. So they did and within a short time, St. Andrews was sponsoring 7 different food locations around one of the poorest counties in the state. Every child who needed a meal got one five days a week, for six weeks. Soon, other churches from all different denominations and even the local community center all pitched in to help out. And so this little church of 86 people was able to pass out 6,000 meals to hungry children. They weren’t a huge mega-church or a giant corporation with millions of dollars, but a small family of God reaching out to the community. They didn’t have a lot of resources, but they had a heart for God and a desire to help their fellow man, and through their effort, they were able to bring the light of Christ to the lives of these children. Now I don’t know if that church ever grew in numbers or even if they are around today, but did they make a difference? Ask those 6,000 children. Our God is a God of miracles and He lives in the world today. God can work wonders in you, too. If we keep God as the central focus of our lives and our church, He will help us grow and be effective stewards of His will in the world. You don’t have to BE big to do big things you just have to have a BIG heart. Just remember, every big thing started out small. Rick Warren’s church of 30,000 people started off with just him and his wife. Gideon had only 300 men and they took on an army! St. Andrews UMC had 86 members and passed out 6,000 meals in 6 weeks. And just remember, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, called to him only 12 people who forever changed the world.

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How do you eat your donuts?

Do you dunk them or do you like eating them “as is?”  And what do you like to have with your donut – milk, coffee, or something completely different?  Me, I’m an “as is” kind of guy.  I like to experience my donuts without other flavors impacting the “donut experience.”  I know some people like to dunk them, but I can’t bring myself to do that.  I like to think of myself as a donut purist and even though I love milk, I wouldn’t want to blend the tastes together.  It’s the same reason I eat cereal the way I do.  I’m on a timer as soon as the milk hits the bowl.  It just makes me cringe to think about eating soggy cereal and I feel the same way about donuts.  Who wants a soggy donut?   It would be like putting sugar on grits, butter on rice, ketchup on eggs!  Wait, I do that.  The point is we each have our own way of doing things that WE think is RIGHT and we can’t IMAGINE doing it differently.  But are we correct?  The funny thing is we have controversies like this in the church, too.  Different denominations and even different churches have different ways of observing certain rituals that are central to what we believe.  Baptism is like that. The people of God have very different viewpoints on what constitutes a “proper” baptism.  To dunk or not to dunk?  That is the question.  And the attempt to answer it has driven right thinking people in different directions.  How you dunk your donut doesn’t seem to upset anybody, but for some reason, how you dunk people does.

There are basically four methods of baptism – aspersion, affusion, immersion, and submersion.

Say it with me.  Aspersion, affusion, immersion, submersion.[1]  It’s a tongue twister.  Sounds like that Gene Kelly song from Singing in the Rain.  “Moses supposes his toes-es are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously.” Anyway, aspersion is a fancy way of saying sprinkling with water, that’s what we do most commonly.  You take a palm full of water and just run it gently over the person’s head.  Affusion is the pouring of water over the head, usually from a jug or pitcher of water with a bowl underneath to catch it as it drips off.  The advantage of these two types is you can still dress up.  Immersion is literally standing or kneeling in a body of water and using a jug or bowl or something where you can scoop up a lot of water, and having it poured on top of you.  Sort of like a Gatorade soak at the end of a football game.  And then there is complete immersion or submersion, which is the mother of ALL baptisms.  It’s the one we most commonly think of when we think of someone being “dunked.”  In the United Methodist Church, ALL of these are acceptable forms of baptism, but not every church sees it that way.

In fact, some are very rigid in their beliefs.

I had a friend named Susan who belonged to the International Church of Christ. I remember talking to her one day after I had moved to Atlanta.  We had lost touch for a couple of years and I decided to reconnect with her, see how she was doing, and she told me about this church she joined.  It seemed strange right from the beginning.  She was telling me about this intense discipleship training they had to go through before they were allowed to be baptized.  ALLOWED!  They had very strict ideas about baptism and the saddest one to me was that she believed only those baptized in this particular way were going to be saved.  It literally made me sad.  Incidentally, only her church baptized people in this particular way – which she never gave me the details.  She said there was only one true baptism and if you didn’t take part in it, you couldn’t be saved.  I wish I had known then what I know now.  If you would turn to Luke 23:33 we will begin our reading for today.  This was the passage I wish I had read to her.  Luke 23:33-43.  Because this one passage would shatter that belief in a second.  This one passage shows all you need to receive salvation in Christ.  This is the reading from Luke of the crucifixion of Christ.  We begin the reading with Christ at the top of Golgotha along with the two criminals and this part of Scripture describes what happens next.  But pay attention not only to what happens but to what DOESN’T happen.

33When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 35The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” 36The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

 39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

 40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

 43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Nowhere in the Bible does it say you HAVE to be dunked. 

Nowhere in the Bible does it say you HAVE to be dunked.  I’ve looked and I’ve looked, and it just doesn’t say that anywhere.  People will argue, “That’s how Jesus did it.”  But if you read the Bible, it doesn’t say anything about HOW Jesus got baptized, just that he did.  Jesus himself never says anything about it either except that we should do it, too.  Dunkers will argue that the word “baptism” itself MEANS to “dip” or “immerse,” but they downplay that it also means to “wash” or to have your hands poured over with water.  So even though “baptism” does mean to “dip” or “immerse” it also has meaning to “wash” or to “pour water over.”[2]  Dunkers even ignore the historical and archaeological evidence that even in the early church people often had water poured over them instead of being dunked.  The only requirement for faith, the only necessary to receive salvation as we see in our reading this morning is belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  Everything else is humanity adding rules.

The people watching ridiculed and mocked Jesus.

Even the one of the criminals, as he is hanging there in pain insulted him and shouts at him “Save yourself and us!”  But the other criminal scolds the first one and admits to his crimes and proclaims that Jesus has done nothing wrong.  And then he says to Jesus, “…remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus says these words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Today you will be with me in paradise.  The man repented, moments before his death, with a sincere and honest heart, and Jesus forgave him.  It’s as simple as that.  And that thief?  He never got baptized.  He never got baptized.  His sins were never washed away in some river somewhere.  He never went underwater.  There isn’t some hidden gospel account that shows the thief being taken down to receive the ritual cleansing.  Instead, with a love of God and repentance in his heart, the criminal asks for forgiveness and Christ forgives.

But that doesn’t mean baptism isn’t important.

In fact, for anyone who knows the love of Christ, it is essential.  Jesus himself commanded us to baptize all nations in his name.  And if salvation is based on our faith in Christ, what does it say about our faith if we refuse to be baptized?  As one of only two sacraments in our faith, we believe that baptism like communion is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  We participate in baptism to acknowledge our faith in Christ and we do it in the community of believers because baptism is about joining the family of God; becoming a true child of Christ.  There are no secret baptisms.  And in the Methodist tradition, we accept the baptisms of any Christ-centered church.  I know in some traditions, it’s customary to be “rebaptized.”  When you change denominations, some churches want you to do it again.  But that treats baptism on the same level as a do-over in kickball or flipping the reset button on your video game.  When I was younger, we had an Atari.  Back then there were no numbers.  No 2600.  No 5200.  Just Atari.  Nintendo wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen.  My mom and I would spend hours playing Air-Sea Battle together.  And the coolest thing about the Atari was the reset button.  If I didn’t like the results, just flip the switch and POOF I would get to start the game over again.  The concept of rebaptism is sort of like that.  It’s a do-over because the first one didn’t count.  And I can completely understand why some people would want to do that, to hit the restart button.

Getting the opportunity to baptize London at Palm UMC

I had a friend who asked our pastor to be rebaptized.

She had been baptized as a child and at the time it didn’t have the meaning it did for her now.  She had been away from the church for a long while and when she came back, she really felt that her life had been transformed.  She wasn’t the same person she was before and she felt like she needed to rededicate her life to God.  And our pastor told her that we didn’t do rebaptisms and the reason she gave has always stuck with me.  She told her, “We believe God got it right the first time.”  We believe God got it right the first time.  That’s why we don’t rebaptize people from other denominations or rebaptize adults who left and came back.  Because baptism, isn’t like a video game where you start over if you don’t get it right.  Baptism is a covenant between you and God.  And just like your parents will always be your parents, once you become a child of God, you are ALWAYS a child of God and God loves you whether you love him back or not.

God doesn’t care how you are baptized, but that you have a heart and love for Christ.

We make up a lot of rules in the church.

A lot of rules that aren’t necessary or Biblical, but humankind likes having rules.  We like rules not just because it adds structure and order to our lives, but because we can more easily determine who’s in and who’s out.  But maybe, if we focus instead not on the minutiae of church, but instead on the overall goals of the church – to bring other to faith in Christ – we could BE the church Christ wants us to be. Baptism IS important, but not because of some sort of legal requirement to become adopted into the family of God, but because it is a milestone in our faith journey.  It is a commitment to a life in the care of Jesus Christ.  And an opportunity to share our faith with those we know and love.  Whether we are baptized by sprinkling, pouring, or dunking doesn’t matter to God.  What matters are your faith and your heart.  That’s always been enough for him.  Now I need to go and eat a donut.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism

It’s been a year of milestones. 

Emma is graduating from 8th grade.  I still can’t believe that.  I’m so proud of her and the person she is growing to become.  But it’s hard to believe.  Next year she’ll be in high school!  Am I old enough to have a daughter in high school?  I guess I must be, because I also have a daughter old enough to join the Air Force.  Eve surprised us all by enlisting and now she’s in her second week of basic training. And then, this year I turned the BIG 5-0!  And while I’m extremely grateful to have made it this far, turning 50 comes with the realization that I now qualify for membership in AARP.  It’s kind of shocking.  I’m still a few years away from getting discounts at the movie theater, but it won’t be long. I guess for Cassie it’s been a year of milestones, too.  She is the mother of a daughter graduating from 8th grade, the mother of a daughter graduating from basic training, and the wife of a guy who just turned 50!  And to top it off, we’re moving this year!  It makes my head spin thinking of all the different milestones we’ve encountered just this year alone.

Emma and her friends in front of the White House during the 8th grade history trip

Our faith has milestones, too.

And in the Christian life, baptism is considered a big one.  It marks the time when we dedicate our life to Christ and give ourselves to his kingdom.  And it is a time of celebration as we welcome another member into the family of God.  Baptism is the first milestone in our faith journey. Not our first step but our first milestone and that distinction is important.  A milestone is a reference point.  It’s a marker along the road to show us where we’ve been and how far there is to go.  In the Christian faith, our life is filled with these markers and from the moment we are born to the moment we die, we are continually walking along that road.  If we say it’s the first STEP, then we’re saying that our faith, our journey really only begins HERE – at this point, when we’re baptized.  But that’s not true.  Just because you haven’t been baptized doesn’t mean you don’t believe in God.  Our faith journey starts even before we’re aware of it, because God is active in our lives from the moment we are born.  And think about those who are baptized as adults.  I didn’t get baptized until I was 33 years old, but I look back at my life and see all the ways God was working in me that entire time.  Through my mom, through my friends, through my wife-to-be, all of them were important in my faith journey even before I was baptized.  But it was when I was baptized that I made a commitment to Christ.  It was then that I finally responded to God’s efforts to reach out to me.  Baptism then is our response to a faithful and loving God who is already at work in our lives.

 

Getting ready for Emma’s baptism

It’s also more than that.

It’s not simply a ritual or a ceremony that we do to commemorate becoming a member of the Church.  It is one of the means of grace by which we actually encounter God through the Holy Spirit.  In our church, we celebrate only two of these divine means of grace – baptism and Holy Communion.  And in both of these celebrations, when we surrender ourselves to God, we open ourselves up to the workings of the Holy Spirit.  We call these sacraments because they are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.  What that means is there is a powerful transformation of the spirit that happens when you participate in these sacraments.  The outward aspects of the service, the water in baptism and the taking of bread and juice in communion, are visible symbols of something transformative and deeper that is happening inside of you.  That’s why it is so important to be baptized and why it is the first huge milestone on your journey to becoming a Christian.  Not because you get water sprinkled on you, but because baptism opens you up to the Holy Spirit in a new and different way.  In our passage this morning, Jesus talks about this with Nicodemus.  Now in this passage, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus who you will hear is one of the key Jewish leaders.  Jesus had just turned water to wine and had overturned the tables in the temple and after that encounter, this man named Nicodemus comes up to him and wants to talk to him and this is the exchange that happens between them.

1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

 3In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

 4“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

 5Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”- John 3:1-8

I like Nicodemus’ question. 

I think it’s something I might have said.  I always imagine Nicodemus as sort of an older, fatherly figure – a guy who’s lived a pretty long life and knows quite a bit.  He is a member of the Jewish ruling council, so he’s probably a very respected person. And when he first hears Jesus say, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again,” he probably thinks Jesus is a little bit off.  It’s obvious Jesus has been blessed by God, but still, here’s this guy telling him, you have to be born again.  I would have been scratching my head.  I imagine Nicodemus has kind of a sarcastic tone in his voice when he replies, “How can a man be born when he is old?  Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”  But as Jesus explains, he’s talking about something that goes beyond physical birth.  “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  As important as it is to have been born physically, it is even more important to be born again from the Holy Spirit.  Baptism allows the Spirit to enter into your life in ways that give you new life.

London Serios’ baptism at Palm UMC

Does that mean you have to be baptized in order to be saved?

No. Salvation is a gift from God given to anyone who believes.  But ask yourself this, if we believe that baptism opens us up to the work of the Holy Spirit in a new way, why wouldn’t we do it?  Why wouldn’t we want to draw closer to God?  Why wouldn’t we want to tell people we believe?  Because if you believe, if you have faith in the power of baptism to change your life, once you do it, you will be on a road to a richer, more peaceful, more full life.  But if you know about baptism and you know that it’s possible for it to change your life for the better and you still refuse to take part in it, consider what that says about your faith and if you truly believe.  Baptism is not only about opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, but it’s also about our commitment to God. Let us renew our own commitment and our own faith in Christ Jesus.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Who would make your list?

Last weekend, we were at the Dodgers game a day early to celebrate Mother’s Day.  And in addition to the free hats they were giving away as part of the 60th anniversary of Dodger Stadium, they were also honoring the 1988 World Series Dodgers. On a side note, I leaned over and told Cassie the only reason we were celebrating the 30th anniversary of a World Series team is because we haven’t had one since.  All throughout the night they kept playing videos of the games and of the players from that historic year and Orel Hersheiser, probably the most famous member of that team next to Kirk Gibson, was on screen giving thanks to the coaches, the players, and the organization for making it happen. So who would make your list?  If you were up on DodgerVision giving thanks to the people who made your career a success, who would mention?  Watching these kinds of tributes, I am reminded of how interconnected the world is and how much we depend on one another for our success.  Being famous, winning awards, doing something noteworthy is more than just having the talent or the intelligence to do it.  Those things are important, but there’s an element of community that is at least as important as all of that.  I can’t help but think of people I know who are fantastic writers who have never had a book published or a script produced; wonderful singers who have never been signed to a record label; artists who haven’t had their work published or put in a gallery and I know it’s not because they lack talent.  On the other hand, there are movies like John Carter.  Someone was convinced to spend over $250 million dollars on a film that ended up losing $200 million.  No one becomes a success in a vacuum.  We are the product of so many different variables and all of them are important.

Enjoying the game early for Mother’s Day

Successfully raising a child is a lot like being a success at anything.

You can’t do it alone.  And I don’t mean being a single parent.  Having both parents around doesn’t guarantee success.  I knew a couple with two kids.  Same parents.  Same household.  Same schools.  One of them grew up to be a model student.  Helped out with the family, got good grades, never got in trouble.  The other one was always getting in fights; got sent to the principal’s office time and time again; and started doing drugs and breaking the law.  If it was just about good parenting, it wouldn’t make any sense!  But it’s not. A child doesn’t grow up in a bubble.  They have different friends.  They have different teachers.  They get involved in different things.  All of it adds up to the person they become.  As a church, we have to make sure to do our part, to help build up children in faith, to give them a solid foundation, to help them see God at work in their lives.  Because if we don’t, they will drift away to find themselves in other things.

Sharing with the kids about being faithful to God’s call with Teacher Susan

It scares me because the vast majority of kids leave the church when they leave the nest.

Studies show about 70% of kids who took off for college or careers also took off from the church.  Seventy percent![1]  They just…leave.  Some of them come back, but a lot of them don’t.  CNN did an article examining millennials and the church and in the space of just 7 years, the number of unaffiliated people (meaning people with no religious affiliation) rose nearly 7% to a whopping 23% of the population.[2]  That means nearly a quarter of all Americans not only don’t go to church, but don’t even have a church they claim as their own.  The number that was the most disheartening?  “Of America’s major faiths, mainline Protestants (like ours) have the worst retention rate among millennials, with just 37% staying in the fold…”[3]  Just 37%.  As the study pointed out, “Many young Christians seemed bored by church”[4] The temptation is to blame the kids for not being interested, but in all honesty we need to accept our part in all of this.  Because the kids I’ve talked to are hungry for answers.  They don’t always know what questions to ask, but they want to know the same things adults want to know – Why am I here?  What’s the meaning of life?  Is there a God?  And if so, why are all these things happening in the world?

Our kids need us to help them answer these questions.

The key isn’t to be a Biblical scholar, but to be the kind of person who exemplifies God’s love.  We are lucky to have someone like Susan who feels God’s call upon her life to help our children.  She has been doing Children’s Ministry now for about 15 years and has blessed the lives of many kids.  And it’s not just because she teaches them the Bible.  They enjoy the lessons, they like the goodies, and they always have a smile on their face when the treats come out, but it’s the love and dedication she has for the kids that are the best example of Christ’s love.  They learn about the Bible, but through Susan they also experience what it means to live out those words.  And that is the best way for children to know and understand God.  If we want our kids to stay close to God as they grow up, we have to be a living example of Christ’s love in their lives.

Susan does so much for the church. Here she is participating in our Ikebana class

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

It really does take a village to raise a child.

Parents are the most important ingredient to be sure, but parents alone can’t do all of the work.  We are products of more than just our biology.  Friends, church, community, our nation, and our world all contribute to making us who we are.  When then First Lady Hillary Clinton wrote her best-selling book with the title It Takes A Village, it’s purpose was to drive home this point and to inspire us to collectively take responsibility for the welfare of the children in our lives and in our world.  In the passage we just read, Moses is talking not just to parents, but to the entire nation of Israel.  “Impress (God’s commandments) on your children…  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”  That word “impress” is more than just “teach.”  The dictionary defines the word as “to apply with pressure so as to imprint.”[5]  Teaching is the transfer of information, but impression is making it part of the person’s character.  In this passage, Moses is telling the people of Israel that it is our responsibility to find a way to impress upon the children the lessons of Christ and to live them out as a reminder at all times of what it means to be Christian.

Susan and her family as we celebrate her 15 years in ministry with the children

 

Wouldn’t it be great if you ended up in someone’s “thank you” speech?

What an honor to be placed in that rare category of influential people upon a person’s life.  If we take seriously Christ’s call not to hinder the little children, we also have to take seriously Moses’ call to impress upon the children the lessons of Christ.  Pray about how you can support the children of our church.  When we join, we offer our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  How can you do that for our kids?  We have been so blessed to have more kids in Sunday School on a regular basis than we have had in over a decade.  If we want to keep that energy and that witness for Christ alive and strong, we have to help out in whatever way we can.  So pray about how you can support Susan and our Sunday School ministry this week.  We need volunteers to help out in the classroom.  It means giving up a Sunday in worship once in a while, but isn’t that worth it?  You might make the biggest difference in the lives of one of our kids.  And that is a reward beyond measure.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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[1] http://www.lifeway.com/Article/LifeWay-Research-finds-reasons-18-to-22-year-olds-drop-out-of-church

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/12/living/pew-religion-study/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/impress

Where would we be without our moms?

Nowhere.  Even if you didn’t have the best mom in the world, you could at least say one thing – she brought me into this world.  That alone should be an accomplishment worthy of recognition.  Giving life to a child, enduring not only labor but the nine months leading up to it is a sacrifice we don’t often appreciate as much as we should.  I know our moms do it out of love, but still it’s a pretty amazing sacrifice.  Now the truth is, most of us believe we have the best mom in the world or at least right up there in the top 10.  Just for putting up with me alone, my mom deserves top 5 status.  Growing up I thought I knew everything, but I look back now and wonder how in the world my mom didn’t just strangle me on a daily basis.  I guess I can credit that to a mother’s love, too.  It seems most moms have a never-ending wellspring of the stuff, a love that goes beyond any other that exists.  In that way, our love for our children mirrors God’s love for us.  Just as God is our parent in Heaven, so our parents share that same love with us. It’s the strongest kind of love there is.

Mom taking me and my two best friends Mike and Owen to Disneyland (and my sister Karen, too)

If you look in the Bible you see so many examples of this type of motherly love.

In Genesis we see Jochebed, the mother of Moses not only giving up her child for the chance to let him live, but then purposely making herself a servant in the princess’ household so she could be with him.  Even though it meant she would likely live a life of poverty, Naomi released her two daughters-in-law from their duty to her when her sons died tragically.  She loved them that much, and knew their best chance was to abandon her and she wanted what was best for their lives over her own.  Then there’s the story about the woman in King Solomon’s court.  Her child was stolen from her by a jealous and bitter woman whose own baby passed away in the night.  Without a clear way to tell who was lying, King Solomon tried something tricky and offered to settle their dispute by sacrificing the child so that neither one could have him.  The mother instantly said she would give up her claim if only the king would allow the baby to live.  And in the New Testament we hear the story of the Canaanite woman who comes before Jesus, crying out for mercy.  Her daughter is suffering and she comes begging for help.  Eventually, Jesus recognizes this woman’s great faith and takes mercy on her, curing her daughter.  All of these mother’s stories have a similar theme – self-sacrifice.  They were willing to sacrifice their own security, happiness, or well-being for the sake of their children.

My 50th birthday with family (parents in the front)

Mary was the same way.

If you have a Bible or a Bible app, please go to the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 1, beginning with verse 26.  Luke 1:26. Mary had a lot to lose becoming the mother of Jesus.  We look back now and see what an amazing honor it was to be chosen for this role, but back then there was a lot at stake.  Right before Mary is pregnant, we read that Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, was also pregnant, itself a miracle considering Elizabeth’s advanced age. But God had graced Elizabeth with a son and she would soon give birth to the man we know as John the Baptist.  Mary, however, had no immediate plans to be pregnant.  So everything that’s about to happen is going to come as a big surprise.

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left

Mom at her retirement party

This would have been a tremendous burden for Mary.

To be willing to carry a child that was not from her husband would be a disgrace in the eyes of the community.  And since they had never been together, Joseph would know it was not his child and would have every reason to leave her, and from Matthew’s version of the story, Joseph originally intended to do exactly that, but was convinced to stay by an angel of the Lord.  Still Mary couldn’t count on an angel to come and intervene.  If Joseph had left her, it was likely she never would have been married.  Because of the society they lived in, she would probably have been destitute and would need to rely on the mercy of others to provide her with food and clothing.  Her life as she knew it would take a drastic turn for the worse.  But she accepted her role with grace and simply trusted God would make everything all right. That’s what makes this story so amazing.  She was willing to sacrifice so much for this child and for her faith in God.

It’s that kind of sacrifice that reminds us of Christ.

Just as a mother is willing to sacrifice her life for the child that she loves, so too does Christ love us.  That he was willing to give his life for all of us is a testimony to love we see from parent to child.  A mother’s life is often one of sacrifice. When we look again at Mary’s life not only did she risk much to give birth to Jesus, but she stood by him even at his death.  She was one of the few who remained by Jesus’ side in his final moments, and despite the ridicule he suffered, the abandonment of even his closest friends she would not abandon him.  The pain and difficulty of seeing her son in those final moments must have been heart rendering.  But she did it out of love for her child. Because that’s what a mother does.  She is willing to sacrifice herself for her children just as God does for us.

Mary fittingly is one of the cornerstones of our faith.

Not only because she was the mother of the Christ child, but because of her own example of faithfulness and self-sacrifice to God.  Looking through the Bible and reading through the history of the church, mothers have been vital in the development of the faith, both on a personal level and as a mirror of the self-sacrifice of Christ.  Think about the mothers we talked about today – not only Mary, but Jochebed, Naomi, the woman in King Solomon’s court, and the Canaanite woman.  Their actions were all based on love and self-sacrifice.  The same kind of love and self-sacrifice that God has shown to us through his son Jesus.  As parents, when we are at our best, we are a reflection of the love of Christ.

When the Bible says we are created in his image, this is what it meant.

That we are built for love.  That it is in our nature to love and in its purest most Christ-like form to think of others before ourselves.  A mother’s natural instinct for love and self-sacrifice is because we are created in his image.  But as creatures of free choice, we don’t always make the wise decision.  Not all of us are blessed to have a mother who loves us the way we deserve or that she was created to be.  So if you have a mother in your life who has given you this kind of love, whether she is your biological mother, your adopted mother, or your surrogate mother, remember to give thanks to her and thanks to God for the way he created us.

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Milk…It does a body good.

At least, if you’re a baby.  As you get older, the benefits of milk aren’t so obvious.  There was an article in the New York Times about whether or not milk actually does a body good and it turns out…it doesn’t seem so. I have to admit that I sure prided myself on my milk drinking.  I may not always eat the best, but I sure do drink milk and it does a body good! Or so I thought.  Then Cassie came up to me one day and said that drinking milk might actually be CAUSING me some problems.  I have to admit, as smart as Cassie is, I thought she got this one all wrong. My entire life, doctors have been telling me to drink my milk.  Even as an adult.  But in 2011, the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research did a study of over 200,000 women and could find no correlation between milk drinking and lower rates of bone fracture.[1]  Another study of over 100,000 men and women could find no correlation between drinking milk as a teenager and incidents of bone fractures.  And one study published in the British Medical Journal showed men and women who drank high quantities of milk had a higher death rate and women actually had MORE bone fractures than those who didn’t drink as much milk.[2]  While they couldn’t prove milk actually caused those deaths, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t seem to be doing much for us.

Me holding Emma on her literal birth day, wrapped like a baby burrito

At least for adults.

But for babies, it is as much of a fact as there can possibly be in science. Babies need milk – specifically mother’s milk. It strengthens the immune system, decreases disease, and helps to protect children from developing allergies.[3]  Later in life, these babies have fewer cavities, are less likely to be obese, tend to have fewer problems related to blood pressure, and tend to be more mature and assertive.[4]  The evidence is so strong for all the different benefits of baby milk that there are even milk banks where mothers can donate so other mothers who have problems making their own still have a source for their babies.  Virtually everyone agrees that milk is essential for young developing infants.

And the Bible would agree.

If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phone, please find 1 Peter 1:13.  We are going to read from two different but related passages this morning – 1 Peter 1:13-16 and 2:1-2.  Milk in the Old Testament largely referred to God’s promise of a land overflowing in abundance, but in the New Testament, milk is seen as spiritual sustenance.  It’s the building block for a strong spiritual life.  Just like milk is a necessity for babies who grow up to be adults, spiritual milk is needed to help our faith life develop into something strong and robust.  Our passage this morning is just one that refers to spiritual milk but its one that sheds light on what that milk will do for us.

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. – 1 Peter 1:13-16 and 2:1-2

Crave pure spiritual milk.

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that BY it you may grow up in your salvation now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”  Spiritual milk is essential for our faith and Peter writes here that we should crave it!  We should crave those things that feed our faith and help to keep away all of those things that would rob us of salvation – malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander.  Peter hopes that because we have tasted this spiritual milk that it will be enough to keep us craving more.  What he means by having “tasted” spiritual milk is that there was something in us that turned us toward Christ and away from all the other temptations of the world.  There was some part of our life that Jesus’ message of hope and salvation connected with, and Peter hoped that was enough to fuel us wanting more to keep craving that spiritual milk that is so essential to grounding us.

And this is where John Wesley’s ideas about the means of grace come in.

Wesley believed that God provided us with many ways to find this spiritual milk and to keep connected to Christ.  He believed even when we felt distant from God, the means of grace would help bring us back. Last week we talked about works of mercy, which are a part of these means of grace and today we’ll finish by talking about works of piety.  Works of piety are those personal practices that help us grow closer to God.  Things like prayer, reading the Bible, going to worship, taking communion, taking part in Bible study, sharing our faith and fasting; these are the practices that Wesley felt would help connect us to our faith.    Regularly doing these things, regularly praying or reading the Bible or fasting or going to worship creates in us a foundation for a life grounded on faith.  It’s like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.  You don’t even think about these things any more as part of a list of things you need to do.  You’ve been doing them for so long that they are simply a part of what you do every day.  But doing them makes you a healthier person and much more enjoyable to be around.  And not doing it makes us feel off the entire day.  The truth is, doing these works of piety will have the same effect.

In our seemingly time-crunched world, it doesn’t feel like we have time for it.

We don’t have time for Bible study.  We don’t have time for worship.  We don’t have time for prayer.  But is it we don’t HAVE time or we don’t MAKE time?  Like with taking a shower and brushing your teeth, you could skip these things if you were seriously short on time.  In the long run, we’d be able to do more if we stopped wasting time on hygiene.  Think about it.  The average shower lasts 8.2 minutes.[5]  Assuming you take one every day, you could save yourself nearly 3,000 minutes a year.  That’s more than 2 full days of time!  But we would never do that, right?  We feel taking a shower is important.  Or at least keeps us from getting a divorce.  So apply that logic to what Wesley calls works of piety.  Almost all of these things – prayer, worship, Bible study, communion, sharing your faith – take less than or about the same amount of time as taking a shower every day.  If we value our relationship with God, then why wouldn’t we schedule that into our day?

Stephen Covey had some great advice about this.

As you know, he’s the author of the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and he writes, “The key is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  You’ve probably heard that before.  The key is to keep the main thing the main thing.  We know this intellectually, but we don’t always do a great job of executing it.  He says, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” We’re so busy with whatever is in front of us that we don’t look at things long term.  So how do we get around that?  Covey says, “The key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”  The key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.  If you believe God is important then carve out time for God.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s just a matter of priorities.

This is the spiritual milk that will help us grow in our faith.

The common, ordinary, everyday types of things that take very little time or money to do – prayer, Bible study, worship, communion.  At times they might seem boring.  At times they might even seem meaningless.  At times we may not feel the working of the Holy Spirit within us.  But it is.  The Spirit is at work even if we don’t “feel” it all the time.  But it is important to keep doing these ordinary means of grace so that our faith will continue to grow even if we don’t “feel” it.  When babies drink milk, they don’t say to themselves, “Hey look! My leg just grew a quarter of an inch!” But slowly, over time, as they keep taking the nourishment they need they grow.  Sure and steady they grow.  And the same is true of our faith.  So take time out to drink your spiritual milk.  It does a body good.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/18/upshot/got-milk-might-not-be-doing-you-much-good.html

[2] https://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g6015?etoc=

[3] http://www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/benefits.asp

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.home-water-works.org/indoor-use/showers

How can failure make you great?

Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.  There are others you might elevate to that lofty position –Lebron, Magic, or Kobe come to mind among many, but it would be hard to elevate any of them over Michael.  He led his team to six world championships and a world record 72-game winning season.  He has won the league MVP five times, been in 14 All-Star games, elected All-Star MVP three times, elected NBA Finals MVP all six times his team won, and led the league in scoring 10 times.  Yet Michael Jordan has failed over and over again.  But just because you fail doesn’t mean you’re a failure. In fact, Jordan cites all those times he didn’t come through as the reason for his success.  He once said, “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost three hundred games.  Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”[1]

Jordan is not alone in succeeding through failure. 

Walt Disney was once fired from a newspaper job for “lacking imagination and having no good ideas.”  Thomas Edison was told he was “too stupid to learn anything.”  And a man named Akio Morita once made a rice cooker that couldn’t cook rice.  He only sold 100 of them.  But Akio didn’t give up.  Instead he founded Sony, a company known for their high quality work.[2]  All of these men failed, yet all of them are considered successful because they didn’t let their failure impede their progress.  To them failure wasn’t a limitation, it was an opportunity to find another way to succeed. 

We all have limitations.

We don’t have enough money.  We don’t have enough time.  We don’t have enough resources.  But the difference between success and failure is in how we perceive these limitations.  Instead of looking at it as a barrier, those who are successful see it as a learning moment.  They don’t see failure as a statement about their ability, but as a necessary step TOWARD succees.  Thomas Edison made the remark, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”[3] Success or failure for us in the church is simple. It’s laid out in The Great Commission.  As Matthew writes in chapter 28 of his Gospel, Jesus tells us plainly, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Our measure of success is the entire world.  And we haven’t gotten there yet.  And if we stop trying to accomplish this mission, we go from failing to being a failure.

The apostles didn’t allow anything to stop them in their mission.

They faced the same problems in THEIR ministry as we do in ours – a lack of money, a lack of resources, and a sense that time was running out.  But instead of looking at these as limitations, they found a way to accomplish their goals despite them.  If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phones, please go to the book of Acts 3:1-9.  Acts 3:1-9.  This passage takes place not long after Jesus has returned to Heaven.  The Holy Spirit has descended upon the disciples and has empowered them.  And with this newfound power, they go out into the world and begin to make new disciples for Christ.  These new believers are so overwhelmed with the Holy Spirit that they form a fellowship that cares for one another and looks after one another in remarkable ways.  So the passage we’re about to read from Acts 3:1-9 is about the conversion of this beggar who sits at the gate.

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

The miracle is the first thing that stands out, but is that what’s most important?

A lame beggar is sitting at the gate to the temple courts and as Peter and John are walking by he asks for some money.  But instead of giving him money, Peter heals the man’s leg!  This man who has never been able to walk before is able to get up and jump up and down.  The man instantly praises God.  His first act after receiving this gift is to praise God.  Most of us would say THAT was remarkable.  But consider this.  In his book “It” Craig Groeschel asked this question: what if Peter and John DID have money?  Peter says, “Silver or gold I do NOT have, but what I do have I give you.”  If they had money, would they have given this man what he asked for instead of what was needed?  Would they have been challenged to meet the man’s REAL needs?  Perhaps THAT is the most remarkable thing, that it is sometimes in the limitations that we find the most blessing.  Sometimes it is in the limitations that we find the most blessing.  Peter and John didn’t give up trying to help the beggar.  They didn’t ignore him or say “Sorry I don’t have any money to spare.”  They gave him what they could and it turns out what he really needed – the healing power of Christ.

Do we challenge ourselves to overcome our limitations like Peter and John?

Or do we use them as an excuse for not doing what needs to be done?  Being poor, small in number, and limited in physical ability shouldn’t be impediments, but simply define for us our boundaries.  It shouldn’t stop us from doing effective ministry, but instead give us a framework to do it in.  The disciples certainly were poor and small in number.  Maybe they had more physical ability than we do, being mostly fisherman or people who did manual labor, but there are lots of things they didn’t have that we do today.  A building for example.  A piano or organ.  Pews for sitting down.  A stove for cooking food.  Running water, air conditioning, a speaker system.  There are lots of things they didn’t have and yet they changed the world.  If our challenge is to fulfill the Great Commission then we have to challenge ourselves to ask what are WE doing to do our part?  We cannot allow our limitations to prevent us from doing what needs to be done.  We can’t allow our history, our personal preferences and our likes and dislikes hold us back from achieving for God what needs to be achieved, or we are guilty of being failures instead of people who fail.  Because everybody fails.  It’s what you do with your failure that determines your success.

Walt Disney aboard his Carolwood Pacific Railroad, seen here set up at The Walt Disney Studios in the spring of 1951 prior to it’s installation at Walt’s Carolwood Drive home in Holmby Hills, California.

It’s easy to make excuses.  It’s better to find solutions.

We cannot afford to become complacent in our lives or in our ministry.  We have to always do “the next thing.”  Not the “popular thing” but the “next thing,” whatever that “next thing” is that meets the needs of our community and allows us to show them the love of Christ.  When Walt Disney created Disneyland, he wanted to create a place that families could take their kids that would be clean, fun, safe, and magical and where they could do things together.  When Disneyland opened in 1955 it hosted 50,000 people on that first day.  Certainly, most would have considered that a success.  In fact, in it’s first operating year alone, Disneyland had over a million visitors.  Walt could have stopped there.  Certainly, people would have come for quite some time as people did.  But Walt never stopped tinkering with the Park.  He once said, “Disneyland will never be completed.  It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”  He constantly challenged himself to do the “next thing” what he called “plussing it.”  Today more than 600 million people have visited Disneyland in Anaheim.  That doesn’t include the number of visitors to Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris or Hong Kong Disneyland either.  It is too easy for us to settle into old routines and habits and call them traditions.  We have to not only be willing to change, but be the catalysts for change in our communities.  Like Peter and John, we have to figure what it is that people need and give them that, and in the giving show the love and power of Christ.

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.  We find ways to defeat ourselves before we even begin.

We imagine we can’t do something so we don’t even try.  We imagine we won’t like something, so we don’t even give it a chance.  But there’s more than one way to fail.  Wayne Gretsky, perhaps the greatest hockey player of all time, said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”  How can we learn and grow from our mistakes if we’re too timid to make any?  The fear of failure in itself becomes an impediment to our success.  It becomes a limitation we put on ourselves.  I want to challenge you as we reflect upon what it is that holds you back, in your personal life, in your career, in your faith.  What is it that prevents you from doing the “next thing” and can you overcome that limitation?  Because I believe you can.  I believe we all can.  I don’t think it’s easy and I do think it will likely take us failing a number of times before we find what works, but it is within you.  The goal is to keep trying and IF we fail to learn from the failure.  Michael Jordan failed making more than 9,000 shots.  Walt Disney got fired for lacking imagination.  And Thomas Edison had to discover 10,000 ways to fail before inventing the light bulb.  And a man who made a rice cooker couldn’t cook rice founded a company that made nearly 80 BILLION dollars last year and employed over 162,000 people.  Not a bad way to find success in failure.

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[1] Craig Groeschel, It, p. 112.

[2] http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/famous_failures

[3] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/failure

4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. – Acts 1

God is a Methodist.

At least according to Branch Rickey in the film 42. Branch Rickey was one of the greatest general managers of all time and in the film he is contemplating which of the many talented African-American baseball players he wants to recruit for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He’s going over the files with a couple of his guys and he decides on Jackie Robinson.  When one of the men objects, Mr. Rickey says, “Robinson’s a Methodist.  I’m a Methodist.  God’s a Methodist.  You can’t go wrong.”  Turns out, Mr. Rickey was right – at least about Jackie Robinson.  But is God a Methodist?  And what is a Methodist anyway?  We call ourselves the people of Palm United Methodist Church, but how does that make us different than the Catholic Church down the street or the Baptists or the Presbyterians? One of the most significant aspects of being United Methodist is our connectional system.  It sounds weird and if you have no idea what it means, you are not alone.  Being connectional can be a challenge at times, but overall, we believe that our connectional system is what is one of our greatest strengths.

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Think of it like McDonald’s.

When I visited Hawaii for the first time, we were driving by a McDonald’s and I saw something I never expected – Portuguese Sausage and Rice!  I was surprised to find something so unique to Hawaii and so different from anything else McDonald’s sells.  They also have Spam, Eggs, and Rice, Haupia Pie, and a Spam McMuffin!  Since then, every time we’ve gone somewhere far away or with its own unique cuisine, I have to stop by a McDonald’s just to see what new goodies they have.  Sure enough, different places have different stuff.  France has macarons and croissants in addition to their normal menu.  They even have two versions of a fish sandwich.  In Japan they have an Ebi Filet-O.  Think Filet-O-Fish with shrimp.  They also have a Teritama burger which is a burger with an egg on top of the patty dipped in teriyaki sauce.  You can find all sorts of variations around the world.  They have a falafel wrap in Israel, a spicy chickpea burger in India, a bratwurst sandwich in Germany, a McRice burger in Singapore, and more![1]  And while they have all sorts of different stuff around the world, you can get a Big Mac anywhere.  And the famous McDonald’s French fries.  And a whole lot more you are used to seeing.  Because while McDonald’s caters to each local area, they are also known globally for being distinctly McDonald’s.  That is how the United Methodist Church functions – uniquely local, globally distinct. 

Our global church believes strongly in local communities.

It is through the local church that people are reached for Jesus Christ.  It is our understanding of local communities, local needs, and local concerns that help us provide context for how we know Jesus is among us.  That’s why the United Methodist Church strongly emphasizes the importance of the local church.  Our mission statement even emphasizes that.  In our Book of Discipline it reads, “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.” That’s why we put special emphasis on preserving the local church whenever possible.  But we also strongly feel that being connected to one another gives us more power to reach the world than we ever could alone.   We sponsor global ministries to help combat poverty, racism, gender inequity, disaster relief, and so many other causes.  But more than that, we coordinate the resources of the local church and funnel aid and assistance wherever its needed.

For that reason, I love apportionments.

Just as we ask our members to strive to tithe, we also challenge churches to tithe to the conference.  We send a tenth of the pledges and donations we are given to the larger United Methodist Church.  And I think that’s AWESOME!  While some people look at it like a “tax,” I think of it as our way of contributing to causes beyond our church that alone we would make very little difference, but together we make a HUGE impact.  Think about the Imagine No Malaria campaign.  When our larger church decided to take on this challenge, to eliminate deaths from malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa, about a million people were dying every year from this 100% preventable disease.  Today, there is still a significant challenge to preventing malaria deaths.  About 438,000 still die every year, but it’s estimated that because of our efforts as a global church, we have helped to save over 6 million lives through prevention, improved healthcare, training and treatment.  One church might have been able to help some, but because we are part of a global connection we had the resources to renovate healthcare facilities, send professional instructors to train others in treatment and prevention, and do other things that a smaller church just could not do on its own.  I went to seminary because of the willingness of people in local churches all over the country who gave to The United Methodist Church. The Ministerial Education Fund offers grants to students seeking to join the ministry of the church and it gets the money to be able to do that through worldwide giving and apportionments.  That money helped pay for thousands of dollars in books I had to buy just to make it through seminary.  When you have a family and your budget is already stretched thin, not having to worry about thousands of dollars in books is a huge blessing.

The connectional system is also why I am leaving Palm UMC.

That might seem to be a bad thing on the surface, but it is also BECAUSE of the connectional system that I came in the first place.  When my District Superintendent at the time said the Bishop wanted to send me to Dinuba, the first question I had was, “Where is Dinuba?” To be honest, had I been given the choice of places to go, it’s unlikely I would have chosen this small rural set of churches to serve. I was a city boy, lived most of my life in suburban neighborhoods, and was used to the diversity of a much larger area.  My own arrogance would have made me feel this was not the place for me.  But because God is so much wiser than we are, this is where I was sent, and it was the exact place I was meant to be.  Our family felt loved and supported by our churches and this community.  We found a place for Emma to grow and learn.  And I grew more as a leader and pastor than ever before.  And it was thanks to the wisdom of our Cabinet and the people of our churches that we had this opportunity, and I will be forever grateful for our time here.  But now, the wisdom of our Bishop and our Cabinet along with the needs of both my family and our church is leading me somewhere new.  And I am sure that just as I found a home here, so will the next person who steps in.

Unlike most denominations we have a sending system instead of a call system. 

A call system allows the local church to hire a pastor much like you would interview for any job.  They put out a “Help Wanted” sign and screen the different applicants until they find someone who they like and who likes them. Sounds great, right?  But it’s difficult for small churches and especially those in rural areas to attract talented pastors.  Not impossible, because we have some very talented and kind-hearted leaders in Dinuba as proof that it can work.  But definitely harder.  Smaller churches are not always in areas that people want to move to.  They have less money to offer than a bigger church.  Healthcare can be extremely expensive.  And it can literally take years to find a new pastor.  In the United Methodist Church, the Bishop examines the situation every year and together with the Cabinet, the local church, and the pastors, decide if the time is right for a change.  If it is, they consult everyone involved to find the right fit, taking into account the needs of the church, the make-up of the community, and the talents of the pastor.  Typically, no matter the size of your church, the Cabinet makes sure that a pastor is there to help take care of the people there.

Is it a perfect system?  No. 

Even as deliberate as our church is, there are times when we get it wrong.  Sometimes on a small scale, and sometimes on a big one.  The reason there exists an African Methodist Episcopal Church in the first place is because we were short-sighted in meeting the needs of African-Americans and treating them with the respect they deserved.  But we continue to seek to right the wrongs of our past and address the mistakes we’ve made.  We have built relationships with many other denominations that bring us into communion with one another, meaning we recognize the work of Christ in each other even if we maintain our separate identities. And there is something appealing to me about belonging to a group that is connected to one another. There is comfort in knowing we share many of the same ideals and ideology.  And even though we might differ on some things, the framework of our beliefs still holds true.  People love McDonald’s because it’s reliable comfort food.  While they might have some cool local dishes, it’s pretty much the same wherever you go.  You know what you’re getting into and the local flavors just add variety to the mix.  As Methodists, it is much the same way.  We aren’t just Methodists in name only.  We are all part of a global network that seeks to help one another and our neighbor at the same time.  We pool our resources so we can make a bigger impact together and do more than any one of us could do alone.  And while we might differ on how we carry out the mission of the church, at its essence we are all striving toward the same goal – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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[1] http://www.refinedguy.com/2014/02/25/weird-mcdonalds-menu-items/#41

 

Jyn Erso died so that the Rebellion might live.

Jyn’s tale of sacrifice and redemption is powerful. The plans she sacrifices her life to get were transferred to the Tantive IV where the diplomatic envoy on board could use their ties to Alderaan to get the plans into the hands of the people who could do the most good with it – the strikeforce gathering on Yavin IV.  The leader of that diplomatic envoy? Princess Leia Organa.  And as Paul Harvey used to say on his famous radio show, “Now you know…the rest of the story.”[1]  Eventually, Luke, Leia and Han Solo would see the plans to the Death Star delivered in time so that the Empire’s massive battlestation could be destroyed.  But Jyn’s story ends on Scarif along with the lives of her fellow Rebels. The film, Rogue One, tells Jyn’s tale and by itself is one of the best Star Wars film ever made.  But it is not the end of the story.  It is one tale in a much larger tapestry that unfolds, and even though it is a good film all by itself, it’s so much more meaningful because of that larger story it is a part of.  From tiny connections to future films like the appearance of Walrus Man to much larger and more significant connections like the creation of the Death Star, it’s story is tied to a bigger story.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story..Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in foreground, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) in background..Ph: Film Frame..Copyright 2016 Industrial Light & Magic, a division of Lucasfilm Entertainment Company Ltd., All Rights Reserved

So much of Christianity today is focused on personal salvation.

If we can just get people to say the “Sinner’s Prayer.”  If we can just convince people to say this set of magic words, to confess their sins and say they believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  If we can just do that, then our job is done.  But Jesus didn’t tell us to go and make converts of all nations.  He told us, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20).”  The cross was just the beginning.  It wasn’t the end.  I love how pastor and author Ken Wytsma put it.  He said, “If all we have is Good Friday, then we are missing Easter.”[2] Ken wrote an eye-opening article in Outreach magazine about how the flaw in our Gospel story today is we focus so much on conversion that we fail to see the larger picture.  He wrote in part, “Personal salvation for the individual took the spotlight (in how we convey the Gospel) rather than Christ’s redeeming work for the many.  There was an overemphasis on salvation for me…”  Jesus didn’t turn to his followers and say, “Oh, good.  Now that you believe in me, my work is done.”  He told them “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8).”

Since last time I showed a pic of me and Emma, this is a pic of me and Cassie the following year at the Disneyland 5K. We look pretty awake right?

The cross is the beginning of our journey and not the end.

When I did my first Disneyland 5K, I was shocked at how early we had to be at the starting line.  It was literally the crack of dawn.  The sun wouldn’t be out for another hour when we were set to report to the corrals.  And it was cold.  And I was tired. I didn’t even bother to take a shower.  I mean why bother when all I’m about to do is get sweaty?  So at 4:30 in the morning, I rolled out of bed, woke up Emma, got my clothes on for the run, brushed my teeth and hair (not with the same brush), and headed to the start.  We didn’t get there and say, “Okay, I’ve done my part, let’s go back.”  Getting there was just the beginning.  Now the race would truly begin.  Getting to the cross IS important, but where you go from there is at least as important if not more so.  Do you let your faith go fallow?  Or do you take on the challenge and do something with it?  There is a reason Jesus emphasizes discipleship and not conversion.  Conversion is a moment in time, but discipleship is a lifelong process.  It becomes part of our character.  It defines who we are.

Faith is not a solo journey.

We are meant to travel this road together.  Jesus sent his disciples out into the world two-by-two.  He told us that where two or more are gathered, there he would be.  Even in the Old Testament, we read in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.  But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Our faith is meant to be developed in a community.  Not only do we gather strength in numbers, we also are able to test our belief, aid each other, and be a stronger witness for Jesus in the world.  We are not meant to huddle away with our faith like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter.  We are meant to share it with the world.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

The Gospel was meant to shine!

It wasn’t meant to be hidden away.  It was meant to be shared with all the world so that they could enjoy it, too.  Do you have a favorite place to eat?  Do you have a favorite vacation spot?  Do you have a favorite sports team?  Have you told anyone about it or have you kept it a secret?  Most of the time, when we are excited about something, when we have good news to share, when we find something that gives us joy, we want to tell the world!  One of our favorite places to eat in all the world is Lawry’s Prime Rib.  I’ve told everyone I know about Lawry’s.  I’ve taken quite a few people there for dinner.  We often meet friends for a meal at this place because it is just SO GOOD.  I am not ashamed at all to tell people about Lawry’s because I want them to enjoy it, too.  Now, maybe they won’t like it as much as I do.  Maybe they’ll find it too expensive or too far out of the way.  But this place is too good not to share.  I’m not worried that they’ll run out of prime rib if I tell people about it.  I’m not worried that it’ll spoil it if too many know that this place is great.  I just want other people to share in my joy.  Why should our love for Christ be any different?

We are meant to be a light unto the world, not hidden under a bowl

Jesus challenges us not to hide our light.

If you really believe in Christ and love him, you will not be afraid to show it.  HOW you show it is completely up to you.  We all have different ways of expressing ourselves so my way may not be your way, but it’s like your favorite place to eat or your favorite sports team or your favorite vacation spot.  You’ll find your own way to share how Jesus has impacted your life with others.  If you’re shy, you may not go door-to-door and invite people to church, but maybe you’ll write a book about your faith or compose a song that reflects your love of Jesus or anonymously do kind acts for others and leave a card behind simply saying that you are hoping to show Christ’s love.  But the last thing we should do is take our light and hide it under a bowl.  That goes against everything Jesus was trying to inspire in his disciples.  When I was serving at Roswell UMC in Atlanta, GA, there was a monthly street fair during the summer near our church, and if you’ve ever been to Georgia in the summer you know how hot it gets.  So we would take part in the street fair by handing out cold bottled water to people passing by and we’d give out little cards inviting people to church.  One of our members quit the church because of it.  I remember calling her on the phone when she transferred her membership to find out what happened.  Maybe we had done something wrong without realizing it.  When I called she told me it wasn’t anything we did to her.  She didn’t want to belong to a church that evangelized in public.  Keep in mind this wasn’t a requirement for the church and about 99% of our members did not participate.  It was just a handful of people who wanted to do something tangible to show the love of Christ.  The woman who left our church said she didn’t think it was right.  I was really confused what wasn’t “right” about it so I asked her and she responded, “I just think faith is a personal thing.”  And she’s right.  I agree 100%.  But like I’ve said before, faith is personal, not private.

Each person’s story is unique and extremely personal.

How Jesus has touched your life is almost for sure different from how Jesus has touched mine.  We may have many similarities, but our stories are often unique to us.  But that doesn’t mean we should hide our faith.  Instead we should do just the opposite.  If we have no problem telling our friends, family, and complete strangers about our favorite restaurant or favorite sports team or favorite vacation spot, why would we hesitate about something that is so much more important?  Faith is personal, but it is not meant to be private.  Now I’m not telling you to go out and be an overbearing jerk about it.  I’m telling you to find your own unique voice for Christ and use it so that others may know what you know and hopefully it will change their life, too.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story..L to R: Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen)..Ph: Giles Keyte..© 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Jyn’s story is only a part of the Star Wars saga.

It isn’t the whole story by itself.  It’s a vital part that helps us understand all that comes after it, but it isn’t complete without the hope and redemption that follows as a result.  The Gospel story isn’t meant to be a shelter from the storm.  It isn’t a safe haven from the world we live in.  The Gospel story is the armor and shield God gives us to have the strength to go out into the world and share his message of hope and redemption to a world that needs it now more than ever.  As Ken wrote in his article, “The gospel isn’t simply good news we hear – it’s good news we become.  We aren’t simply recipients of grace, but agents of grace as well.”[3] If all there was to the story of Jesus is the cross, there would be no Christianity.  It’s what happened after that changed the world. Be a part of the story.  Help to change the world. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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[1] Paul Harvey was a radio host for a show he created called “The Rest of the Story” which ran for decades.  He was known for offering an unknown glimpse into the past of someone famous that revealed something or just enlightened the audience about someone.  Many of his stories are archived on Archive.org a non-profit organization seeking to preserve internet knowledge – a library for the Internet.    https://archive.org/details/PaulHarveyTROTS/

[2] “Why Race Belongs In Our Gospel Conversations,” Ken Wytsma, Outlook Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Outreach, Inc. Colorado), p. 60

[3] Ibid, p.64