Friday, September 5, 2014

SERMON: "Pillows of Discipleship"

"Pillows of Discipleship"
Genesis 28:10-19a

If we know anything at all about Jacob it is that he had a dream one night that included a ladder. One cannot have
grown up in the church and attended church camp and not have sung "Jacob's Ladder" thousands of times!

The truth of the matter is, there’s not much in the song about this story of the dream of Jacob portrayed in Genesis.
The ladder referenced in the song and our scriptures actually had no resemblance to what we normally think of when
we think of a ladder today. It wasn’t a step-ladder with rungs on it. Almost all the commentaries agree that it was
probably something more like a ramp or an escalator or a set of stairs like one would see in front of a monument or a
government building.

Perhaps the place where this beautiful and wonderful and meaningful old African-American spiritual is most at odds
with the actual Genesis story is in its reference to us climbing “higher and higher.” Because, you see, the real message
of the story is about God’s coming “lower and lower” or “closer and closer” to old Jacob and thus symbolically
toward us. The Old Testament story of Jacob and his dream doesn’t have anything to do with a good or holy person
getting better and better and thus climbing, figuratively, “higher and higher” and thus approaching God through their
merits. No, it’s really about a rather bad person, a fugitive, (Jacob) not deserving in any way to be approached by
God, being approached by God. (1)

The truth of the matter is that if ever there was a man who didn’t deserve to be paid attention to by God, it was Jacob.
He was a liar and a cheat, a jerk. Let me remind you of a few things about ol’ Jacob and why he was out in that
desolate place using a stone for a pillow in the first place.

Jacob’s misbehavin’ started the day he was born to Isaac and Rebekah. In fact, he was named Jacob because of the
way he came out of the womb. He was a twin - the second born of twins. And, as his older brother, Esau, was coming
out, Jacob grasped Esau’s heel as if trying to pull him back so that he could be the first one born. The name Jacob
comes from the Hebrew word that means “a heel” or “the one who takes by the heel.” From the day he was born, it
was obvious that Jacob's goal was to get ahead any way he could. Jacob would take advantage of any weakness he
saw in another - even if the other was his very own brother - even if it was his very own father!

Perhaps the worst things Jacob ever did, at least the ones the writers of Genesis felt compelled to record, were the
ones when he deceived his dad and took advantage of his brother. Esau was an outdoorsman, a hunter. Jacob was a
man more comfortable with hanging around the house.

These differences in personality created an obvious sibling rivalry. It probably didn’t help matters that the parents
tried to live their lives through the boys with each favoring one or the other - Isaac favoring Esau because he often
brought him wild game which he had a real taste for and Rebekah favoring Jacob because of his helpfulness around
the house.

The day Jacob took advantage of Esau was after Esau returned from some time out in the wilderness apparently either
too tired even to prepare the game he had bagged or with nothing to show for his several days of work. Jacob was
cooking some stew and Esau was starved. Esau begged for some of the stew. Jacob saw a chance to take advantage
of his brother. He refused to share his food unless Esau sold him his birthright. Esau’s birthright was that all the land
that was his fathers would become his upon his father’s death since he was the firstborn.

Well, it didn’t take Esau long to figure out that he was going to die if he didn’t get something to eat and that the
birthright of a dead man was worthless. And so he agreed to Jacob's offer and received the promised food.

The second episode, the one that resulted in Jacob’s fleeing, happened several years later. Isaac was getting up there
in years, blind, and concerned about how long he was going to make it. He sent Esau out to kill some of that wild
game he had a real taste for and promised to bless him before he died if he did.

Well, enter the one who only had eyes for Jacob, his mother Rebekah. She was listening and she concocted a plot that
would allow Jacob to receive the blessing Isaac had promised Esau. Now, I don’t even want to try and understand
these two sorry parents who favored one child over another - it’s simply beyond my comprehension. Rebekah’s plan
was to have Jacob go get two of the young goats from their own flock. She would prepare them and Jacob would wear
some of Esau’s best clothes and cover his hands and neck with the skins of the goats so that he would feel hairy like
his brother, Esau. Although Jacob was fearful that he’d be caught and get cursed instead of blessed and although Isaac
noticed the discrepancy between the hairy skin and the voice, the plot worked and Jacob received the blessing.

When Esau found out, he was livid. He’d taken all he could from this jerk of a brother and so he let it be known that
as soon as his dad died, it would be lights out for his brother. Once again, ol’ mom stuck her nose into the situation.
She got wind of the threat and convinced Jacob that it would be best for him if he left and went to live with her
brother, Laban. She convinced her husband, Isaac, it was a good idea also by lamenting about how bad she would feel
if Jacob married a woman from the people of that area instead of one of her own people. Isaac bought her argument
and sent Jacob on his way with his blessing.

It was while Jacob was on his way to Uncle Laban’s that the scene described in today’s passage happened. Jacob
stopped for the night at a certain place - at this time not yet a significant place, just the place he happened to be when
the sun went down - he stopped for the night at a certain place and in his hurry to get away from his angry brother he
apparently forgot a pillow and had to use a stone for one.

I find Jacob’s use of a stone for a pillow both intriguing and a bit humorous. Whenever I read this story I am reminded
of the times on retreats and Circuit Rider bus trips (a mobile retreat on a converted bus) when I forgot my pillow and
had to use my gym bag for one - a gym bag full of shoes and a hair dryer and numerous other not so soft things.

But, my real intrigue with the rock is the way its role changed in the story from a rock on the ground, to a rock under
a head, to a pillar to mark a sacred place. And I think the reason it plays all these different roles in the story is
theologically significant. My sense is that the stone referred to represented more than the simple physical stone on
which Jacob laid his head that night. My sense is that the stone was both a literal rock and a symbol of all the evil
Jacob had ever done. When Jacob went to sleep that night he not only had a rock under his head, which probably
caused him some physical discomfort, but he also had a lot of things running through his head about why he was out
on the road in the first place. Those thoughts had to have been the source of great psychological discomfort. The two
together would certainly explain a restless, dream-ridden, nightmarish night.

We’ve all experienced such nights in our lives - nights when our actions or words or thoughts have their way with our
ability to sleep - nights when we just can’t seem to shut out those things we’ve done wrong - nights when sleeping is
difficult because of everything we’re thinking about. There are simply some things that practically scream out to us in
the middle of the night, “Get down on your knees and confess what you’ve done and ask for God’s forgiveness.”

I think those were the kinds of thoughts that ran through Jacob’s mind that night when he dreamed about an escalator
and the movement of angels up and down it and God talking to him. The lonely and weary and rotten Jacob became
aware of God’s nearness in a place he did not expect and as a result he marked the “certain place” thus claiming it to
be a holy place, a place where he encountered God, by making a pillar of the rock that had been a pillow under his
head the hours before.

What I believe happened to Jacob that night was that he became aware in a new way that despite the mess he was in
because of the wrongs he had done - the sin in his life - God cared about him and had a plan for the rest of his life.
And as a result of his sensing the nearness of God with the aid of the stone become pillow, he used several such
pillows to make a pillar to mark the place.

Now, there are several things in this story that provide us some helps as we experience our journeys of faith. The first
one is that God is present all the time, everywhere, and in everyone and we can become aware of God’s presence in
the most unexpected ways, places and people. God can be known in the midst of joyous occasions and in the midst of
very depressing events in our lives and in the midst of the day-to-day routine of living. God-events happen when we
least expect them and sometimes through those we least expect. (2)

I had an experience in my own life once that reminded me of this truth. We were new owners of a cottage and a used
pontoon boat that came with the cottage purchase. It was the 4th of July weekend and several people who have places
on Indian Lake had encouraged us to take in the fireworks on our pontoon boat. They also offered us words of caution
about the condition some of the drivers of the other boats might be in and suggested that we might want to try and
stay on the edge of it all our first time. (Apparently drinking and driving isn't just a problem on our roadways.) Well,
we did as they suggested: we anchored our boat about 15 minutes before the firework display began in an area where
there were very few other boats. Then I turned off the boat’s motor. Part of our conversation while we waited for the
show centered around our concern about alcohol consuming boaters and the scary time after the fireworks and how
we would have to make a quick get-a-way to avoid them.

Well, to make a long story short (and to lessen how terrible I am portrayed), when the fireworks ended I couldn’t get
the motor to start! It quickly became apparent that our battery was dead. My wife made one of those suggestions
wives just shouldn’t make to their husbands when things appear beyond their ability to deal with: “Bill, why don’t
you ask one of those boaters going by us to help us.” I knew I should but I just couldn’t bring myself to - male pride,
you know. (I probably should mention here that I had chosen to leave the boat radio on during thee fireworks against
the preference of my wife!)

Finally, after a dozen or so had passed us by with several commenting on how difficult it was to see us because of
how dim our lights were, it became obvious I was going to have to admit my human frailty and ask for help or there
was going to be no help left. At about the same moment, a boatload of people went by and one of them shouted back
to us, “Need some help?” And I, cringing with every male hormone in my body screaming for me not to, said, “Yes.
Our battery is dead.” And they maneuvered their way over to us.

To say everyone on our pontoon boat was relieved would be an understatement. Our rescuers first offered to tow us
back to our cottage. And then one of the passengers remembered they had jumper cables. It seemed like it took
forever for them to get in the correct position so that the two batteries were near enough to one another for the jumper
cables to be used.

Now, although the rest of the passengers on our pontoon boat apparently weren’t aware of it at the time, there was a
reason they took their time moving - one of their female passengers, apparently unable to hold it any longer and too
drunk to care, was relieving herself  a few short feet away from where my head hung over my boat so that I could
have a good grip on theirs. Yes, they had definitely been partying the night away out there on the lake!

It was while this was going on that one of those God-moments hit me: I was being helped by someone I was hoping to
avoid. I, the self-righteous one, was being helped by someone I was judging. To be sure: this is not a condoning of
drinking and driving, either on a boat or in a car, but it is a reminder that God does indeed show up often in the places
and the people we least expect. (Now, it probably will influence a few more giggles if I mention that I first used the
illustration the same summer it happened with  my insurance agent who also served the church as a trustee at the
time, and he wasted no time sending me a boating manual!)

Another group of related things I think it's helpful to note in this passage is that God cares about us no matter what
kind of people we’ve been or are - that God has a plan for our lives - that God reaches out to us because God is a God
of grace - that God can take the rocks of our lives and make use of them for good - and that as a result those mistakes
of our lives, those sins, those evil thoughts and deeds become markers of the occasions when we encounter God. The
rocks in our lives that disturb our sleep and disrupt our lives can become pillows of discipleship if we let God come to
us and heal us of the guilt those rocks produce in us. God can change us and make us new. The rocks in our lives can
become pillars marking those places where God has touched us.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, God wants to, is ready to, do great things in us - through us - with our lives - if we but
let God. You are invited today to hear the good news in a new way - in a personal way - that God cares about you - no
matter what the sins are now that are eating at your soul and controlling you with guilt. God loves you and forgives
you and can help you make something of your life. You are invited to face the rocks in your life today and to believe
the good news that God has a plan for you despite what has been controlling your life in the past.    

Won’t you consider letting God heal you, forgive you, today? Let God change the rocks in your life into
pillows of discipleship.

1 Justin W. Tull, “Stairways of Heaven,” Wrestlings, Wonders and Wanderers! (Lima: CSS Publishing Company, 1992).
2 Robert Cueni, “Empowered By a Vision,” Tenders of the Sacred Fire, (Lima: CSS Publishing Company, 1995).

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"My Dilemma: A Personality Trait Issue"

"My Dilemma: A Personality Trait"

As I've been watching the Ice Bucket Challenge phenomena the last few days, a certain personality trait has resurfaced and created a dilemma in my life. Every couple of hours I've reposted my grandson's Ice Bucket effort and challenged a new group of friends and family. The more people I name the more concerned I become about leaving someone out - overlooking, forgetting someone and thus hurting their feelings.

Yes, I know it's a good personality trait to not overlook people, be concerned that everyone is included. Over the years I've also learned that sometimes traits can be both good and bad. That is, sometimes a strength can also create difficult times for us. The Gallup folks have done a really excellent job of helping us examine this duality in our lives with the research that resulted in the StrengthFinders survey and books. Definitely highly recommend their work if you want to understand yourself.

So, rather than continue stewing and posting I'm just going to make this blog post inviting all my friends and family to consider taking the Ice Bucket Challenge! No one needs to feel neglected or not needed or unimportant to me. This effort is huge and I know you all want to be a part of it!
Give where you want but especially consider those ALS organizations that know what is going on with research and where the funds will be best used. We give to the Central & Southern Ohio ALS Chapter which sends a portion of our gift to national where there is a knowledgeable research staff. If you're unsure but want to help, feel free to support a team member of Bill's Backers at the Walk to Defeat ALS - Columbus. If you go to the site, you can also join our team and walk with us on Sunday, September 21 at the Columbus Commons.

Go to If you simply wish to join our team and make a donation, proceed to the Register drop down box and join the Bill's Backers team as a walker or virtual walker and make a donation as a team member or to any of the team members already registered.


Friday, August 1, 2014

SERMONS: "Meals By Jesus"

"Meals By Jesus​"
Matthew 14:13-21

The writer of the Gospel according to Matthew introduced this amazing meal scene, the feeding of the 5,000 plus, with these words: “When Jesus heard what had happened he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” It’s obvious the writer believed that Jesus going off to be by himself was a direct result of what he had just heard. What he had just heard was that his cousin, John - John the Baptist, had been murdered by King Herod - brutally murdered - beheaded.

What happened was, King Herod fell in love with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Herod convinced her to divorce his brother and marry him - which she did. John the Baptist continually let Herod know he believed what he had done was wrong, that he should admit it, repent of his actions, and take steps to correct it.

Herod really didn’t seem all that bothered by John’s constant public condemnation of his lifestyle. But, Herodias, now that was another matter. She was a little more thin-skinned - definitely bothered. So much so, she demanded that her partner in crime, King Herod, silence John by putting him in prison and killing him. Herod drew the line at imprisonment. He said there was no way he was going to end John’s life over such a thing - too much potential for bad publicity. He knew that the people considered John a prophet and might react if he had him killed.

Enter Herodias’ daughter, Salome. Herod threw a birthday party for himself. For after dinner entertainment, he had his stepdaughter perform one of those exotic dances for which she was so well known. Herod was so thrilled by how well everything went at his party, especially the dancing of his stepdaughter, that he wanted to give her something for her part in the festivities. So he promised her the moon. He offered her anything she wanted. After a brief side conversation with her mom, Salome asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter per her mother’s, Herodias’, suggestion. Herod reluctantly ordered it done. (1)

After burying John’s body, his disciples went to Jesus and told him about the incident. As a direct result of hearing the news, Jesus “withdrew by boat to a solitary place” - to grieve? - to wrestle with the reality that the cost of discipleship had drastically increased? - to reflect on what it might mean for his ministry and life from then on? - to lay low for a little while? - to check in with God? - to get away for a little R & R, a little rest and relaxation? - to get refueled or to rechart his ministry plans? We don’t really know why for sure - probably partially for a little bit of all those reasons.

The disciples probably welcomed the thought of some time away from the daily grind of the ministry that was growing daily and becoming more and more demanding of their time and energy. The crowds were getting larger - the number of sick that were being brought to Jesus was growing. The disciples probably were feeling overworked and overwhelmed by all the human misery with which they had to deal.

And so, they were glad to take off their beepers and unplug their earphones and put up their “closed for the Day” signs and head out on to the lake with Jesus for a little fishing and sleeping and goofing off. (2) However, neither Jesus nor the disciples got the R & R they went after that day. By the time they docked their boat on the beach, the crowd was already forming. They deserved the rest they had planned. They deserved some time away to regroup - to refocus - to reflect - but it didn’t happen.

Now, Matthew doesn’t tell us how the disciples felt about the interruption of their time away, their much needed rest, but we can about guess. In an article by Roger Talbott he proposes for us some of the times when we’ve felt like how we guess the disciples felt: “you know, how they felt when the crowd showed up.”

* “The two of you haven’t had a night out without the kids in weeks. You finally get away. The waiter has just brought your appetizer when the babysitter calls and tells you the youngest has a high fever and has started throwing up.”

* “You’ve been planning this vacation for six months. Your reservations are all made and three days before you are scheduled to go your mother calls and says your dad is going to have a quadruple bypass as soon as the doctors can get his sugar stabilized.”

* “You haven’t had a day off in three weeks. Friday morning your sister calls, says her father-in-law has died and wonders if you could take her kids for the weekend.”

* “It has been a very long day. You woke up before dawn because your arthritis hurt so much. You had to go to the grocery store and take your dog to the vet and on the way home your car started to act up and you had to leave it at the garage and get a taxi to take you home. All you want to do is go to bed when the phone rings and it’s your friend who lost her husband last month and she just needs someone to talk to.”

* “And always, when we think we have given all we have to give there is always more need: the starving people in the midst of a famine; refugees from war; the devastation of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes; to say nothing of our neighbors who are hungry; the children who need someone to care about them; the youth in our community who have nowhere to go and nowhere to grow.” (3)

Yes, we know how the disciples probably felt when their planned and hoped for R & R got interrupted without any help from the author of Matthew. And he apparently didn’t feel the need to report it either, since there’s no reference to it in the text.

Such is not the case when it comes to how Jesus felt though. The author wasted no words describing it - he said it clearly and bluntly: “he had compassion for them.” He felt their pain, their questions, their seeking spirits, their guilt, their need to have him pay attention to them, their needs. And so he put aside his fears for his life, his doubts about his career, his questions about what direction his ministry should take from that time on, his need for personal spiritual refreshment, renewal, his need for rest and relaxation and went to work compassionately satisfying their every need.

Compassion, you see, knows no boundaries. There’s no protection from when it might be necessary to call upon our reserve energy and attentiveness and caring and understanding spirit and sincere smile or hug. Compassion never takes a vacation nor can it ever be withheld.  There’s nothing any more important than offering compassion, being compassionate, when a situation develops around us. There is no limit on the compassion this world, our neighbors, friends and family members, yes, but also strangers to us - people we don’t have a lot in common with - the poorer than us and the richer than us - the more educated than us and the less educated than us - the more physically advanced than us and those more physically challenged than us.

A very good friend of mine, Deb Campbell, died several years ago. It was almost one year from the day she was diagnosed with cancer. Deb was a truly unique person - she lived her faith - she was a Servant Leader - the leader of Servant Leadership groups throughout the conference. I went to her funeral. She prepared a piece for us all to read at her funeral. It was entitled “The Chemotherapy of Love” and one of the paragraphs in the piece seems apropro for today.

She wrote: “Being Love. So often we stop with the me-and-Jesus part of our faith. But, as Tony Campolo said at annual conference a few years ago, 'The problem with Jesus is that when he comes into your heart he brings his friends. And they may not be people you would choose as friends.' It is through our relationships with others that Jesus grows us up in love. The scripture puts it clearly: If we do not love our brother and sister we cannot love God (I John 4:20). This is our lifetime work. How can we love, i.e. accept the other in loyalty and seek their good, the people who drive us crazy? Perhaps the problem is that we never fully accept the fact that we are the beloved.” (4)

There’s simply no limit to compassion when it comes to being a follower of Jesus Christ’s. We’re always on duty - always. If there’s anything that bugs me about we Christians, it is the way we have turned the priorities of the Christian lifestyle around in recent years partially because of pop psychology. Instead of: Jesus first, others second and ourselves last (J.O.Y.), we’ve replaced it with: ourselves first, Jesus second and others last.

Do you mind if I get something off my chest? I hope you answered in the affirmative in your hearts and minds because I’m going to do it. There’s nothing that gets to me anymore than we Christians walking around complaining about how overworked we feel - complaining that too much is expected of us - complaining that the church needs too much of our money, our time, our skills.

Friends, Jesus Christ died for us! He had so much compassion for us, he gave his very life for us. And when we said yes to him, yes to his offer of forgiveness and grace and removal of guilt from its stranglehold on us, yes to his lifestyle - we died to ourselves and were born again in him. As a result, we have committed everything about ourselves to his work - our time, our money, our children, out attitude, our lifestyle - everything! It takes more than one hour/week praising God or one day/week of our lives doing church things. Being a Christian is 24 - 7 = 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. If you’re looking for a one day a week church, a one day/week Christianity, where nothing is expected of you the rest of the week, you’d better look at one of those mega-churches on the edges of town. You’ll find out that it’s not the way it is in any church that is trying to live out the call of Jesus Christ. Compassion never goes off duty.

Nothing is to stand in the way of our being compassionate - that’s what Jesus showed us is our lot in life when he willingly took that detour from his planned schedule and paid attention to the crowd that day. And he did so with such concentration, such intensity, that the day got away from him. He lost track of the time. His disciples didn’t though. They were still in touch with what they lost out on - they recognized the grumbling going on in their stomachs - they had sized up the situation and knew there weren’t any fast food restaurants close enough to feed the mass of humanity that surrounded them. And so they said so to Jesus. They finally said what they probably had wanted to say all day long, “Send the crowds away, Jesus.”

And, as the disciples prepared themselves to help direct the crowd to the surrounding communities and to recommend their favorite eating establishments, Jesus threw them another curve and revealed yet another important aspect of being a follower of his. “You give them something to eat.” “You feed them.” And then the complaining, the whining, really got going: “We have nothing here, Jesus, but these five loaves and two fish. There are 5,000 men here, which means there are probably 10,000 people here counting wives and children and they all need to eat. There’s simply not enough to go around, Jesus.” They tried to beg off by making excuses that sounded legitimate to them. They tried to get out of doing what Jesus instructed them to do by confessing their limitations.

Truth be told, the disciples taught us well - we’ve developed, refined, our own excuses for not serving the way Jesus calls us to. “I’m too old for this sort of thing.” In the last couple of churches I've been associated with members in their 70's, 80's, and 90's worked at soup kitchens and food pantries, went on mission trips, sorted clothes, etc. “I’m too busy.” “I’ve already given and done my bit.” “I’m not ordained.” “This is not my gift.” “I’ve got too much on my plate right now.” (5)

Jesus refused to accept the excuses of the disciples and he refuses the ones we’ve come up with as well. His response to their excuses was: “Well, bring what you have to me.” “Bring me the five loaves and 2 fish.” The disciples did and Jesus took the 5 loaves and 2 fish, looked up to heaven, gave thanks to God for the fish and bread, blessed and broke the bread. Then he gave it to his disciples and sent them to their waitering ministry. After everyone had all they wanted to eat, the disciples gathered up the leftovers - twelve baskets of broken pieces.
Now comes my favorite observation about this reported event. The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 or 10,000 happened not when Jesus did his thing but when the disciples did their thing - when the disciples served what they had. The five loaves and two fish didn’t suddenly explode into giant loaves of bread and Cedar Point carp size fish after Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it. No, the miracle happened when the disciples passed the baskets through the crowd - when they did their part and the others in the crowd perhaps pulled out the food they had on them and selfishness and hoarding, got replaced with giving and sharing. (6)
“Meals By Jesus” are meals his followers serve - they are the meals served on Sunday mornings to the homeless or down on their luck - they are the meals served at soup kitchens - they are the cans of cookies college-age ministry teams prepare and send several times a year - they are the funeral meals funeral meal ministry team provides after a funeral for families who need to be ministered to in this way - they are the meals provided for families after a new baby is born into their household - they are the sacks of groceries volunteers hand out at pantries - “Meals By Jesus” are those things his followers do after they’ve offered Jesus who they are and what they have. (We've been the recipients of such meals for several months and sense Jesus present with us through the providers.)

Do you hear the call of Jesus Christ in your heart? Do you feel him tugging at your gut, your billfold, your schedule? What will be your response? Jesus says to each one of us - “bring me what you have, who you are, and I’ll bless it and it will be enough for you to fulfill your ministry. I’ll make it worth more than it seems to you.”

I hope the sequence of actions the writer of Matthew reported sounded familiar to you - Jesus taking bread, blessing the bread, breaking the bread and then giving the bread to his followers to distribute. If they remind you of Holy Communion - they should. We say them every time we celebrate the Lord's meal. I invite you to remember that this holy meal is both to fill us with a sense of God’s grace in our lives when we perhaps don’t deserve it and to fill us with the desire to go from our places of communing to live a life through which others will experience forgiveness and grace as well - to go forth and be the servers of Jesus’ meals. It’s a means of grace this meal - freely offered to all, just as God’s grace is freely offered to all.

1 Clergy Journal, April, pg. 36.
2 “Prayer and Compassion Fatigue”​
3 Ibid.
4 Deb Campbell, “The Chemotherapy of Love”
5 Homiletics, pg. 48
6 Frank Schaefer, “Feeding 5000"

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bill's Backers Ready to Go for Fourth Year!

Here we go, Backers, here we go!  Here we go, Backers, here we go!

Dear Family and Friends,

(PALS  who receive this simply know it's for your ideas , not a solicitation for Bill's  Backers.)

The 2014 Walk to Defeat ALS will be held on Sunday, September 21 at a new site: the Columbus Commons in downtown Columbus. Registration will again begin at 9:30 am and the walk at 11 am. This is the fourth year a team of my family and friends (Bill's Backers) will participate as we do what we can to combat this challenging disease. The Walk raises funds to support the Central and Southern Ohio ALS Association Chapter as it provides support for those of us living with the realities of the disease and needed research. Our team (YOU!) has raised close to $100,000 in the first three years and are much appreciated in the ALS community. THANKS!

Most of you are aware that I was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) in August of 2010. If you follow my blog, "Giving Wings to Thoughts", you know that in 2013 the disease progressed to the point where I stopped driving in December, 2012; helped to my feet by paramedics four times in one week resulting in my no longer standing to transfer from power wheelchair to shower, toilet, and bed but learning to use a slide board; switched to an A-pap machine with a battery so I can still be mobile as my bi-pap needs increase; am showered and dressed by hospice aides. More recently Dorothy has hurt her back because of the care my needs demand and several folks now aide around the house as needed.  We are blessed to be living in a handicapped accessible house. Our traveling continues to slow down but I can still join Dorothy for a meal out once in awhile. I began sleeping in my power wheelchair when we were in Florida in February and have continued to do since. It's just more comfortable. Dorothy now feeds me certain foods when I am unable to stab them or tire.

We want to continue doing what we can to support research as well as the work of the local chapters providing support groups and needed equipment. We want to invite you to join us in this year's efforts in one or more of the following ways:

1)       Go to If you simply wish to join our team and make a donation, proceed to the Register drop down box and join the Bill's Backers team as a walker or virtual walker and make a donation as a team member or to any of the team members already registered.

2)         Or, this same area will also give you the opportunity to develop a Personal Page about our relationship and why you are participating. You simply make the donation to your own effort and then email this information to 5, 10, or 20+ of your family and friends thus further increasing the awareness of the disease and potential resources for this fight. You can also repost on Facebook. We want to see many of you as Bill's Backers Squad leaders which is what we will refer to the people you are able to contact - Ideas include: Bill's Backers OG Squad, Bill's Backers ONU Squad, BB Maple Grove Squad, BBLim's Squad, etc. Remember: this event is both about sharing information about ALS and raising funds. Most of the work done this way is done electronically, which means you don't have to do the face-to-face ask. If your family, friends or work associates understand why you are interested in this effort, it's amazing how willing they are to join the fight to Defeat ALS! If you are interested and need help setting up your personal page, feel free to contact one of the persons noted below.

3)         We've had wonderful success with ALS fundraising nights at City BBQ, Jersey Mike's, and the Folk Music Sing-a-Long. Would any of you be interested in hosting such a night at a local restaurant in your community? Bill's Backers captains, Nicki Crellin & Megan Croy, are willing to help with the paperwork part of it if anyone is willing to give it a try. Again, their contact information is below. (An ONU football teammate who does fundraising for Sarris Candies, John Smith, is going to roll-out a new effort on September 1. More information will follow.)

Please note: If you make a gift, you will have the option of making an anonymous gift.  Otherwise, your support will be recognized on the "Fundraising Honor Roll" scrolling on the right side of the page.

My daughter, Megan Croy (, son and daughter-in-law, Jeremy & Meladie Croy (,, sister, Phyllis Macke (, and niece, Nicki Crellin (, have all agreed to serve as contact persons if you have any questions.

Thanks and God's blessings on you all as you consider what you are able to do!  Below is an additional note from the ALS Association.

Why We Need Your Help

Often referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive, fatal neuromuscular disease that slowly robs the body of its ability to walk, speak, swallow and breathe. The life expectancy of an ALS patient averages 2 to 5 years from the time of diagnosis.

Every 90 minutes a person in this country is diagnosed with ALS and every 90 minutes another person will lose their battle against this disease. ALS occurs throughout the world with no racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic boundaries.

This crippling disease can strike anyone. Presently there is no known cause of the disease though support is bringing researchers closer to an answer. In the mean time it costs an average of $200,000 a year to provide the care ALS patients need. Help make a difference and donate or join a walk today.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SERMON: "Let God Be God!"

"Let God Be God!"
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a faithful parishioner who labored diligently to recruit upstanding new people for her church; but as the months went by, other parishioners brought in new members of rather diverse backgrounds. Some were businessmen of questionable reputation, others were alcoholics, two were thought to be homosexuals, several were known to have engaged in extramarital affairs, and any others showed no outward appearance of knowing the Lord.

“Upon discovering this, the faithful parishioner came to her clergyman and said, 'Pastor, just what kind of a church are we running? Why, I perceive there are notorious sinners in our midst! I even had to kneel at the communion rail this morning next to an adulterer. Just how did all of these people get in here?'

“And her pastor said to her, 'Your fellow parishioners have done this.' And she said to him, 'Would you like me to go and form a committee (sounds like a United Methodist church, doesn’t it?) – Would you like me to go and form a committee to investigate the matter and advise the board as to just who these sinners are?'

“But her pastor said, 'No; lest while you try to distinguish between the real saints and the real sinners you throw out some of God’s own. Do this: let both worship together until we are all called before God in eternity; and at the time of the judgment, God, I am sure, will single out the righteous from the unrighteous.'” (1)

So, Carl Carlozzi, in his little book Pocket Parables, rewrites our parable – the parable of the wheat and weeds. It is noted by many Biblical scholars to be one of the most practical parables Jesus ever told. It’s been a timely parable for sure down through the centuries of Christendom for the church – and I sense it contains an important word for us in the church today. For, it’s a parable that calls us to a life of tolerance and acceptance and community, rather than to a life of rejection, isolation, and exclusion. I invite you to keep in mind Carlozzi’s rewrite as we seek to understand the meaning of the parable as the listeners in Jesus’ day probably visualized the scene Jesus artfully recreated with this agricultural portrait.

“There was this farmer who had just sown some good seed in his field.”   Being very familiar with farming the people of that day had no problem creating in their mind an image of a man out in a field sowing good seed.  And they probably said to themselves, “Of course, he sowed good seed – no one in their right mind would sow bad seed in their own field.” And so right from the beginning of the parable they understood that the kingdom of heaven, which the parable is intended to illustrate, has someone caring for it who does good things on its behalf. The farmer only intends to plant good seed. What becomes obvious as the parable unfolds is that in the kingdom of heaven, what is God’s is the recipient of good from God. As the owner of the world, God is good and provides good things out of the graciousness of who God is. God is good – God is gracious.

But then, “While everyone was sleeping, the enemy of the farmer came and sowed weeds among his good seed, and departed.” Notice, it’s not God that was sleeping but some people who had something apparently to do with the field and the crop that would develop there. Note also, and more importantly perhaps, that there’s no condemnation of those who went to sleep. This is not a parable dealing with the necessity of being watchful – there’s no attempt to pass on the blame for the weeds to anyone but the enemy. The point of this parable is not to make us spiritually paranoid – nor to build up within us some sense of guilt for the weeds that develop around us. Evil happens. And if we understand the church as the kingdom of heaven on earth then there is at least the implication in the story that our role, as the church, is not one of trying to avoid evil – to keep weedy, seedy people out, but to care for whoever comes our way.  (2)

Leonard Sweet, former president of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, attempted to convey about the same idea when he wrote:  “…Sounding out bad news is for foghorns, not Christians. A foghorn warns nearby vessels to steer clear; there are dangerous rocks and reefs and perilous cliffs hiding in the mist. Foghorns know they are doing their job when everybody stays away.” “Christians are sometimes called to sound warnings and serve as foghorns. But our primary assignment is not warning, but welcoming. We are called to issue invitations for people to live the only life for which they were created.

“Christians should be known for carrying good news – the gospel itself – out into the world. Disciples of Jesus have so many positive things to say that there is little time for braying about the bad or droning on forever about the dangers.” (3)

A church that spends too much time issuing words of warning – which constantly holds out this self-righteous image as the only kind of person it wants inside its walls - will soon have the perfect society they want but no new audience to bring to the Lord. There can be no such thing as a safe church – it’s contrary to Christ’s intention for the church. As a wayside pulpit in front of another church once displayed:  “The church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”

But there’s another message in this second verse that I think is also vitally important and that is that “the enemy sowed the weeds.” Now again, this was something that the audience listening to Jesus could visualize. It was something that was actually done. People actually tried to ruin other people’s crops by spreading bad seed in it. Bad seed spreaders were enemies.

I’m amazed at the people – good Christians in fact – who for some reason want to believe that the evil in the world is somehow the creation of God’s. I like Jesus’ description of why the weeds existed in the field – which is sort of an answer to the question of “why evil is in the world?” – the enemy is the cause – is the sower – not God. Evil is not part of the creation of God.  It is not God’s intention for evil to happen – to be a part of the world. Remember the earlier observation – “there’s no way a farmer is going to intentionally sow weeds in his own field?” God is good – evil comes from another source – call it the devil – call it satan, if you need to personify it – but it’s enough to simply say, “There’s a power for evil in the world.”

Why I think this is important to note is that there are a lot of people struggling with painful things in their lives – with evil that has happened in their life with no source of hope. Because they understand God as the one who caused the bad to happen, they find themselves unable to turn to God for help. God brings good out of evil because God is the provider of good. But God does not cause evil to happen to test us, or so God can bring good out of it. Bad – evil – is the work of the enemy, not God – read the parable again. Therefore, God is as pained by the evil that happens to us as we are and thus God is able to be the source of hope and new life and resurrection and joy and peace when we are coping with and overcoming the bad that happens to us.

Now, back to the parable itself, “When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds appeared.” You’ve probably heard this part of the parable explained before so I’ll make it quick. There is a weed in the Middle East, called “Darnel,” which looks just like wheat as it’s growing. It’s only after the weed and wheat sprouts that they can be told apart. But by the time they both head, the roots of the two of them have intertwined to the point that to try and pull the weeds out is to run the risk of losing much of the wheat. (4) That’s why when the servant asks, “Do you want us to pull out the weeds?” the farmer answers, “No, let them grow. When the harvest comes both the wheat and the weeds will be cut down and then they will be separated.”

And now it is, I would suggest to you, that the full message of the parable is revealed – it’s a message about the difference between what we are called to do and what God is called to do. It’s about letting God be God – letting God be judge – letting God be harvester – letting God provide grace. It’s about a tolerant God who does not want the final judgment to be rushed – who wants to give everyone the opportunity to repent until the very end and to be now in a symbolic sense, wheat, and it’s about our cultivating, our nurturing, our caring for, our associating with, our preparing one another for the harvest day. Separating wheat from weed, valuable from worthless, harmful from harmless – all that is the responsibility of God and we need to let God be God.

The primary purpose of the parable is to give us – the church of every era – some advice about how we are to deal with the evil that is around us in this imperfect world God has placed us in. The directive is that we should be careful not to become overzealous in our desire to rid our world – our churches – of the evil we perceive because there is a danger that we might do more harm than good. Historians invite us to remember the times in history when people spent most of their time weeding out people and opinions that differed from theirs. Remember Hitler’s belief that the Aryan race was the pure field of wheat and the results of his weeding? How about Stalin’s weeding program or the “Red Purge” in China under Mao Tse Tung’s leadership? Or, how about the early American witch hunts – or, the ethnic cleansings we are witness to in our own day? Innocent people suffer when we try to cast out those we think aren’t good enough to be around us.

But the one that’s causing me the most pain in this day is the one taking place within the Christian religion itself. We are in the midst of a vicious and malicious “weed eradication program” that pits fundamentalists and liberals against one another. One writer describes the situation with these words: “Both fundamentalists and liberals have clear and simple visions of truth and error in doctrine and morality, and they divide the world into those who are going to heaven and those who are going to hell. They sort people into wheat and weeds, into good people and bad people, between twice-born and once-born. Jesus tried to stop such ethic cleansing and such invidious judgments, saying we aren’t capable of knowing wheat from weeds.” (5)

Friends, the world is imperfect – I’m a part of what makes it so – and so are you. And every time we try to make it perfect according to how we perceive it should be, we make things worse. There’s not an issue causing debate today in the Christian church that is as important as what we are doing to one another in the midst of the debate over the issues. Jesus himself begged off every attempt to follow the violent path of bringing His message of salvation to the world – He rejected all proposals to force the kingdom into existence. Violence hurts the innocent as well as the evil.

When Derek Bok was president of Harvard University he was asked about his expectations for students who would receive a Harvard education. He said, “Tolerance for ambiguity.” I think that’s the point of this parable of Jesus’. What Bok later explained was his belief that in the kind of world we live in, “…some problems are so complex that the most you can hope for is different opinions from people of integrity rather than a clear delineation of who is right and who is wrong.” (6)

Certainty is hard to come by – especially certainty about other people. We should let the weeds and wheat grow alongside one another because we don’t know enough to judge others. Jesus repeatedly cautioned us:  “Judge not that you be not judged.” “Take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of somebody else’s eye.” And remember when the crowd was ready to stone a woman taken in adultery and he said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  What happened? No one threw the first stone! What makes us think we have any more right to throw the stones in our day at those we regard guilty of sins different and perceived worse than ours?

There was an Indian poet, who told of an experience he had one day when his servant didn’t arrive at work on time. Like many others in his class, he was helpless when it came to menial tasks. After more than an hour, the poet described himself as getting angrier by the minute. He began to formulate punishments he might inflict upon this one indebted to him. After three hours had passed he knew he needn’t concern himself any longer with punishment because he needed to fire him on the spot.

The servant finally did arrive and immediately went to work. He didn’t say a word as he did his chores, picking up the poet’s clothes, preparing his meal, etc. The poet watched in an internal rage. Finally he said, “Drop everything and get out of here. You’re fired.” The man kept working, quietly, diligently. The poet repeated his command:  “Get out of here.” The man said, “My little girl died this morning.”  (7)

How presumptuous we are to think that we know the circumstances of another person’s life to the point that we can pass judgment on him or her.  We can never know the burdens others carry. More importantly, another reason God suggests that we should let the weeds and wheat grow together, is that God’s not through with us yet. That’s the really good news of the parable! We have no right to give up on others when God hasn’t yet.  Weeds exist – so learn to live with them. The world is God’s garden – we just live and work here. We are instructed to do our best but we are not in charge – God is and we need to let God be God.

While we’re waiting for the harvest perhaps the best advice we can follow is that which Paul offers to the Romans: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord”…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

If truth be told, it is far more likely that those who spend all their time and energy trying to “revoke” other people’ tickets to heaven will be the ones who will not be getting on that heavenly train themselves. The question we need to address to ourselves is: “Can we be an embracing, welcoming, nonjudgmental church? “ or, in a more personal way we probably should ask ourselves: “Will I be an embracing, welcoming, nonjudgmental Christian?”

I invite you to seriously consider your answer not just because of the difference it would make in developing a caring, supporting, loving community of faith, but also for the difference it would make in your relationship with Jesus Christ and within your own heart.

1. Carl Carlozzi, Pocket Parables  (Tyndale House Publishers, 1985).
2. William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible Series: Matthew, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 2001), ebook, 1538/6728.
3. Leonard Sweet,
4. Barclay, 1538/6728.
5. Unknown.
6. Derek Bok - I lost the source.
7. Unknown.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

SERMON: "Christ: A Comforting Friend"

"Christ: A Comforting Friend"
MATTHEW 11:16-19, 25-30

There were weeks when I was still an active pastor that took my breath away! Around every corner was a new need for an act of ministry. Surprise after surprise - challenge after challenge - they came in waves with every situation demanding tears of joy or grief! Weeks like those were lived at a frenzied pace.

Who am I kidding? I still experience weeks like that. Oh, they don't demand the same kind of energy and skills, but the pace of appointments and visits and health-related challenges creates the same breathless frenzy.

Now, I don’t know about you but when life treats me to this kind of week, I find my need for private devotional time increasing. It’s not that I go off to a chapel or to the woods more often, but that my mind turns to God in a sort of reflective, seeking, inquiring manner as I move through the week from surprise to surprise. “Why, God?” “Why this barrage of issues all at once?” “Why to me?” Often what happens is short scripture passages of comfort pop into my mind – the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd ...He maketh me lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside still waters, He restoreth my soul ... Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” – words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 find their way into my soul, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” – and then portions of John 14, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in Me ... peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” - and finally, Ecclesiastes 3 “For everything there is a season ... A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” And it’s because of how helpful I find these words and the relationship with God and Jesus Christ they remind me of that I encourage others to memorize key passages of scripture. It’s just a powerful experience to recall the words and sense the presence of Christ within.

Even more often though words to old favorite hymns found their way into my heart and I found myself humming them at times – even singing them out loud at times, especially as I traveled from place to place in the community, inside the car of course – “Jesus, Savior Pilot Me,” “Nearer, My God to Thee,” “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “There is a Balm in Gilead,” “Because He Lives,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and many, many more. The one that crept into my mind the most often was “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.” (Today the words are repeated silently in my heart, mind and soul since I can't sing them out loud.)

“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer! O, what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.”

OHHH – what comfort there is in these words for me – and the tune just adds its soothing touch – the hymn fills me with a peacefulness. And its message of healing continues: “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer. Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer. Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer! In His arms He’ll take and shield thee; thou wilt find a solace there.”

Now, the story behind the writing of the hymn helps us understand why it so aptly describes what has been our own experience. The author is believed to have been a Joseph Scriven who was a native of Dublin, Ireland in the mid-1800’s. After graduating from Trinity College in Dublin at the age of 25, he emigrated to Canada where he lived until his death in 1886.

As a young man he was engaged to a lady whom he had known and loved for a long time. They had set the date for their wedding and most of the plans were completed when disaster struck. Shortly before the wedding day arrived his intended bride accidentally drowned. While he was in the midst of a very deep depression over what happened, he found himself depending on Christ. Out of his experience came the first line of the song: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!”  

When he found out his mother was also having a great deal of trouble with the loss of this special woman, he set to write more about what he was experiencing with the hope that she would be comforted as he was. The hymn’s intent is to be a powerful reminder of the friendship of Jesus and his comforting and burden-bearing role in our lives, and that it certainly does. (1)  

Yes, indeed, what a friend Jesus is – what a comforting friend. But what is really noteworthy is the fact that Jesus invites us to come to him for the comfort he can provide. The last portion of the Matthew 11 passage, has him state it in all its wonder: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Jesus was speaking these words to a people who were loaded down with the demands upon them.  The law was a burden. When the Jews thought of yoke they had in their mind “submission to.” They spoke of such things as the yoke of the law,” “the yoke of the commandments,” “the yoke of the kingdom,” “the yoke of God.” Biblical scholars believe that Jesus may well have taken this well-known image and again put his unique stamp of meaning on it. When he said, “my yoke is easy” – it was not the image that “yokes” usually called to mind. Another meaning of the word “easy” in Greek is”well-fitting.” Ox-yokes were made of wood in the Palestine of Jesus’ day and they were made to fit the animal. The ox was brought to the carpenter – measurements were made – and the yoke was roughed out. The ox was brought back some days later to try on his new yoke. The yoke was then carefully adjusted, so that it would fit well, and would not gall the neck of the patient beast. The yoke was “tailor-made,” in a sense, to fit the ox.

Now, there is a legend about Jesus that claims that Jesus was well-known for his yoke making – that he was one of the best in the business. According to the legend, people came from all over the country to buy their yokes from him – to have him fit their prized ox. Above the doors to the shops in that day, as in ours, there were signs announcing to the shoppers the wares that were inside. Can’t you just see the advertisement above Jesus’ carpenter shop: “My Yokes Fit Well.” You see, it may well be that Jesus is here using a picture from his carpenter’s shop in Nazareth that the people would understand because of the reputation he had built up during his silent years. (2)

Jesus is the yoke upon us – He’s a well-fitted friend who provides us comfort in the midst of the burdens of life – He shares the load with us – He doesn’t protect us from the load, but shares the load and in a sense lightens the load – spreads it out – provides us a way to balance what comes our way so that we might manage what life puts upon us. We no longer pull the cart of life by ourselves – face the traumas of life by ourselves – Jesus is the yoke upon us that enables us to manage what life sends our way.

Roy Smith, in his book Tales I have Told Twice, relates a true story that happened in his life which helps to illustrate this understanding of Christ’s role in helping us cope with the things that come our way – the disappointments, the mistakes, the rejections, the temptations.

He tells of a family that lived a few hundred yards away from his family on the same road. The family had four daughters, two sons, a mother and a crippled father. The father walked with a cane and a limp, and his face was heavily lined from a lifetime of suffering. But he was well-respected in the community because of his high morals, his involvement in the congregational church in town, and his determination to provide his children with every possible opportunity.

Most of the children reflected their parents’ lifestyle – they were good students, leaders, involved in the church. But the oldest son, Frantz, was always involved in mischief – not really bad, but adventurous – he lived on the edge.

Smith writes, “I was, as I remember it, about nine years old when the word went racing through the neighborhood one morning that Franz was in jail. I cannot recollect what he was accused of. The probabilities are that it was nothing more serious than some harum-scarum scrape. But the grim fact remained – he was in jail!” It left quite an impression on all the neighborhood children because when they thought of people being in jail, they thought of people in other communities, miles away – but this was Franz, one of them.

It was a Saturday and Roy kept suggesting things that they needed from the store implying that he was willing to go for his mother. His plan was to cut through the alley beside the jail and try to get a glimpse of his neighbor in his cell. He was successful with some help from one of his friends. Again hear his own words of what he saw: “One glimpse of our neighbor’s son was enough to convince me that his was a drab escapade. Gone were the defiance, the rollicking and contemptuous manner, the self-confidence, and the reckless abandon so characteristic of him as I knew him – a carefree boy on a pony, racing down the road. Instead I could see his loneliness, his shame, and his sense of defeat. He looked at me just once, and then turned away. Maybe I reminded him of his younger brother, safe in his father’s house. At any rate, I could tell there was something that made it impossible for him to look a neighbor boy in the eye.”

Smith goes on to tell about the rest of his day spent in reflecting on the lot of his neighbor and the scene around his family’s supper table. They talked about the situation filling in all the details they had learned from their individual grapevines.

The next morning was Sunday and Smith noted that his father was ready for church much earlier than normal. He was reading from his Bible beside the window that allowed him to look down the road. He wasn’t really reading the Bible though – he was watching the road.

All of a sudden he got up and quietly announced to Roy’s mother, “I see him coming down the road alone. I think I’ll walk to church with him this morning.” And out the door he went. He timed his walk perfectly so that he arrived at the road at the same time as Franz’s dad, and on they walked together.

Roy described the scene and the events later in the day: “Lithe and alert in spite of his bent back, father adjusted his step to that of his lame neighbor. It was almost as if the heavy cane beat out a somber rhythm for the two of them. Like two patriarchs – for both wore the long beards common of the day – they trudged the dusty Kansas road to town. At the turn a clump of cottonwoods hid them from our sight. A little later Wilbur, my older brother, helped mother into the old buggy, as he had seen father do so many times, and the three of us drove to church.

"Nothing was said as we came home. Each of us wanted to know, yet none of us dared to ask. It was not, therefore, until some time after father had asked the blessing over the humble Sunday dinner that mother made bold to inquire. 'What did he say, John?' 'Nothing,' father answered, quite simply.  'Didn’t you talk about it at all?' she continued. He answered, 'No.' Mother said, 'That’s funny!' to which he replied, 'No, it wasn’t funny. It was just as I had planned. I knew he couldn’t talk. At least, I could not have talked if it had been my boy. But I thought he’d understand if I just walked alongside him.

'He did say one thing, though. When we got to the corner where he turned in to the congregational church, he stuck out his hand and said, 'Thanks, John. I’m grateful to you.'  And then he went on in to church.” (3)

The title of Roy Smith’s story is “They Walked to Church Together” and I think it’s an apt description of what happens when we allow Jesus to be the yoke in our lives –there is a sharing of the pain that is around us – there is a sharing of the load that each of us bear – Jesus Christ is indeed a comforting friend – and we are witnesses of His presence in our lives as we are comforting friends to one another.

A few years ago, I preached a sermon on this same text. I titled that sermon “A Friend of Outcasts” and made the case that Jesus was a friend to those society labeled outsiders in His day and that our lot in life is to model similar behaviors when we encounter those rejected by society in our day. It’s a message we need to continually keep in front of us. I was tempted to share it again, but then came the thought of busy weeks and the hymn weaving its healing touch inside of me. I sensed that the message of Jesus being a friend was even more inclusive than the thoughts I shared in that sermon. I'm included – Jesus is my comforting friend – Jesus is your comforting friend. Today I’m thankful for the awareness of the presence of that comforting friend in Jesus. I’m thankful for all of those who meet me on the road of life and serve as witnesses of Christ’s yoke – who serve as yoke-bearers in a personal way. Thank you, Jesus -  thank you friends!

1. Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Hymns that Inspire America, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003).
2. William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible Series: Matthew, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 2001), ebook, 601/6278.
3. Roy L. Short, Tales I Have Told Twice  (Abingdon Press, 1964).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

SERMON: "Free Indeed!"

“Free Indeed!”
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 Romans 7:15-25A

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (1)

That’s how our Declaration of Independence, which spells out the arguments for and which declares our freedom as a new nation, begins. The cost to become a free nation was enormous. Of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence, five were captured by the British and tortured before they died - twelve had their homes ransacked and burned - two lost their sons in the army - another had two sons captured - nine of the fifty-six fought and died from wounds or hardships of the war - Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships sunk by the British navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in poverty. - at the battle of Yorktown, the British General Cornwallis, took over Thomas Nelson’s home for his headquarters. Nelson quietly ordered General George Washington to open fire on his home. The home was destroyed and Nelson died bankrupt. - John Hart was driven from his dying wife’s bedside. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. His fields and mill were destroyed. For over a year, he lived in forests and caves, returning home only to find his wife dead and his children nowhere to be found. He died a few weeks later from exhaustion. The signers of the Declaration of Independence came from a variety of backgrounds, ages, education and experience - some were already famous, like Adams and Franklin, - some were unheard of, recruited at the last minute as substitutes for some who refused to support the move toward independence -two of the signers were only twenty years of age; sixteen were in their thirties; twenty in their forties; eleven in their fifties; six in their sixties; and only one, Franklin, was over seventy - all but two were married - each had an average of six children - twenty-five were lawyers; twelve were merchants; four were doctors; one was a preacher; and one was, of course, a famous printer - half were college graduates; some were self-educated - few benefitted from their bravery but not one recanted his original declaration of independence. (2)

We recently celebrated the freedom we know as a nation. There’s no question it means a little more to us at this time of year.  We are a little more sincere in our thanksgiving to our ancestors and to our God. We proclaim it a little more often - a little more enthusiastically - a little more proudly - a little more meaningfully - a little more reflectively - “We’re free! We’re free indeed!”

Yes, in America we’re free to say what we want, go where we want, think what we want and believe what we want. Oh, we may have to take a few more precautions as time has gone on since the initial declaration, but still we can with confidence and appreciation shout: “We’re free!  We’re free indeed!”

What we proclaim to be our reality corporately, as a nation, is not necessarily what we sense the reality to be inside ourselves is it? St. Paul described our personal reality I think very well in the scripture passage according to Romans 7:15-25a. I invite you to read it according to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased version The Message: “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. But I need something more! For if I know the law, but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?” (3)

Do you ever feel like Paul? Can you identify with the battle going on inside Paul? I sure can.  Sometimes there just seems to be this gulf between what I want to do, what I know I should do, and what I actually do. Paul asked, “How come I am so powerless to do what’s right?” (4) and near the end questioned further, “And who can deliver me from this slavery?” (5) Or, as Peterson paraphrased it: “Is there no one who can do anything for me?” (6) And I want to shout out with Paul, “Yeah, how come?” and, “Who can?” Despite my knowing what is right - despite my wanting to do what is right - there are times when I am tempted to do what I know I shouldn’t and times when I do what is wrong. I feel powerless to overcome temptation, to do what is right, on my own.

At the end of today’s passage - in verse 25a - after lamenting his condition, after confessing his weakness, Paul makes a statement that suggests he discovered a way to deal with his frailness, his failures, his human condition of being weak of willpower. Paul’s answer to how he will be made and who will make him into the whole person, the servant of God, is, “Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7 ) You see, we can’t do it on our own - we need Jesus Christ in our hearts! We can’t be perfect - we can’t do good all the time - we can’t always do what is right - but, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord that our salvation does not depend on our doing good and doing what is right but on our relationship with Jesus and the grace with which God deals with us as a result of Jesus Christ. The crux of our problem, brothers and sisters in Christ, is that we try to do it on our own and what Paul learned and shares with us is that that is not possible - is that Jesus Christ is the source of the willpower and the source of grace for the lack of willpower in our lives.

The last few verses of the section of the gospel reading according to the author of Matthew proclaims the same thing but in a little different way, “Come to me, all you who are weary and who are carrying around heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (8)

At the very core of the Christian faith is this claim - a paradoxical claim to be sure - that only as we get in step with Jesus Christ, his will for our lives, will we find true freedom. Although it’s a tough concept sometimes for us to accept, in the final analysis our wills have to be aligned with Christ’s will, bent toward Christ, for us to overcome the turmoil that keeps us from doing what we know to be right.

One of the best known saints in the history of the church, St. Augustine, wasn’t always saintly.  Actually, he was pretty wild - he even was responsible for a child being born out of wedlock. But when Jesus Christ got hold of him - when his life got tangled up with Christ - he noted that freedom meant to him being free not to do what he wanted to do but rather to being free to be whom God intended him to be. Before Christ calls the shots in our lives - before we put our hands in his hands, all sorts of temptations, distractions, outside forces, jerk us around and cause us to do other than what we really want to.

It’s been said a time or two that when people become Christians they can then do whatever they want to do. While it may be true, it’s not true because we become immune from sin when we become Christians. No, it’s true because once we become a follower of Jesus Christ’s our “want-to’s” change. True freedom is bearing the burdens of others rather than our own selfish desires thus allowing us to become free to be who God created us to be.

Byron Janis, at one time proclaimed as one of the world’s great pianists, has been fighting the effects of crippling arthritis for years. He can’t even make a fist. His use of his right wrist is limited to about 40% of the normal range of motion - his little finger on his left hand is numb, partially paralyzed and scarred from a childhood accident and the joints of his other nine fingers are fused.

In a 1985 article in Parade magazine he was quoted to have said: “Learning to live with pain or live with a limitation can give an intensity to life. I thought I had nothing. Now I know I have everything. I’m saying to others, ‘If I can do it, so can you!’”

Janis shared in the article about the various methods of help he sought. They ranged from medical doctors to acupuncturists. He added, “What helped me the most, I can’t explain. I developed a very personal relationship with God. I think prayer is important. I think the belief in God is healing.”

“No one knows what it’s like for other people, but I know that, unless I had found a belief in God, I would never have been able to say what I have to say. God and we (humans) work together. Not one alone.” (9)

And then here’s the comment that connects Byron Janis’ story to our thinking today: “I still have arthritis. But it doesn’t have me!” (10) Living with ALS allows me to make a similar observation, although I certainly have my share of moments where I lament how much of me it has.

Byron Janis knows freedom - he’s free - he’s free indeed - not of the disease, but of the control it has over him. That’s what freedom in Jesus Christ enables to happen in our lives. Temptation still is a part of our lives - we still sin even though we have turned our lives over to Christ. The difference is that it doesn’t control us - it doesn’t keep us from trying to live the lives God intends for us to - it doesn’t cause us to give up hope in our salvation which is dependent upon God’s grace and forgiveness and not our good works.

An Armenian nurse and her brother had been held captive by some Turks in a war a few years ago. The nurse’s brother was killed by one of the Turkish soldiers right before her eyes. Somehow she escaped and later became a nurse in a military hospital. One day she was stunned to learn that the soldier who had killed her brother had been captured and wounded and was being cared for at the same hospital in which she worked. Something inside her cried out for revenge but an even stronger voice called within her to respond in love. Despite the conflict that raged within her she nursed the man back to health.

There finally came a day when the recuperating soldier asked her, “I know you know who I am.  Why didn’t you let me die?” Her answer was this simple testimony: “I am a follower of Him who said, ‘love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.’” The soldier became a believer in Jesus Christ not because the young woman was freed from her hatred of him as much as because she was freed to love in spite of her hatred. (11) The presence of Jesus Christ in one’s life makes one free to act in such a way.

Another young man became an attorney. He was invited to interview with a prestigious law firm. It was a first class visit that included a stay at a fancy hotel and several elegant dinners with various members of the firm. He really enjoyed the discussions about the work he would be doing should he be asked to join the firm and he really liked all the lawyers he met. Everything seemed great until near the end of the visit when one of the lawyers happened to mention that one of their clients was a company that basically ran all the video poker and gambling operations in the state.

The young lawyer was shocked and disappointed. He said, “There are a number of questions which are up for grabs, but that’s not one of them. I believe such things are the result of bad government and are wrong.”

The firm’s lawyers started in on him, “But it’s all legal.” The young lawyer shot back: “It may be legal but it’s not ethical. I could never represent a company that makes money from human frailty and ignorance.”

His chances with that firm ended. A ministerial friend talked with him about his feelings of losing a job he wanted and deserved. The young lawyer said: “Actually, I feel great. I’m grateful that they gave me the opportunity to clarify who I am and what I want from the practice of law. I’m O.K. I now have a much better idea of the kind of law I want to practice. I just feel sorry for them because I know that many of them feel the same way I feel, but they are trapped in the system and can’t get out.” (12)

Some of us understand what it feels like to be trapped in the system, don’t we? The people who are really free in this world are those who are able to be who they are no matter what others or the world says about them. Freedom is being able to take a stand without caring about what difference it is going to make to your future.

The minister friend asked the young lawyer, “What makes you so confident, so bold to live your life in this way?” And the young man said, “I’m a Christian. I’m not just living my life on the basis of what I want, or just by what seems right to me. I’m trying to live my life as Jesus might want. I just try to ask myself the simple little question, ‘What would Jesus do?’” (13)

And so, as Americans we've been shouting it out: “We’re free!” “We’re free to do what we want - to say what we want - to think what we want - to believe what we want.” And it’s wonderful to be free in this way - to have the freedoms we have in this nation.

But, it’s an even more sensational thing to be able to proclaim “We’re free” as Christians. Because when we say we’re free in Jesus Christ we’re not saying that we can do anything we want to but that we can do anything God wants us to - that we can live lives that will glorify God - without fear of what it might mean for our future. Sure there may be burdens that come with the letting Jesus Christ call the shots in our lives but they’re light burdens because by our wearing the yoke Jesus Christ gives to us he shares the load and enables us to overcome what challenges come our way. It’s a wonderful freedom this freedom known when one puts their hands in the hands of Jesus Christ. If you’ve never done it, I invite you to consider doing it. I promise you, it will make a tremendous amount of difference. Let’s pray.

CLOSING PRAYER: We’re free - oh, Lord - we’re free indeed - help us this day to grasp all that that means for us. How can we ever thank you, Lord, not only for the brave people who drafted the documents and gave their lives for the freedoms we know as a nation, but for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, and the freedom he offers us when we turn our lives over to him. In his name we pray. Amen.

1 Leaves of Gold
2 Unknown
3  Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress Publishing Group, 1993), p. 317.
4 Romans 7:15.
5 Romans 7:24b.
6 Romans 7:24b, The Message.
7 Romans 7:25, NIV.
8 Matthew 11:28-30, NIV.
9 Byron Janis, Parade, 1985.
10 Parade, 1985.
11 Unknown.
12 Unknown.
13 Unknown.