Messages/Blog

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
A MESSAGE FOR EPIPHANY
at
Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Baton Rouge, LA
Sunday, January 14, 2018
Reverend David Melville

 

In this season of Epiphany, Jesus is beginning His public ministry, and His contemporaries are seeing and hearing Him for the first time.  What are they seeing and hearing?

Before turning the page for another year, I would like us to sing the first two verses and choruses of the beautiful Christmas song, Do You See What I See?  It will kind of set the mood and meaning for today’s message.

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star … dancing in the night,
With a tail as big as a kite, with a tail as big as a kite.
Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song … high above the trees,
With a voice as big as the sea.

Last week we witnessed the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.  At this stage in Jesus’ life – about 30 years old – more and more Judeans were seeing and listening to this up-start rabbi from Nazareth.  But people were seeing and hearing different things.  Just like today, different people see Jesus in different ways and hear Him saying different words.

Today’s scripture from both the Old and New Testaments is about listening and about seeing. First, let’s listen along with the young boy, Samuel:    1 Samuel 3: 1-10, 19-23

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Elli.  In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place.  The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.”  And he ran to Eli said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!”  And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord:  The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

The Lord called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy.  So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

[The Lord spoke to Samuel, revealing the future of Eli and his family]

The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground.  And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord.  The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

Young Samuel had been given by his mother, Hannah, to God, fulfilling a promise she had made to God if God gave her a child.  Verse  7 states, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” We all have to hear revelation somewhere … that first time.  Even though Hannah, Samuel and his mentor, Eli, had good intentions, Samuel had not heard God yet. Regardless of your age, regardless of when, where and how you were baptized, perhaps you have not heard God speaking to you … or at least for a long, long time.  That’s O.K., if you acknowledge that, and if you are still listening.

I believe we have to be proactive, such as Samuel did when he followed Eli’s instructions.  The fourth time Samuel heard something, he responded to God,  “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  [verse 10]  We can say that to God in lots of different ways.  But we have to be listening, or we may miss something important.

What do we do after we hear a word from the Lord?  Verse 19 reports that “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground.”  Verse 23 continues, “The Lord continued to appear, and he revealed Himself to Samuel through His word.”  Samuel and God had started a conversation, and it led to Samuel becoming a great prophet, and led to his anointing Saul as the first king of Israel. What has your praying … your  listening … your conversation with God … led too?  Have you allowed any of the Lord’s words to fall to the ground? It’s never too late to listen, and to really hear God. Don’t let God’s words fall to the ground.

Samuel reminds me of young Jesus.  Remember when Joseph and Mary mistakingly left Jesus behind at the Temple in Jerusalem?  When they returned, St. Luke describes the scene:  “They found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Like Samuel, Jesus grew up on the right path.  Luke 2: 52 notes that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men,” just like Samuel.   Maybe good listening by these young boys had something to do with it.

The Gospel of John introduces us to Philip, who answered Jesus’ call to follow Him:  John 1: 43-51

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee.  Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.  Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.  You shall see greater things than that.”  He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Philip invited a friend, Nathaniel, to “come and see” this up-start rabbi from Nazareth, and Nathaniel did. Nathaniel was surprised to learn that Jesus already knew him.  (Jesus had noticed Nathaniel from afar.)  Nathaniel was impressed, but Jesus assured Nathaniel, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!  If you keep looking you will see heaven itself.”

With all the competing sights and sounds where Nathaniel lived, he chose to see Jesus for who He was. Nathaniel didn’t have to be curious and seek out Jesus; he didn’t have to accept his friend’s invitation.  How many people have spurned a friend’s invitation to attend church?   But Nathaniel did; he was proactive.  And we too must be proactive.  We too must be curious, and look beyond the competing sights and sounds if we are to see heaven. We must look, and we must listen.

We have just experienced during Advent and Christmas lots of beautiful sights and sounds.  Advent and Christmas are known and appreciated and remembered for that.  But now we are left with sights and sounds of ordinary January life:  auto accidents, funerals, audits, house fires, pneumonia, and credit card bills.  That is not to say that those sights and sounds don’t occur in December as well; but Advent and Christmas seem to be in many ways a kind of a suspended “la la land,” in which we put up, put on and put off. Jesus was born to be with us in all seasons.  Jesus is with us between the high holy days of Christmas and Easter, if we try to see Him during our ordinary days, and if we try to hear Him above the clatter.

May I respectfully suggest that we usually see what we want to see?  The wise men found what they expected to find in Bethlehem.  They wanted to worship the baby Jesus, and they did. They expected to be filled with joy, and guess what?   They were.   Herod, on the other hand, did not  find or see Jesus because he really didn’t want to worship Him as he said he did.  Herod was looking at Jesus in a negative light, whereas the wise men wanted to see Jesus in the best light … under a bright, beautiful star.  All of Herod’s henchmen – there were a lot more of them than just the three wise men – couldn’t locate a small family who had garnered everyone else’s attention, and who was situated just a short distance from the soldiers. Three unarmed out-of-towners, armed with only faith, a star, and some scripture to guide them, found Jesus in no time at all.  I guess that’s why we call them the “wise men!”

Are you looking for Jesus as we begin the new year?  A whole year is in front of us.  Do you want to see Jesus this year?  If you are looking, and if you sincerely want to see him, the chances are much, much greater that you will see him … because we usually see what we want to see.  That’s why a blind person can often feel, sense, and see as well as – if not better than – a fully-sighted person. He or she wants to see, and works harder to see.  We who are fully sighted so often take sight for granted, and fail to see what is right in front of us.

We also hear what we want to hear, so we may hear from God in 2018, or we may not.  As long as we have had published scripture in the form of the Holy Bible or the Qur’an, we’ve heard God saying different things.  Even preachers and clergy hear different messages.  It looks like we all need to work constantly on our listening skills.  From everything that John the Baptist had heard, Jesus would be the one baptizing John the Baptist, rather than the other way around.  But he listened to Jesus, and obeyed.  By listening, John the Baptist learned that he was part of a much bigger plan than he had ever imagined.  Have you heard a word from the Lord about your part in the plan?

Some of you may have reached a season in life in which you feel like you’ve heard it all.  It’s not far-fetched to imagine a conversation between an elderly person and his children,  who want him – for his own good — to pay for and endure an operation to improve his hearing.  The old man blurted out, “I don’t want my hearing corrected; I’m 89 years old, and I’ve heard enough!”  Maybe because of his age he has a right to shut out sound.  But most of us don’t have that right.    Always be open to hearing more, including more from a man who has some pretty good parables … Jesus.  Parables are not as popular today as sound bites, but they still have something to say, and something we need to hear.

If it has been a while since you heard Jesus’ commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” [Matthew 28: 19-20], and make certain you begin with yourself; if it’s been a while since you heard in your heart Jesus promising, “I will be with you always”[Matthew 28:20]; and if it has been a while since you’ve heard God praising you with the same words he praised Jesus: “This is my Son (or daughter!), whom I love, and with him (her) I am well pleased”  [Matthew 3:17], we need to visit. Come to the altar as we sing our closing hymn, or just call me at home.  I’d love to see you, and I’d love to hear from you!

 

CLOSING HYMN:  Wonderful Words of Life

TRIBES EPIPHANY AND BAPTISM OF THE LORD SUNDAY

Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Baton Rouge, LA
Sunday, January 7, 2018
Reverend David R. Melville

Each year several new words are added to the lexicon because they have come into frequent use. 2017’s class includes words or terms like net neutrality, binge-watch, photobomb, safe space, troll, ransomware, alt-right, and bitcoin.  This week I mentioned one of the newest words to Melanie, but this morning I can’t remember which word it was.  That, of course, is another phenomenon which seems to be added to the lexicon each year for some of us:  forgetfulness.

One word that is being bandied about more in public discourse lately describes and explains what is happening in American politics and culture and relationships:  tribalism.  We are increasingly dividing ourselves into tribes, and setting ourselves apart from those not in our tribes.

This has always been a part of human nature.  We used to call it cliques in high school, and perhaps gangs, and at its most irrational, the Hatfields versus the McCoys.  We all belong to various bands of brothers and sisters, which make us feel safe, comfortable, and one with another.  We feel special, important, affirmed because of what we did or do together.  Some retired employees gather monthly for years (such as Buford and his fellow Exxon workers) to reminisce and to make sense of the world, which has changed and changed since they were working together.  Some civic and charitable clubs have secret rituals and passwords and dress codes which are innocuous in themselves, but which serve larger needs for bonding, and for –may I dare say it — sometimes feeling superior to the outsider.

Tribalism can include very informal bonds, which are expressed only in annual family or veterans’ reunions, to vocational allegiances incorporating a “code of silence,”  in which it is understood that one member of a profession does not “rat” or “snitch” on a colleague. Sometimes tribes are based upon the common age of the participants; sometimes upon common gender; sometimes upon common experiences, such as cancer survivors maintaining a certain protective cocoon for each other.   I have often said I wish the local church could be as loving, supportive,  understanding and forgiving toward each other as are members of Alcoholics Anonymous — or for that matter —  any addiction recovery group.

So often we exclude another from our world because they allegedly “have not walked a mile in our shoes,” when, in fact, they may have.  We assume that until another has “been there,” or experienced what we’ve experienced, they simply won’t understand.  It’s not their fault; that’s just the way it is.  I remember working with an individual one day, and getting exasperated with his non-cooperation in helping himself, and expressing my exasperation.  He looked at me and said calmly, “You’ve never been drunk, have you?” as if that explained both his and my behavior. Does it take a drunk to understand, deal with and help a drunk?  Maybe.  Does it require a divorcee to lead a divorce recovery group, a widow to help other widows, etc.?  Maybe.

The leading tribalism in America these days is political partisanship:  Democrats versus Republicans; conservatives vs. liberals vs. progressives. Partisanship is blocking legislation and causing government gridlock; it’s dividing families, institutions, and churches.   I suggest political partisanship has, for the moment at least, surpassed former culture wars between blacks and whites, between men and women.  For some reason, there is still no divide between rich and poor, even as the gap between rich and poor expands. Most people still want to become rich, and don’t resent those who are rich.   But they don’t want to become a liberal or conservative and resent those who do. Yuk!

Being baptized used to be regarded as special, as defining which tribe you belong to.  Baptism reminded us not only who we are, but whose we are. Since John the Baptist’s baptisms of fellow Jews, including Jesus, the number of baptized believers has always been a minority. The number at any given time is a small, defined, set-apart tribe united with Jesus and forgiven of their sins.  Membership in that tribe should transcend all other tribes and should color one’s behavior in all other tribes. In other words, we should be a different and better Rotarian or family member or political activist because we are a born-again, baptized believer in Jesus Christ, rather than the other way around.

What sets baptized believers apart … not in a smug or superior way, but in a way that allows us to live more Christ-like and other-directed, which some of us still believe is a better goal in life than self-ambition and self-promotion:

I

First, baptism paved the way for the repentance and forgiveness of sins.  (Mark 1:4) Does your tribe have anything to do with or say anything about sin?  I doubt it because most individuals and most groups don’t want to think about or talk about sin.  But baptized believers do.  Baptized believers acknowledge that we have sinned against God, sinned against ourselves and sinned against others, and we seek forgiveness for our sins of commission or omission.  When we really see and sense sin for what it is, we want the weight and the burden removed. Baptism is the first and the right step. When we go under that water … when that water goes over us … we die to sin.

II

Secondly, the tribe of baptized believers includes Jesus.  John the Baptist, up until about 30 A.D., was the chief prophet and catalyst for change and new birth.  But he admitted, “After me will come one more powerful than I … the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1:7)   Does Jesus come with your tribe?  Is Jesus invited to be a part of your tribe?  It makes all the difference in how open, how loving, how giving, how stubborn and resilient your other tribes will be.

III

Thirdly, scripture tells us that the baptism of and with Jesus involves not only water but requires the presence of the Holy Spirit.  John the Baptist said it this way:   “I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  (Mark 1:8)  And indeed, “As Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove.”  (Mark 1:10)  As we sang in our first hymn this morning, “Come, Holy Spirit, aid us to keep the vows we make; this very day invade us, and every bondage break.  Come, give our lives direction, the gift we covet most: to share the resurrection that leads to Pentecost.”   It takes the Holy Spirit!

Is the Holy Spirit sought and captured in your tribe? I doubt it for most of the tribes to which you belong, regardless of how friendly and how noble they may be.   But baptized followers of Jesus Christ constantly seek and find the Holy Spirit because that is the only way they will be distinct from other tribes.  Do you really need another worldly tribe … another group on Facebook? Or are you flitting from tribe to tribe when what you truly need is re-birth into the tribe of Jesus?

The problem with my message this morning, and the challenge of most Methodist preachers in front of their congregations on this “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday is that most of you have been  baptized by water and the Spirit.    We call it preaching to the choir – I bet all of whom are baptized!

But I respectfully submit this morning that if you are not remembering your baptism by living out your baptism, then you are no longer in the tribe. And we can’t blame our not remembering on aging; we must blame it on getting out of practice.    You may still be going to heaven – I’m not going to get into that – but you are what we call inactive as far as the tribe of baptized Christians on earth.   You have not been paying your dues.  You may still have a little status … it’s normally called inactive, but you are not having any effect.  You are not being the “salt of the earth,” or the “light of the world” that Jesus talked about.  Next Sunday I’d like to talk a little more about remembering our baptism.

This first Sunday morning of 2018 we have the privilege of receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Some denominations do not permit you to receive the elements unless you have been baptized.  In the early, early church, first came baptism, then your first communion.  Some denominations ask that the sacrament of confession and reconciliation, or forgiveness, be administered prior to the sacrament of Holy Communion.  I kind of like that, because it stresses remembering your baptism … i.e., taking the first step of acknowledging how much you have disappointed God, and have fallen short of who you would like to be. Then you are ready and prepared to meet the risen Christ at the communion table.

As United Methodists, we invite all to the table; we believe that with the help of the Holy Spirit we might become even better members of the baptized tribe at and after the table rather than before. Maybe it does take meeting Christ, again and again, to live like Christ again and again.

The sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion are alike in that in each we share  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. As a member of the baptized tribe, we are a living sacrifice. Think about which tribes you want to be associated with —   be active with — in 2018, and above all join those who are living their baptism.  By becoming a member of such a select group you are not better, you are not superior, but you are different.

 

SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION

A SILENT NIGHT (NOT)

Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Christmas Eve, 2017
Reverend David Melville

Silent night?  Anything but …

I would wager that the night Jesus was born was in reality anything but a silent night.  Normally a birth is not a quiet occasion, is it?  Today it is a big production with “Lights! Camera! Action!” in a room large enough for the whole family to attend the premier of a new child.  Little Johnny is filmed entering the world and immediately broadcast  on YouTube.  I’m surprised there is not a buffet in the room for a necessary repast if the delivery takes longer than expected.

We have immortalized the cattle lowing and the animals purring in the stable scene of Jesus’ birth, but anyone who has had animals around them knows they are not quiet.  All kinds of yelping, groaning, scratching, clucking and emitting can be heard, right?  And the writer of the hymn, Away in a Manger suggests, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Come on … babies cry.  They’re supposed to cry.  In fact, if they don’t cry we’ve got something to worry about.

As for the hillside above Bethlehem from whence the shepherds walked to see what all the commotion was about, I don’t know how quiet a scene it was. Nature just makes noise. Even wind can whip up some strange sounds. The sheep were undoubtedly bleating away.  The shepherds were probably talking “guy talk,” perhaps even “locker room talk.”  Verse 9 of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, tells of the shepherds being terrified when the angels snuck up on them.  Verse 2 of the hymn, Silent Night, says “shepherds quake at the sight.”

If there was a great heavenly host singing and praising God to the highest, it may have been pretty, but it was noise nonetheless.  When Jesus was born, the shepherds “spread the word” [Luke 2: 17], as probably did others looking on.  “Spreading the word” – even if by whispering — is noise-producing activity.  Luke 2:20 reports the shepherds returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”  I wouldn’t be surprised if some in the area thought the shepherds were drunk after a night in town, just as those speaking in tongues in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were accused of being drunk.

I believe the words “quake at the sight” from verse two of Silent Night are more accurate in describing the night Jesus was born than “all is calm” from verse 1.  And I don’t know how many slept in heavenly peace.  The shepherds were working, the lodging at the inn next to the manger was probably not conducive to a good night’s rest –I doubt they had posturepedic mattresses or a thermostat on the wall – and we know that parents of a new-born don’t “sleep in heavenly peace” for quite a few weeks. They sleep with one eye open.

But thank goodness we don’t have to have silence to feel peace.  Thank goodness we don’t have to have silence to know God through His Son.  We don’t.  I think the best words of the Luke birth narrative are about Jesus’ mother, Mary:  Luke 2, verse 19 says beautifully, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”  Mary could be in this world, but not of this world. And so can we.

The world in which we are born is always full of noise and chatter and distractions. It is always filled with temptations and alternative views.  We must block out the unimportant and only hear the holy.  Then we will sleep in “heavenly peace.”

When the Lord is involved, there can be reverent, holy silence in the most unlikely of places.  Some of you may have heard about the amazing Christmas day in 1914 somewhere along the five hundred mile line of trenches and barbed wire separating German forces and the Allies.  Not everywhere, but at some points  along the way, a night characterized by gunfire turned into silence from gunfire Christmas morning.  A Christmas truce had been requested by Pope Benedict XV, but had been rejected. Yet a few Christian soldiers on both sides made their own peace and honored Christ’s birth, at least  for a few hours.

The legend has grown over the past century, claiming everything from joint hymn singing, to soldiers crossing “no-man’s land” to offer “smokes” to their enemies,  to both sides having a friendly soccer match.  We can’t completely verify everything that did or did not take place, but we have enough letters from truce participants to know that – just as on a night about two thousand years ago — something wonderful and transformative happened on December 25, 1914.

Alfred Anderson, from the Fifth Battalion of the Black Watch, recalled, “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence.” As with the night Jesus was born, there were other sounds in the air, there was chatter and nervous laughter by the soldiers, but there was a Marian kind of silence as some of the soldiers pondered things in their heart.

Of course the truce was not uniform, and was not repeated in 1915 or 1916. Millions of individuals and animals were slaughtered.  It was so bad that  it was thought and hoped that such a world war would never be repeated;  it was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.”  Yet just three decades later war was repeated.   And some of you survived that war to be able to sing Silent Night at Francis Asbury United Methodist Church tonight. Hallelujah!

In modern day Bethlehem it is not silent.  Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is war-torn … a city divided and barricaded, with as many Christian tourists as Christian citizens.   It is not silent in the entire Mideast.  Will it ever be?  Only if the peace of Christ is sought, sensed and shared.  I pray the clergy, the politicians and the people can one day have a silent night in the best sense of the word silent, and that children who have known nothing but war for their entire lives, can sleep in heavenly peace.

A communion table can be too noisy,  rather than silent and reverent … unless we approach it with the right heart.  I am guilty sometimes of chatting with a supplicant rather than looking him or her directly in the eyes and simply offering a moment of peaceful silence from all the stuff going on in their life … simply offering them the peace of Christ.  Lord forgive me when I fail to do that.  That’s my job … that’s my privilege.

If, at the communion table in our hearts we seek peace with God and our fellow human beings; if we forgive and are forgiven; if we are grateful for the birth and death of Jesus,  we will know a kind of peace … a kind of silence that only such hearts can know. I pray that you experience that kind of silence wherever you find yourself in 2018 … blocking out Satan … blocking out the world … blocking out anyone and anything that interrupts a oneness with our Heavenly Father.  Jesus came, lived and died so that we might find that oneness.  And that’s why we still celebrate His birth two- thousand-plus years later, and that’s why we still receive the sacrament of Holy Communion two-thousand-plus years later.  I don’t know how silent the night of Jesus’ birth actually was, but I do know that He woke up a lot of people, and is still doing so today.  May you as a disciple and follower of the baby Jesus, and may we as a church, do our part to continue waking up others from their silent, or not-so-silent night.

Sacrament of Holy Communion, followed by singing of “Silent Night”

 

Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/waitingfortheword/6369656709

Surprised by Peace!

FRANCIS ASBURY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
Baton Rouge, LA
Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017
by
Reverend David Melville

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.’” [Luke 2:13-14]  From St. Luke’s gospel to modern Christmas cards, we read about such peace.  But we can still be surprised by peace because it so often is elusive and because the word peace – like so many laudable goals – has become cheapened and neutered by overuse, by multiple interpretations, and by politics.

To keep it simple this morning, I want to only reflect upon the peace offered to each individual shepherd by the angels on the night before Jesus was born.  I want to reflect upon our inner spiritual peace rather than public or political peace.   Of course in God’s world, if more individuals knew spiritual peace, perhaps we would experience more public and political peace.  I think that’s part of what the hymn writer was trying to say when he wrote, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”  We can’t control others’ inner peace; we can control our own.  I can’t – you can’t — not even the President of the United States … the most powerful man in the world — can wave a wand and produce peace in the world.  But I can at least let peace begin with me.

If you are not at peace today with yourself, I’ve got a surprise for you … the peace of Christ.  Be surprised by peace. Be open to it, look for it,  listen to the angels.  They may be talking to you as well as to the shepherds.  “Peace on earth, goodwill to man” are more precious than mere words for a Christmas card … at worst, to be ripped open and thrown away without further thought, and at best, to be read as referring to peace in the Middle East. No, let’s give peace a chance in our lives and in our homes in good old Baton Rouge. Then, who knows? Maybe one-day such peace will spread to the Middle East.

How does Melanie know when I’m not at peace?  A fever blister, right about here.  How do I prevent fever blisters and know the peace of Christ? What is your equivalent of a fever blister?

I

For true peace, first and foremost, I must trust God.  And the way I trust God today is to remember when I’ve trusted God in the past.  If God provided peace in the past, why am I so surprised by peace when it – rather than a fever blister – pops up today? God is definitely more predictable than I am.  The reason that miracles,  hope,  inner power, and peace – the kind of surprises we’ve been talking about this Advent – the reason they surprise us is that we stop looking for them; we stop expecting them; we stop trusting God for them. And we stop doing our part. We stop surprising God. We have a big, big part to play in our relationship with God, and some of us are just play-acting.  Our relationship with God is a two-way street, but some of us are just sitting back saying to God, “Show me something, Mister!”  I believe God is saying the same thing to us:  “Show me something, Mister!”

The birth of the baby Jesus was a surprise to everyone because the citizens of Palestine had stopped reading and believing scripture, and had stopped listening to the prophets. So often God provides what we need routinely … it’s no surprise. But because we have stopped looking and expecting and trusting, it hits us out of nowhere.  How much fuller our lives would be if we are looking all along! How much fuller our lives would be if we are looking up at the star sitting over Bethlehem rather than looking down on others, looking down on ourselves and looking down on life!  Do you see what I see? Trust God!

II

I suggest a second path to peace is reconciliation.  For every minute we are not reconciled – at one — with ourselves or another – and therefore unreconciled with God – we have forfeited a minute of peace.  The minutes add up to hours, and days, and before you know it, years.

To reconcile with yourself, forgive yourself, think of yourself as created in God’s image, which you are.  Why would you want to mess with that?  I love the fuller name of the Roman Catholic sacrament which most of us simply call “Confession.” It is also the sacrament of reconciliation. When we confess our separation from God, when we are forgiven by the same God, we are reconciled … we are right with God.  The Eagles sang about a “peaceful easy feeling?”  Well reconciliation with ourselves, with others and with God … that is the ultimate peaceful, easy feeling.

You would think that a prisoner –sometimes sentenced to life, sometimes sitting on death row – would have a hard time finding the peace we are talking about this morning.  But I know prisoners who are freer than you and me.  Why do they deserve peace more than me, a good church-going, law-abiding, red, white and blue American?  After a single or multiple offenses to humanity and to God, how can they reconcile with themselves; how can they look in the grimy prison latrine mirror and see the face of God?  Because they listened to the angels in the hills above Bethlehem.  Some prisoners I’ve met listen, and some don’t … just like some churchgoers listen, some do not.   What prisoners at peace hear is not dependent upon their being released from prison (they will never be released), or by their being able to undo the horrible, senseless, selfish things they have done.  No, their peace is dependent solely upon getting right with God.  And I won’t know peace until I get right with God.

If such a condemned man can be reconciled with himself, his victim and God, and know real peace, why can’t we at our well-paid job, our well-appointed home, our humongous mall, and in front of three hundred channels on our surround sound television set know peace?   Maybe because we are unreconciled and not at peace with ourselves, others, and God, which violates the greatest commandment God gave us.  Love God and love others as ourselves.  By breaking that commandment, we’re lucky if a fever blister is all we suffer.

Let me close this morning by suggesting that the birth of our Christian church by brave martyrs for the faith could only have come about by enough believers hearing and listening to the Bethlehem angels sweetly proclaim a different kind of peace than humankind had been seeking ever since the first act of senseless violence: the killing of Abel by Cain.

Two thousand years after Abel and Cain,  humankind was still no stranger to violence.  Even though the new Christians believed that their leader won by defeating death, they were still treated violently and repressively.  So what sustained a small following through violence, repression, and death?  I suggest it could only have been the peace we celebrate today on the second Sunday of Advent: not necessarily the absence of conflict, but the peace of Christ.

The modern day church as a whole, and United Methodists specifically, will only survive if it has the same kind of peace evidently possessed by members of the early church.  The peace that passes all understanding sustained them through strife from without, and strife from within.

The United Methodist church is not totally at peace today.  We may be slowly slipping toward legal division over the issue of one’s sexual orientation.  Other mainline denominations such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans have already been divided.  We may not yet be legally divided, but we have de facto division in the church with violations of the Book of Discipline being overlooked and ignored.  Laity on both sides of the issue are hurt and confused.

On the back of your bulletin, this morning is the most recent up-date and summary of discussions and negotiations by a thirty-member committee charged with presenting options for a special General Conference in 2019 which will address our sexuality divide.   I offer it to you because as United Methodists you deserve to have the current process, deliberations, and decisions fully transparent.  I pledge to keep you informed, and I invite your comments, ideas, and involvement to any degree you desire.

I also present the information today because this particular news summary includes a surprise solution that has come out of prayer and patience that may yield good fruit.  It is a solution that may promote peace within our denomination and may allow us to spend more time offering Wesleyan grace to the world rather than fussing and fighting.

Stay tuned, because the peace of Christ is always full of surprises … and Blistex!

 

                                   Let There Be Peace on Earth, #431

 

 

 

 

 

SURPRISED BY HOPE!

FRANCES ASBURY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, BATON ROUGE
December 3, 2017
Reverend David Melville

On the night Jesus was born – although we have to come to imagine it as beautifully star-lit and saturated with the sounds of nature which our modern electric and gasoline-powered gadgets obscure — we also know that was a lot of hopelessness hovering around. There was little hope from ever escaping one’s class and one’s conditions. What you were born into, you usually remained. You had to accept your lot in life. “Mr. Sunshine,” Ecclesiastes, advised us to “Enjoy life all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life, and in your toilsome labor under the sun.” [Ecclesiastes 9:9] I bet he was the life of the party!

On the night Jesus was born there was not only social stagnation; Bethlehem’s residents faced a lot of fears. They feared tyrants; they feared disease; they feared financial hardship. Surely many feared death. Phillips Brooks, composer of the hymn we’ve sung twice this morning to usher in Advent (O little Town of Bethlehem), was an amazing poet: He writes about “deep and dreamless sleep.” There’s no need to dream when you have no hope. But then the baby Jesus surprises everyone from the shepherds to the inn keeper: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Now even the hopeless had hope.

I pray that regardless of any feelings of hopelessness you may be experiencing this morning, you will allow the baby Jesus to surprise you with hope. Bethlehem was surprised; Baton Rouge can be too.

The street on which George Stuart lived until this past Monday had at least one other person in hospice care. Her name was Veronica Shepherd (what a timely name for Christmas!), and the church has sent her at least one “get well” card. But Veronica was not going to get well, and she died Friday. Chances are that on your street there is at least one person living … well, actually dying … in hospice care.

When I visited with Veronica last Sunday, she was confined to bed and playing a waiting game. All the potential signs of giving up were there. But several times in our visit she said she still had hope. As long as she drank enough water she was hopeful. She was saying that water — rather than all the medicines and treatments which had been stopped – was going to make a difference. And it could have; stranger things have happened. And far be it from me – a person who drinks too little water, and probably one day will pay a price for my thirstlessness – far be it from me to dash Veronica’s hopes.

But hope is always wrapped in context. And here was Veronica’s context: what she was really whispering as the sun was setting on another day and in her life, was that her hope rested in her Savior. Veronica had a faith that puts mine to shame. Her hope was found in the living water of Jesus Christ, whereas sometimes my hope has been found in college degrees, appointments, accomplishments and milestones. The problem with hope being based upon things and deeds and health and blessings and rewards is that if they never appear, or if they appear but are taken away, so goes our hope as well. Just as Jesus gave us a new love – inclusive and unconditional–; and just as Jesus gave us a new faith – faith even in that which we cannot see –; Jesus also gave us a new hope – a hope that will surprise us and meet our every need. In Jesus we always have hope.

With you I read about another tragedy in deep ocean waters, which left horrified family members waiting on shore for any signs of life … any hope … that their loved one’s submarine could still be operational. With each announcement from Argentina’s military, there were more fears than hope. Some of the family members were quoted as having given up hope; some were still holding on to a slimmer of hope. Jesus came to Bethlehem for those Argentines as well as for you and me … to surprise us with hope when we think there is none. Praise be to God, because we all need a little hope.

We all know Polly Anna’s; we all know eternal optimists. Sometimes they inspire us; sometimes they annoy us. All of us would have been thrilled if our daughter or granddaughter would have been chosen to play Little Orphan Annie and sing with gusto, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow; when I’m stuck in a day that’s gray, and lonely, I just stick out my chin and grin, and say, Oh, the sun’ll come out tomorrow; Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya tomorrow! You’re always a day away!” Those lyrics are almost as good as O Little Town of Bethlehem. And even if our daughter or granddaughter didn’t land the role of Annie, we’d settle for her having that same optimism and positive, hopeful spunk and spirit in life.

But the message of Advent and Christmas is that the hope Jesus brought is more amazing, and more fulfilling, and more surprising than any coping mechanisms that we call hope and can sing about. The hope of Christ is not denial; the hope of Christ is not a pep talk or merely “feel good” therapy. It is not “pie in the sky;” it is not a morale, confidence or self-esteem boost. It is not letting “a smile be your umbrella on a rainy, rainy day,” and hoping for the best. No, the hope of Jesus surprises us and kicks in when these other human responses let us down and no longer help. The hope of Jesus never promises to lift us above difficulties, but it does promise to help us deal with them. The hope of Jesus is internal as much as external. The hope of Jesus never ends because it leads us to new beginnings. Finally, the hope of Jesus is earthly and eternal.

1 Peter 3:15 admonishes us to “Always be prepared to give the reason for the hope that you have.” If someone asks you why you are so bullish about the future … why you whistle a happy tune … and you give reasons such as “Oh, I just received a great doctor’s report following my annual physical;” or “my stock portfolio ended this quarter on the plus side;” or “I’m married to a ’10,’ and my kids are the kind you brag about on bumper stickers,” you’re not witnessing to the world the whole reason for the hope you have. You are not witnessing about the hope found in the child born two thousand years ago, and still living today: the hope represented by the baby Jesus.

I hope that this Christmas we are a church of hope. Only a church that is hopeful about itself and its future can offer a word of hope to outsiders. This time last year we were literally surprised by hope, weren’t we? Don’t you recall the meeting in this very room when we basically agreed that in our hearts we wanted to continue, but in our heads we knew the responsible thing to do was to close the doors. You gave me permission to prepare the church for a dignified death. Not a merger, not a reboot, not a new name or style of worship, but a death.

Melanie and I went home with nervous laughter as we recalled that I had closed the first church I served, and now I was closing perhaps my final church appointment! My first appointment after seminary was a two-point charge, consisting of Keithville United Methodist and Trinity United Methodist. Keithville still had all the normal signs of church life – had a pulse — but the District Superintendent didn’t tell me that Trinity was on life support. Well, the first week of being there the Trinity members told me they were on life support, and they wanted off. “No offense, pastor.” They had just been holding on for several years to not hurt the former pastor’s feelings. So I honored their wishes: I withdrew life support; I closed that sucker!

But here at Francis Asbury God had the last laugh, and it wasn’t nervous. Instead of a dreamless night, God gave us a dream of new wineskins. He surprised us with hope. We’re still not where we want to be, but as long as we have hope through Christ and through serving others, we can go anywhere. And just as God gave Francis Asbury United Methodist renewed hope, God can give you renewed hope when you feel all hope is gone. You can’t be much lower than we were in this room last December. But then we were surprised by hope, and you will be too if you stay close to God, seeking His guidance.

Sometimes when I see no hope, I turn to the sacrament of Holy Communion, and I urge you to do the same. Sometimes the sacrament is what God has given, and continues to give us, for hope. It is the gift that keeps on giving. I hope that today, this Advent and Christmas season, and just when you need hope the most in 2018, you are surprised by hope at Christ’s table. You are now invited once again to a surprise party!

SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION

THE SURPRISE OF POWER

 

FRANCIS ASBURY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

BATON ROUGE, LA

on

Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 2017

Message by Reverend David Melville

We began what I call our season of surprises – Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas – last week discussing the surprise of miracles.  God is still in the miracle business.  And miracles can occur in all areas of our being, including what we give back to God of what He has first given us to use responsibly.  We will see how many miracles are left for Francis Asbury – along with a unique volunteer center rising from the messy flood waters of 2016 – next Sunday, December 3,  when we come to the table for the sacrament of Holy Communion,  and we leave our financial commitments for 2018. Please pray for and look for a miracle next Sunday in your personal life, and in the life of Francis Asbury. As I said last week, when we give generously and sacrificially when we don’t have to, I’d say that is a miracle!

Today, Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate a triumphant, victorious, powerful, kingly  Jesus.  He surprised a lot of Jews and gentiles with his power over death, and with his staying power for two millennia.  It’s  O.K. every once-in-a-while to be reminded and even surprised by the power of Jesus … by the power of that name.  If we wake up and notice that power, we won’t limp to the finish line of 2017; we will leap to the finish line! Will you leap with me?

Many of us this morning may feel powerless at times … we yearn for power to overcome a bad  situation or bad habit or addiction; we yearn for power to stand up to  a bully; we feel powerless in the face of extremists and terrorists,  regardless of how much money we spend and how many people we employ to protect us.  Always remember, though, in the words of the great Baptist hymn, “There’s power in the blood.”

So often Christians are branded as soft, weak and meek.  After all,  Jesus once told a crowd:  “The meek shall inherit the earth.” How can we show meekness and power at the same time?  Because our power resides not in lording over someone; our power lies in serving someone, and in the power of love.  Love is the greatest power known to humankind. Listening to someone is just as powerful as yelling at someone.

One time as a part of continuing education requirements for the Conference I attended a study of the complicated, confusing book of Revelation. The study was led by a Perkins School of Theology scholar.  Dr.  John Holbert began with a summary of what he thought the book of Revelation is saying:  Christ won!  That was the message, in a nutshell:  Christ won!  That’s easy enough to understand, but sometimes hard for us to appreciate when Christians – Christ followers – have always been, and are still a minority of the world’s population.  Christ’s triumph is hard for us to fully appreciate when heaven on earth is still yet to be realized.  Millions upon millions are praying for heaven to be realized on earth when we pray the Lord’s Prayer this morning, because evidence shows it is yet to come. So who won?

I

What kind of power by Jesus still amazes and surprises us?  First and foremost is power over death.  Because Christ died and lived again, so can we.  The Roman authorities, the religious authorities, and probably not a few of Jesus’ own disciples weren’t expecting that.  They were thinking, “out of sight, out of mind,” but wouldn’t you know it, He never went away.  I serve a risen savior, He’s in the world today; I know that He is living, whatever foes may say.

Melanie and I have been surprised – pleasantly surprised – how alive our combined four parents, though deceased, continue to be in our lives,  and in the lives of our children.  We now know what we always wanted to believe, but couldn’t know for certain until the time came:  life goes on, because Jesus paved the way. Christ the king defeated death in ways far superior to any victories won on an earthly battlefield.  Ruth Stuart thinks she knows her Lord’s power as she prepares to let George go. But even with her preparation and even with her faith she is going to be overcome with a special power of serenity and strength when George crosses the bar … perhaps this week.

II

Secondly, Christ the King’s power remains in His words. Jesus’ words can still bowl you over … still get your attention … still mean something, inspire and influence.  Our landscape is inundated with words … signs, neon lights, and big, big billboards. Side by side on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge are the words “A Great Pair” paid for by and advertising Hooters Restaurant, and “The meek shall inherit the earth” and “Blessed are the merciful,” and other words from Jesus on billboards paid for by attorney Gordon McKernan.  Thank God for a free country.  “A great pair” and “Blessed are the meek and merciful,” side by side.   Based upon your life experiences, which words do you believe are destined to last?   Which words are most likely to help someone feeling powerless? Notice that nowhere in scripture does it say, “Blessed are the powerful.”  So we must be talking about different kinds of power. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” [Matthew 24:35]

You have to admit that many advertising words and jingles are quite clever, they strike a chord, and they become a part of us: McDonalds’ “You deserve a break today;” or Burger King’s “Have it your way;” or Coke’s  “It’s the real thing.”  That is the objective of these companies’ advertising gurus:  for particular words and images to be embedded into our D.N.A.  Gordon McKernan’s and other attorneys’ secular, legal advertising is sure successful.  Our granddaughter, Caroline,  often sings out from memory the telephone number for McKernan [888-8888], and she especially likes the jingle and phone number of Spencer Callahan [387-2323].  (I need to say at this point Caroline is not completely geeky … one reason she is so familiar with those particular attorneys’ phone numbers is because their daughters are classmates of Caroline, so I guess she pays more attention to their dads’ advertising.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!)

So words (and I guess numbers)  sway us and inspire us. But which words do you want to turn to in the most hopeless and powerless situations:  “Have it your way,” or “Come to me all who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest”? Which words will most help Ruth Stuart in what she faces in the days ahead: modern advertising language or some words from Jesus orally transmitted two thousand years ago?  Two thousand years ago speakers didn’t have the luxury of recording and PowerPoint and The Cloud.  But somehow, some way, Jesus’ uniquely powerful words miraculously survived for fifteen hundred years until the invention of the printing press and mass production. And the rest is history.   They must have been powerful words indeed!

III

            One unusual attribute about Jesus’ power is that He wants us to have it too.  He doesn’t mind sharing His power.  I like that kind of king.

Luke 9:1 reports that “When Jesus had called the Twelve together, He gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” Even when earthly kings have shared and delegated powers with princes or other local officials, the mandate was more likely to be repressive actions rather than servanthood.

I think Christians have  done a pretty good job driving out demons, curing diseases and healing the sick.  The Christian church led the way creating hospitals and nursing orders, and then the public sector followed suit.  But I believe we can still do better and do more in the area of access to affordable and quality health care.  But that would lead to you know what, and I better not go there this morning!

The gospel of John has Jesus explaining what will happen to His disciples  when he leaves them:  “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.  He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” [ John 14:12]

Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told his still startled and bewildered disciples, “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.” [Acts 1:8]  Jesus delivered as He said He would:  the Holy Spirit came to us  at Pentecost, just as promised.  But have we done our part … have we been Jesus’  witnesses, telling others about Him?  Methodists have been rather shy about that.  Are we leaving some kingly power – the power of witness — on the table?

One of the most endearing stories of the New Testament for me is the encounter between Jesus and the woman in the crowd who had endured bleeding and hemorrhaging problems for a long time.  It was so crowded that Jesus knew someone in his midst needed special care and attention, but He didn’t know who it was.  As I said, it was crowded, and there was a lot of jostling and pushing and shoving.  He finally put two and two together when He felt that His power had gone out from Him to her.  I don’t know if you have ever experienced what Jesus felt, but He has given us permission and authority and ability to do so.  We do as He often did:  we literally empty ourselves serving, nurturing and giving to others.  We do so in Jesus’ name, and with the power He has granted us. We are literally drained as Jesus’ power flows through us to another.  It’s a good feeling.  Don’t leave a physician’s power on the table; don’t leave a carpenter’s power on the table; don’t leave a teacher’s power on the table.  May Bernie and I, and all of my colleagues never leave a pastor’s power on the table.

IV

Let me close this morning by reminding us of one final attribute of Jesus’ power: the power to judge as did kings of old.  Don’t be surprised by that power come Judgment Day.  Jesus talked too often about separating the wheat from the chaff, and the sheep from the goats. Don’t say He didn’t warn us. And for most of us, He gives us plenty of time to get it right.  Those of us in this room have had 60, 70, 80, 90 years to prepare.

One of the most powerful vocations in America is that of a judge … especially those appointed for life.  Wow!  To whom are they accountable?  Jesus will have even more power and discretion.  Earthly judges rule over earthly issues and disputes, but Jesus has the final say over our final resting place.   I don’t want to act ignorant or surprised when I approach the bench.  I want to be prepared.

Some denominations soft peddle the judgment part.  They emphasize grace more than sin, and faith over works.  Indeed, one could characterize United Methodists in those two ways.  But we as United Methodists do believe Jesus will judge the living and the dead.  We also believe in some of the most powerful hymn lyrics ever composed:  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; he hath loosed the fateful lightening of his terrible swift sword; his truth is marching on.  Sing with me:  Glory, glory, hallelujah!  Glory, glory, hallelujah!  Glory, glory, hallelujah!  His truth is marching on!

            People in Jesus’ day were always looking for signs; so are we.  Jesus told them the most important sign to look for:  “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn.  They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.” [Matthew 24:30]   Jesus has come a long way from being forced to carry his own cross and being slaughtered like a meek, helpless lamb. There’s power in the blood!

            Through Christ we have so much power at our disposal; so much power and potential at our fingertips.  Are you going to use that power and that potential in all kinds of ways come 2018?  Will one of those ways be giving generously and giving sacrificially to your church?  Please pray about that, and please let us know your decision next Sunday. Your finance committee, I,  and the Lord Himself will appreciate and honor whatever decision you make.

Let us close by singing what we sang at the beginning of the service, but hopefully with even more meaning and understanding  than before, because  we have discussed for a few minutes the majestic power of Christ the King.

Majesty, Worship His Majesty   #176

 

SURPRISE! SURPRISE! SURPRISE!

 

Francis Asbury United Methodist Church

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Message from Reverend David Melville

“Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”  Who uttered that alluring expression?  That’s right:  Gomer Pyle, USMC, always with a great big grin.

With age, and with a new bombshell in the news each day, we’ve become a little numb, a little jaded to being surprised, haven’t we?  We’re prone to pronounce that “nothing surprises me anymore.”  The writer of Ecclesiastes must have felt that way after lamenting, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” [Ecclesiastes 1:9]

But as Christians, life should be full of surprises; we should wake to each day exclaiming, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”  Otherwise,  we may miss out on the things which truly make life worthwhile.

I like to think of the Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas season ahead as the season of surprises. What surprises does God still have in store for us, regardless of     our age … regardless of feeling on some days that we’ve seen it all?  There’s nothing new under the sun.  That’s not a good feeling, and it’s not a feeling we have to have.  When we least expect it, God shows up.

This morning I want us to be open to the surprise of miracles.  God can show up in the form of a miracle, but we fail to show up.  One time I visited with a church member who truly wanted to make a miraculous change in his lifestyle.  He was fed up with the status quo.  He had been humbled, he was penitent, and he truly wanted to be different.  But the one thing he wouldn’t do was submit to counseling … considering it a sign of weakness for a macho man.  He believed in miracles, he wanted a miracle, but he wasn’t willing to do his part in bringing one about.

I suggest another pre-requisite for a miracle is to not be afraid.  How many times did Jesus comfort someone with the assurance, “Do not be afraid. Let God surprise you.” [Well, I added the last part …]   And if the person believed, God did.  When was the last time fear prevented a miracle in your life?

This year at Francis Asbury I want us to be alert to the possibility of surprises as we, on December 3 – the first Sunday of Advent – offer a tangible expression of faith as to how much we will give monthly to the Lord in 2018.  In addition to all other commitments for 2018, this one needs to be among our priorities.  We think about and we budget for all our living expenses from the house mortgage to how much we are going to spend on Christmas.  On December 3 we’re going to decide how much we’re going to spend on God.

Miracles can still happen … even in modern-day America.  Even in our age of enlightenment and reason, I believe God is still in the miracle business, and that includes our personal finances.

The truth is, United Methodists don’t talk about money a lot; we’re kind of lackadaisical about money as we are about church attendance, about Bible study, and about sin.  But the truth also is that for most of us it is a miracle that we make ends meet year in and year out.  Unlike Washington, D.C., we can’t just print more money or borrow from China, and yet somehow as individuals, we make it.

On December 3, remember that miracles still happen in God’s world, and just as God’s generosity to you year in and year out is a miracle, our commitment to giving this year may be larger than ever before, or miracle of miracles, we may commit for the first time on December 3 … sign the dotted line.  And you know the first time is the hardest.

On paper, it may not add up.  After paying your other bills there is simply not enough left over for God. We convince ourselves that God will understand, and I’m  sure He does.  After all, God is all-knowing, right?  So surely God understands our capitalist, free-market system, right?  We are a Christian nation … a “city on a hill” … so surely God understands why and how our money is gone even before we get it.

Yes, I do believe God understands our personal finances because He gave us whatever resources we have.   God determines our income;   we’re the ones controlling our expenses.  We’re the ones responding to the advertising and to keeping up with the Jones. We’re the ones deciding what we want, versus what we need.

No, I don’t believe God punishes us if we don’t give enough like the IRS punishes us if we don’t give enough.  But I do believe we punish ourselves by missing out on the miracles of generosity.  We lose out when we are no longer surprised by what God can do with a little … when we are no longer surprised to see God multiply the loaves and fishes.  If we’re missing out on miracles, life becomes a rat race, a dog-eat-dog world, dull, and life becomes eeking it out month after month, payday to payday.  It’s a shame when we’re no longer surprised by miracles in the most blessed and the freest nation in history.

Please be ready for a season of miracles this Advent in your home and here at Francis Asbury.  Miracles didn’t stop when Jesus was killed.  They only stopped when people stopped believing in them.  Miracles ceased when people stopped looking for them and seeing them.  Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth thou hast for me …

Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant Founding Father and renaissance type guy.  When it came to religion, he famously cut out the miracle stories of Jesus;  he literally cut and pasted a more streamlined edition of the New Testament.  Jefferson admired a lot about Jesus but did not buy into the miracles unsupported by science and reason.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and didn’t see anything wrong with it.  Maybe unbelief in the supernatural was why Constitutional  Convention delegates didn’t consider and count a slave as a full person (they were 3/5 a person), and why they did not extend the right of liberty and justice, and the pursuit of happiness to all Americans … say women for example.  Maybe such blessings of true equality and freedom are miracles … the kind of supernatural actions Jefferson cut out of the Bible with his scissors.

Perhaps a miracle is the only way to describe the transformation in heart and mind of abolitionists such as former slave trader John Newton and our own John Wesley, who led the way in England to end slavery … a century before Americans ended slavery.

Be sure in the season ahead … the season of gratitude and giving and plenty … that you recognize and appreciate the material miracles that have occurred in your life.  Be sure to recognize and appreciate the miracles that tithing may produce in your life, in the life of your family, and in the life of Francis Asbury.

It’s a miracle when church members give when we don’t have to.  It’s a miracle each time a church member increases his or her giving from the year before.  It’s a miracle to witness what can happen when church members seriously pray about and honor their financial commitment to the church, in addition to giving their time and talents.

When you look at the renovation of this building (and it not costing us a red cent or a minute of our labor, and when you look at the total transformation of the sanctuary, there is no doubt God is still in the miracle business.  Are you?  On December 3 we will know.

Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) was promoted to Honorary Corporal in the United States Marines after serving as Private First Class for over thirty years.  Sometimes miracles such as that are a long time coming, but they come if we wait long enough and if we do our part.  Gomer’s response at the ceremony, after a salute:  Well, gol-ly!  I hope on December 3 God shouts, “Well, gol-ly!” And it’s alright if you, after being faithful and patient, after doing your part, receive a miracle in your life, to shout out to God, “Well, gol-ly!”  But it’s really no surprise because you and I believe God is still in the miracle business.

Let us stand now and sing Open My Eyes, That I May See as a reminder to look for miracles in our lives.

What I’ve Learned Since October 26

Preparing for this moment has been a learning experience for me … some lessons learned for the first time … some which needed a reminder and reinforced … some lessons which hadn’t hit home in a while. And, boy, let me tell you, a funeral service is a good time and place for things to hit home.
I hope your pastor is always learning and growing regardless of his or her age; I hope your sons and daughters never stop learning and growing, regardless of age.
Here is some of what I’ve learned or have been reminded of since Thursday morning, October 26, when Mom was found ill and disoriented in her bed at Sunrise Senior Living in Baton Rouge.
I

First, I learned once again how finite and fleeting time is, and how time is something we cannot reclaim and use again. We must seize each moment, each opportunity, each kiss and each hug.
You might find this lesson odd when discussing someone passing after 88 years and nine months on this earth. There was more than enough time for everything you wanted to say and do. And that’s true. But a funeral service – even for someone 88, and even for someone who lived within a mile or two from me for over sixty years – still teaches us that time is finite and fleeting. It always runs out, leaving us wanting more.
For Mom, and for each of us, those 88 years were over so quickly, so suddenly and so unexpectedly, and it may be for you or someone you love. So be prepared, and seize each moment. Don’t take anyone or any time for granted. We won’t always have the person and the time around. Or heaven, we may not be around. How many much younger friends and family members preceded Mom in death, suddenly and unexpectedly?
Melanie and I had lunch with Mom each Sunday. Sometimes I kissed her on the forehead as I left the table; sometimes I did not. After our last Sunday lunch, I did not. On the day before she became ill, I had taken one of her fellow residents to play piano at another facility. When we returned, I thought about going upstairs to say hello to Mom, but I did not. If I had, perhaps I would have noticed something different about her, or perhaps she would have said something that made me realize she was not feeling well, and that something bad was about to happen. I’ll never know.
I don’t beat myself up over the past, but I do try to use what I learn from the past for the future, and I urge you to do the same.
For Christmas, 1971, I gave Mom a daily diary, or calendar, for 1972. You say, “Wow, Dave [I was Dave, or ‘Little Dave’ to Mom from day one], you knocked yourself out with that present!” But actually, this was a special diary: I had hand-written poetry or song lyrics or a quotation for each day in 1972. Friday, May 26th’s entry was on mind then, and it was on my mind Thursday, October 26, 2017. It is song lyrics from David Gates and his band, Bread: “Is there someone you know? You’re loving them so, but taking their love for granted. You may lose them one day. Someone takes them away, and they don’t hear the words you long to say.”

II

Secondly, I learned in Mom’s death that we can learn a lot about a person from what she leaves behind that others find and see as we clean out their house, their apartment, or their room.
In Mom’s case, some words she wrote down, some exclamation points here and there, some newspaper clippings torn out –never cut with scissors, but torn out – [ Mom was the only resident at Sunrise who read three papers: the Shreveport Times, the Bossier Press-Tribune and the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate] — things left behind taught me some attributes about Mom that I didn’t know or fully appreciate.
Mom left some neat things behind, including very importantly, my sisters and me. And she left behind in us more than just being height-challenged! If Maureen Melville touched your life in any way, she left something behind in you as well. One person I visited with this week remembered an act of kindness from Mom in 1974. He hadn’t seen her a great deal since then, but acts of kindness have a way of hanging around. Another person remembered an incident from May 21, 1984. She hadn’t seen Mom a great deal since then either, but the memory of that particular morning is as new and fresh as the morning sun.
Mom definitely left behind something at Sunrise Senior Living Center that we didn’t cart away and give to the Salvation Army: the feelings of warmth and friendship and conversation before October 26 by residents and staff, and the grief, sadness and genuine missing her presence by residents and staff since October 26, is palpable indeed. As Mom would iterate and reiterate, even at 88 she was the youngest there, she was the leader of the band, and she was the only sane one there. The Medical Director at Sunrise was visibly shaken by her death and told me he had never before felt the way he felt at Miss Maureen’s passing. And he has seen a lot of people pass away.
What will you leave behind? Your legacy matters and will influence others and hang around longer than you realize. On another of those yellowed pieces of paper found in Mom’s possessions were the words, “All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds we sow today.” The beautiful flower you were given as you entered the chapel today is only beautiful because someone sowed its seed in the recent past. Who knows when? It only matters that it helps us remember Mom and lifts our spirits today.

III

A third lesson I’ve learned in what has taken place since October 26 has to do with love. I don’t go as far as the man in the moon from Conway Twitty’s song, who sang, “I don’t know a thing about love,” but from watching you all in your relationship with Mom, and in your response to her illness and death, I need to learn more about unconditional, agape, Christ-like love. My love is too often dutiful love, as in the words of the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” But that Old Testament love was expanded by Jesus to mean loving one another, warts and all. Mom had her warts; we all do. There’s probably a country song about warts.
In Conway Twitty’s song, the man in the moon doesn’t claim to know when love will grow or when love will die. The man in the moon acknowledges being able to move oceans’ tides and influence nature, but he admits that “in all matters human, remember there’s someone in charge of those things way above you and I.”
Jesus knew a thing or two about love. He lived it on earth, He lived it while dying, and He left us a good lesson to follow in our relationships with family members, with neighbors, with strangers, and even those belonging to a different church denomination, or to a different political party! Love one another.

IV

And the final thing I’ve learned in saying good-bye to my mother is the same thing I’ve learned in saying good-bye in every funeral or memorial service I have officiated: eternity awaits us, which is a lot longer than 88 years, and we ought to prepare for eternity with just as much thought and effort as we prepare for each milestone in life. Why do I have to be reminded about that mystery and that reality at every funeral service I have the honor and the privilege of officiating?
Mom had a long, full life. She had the privilege of growing up in a large, loving family … twelve brothers and sisters. I don’t think she even knew the name of her oldest sister and what she looked like, there were so many years apart! She had the privilege of getting an education, marrying, having children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Along the way, Mom took care of her spiritual business as well. One of those notes in her handwriting with an exclamation point, and left behind in Room 216, said succinctly, “God’s gift of love to us all is eternal life!”
Mom was a believer and gave Jos, CeCe and me the chance to believe. I have often said, including in her presence, that I am a pastor in large part because of her … although she probably would have preferred me to be a Southern Baptist!
Pastor Rick Warren has influenced millions with his book, The Purpose Driven Life. Like so many, I quickly purchased a copy to find the answer … to find the purpose in life. Yes! Finally, the purpose in life would be explained, simply and easy to understand. The Holy Grail! Would Rick reveal that success in a particular non-religious vocation should be our purpose? Would it be answering the call to ordained ministry? But would that mean preaching, or serving as a missionary somewhere far away? Is our purpose in life to cloister ourselves away in a monastery? Warren’s simple answer surprised me: our purpose in life … whether one day in the neonatal intensive care unit, or 88 years in the state of Louisiana, is to know and serve God and to prepare for meeting God one day in heaven. Life is a dress rehearsal, if you will, for the real play. This week Melanie and I attended our grandchildren Caroline and Emma’s school play. This semester has been consumed by rehearsal after rehearsal, and then, finally, the real play. Another death – this time, of my own mother – has reminded me that her life … my life … your life … is simply a rehearsal for what’s to come. Let’s start practicing today!

REFORMATION SUNDAY!

FRANCIS ASBURY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

BATON ROUGE, LA

OCTOBER 29, 2017

Reverend David Melville

 

This Tuesday, we not only celebrate Halloween – whatever that means.  It increasingly seems odd to see All Hallows’ Eve and All Souls’ Day hijacked by scary, as well as non-scary costumes, a sugar feast and office/store hours changed.  Is it a bank and postal holiday?  Also on Tuesday, even though less known, we United Methodists and other Protestants should celebrate Reformation Day  and Martin Luther’s part in the Reformation.  But we rarely do.  Let’s do so today, and let’s do so Tuesday.

Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483, in Germany, at a time when there was one church, the Roman Catholic Church, as had been the case since Jesus was crucified.  Luther was born into an educated, middle-class family, who wanted their son to become a lawyer.  Luther excelled in academics and started on that path, but quickly had a change of heart.  Part of the change was ignited by almost being struck by lightning in a terrible storm.  Very similar to the terrible storm at sea which our denomination’s founder, John Wesley, experienced and started him questioning his faith and lack of courage and peace, which some other Christians on the ship had in the same terrifying conditions.   Maybe there were some spiritual transformations and “come to Jesus” moments born out of Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Irma.  Who knows?

I say “part of the change was ignited by Luther’s almost being struck by lightning”  because I believe that Luther had already been searching for something which reason and intellect alone did not provide.  At any rate, Luther made a bargain with God that if he survived the storm, he would become a monk.  God did His part, and Luther did his, and did so in the manner of Francis of Assisi, who, you remember, exchanged his comfortable middle-class life as a student for the harsh, ascetic, masochistic life of a Medieval monk. Luther’s father couldn’t believe it, was furious and believed that his son was wasting the education he had received to that point.

As a Catholic monk, Luther did continue his education but studied theology rather than law.  He became a professor of theology in Wittenberg, Germany.  Luther was serving the church but was disappointed when the sale of indulgences came to his home province.  Call it buying lottery tickets, or chits, or I.O.U. notes … or indulgences … call it what you want … but if as a good Catholic you paid such tribute, you could pay for forgiveness of sins for yourself or others … even those in purgatory.  Additionally, part of the proceeds would go to building the massive, magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Luther and others became incensed at such practices, but it was Luther who had the courage and boldness to publicly and passionately oppose them.  He started the discussion by posting 95 grievances, or questions, on the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg. (They didn’t have chat rooms or other social media platforms back then.)

With his questions and polemics, Martin Luther, a lowly monk, and professor, was challenging none other than Pope Leo X and Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, about assumptions and premises active since the beginning of the church. Because he never recanted his challenges, Martin Luther was eventually ex-communicated, but at least he was not burned at the stake,  as were other heretics who challenged authority.  I believe the only reason he was not burned lay in Luther’s being protected by a local prince, whose political support was coveted by both Pope Leo X and Emperor Charles V.  They could not afford to make Prince Frederick mad, so they did not kill Luther.  Of course, ex-communication, which meant the destination of Hell, could be considered a pretty stiff punishment. Like burning the flag, your draft card or bra, Martin Luther burned the Pope’s ex-communication papers and called Pope Leo X the Antichrist.

What were the major notions that Martin Luther came to believe in, and the Catholic authorities did not?

First, that one could not buy or work one’s way into heaven; the only way and reason we make it to heaven is by the unmerited grace of God.  This is called justification by faith, not works.  The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages had taught that salvation was possible through good works, or works of righteousness.  Martin Luther taught that salvation and eternal life are not earned by good deeds, but are received only as the free gift of God’s grace through belief in and faith in Jesus Christ as our redeemer from sin. Indeed, Luther argued that “every good work designed to attract God’s favor is a sin.”  Darn it!        We cannot achieve salvation by our own acts.  And very importantly, forgiveness is God’s alone to grant … not a priest … not even the Pope.

Appreciating God’s gift of grace, rather than living under the pressure of pleasing God by your own efforts, brings a peace beyond all understanding.  It brings a peace that I hope each of you have experienced, and are experiencing now.  If you are not, let’s talk.  Before Luther received that peace he felt deep, sorrowful despair.  He said, “I lost touch with Christ the savior and comforter, and made  him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.”

John Wesley, appearing to be a fulfilled, happy priest for the Church of England, and like Luther, an esteemed university professor, was not at peace as he went to America for his one and only journey there. He groaned, “I went to save America, but, oh, who will save me?” As a “PK” (preacher’s kid), as a member of Oxford University’s “Holy Club,” which gave him daily practice and discipline at being and doing good, and as a priest who followed his priestly checklist, Mr. Wesley finally, at age 35, came to realize that all his good deeds and works would not save him or produce inner peace.  And you remember what preceded that moment on May 24, 1738, when his heart was strangely warmed, and he entrusted his salvation to the grace of Jesus Christ alone: it was hearing someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans. John Wesley and Martin Luther: related in many ways, though separated by centuries.  Both great men of God learned the hard way that true repentance and forgiveness does not require self-inflicted punishment, but rather, a change of heart.  Both great men of God had had their lives turned upside down by the same verse, Romans 1:17  … “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”[Habakkuk 2:4]

So justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone was the first principal associated with Martin Luther and the Reformation.  That doesn’t sound so radical today; back then it was.

Secondly, Luther challenged the Pope’s authority over revealing God.  Luther came to believe that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God.  Revelation does not flow through an intermediary.  Luther expressed, “I do not trust either the Pope or councils alone since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves.”   [insert German for “ouch” here!]

In an effort to make holy scripture more important in revelation than one man, Luther translated the Bible into common German vernacular, thereby making God’s inspired writing accessible to more people.  Thus he was a precursor to the English translations to come, which resulted in burning at the stake for some translators.  Again, I guess you’d say Martin Luther led a charmed life because he was not burned at the stake for his translation.

Finally, Martin Luther considered all baptized Christians to be a holy priesthood.  You and I are equal to the Pope.  With that comes greater freedom, but also greater responsibility.

This controversial German monk left his imprint in several other ways.  He wrote hymns which influenced development of singing in the now-called “Protestant” churches.  Charles Wesley did as well many years later, but Martin Luther was first.  We sang one of Luther’s great hymns, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” to open today’s service.

Another imprint from Luther was the new concept of married clergy.  We can’t fully grasp the reality that for fourteen hundred years there had been none.  When Luther was ex-communicated he was free to marry.  For a while I guess he ascribed to St. Paul’s views on marriage and celibacy for religious vocations, and as Luther explained, for the longest time he thought he would be arrested, tried and martyred for heresy.  Why put a wife though that?  But in the end, he married a former nun, and by all accounts, he was a good husband, in contrast to John Wesley, who also married later in life, and was not the most affectionate, caring or considerate husband. At any rate, Melanie is very appreciative of that particular contribution by Martin Luther:  married Protestant clergy.

One can agree to disagree with the Protestant legacies Martin Luther left us – millions upon millions of Catholics certainly have disagreed, and quite a few Popes through the years – but there is one legacy of Luther that I hope all  — Protestants and Catholics — are united in renouncing: the scourge of anti-Semitism.  For some reason, Luther had a disgusting antagonism toward Jews.  He wrote that Jewish homes and synagogues should be destroyed, their money confiscated and their liberty curtailed. He simply had no use for Jews after seeing early in his ministry that they were not going to convert to Christianity, and he encouraged harm upon them.  As Protestants, you need to acknowledge that you know this about Martin Luther.  But as he himself asserted, do not believe blindly or exclusively in one man or woman, for they have often erred and contradicted themselves.  Believe in the Bible alone.

Well, there you have it … but not completely.  It is not enough to simply have a history lesson on one of the most significant demarcations in religious thought and action.  And it certainly has not been my intention to bash another church — or as the Roman Catholics would call it – the Church.  What is most important to reflect upon about the Protestant Reformation remains how it helps us to live each day, and how we are preparing for eternity each day.

Even though we may, through the Reformation, have freed ourselves from control by a complex hierarchy led by one person considered to be infallible, and by clergy who are considered to be literally Christ on earth, rather than as we believe, Christ’s representatives on earth; even though we may have freed ourselves from laws, rituals, and rites similar in scope to Judaic Law; and even though we have freed ourselves from work requirements for benefits, so to speak; let us never forget or forfeit the grace that has replaced whatever needed to be replaced by the Protestant Reformation. When we forget or fail to appreciate … take for granted … a free, undeserved gift, or the source of our gifts, it’s called “cheap” grace.  Ironically, it took another German by the name of Bonhoeffer,  hundreds of years after a German monk (who had his own need of grace to forgive his failures and shortcomings) to remind us that grace is certainly not cheap, and that Jesus Christ paid a heavy price for that grace in our lives.   And that’s another sermon for another day:  “Cheap Grace.”

As we sing our closing hymn, Amazing Grace, let us appreciate the five-hundred-year legacy of the Protestant Reformation, let us appreciate the free gift of God’s grace and what that means, but let us also pledge, in the process of enjoying our free gift, to not overlook all that Jesus is still asking of us in terms of our relationship with Him and with others.  As Protestants, we are free in a lot of ways, but we are not free from love.

CLOSING HYMN: Amazing Grace

WHERE IS GOD?

Francis Asbury United Methodist Church

Baton Rouge, LA

Reverend David Melville

Sunday, October 22, 2017

SCRIPTURE:  Matthew 22: 15-22

 

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.  They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.  “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  You aren’t swayed by men because you pay no attention to who they are.  Tell us then, what is your opinion?  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?  Show me the coin used for paying the tax.”  They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed.  So they left him and went away.

 

Jesus’ interrogators had a new question for Jesus: “Do we pay taxes to Caesar?”  That is the same as us asking today, October 22, 2017, “Do we pay taxes to the IRS?”   Well “duh!”  Try not paying. See how that works out for you.  Most of us are not in the category of “too big to fail,” and most of us don’t receive bailouts when we fall behind.

Jesus knew that those standing in front of Him were up to no good, and – like high school students who run and snitch on someone who has said something bad about the school administration – the Pharisees wanted to gleefully tell the Roman authorities that Jesus had come out for stopping paying taxes to Caesar.  After all, Jesus was talking about a new kingdom and a new way of thinking.  Sometimes Jesus acted as if He were the new sheriff in town.  It seemed as if Jesus were setting Himself up in opposition to the tax-supported authorities.  But to the deep disappointment of Judas, Simon the Zealot and many others, He was not.

Like Jesus, I don’t want to grumble and gripe this morning about the amount of taxes we pay. We will always pay taxes; it is the cost of a free society.   I’ve always suggested to my members: “Don’t worry about things you can’t control.”  Of course as Americans, we can try to control taxes by our vote and by any sacrifices of time we are willing to make to help shape public policy, but in the end, we must obey the law.  We must pay our taxes.

Like Jesus, though, I want to propose an additional angle about paying taxes:  “Give to God what is God’s.” Debating and deciding that question should engage us our entire lives.  It is a harder challenge than paying the IRS because we are not forced to give to God under penalty of law.  We ought to want to give; we ought to be a cheerful giver.

One way to determine how to “give to God what is God’s” is to ask another question when it comes to our spending:  “Where is God?” Do you see God in your spending?   It is said, “The Devil is in the details.”  Then where is God in the details?    Where is God in our spending priorities and patterns?  Do we see God in our checkbook and in our bank statements?  Should not God permeate it all? I believe God should, and I believe we can ensure that God does.

As I have said many times before, if we treat our faith, our spirituality, our giving as a zero-sum game, God loses out.  Most of us are overwhelmed with bills, and with constant demands on our time.  We all wear many hats. If we parcel out our resources and our time to various entities, we quickly run out of both.

But God is not just another entity.   Following God by following His Son, Jesus Christ, is not a zero-sum game.  We don’t give to God instead of giving to something or someone else; our giving to God should control every aspect of our life.  Giving to God gives us focus rather than frustration, and provides a guard against feeling what most of us have experienced at one time or another:  futility.  There is never enough time; there is never enough money.  But there is always enough God.

I remember in college hearing for the first time pundits talk about “guns vs. butter”  in a country’s economics.  It is one way to characterize a nation’s spending … how much it spends on its military, and how much it spends on social needs.   There is always a tension between the two.

But the “guns vs. butter” debate does not apply to our relationship with God.  That debate lies within the realm of Caesar.  In God’s economy, God’s likeness is on the coins of both guns and butter.

Where is God in war?  Each side in the Civil War believed God was on its side.  Today in the Middle East quagmire, each side believes it has God’s favor.  Where is God in the number and nature of guns the Second Amendment allows us to possess?  If we keep God out of the equation, we lose out as individuals and as a society.

Where is God in the estimated $9.1 billion that Americans will spend on candy, costumes, and decorations for Halloween this time around?   Where else could that $9.1 billion be helpful?  Where else could that $9.1 billion be God?

Figuring out and paying taxes is easier than figuring out and paying what we owe God.  We may think that figuring out our taxes is hard, and paying our taxes is a burden, but it should pale in comparison to figuring out and paying our obligations to God.

And do you know another difference in paying taxes to Caesar and giving to God what is God’s?   We can’t hire a third party to decide what we owe God.  There is no H and R Block to advise us on giving to God.    We must decide ourselves, and I believe Jesus would say we should give everything to God, as God has given us everything.  It doesn’t mean that our time and resources disappear, or that they go down a rat hole.  It means that we see God in everything we do and spend.    Like the ancients, we have a man’s (and sometimes, rarely, a woman’s!) likeness on our coinage.  But for the Christian, God’s likeness is on every coin.

With God’s coinage, we don’t fret as much about return on investment. But you ask, preacher, didn’t Jesus tell stories  about the wealthy who entrusted their money to others in the owner’s  absence, and who were very angry upon learning when they returned home that some had not cared sufficiently about investing and multiplying their money, and had been scared enough of risk that they literally buried their allotment?  I suggest that Jesus was saying that God did not, and does not, want to be buried in the ground, out of sight and out of our lives. Follow the money!

With God’s coinage, we don’t divide our expenditures into “guns and butter,” because everything we spend and do should be for God’s glory.  Does that sound too radical, or does that sound like something Jesus would say?

As with our taxes, a lot of us try to find loopholes in our giving to God.  We debate the gross versus the net and wind up giving neither.

We use the “but I am only human” card; “Nobody’s perfect. Thanks be to God, I am forgiven.”

Sometimes we’re singing and bopping to the chirpy, bouncy song by Cindy Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” [Now I know what I’m going to be humming all afternoon!]  Aren’t we supposed to enjoy life?  What’s wrong with that?  “Pastor, haven’t you seen the sketch of the laughing Jesus?  Criticize Halloween?  Party pooper! Does God have to be in everything?”  Yes, if we want to have enough.

As children, and even as adults, we cry, “Well others are not paying their fair share, so why should I? Others are spending selfishly and getting away with it, so why can’t I?”   I remember one time pulling into the terminal area at the New Orleans airport to pick up someone. Of course, the passenger I was meeting had not arrived yet, so I tried to just wait in a space, lying low and acting like I could see them coming. I put on my flashers.    A couple of cars in front of me were doing the same maneuver, or so it seemed.  An ever-present security guard shooed me along, and I protested, probably in a whiny, high-pitched voice, “Well they’re doing it; why can’t I?  Make them move too.”  The security guard retorted, “What are you, in kindergarten?”  It was then that I realized how foolish and childish I had sounded.  Just because others were violating the parking rules did not give me the right to.  Just because others are spending foolishly and giving to everything but God does not give us the license to do so.

Remember how the rich young ruler ticked off all the things he was doing for and giving to God, but Jesus basically told him, “Give more; give it all.”   And Jesus didn’t say give so much to the synagogue building fund, and so much to the retired rabbis’ pension fund,  or to the Passover Feast food and decorations budget.  Jesus didn’t say give anything to Himself; no, Jesus said to give it all to the orphans and the widows and to the poor.  Maybe He said this because Jesus knew that the synagogue, the retired rabbis, and the Passover Feast would be just fine and taken care of as they had always been.  He wasn’t so sure about the orphans and the widows and the poor.

Remember how Herod himself – Herod, who didn’t have the best reputation in the Gospels – Herod himself had built the second Temple after the first one – the one built by Solomon—had been destroyed.  The new Temple was even larger and grander than before. But for some reason, there were orphans and dependent widows and poor people outside the Temple walls during Herod’s reign. Somebody wasn’t completely giving to God what was God’s.

Since the days of Moses, no priests had died of starvation;   the priests had an uncanny way of survival. Jesus could see firsthand that those attending religious services were doing alright, as are we in this room this morning.  But that wasn’t the case for everyone outside on the street.  Hence, Jesus’ admonishment to the rich young ruler, “Give God what is God’s; give it all.” Because God was within those people on the streets.

I guess what Jesus is teaching is that in Caesar’s world people had to deal with such things as taxes, percentages, weights and measures and limits.  But in God’s world, we don’t get bogged down in analysis and projections and limits, for we would be worrying about the wrong things. Just as God gave it all for us in the person of His Son, we must give our all.  Only then will we find where God is.   When do we find God?  When do we give God what is God’s?  When we give it all.

 

Featured Image Source: By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24821148