Saturday, February 29, 2020

Year A, Lent 1, Matthew 4.1-11

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Many years ago during my first call at Thompson Falls, MT, we were experiencing the struggles of a small congregation trying to support a full time pastor with all the financial obligations that go along with that. 
Those struggles resulted in significant conflict along the way.
It’s hard for a pastor in such situations.  The most difficult thing is that we often take far too much responsibility for what is happening.  When things are going well we pat ourselves upon the back. 
But when things are not going well it is tempting to think “I have failed.”
And with that feeling of having failed come shame, and guilt, even depression.
It was during one of those difficult times where we were struggling financially and conflict ensued that my Bishop, Mark Ramseth, offered one of the best pastoral words I’ve ever received.
The words were simple.
But the lesson was powerful and important.
“Dave,” he said, “this is not about you.”
The temptation, you see, is always to believe that everything that happens is somehow a referendum on me.
Here we are at Peace Lutheran.
We too, have our struggles.
And as your pastor, the temptation remains to think that it’s all about me.
That happens in both good and bad situations.
When we, against all odds, do very well financially, it is tempting to think that “I must be a fine pastor.”
But when finances are not so good, the temptation is to believe “I have failed as a pastor.”
When a new member comes to our congregation, I am tempted to think “Yes, I’m good at this!”
But when a family leaves the congregation it is so easy to feel personal rejection and failure.
And then the words of my bishop come back to me.
“Dave, this is not about you.”
For good, or for bad, this is not about you.

Jesus was tempted.
As he began his ministry, following his baptism, he went into the desert to fast and pray.
There the tempter came to meet him.
Satisfy your hunger.
Throw yourself from the temple and watch the angels save you.
Worship me, and I will give you all the nations of the world.
“If you are the Son of God,” were the devil’s words.
If you are the Son of God. . .
                Then prove it.
Do these things and demonstrate it.

“If you are the Son of God”, with these words the Devil tempted Jesus to make it all about him.
That’s what I noticed during my studies this week.
That each of the temptations was for Jesus to make it about him.  His hunger.  His safety.  His success.
When I was growing up in Irene, SD people would gather occasionally for family reunions.  And one of the things that they often did as part of those family reunions was to have a worship service.
It was on one such occasion that I was attending the family reunion of one of my friends, Claire Fagerhaug, out on the farm.
Connie, Claire’s mother, gathered us kids together and formed a children’s choir.
The song she chose for us to sing was “He Could Have Called, Ten Thousand Angels.”
The chorus for that song is:
“He could have called ten thousand angels
To destroy the world (the world) and set Him free
He could have called ten thousand angels
But He died alone (alone) for you and me.”
In other words, Jesus could have made it all about him, but instead, he died for you and me.
The point is, Jesus’ own life and ministry was not to be about him, but us.
The devil tempted Jesus to make it about him, but he wouldn’t bite.

Making it all about us.
Making it all about me.
That’s still the temptation.

For us as a congregation that can be a temptation.  A real temptation.
For a while my daughter Katie was involved in a mega-Church out in Puyallup, WA.
I was skeptical about this congregation, as I tend to be about all “Mega-Churches”, but I learned a lot from her involvement.
They did some things right.  I commend them.
One of the things they did right was with respect to their Sunday worship.
Everything they did on Sunday morning was not about them, as a congregation, or about the pastor.
Everything they did was focused on the first time visitor.
Their hospitality for the visitor began with parking attendants, people greeting newcomers, and the entire content of the service and sermon.
Their ministry was not about them, but about the “outsider” seeking a spiritual home.
One example of that is that the sermons were written in such a manner as to appeal to someone with no background in the Christian church, whatsoever.
So much so that one of the criticisms they received is that there is not much on Sunday for a mature Christian.  Their response is that they have Bible Studies and services every night of the week.  Mature Christians should be coming to them.  Sunday mornings are for the visitor.
We are not a mega-Church.
We are a small, struggling little congregation. 
It’s tempting to make it all about us.
We welcome new people because WE need more members.
We focus on our own financial needs and survival.
And we do things OUR way, because that’s the way we like it.
Or at least that’s the temptation.  To  make it about us.
“Dave, this is not about you.”
Those were the words of my bishop.
Jesus was tempted to make it all about him.
And we are tempted to make it all about us.

God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love and serve all in our local and global community.
I love our mission statement.
Because it is not about us.  It’s about others.
The challenge for us as a congregation is to keep this mission in front of us and not fall prey to the temptation to make it about us.
If we make it about us as a congregation we will die.
If we welcome, love and serve others it will not matter what happens to us, because it is not about us.  What matters is whether we can make a difference in this world. 
Can we be the voice of the Gospel?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not an organizational principle for the development of congregations.  That is, the Gospel is not here to serve the Church.
Rather, the Church is here to serve the Gospel.
If you want to talk about success, then I’d put it this way:
The success of our congregation, or any congregation, is not whether they thrive numerically or financially, but whether they share the love of Christ with one another.

One of the often overlooked parts of the Gospel lesson for today is the last verse:
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Jesus resisted all the devil’s attempts to make it about him, and then the angels came and cared for him.
Likewise, if we resist the temptation to make our ministry about us, and reach out instead to others, God will take care of us.
The angels will wait on us.
Here is the irony.
Our needs will be met, but only in as much as we serve others.
If we are in it for ourselves, we will fail.
Jesus’ final rebuke of Satan was with these words:
“‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”
It’s not about us.
It’s about loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as our self.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Jesus Only, Year A, Transfiguration Sunday, Matthew 17:1-9

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
There are a lot of people out there that want to be Moses for us.
And there are a lot of people out there that would claim to be Elijah.
But only one Jesus. 
Only one Jesus.
Moses gave us the Law, the teachings of God.
Elijah was the great prophet.
And in their spirit there are those who would like to be givers of the Law, or to speak words of exhortation and warning, as the prophets did.
To be a Christian is to live under the freedom of the Gospel.
As Paul writes in Galations 5:  For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
And then again:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self- indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
To walk in the way of Christ is to walk in the way of love, and to do so in perfect freedom.
Too often we have lost sight of Jesus, who set us free.
And rather than live in the freedom of the Gospel we have chosen to pitch our tent with Moses, high on the mountain.
We hear God’s word, not as the liberating news that it is, but rather as a master’s demands that keep us in bondage in slavery.
We hear God’s word as law.
We hear God’s word as a never ending list of what we have to do.
Love one another as I have first loved you.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is only one question we need ask in any circumstance and that is what would be loving.
But so many refuse to leave it as that.
So many want to make love into a law.
So many would enslave us once again by rejecting the Gospel and the freedom that is at its core.
One of the most insidious ways we turn love into a law is when we add the word “tough” to it.
Tough love.
You know how that goes.
I love you, and because I love you, I’m going to demand certain things of you for your own benefit.
Tough love.
I will make you suffer the consequences of your actions.
I will forbid you from doing many things, all for your good.
I will seek to protect you from yourself.
I will be your Moses.
In the name of tough love people have been condemned.
In the name of tough love people have been marginalized and persecuted.
It’s a slippery slope from “tough love” to hatred, hatred clothed in the language of love the sinner, hate the sin.
But, for example, you cannot claim to love a black person at the same time you despise everything about being black.
Love is the fulfillment of the law.
And love sets us free from the demands of the Law.
That’s Jesus.
Love your neighbor.
Love as I have loved you.
And the disciples looked up and “saw no one except Jesus himself alone”.

Elijah also stood by Jesus on the mountain.
And there are many who would follow Elijah and the prophets.
A prophet.
In our world today a lot of people think of prophets as predictors of the future.
Prophecies abound.
People think, for example, that if you just unravel the words of the prophets you will be able to predict, for example, when the world will come to an end.  Many have and they lived to see they were wrong.
In this vein people have written books and made millions predicting the end of times.
Hal Lindsey and the “Late Great Planet Earth” for example.
And the more recent “Left Behind” series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
I am humored by one thought.
Did these people invest their earnings from the books in the stock market?  Or did they truly believe the world was coming to an end and not concern themselves with long range investing because they wouldn’t need it anyway?
What the prophets actually did was not so much to predict the future, but to critique the present and tell of the consequences of people’s behavior.
Theirs was often a word of warning, but also a word of hope.
The prophets, like Isaiah for example, would tell the people what they could expect as a consequence of their actions.
But they also spoke of the hope that is ours because of a loving and gracious God.
The prophets were closely aligned with Moses.
Their word of warning and judgement flowed out of the Law.
The truth of their words lies in the fact that actions have consequences.
We understand this, though sometimes we don’t heed those warnings.
Packs of cigarettes all have warning labels on them.
People still buy them.
People like me, during my drinking days, get intoxicated.
The root word of “intoxicated” is toxin, that is ‘poisonous’.
  I’m finding out about that now.
My ten years of heavy drinking may have left me with significant neuropathy in my legs, nerves deadened by the toxicity of the alcohol I consumed.
I heard the warnings about alcohol, but never thought that it would apply to me.
Well, actions have consequences, and you just can’t drink as much as I drank without experiencing the consequences.
That’s the type of message the prophets preached.
What is the consequence of your actions.
But where prophecy goes wrong is regarding our relationship to the Father.
In Second Timothy it is written:
The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
And also, in Romans:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When we hear the prophet’s words and fear the rejection of our God, we have lost sight of Jesus.
We have pitched our tent on the mountain with Elijah.
We have enslaved ourselves to the consequences of our actions, both now and for eternity.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Whether it be Moses, the giver of the Law, or Elijah the prophet of God, their Words are of no avail except in as much as they lead us to Jesus, and Jesus alone.
It is the love that is ours in Christ Jesus that will rule, not only the day, but eternity.
And love sets us free.
It sets us free from our bondage to sin and death.
And it sets us free from the consequence of our actions.
Love, and love alone, can do that.
May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Year A, Epiphany 6, Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Matthew 5.21-37, Choose life

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
God grants us the freedom to choose, but the choice is between life and death.  Nevertheless it is still our choice.
Put in those terms, as Moses did, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose anything but life.  But it gets complicated.
In our world today it’s hard to hear these words about choosing life without calling to mind the whole debate concerning abortion and the way it’s been framed as a question of pro-Life or pro-Choice.
We all have heard the arguments on both sides.
The pro-Life people argue adamantly that the unborn child has a right to life, and that abortion is murder and should be banned.
The pro-Choice people maintain that a woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices, that is, to determine whether or not she gives birth to a child.
The way this issue has been formed, as a conflict between the rights of the mother versus the rights of the child, there will likely never been any consensus about what is right, though some of us may try.
Personally, I find myself in the middle.  I believe that it is indeed the right of the woman to choose what happens to her, but that the moral obligation in most circumstances is to choose life.
This is in keeping with the teaching of our Church on this matter.
Our social statement on abortion lifts up the sanctity of life and questions whether it is ever appropriate to talk about absolute rights.  In this regard, talking about a woman’s rights versus the rights of a fetus is simply wrong.  It’s not either or.
And our Church acknowledges that there are some situations where choosing abortion is morally justifiable.  Three situations are specifically mention: when a woman’s life is in jeopardy, when the fetus is not viable, and in cases of incest and rape.
But the abortion statement leans toward maintaining that these decisions are best made by those involved, weighing all the considerations. 
My point is that there is a middle ground, and I believe that it is Choose Life.  Namely, that the woman has the right to choose, but that the moral imperative is to choose life in most every circumstance.
Having said that, one of the criticisms of the pro-life position is that it is too often just a pro-birth position.  That is, there is so much more to life than simply birth.  And to advocate for life, is to advocate for those things that are crucial to life beyond the delivery room.  Caring for the child throughout that child’s life.
Moses put it this way.
We choose life “by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances.”
Today’s lessons are once again part of the holiness tradition.
Often times in our teaching we focus on confession and absolution.  And the Gospel is viewed almost entirely from the standpoint of what Jesus has done for us that we might be forgiven and saved.  He died to take away our sins.
The holiness tradition is different.
The holiness tradition begins with the supposition that how you live your life matters.
If you live and upright and Godly life you will experience enumerable blessings.
But if you abandon the ways of the Lord you will experience the consequences of those choices.
We have a choice.
But the choice is between life and death.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us about life and living.  And when we consider his teaching we quickly discover that Jesus was concerned not just about the letter of the law, but the Spirit of the law.  And also, in keeping with that, the choices we make will have consequences.
Consider his teaching on murder:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
What Jesus is saying here is that to choose life is more than simply not murdering someone.  It also involves how we treat one another.
In our highly polarized society, how often has anger, or insults, or accusations of foolishness been at the core of our behaviors?
Just watch the news.  Just watch the news.
Day after day, cutting one another down and showing one type of disrespect after another has become the norm.
Too often we fail to honor and respect one another.
I also believe that when we listen to Jesus teaching there are other implications.
Health care, for example.
I rather imagine that if Jesus was alive today he would say “It’s not enough that you do not murder.  You also should provide the healthcare that is essential to life.”
During one of our classes a while back the question was asked whether we determined what is sinful or not.
My response was “Yes, and no.”
Yes in that there are many things in our modern world that were not addressed in the Bible because they simply did not exist at the time.
But no in that it was Jesus taught us that we are to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves.
We are too love one another.
But what does love involve in a particular circumstance.
One example of an issue that goes beyond what the Bible addresses is the whole field of medical ethics.
There are choices today that the Bible could never have anticipated.
End of life choices, for example.
This is something that surprised me when I became a pastor.  I had no clue when I became a pastor how frequently life and death decisions are made at the end of a person’s life.
We are moving toward the day when every single death will involve a choice on our part.  When do we keep people alive at all cost, and when do we allow them to die.
When I entered the ministry, no one had prepared me for all the times that I would have to help people with the decision to let their loved one die.  Many times I was the one to tell the doctor to stop treatment.
Underlying those choices was always the question of what is the loving thing to do in that circumstance.  What is God’s will? 
Divorce is another issue that Jesus addresses that is very relevant to today.
It’s complicated.
There is a story told about a young man that approached Billy Graham with a question about divorce.  He explained that he and his wife just didn’t love each other anymore.  His question was whether God really wanted him to remain married to someone he didn’t love anymore.
Billy Graham replied “No, God doesn’t want you to be married to someone you don’t love, so get on your knees and pray that God will help you to love your wife again.”
So that is one side of the question.
But at the same time, marriage was never intended to be a prison.  Some marriages should end because of the abuse and harm that is part of the relationship.
The question is how can we best live in a health enduring relationship.
Here is where the Spirit of the Law and the Letter of the Law come into play.
One of the things that humors me is when people avoid getting married because they are afraid of getting divorced.  And so they just live together.
According to the letter of the law they will never have to divorce and feel that pain.
However, if their relationship comes to an end they will grieve just the same.
A relationship is a relationship, and God desires that we choose lifelong faithful relationships.  That is to choose life, not death.
Choices.  Life is full of them.
And the choices we make affect the quality of the lives we live.
We are free to choose, but the choice we make has consequences.
That’s life.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Year A, Ephiphany 5, Isaiah 58:1-12, A Godly Nation

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Following their return from Exile in Babylon the nation of Israel was in ruins, having been destroyed by Babylon a generation before, and now the Israelites were faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the nation.
Isaiah speaks to them at this time in their history.
In today’s lingo, he basically said:  “You want to make the nation great again?  Don’t bother yourselves with all your ‘religious rituals’ like fasting and such.  Do justice.  Obey the ordinances of God.  Then and only then, will the nation be great again.”
Taking Isaiah’s Word and applying it to our context it sounds like this:
“So you want to make America great again.”
“Quit giving lip service to God while ignoring his word and commandments.  Quit pretending to be religious and faithful and instead seek to do God’s will.”
And what is God’s will?
How would God have us act to restore the greatness of our nation?
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.
Just stop it, Isaiah says.
Humble yourselves.
. . .”loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free. . .
. . .share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
Do this, and America will be great again.

We live in a highly polarized and partisan age.
And there are those who will say that if we do this, if we feed the poor, bring the homeless into our homes, if we cloth the naked and attend to our families, if we quit pointing our finger at one another and speaking evil, if we end all oppression and injustice, then we are nothing but a socialist state.
And of course, it’s politically incorrect to promote socialism in some circles.
One of the movements in American politics is to embrace the concept of “democratic Socialism”.
I quote from an article in the Business Insider:
In general, socialists believe the government should provide a range of basic services to the public, such as health care and education, for free or at a significant discount. 
In the present day, "Democratic socialist" and "socialist" are often treated as interchangeable terms, which can be confusing given Democratic socialists don't necessarily think the government should immediately take control of all aspects of the economy.
They do, however, generally believe the government should help provide for people's most basic needs and help all people have an equal chance at achieving success.
Jesus had a few words that were similar to Isaiah’s and that also spoke to this notion that we should collectively work to provide for people’s most basic needs.
You know the passage.  It’s in Matthew 25:
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. ' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? ' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. ' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. ' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? ' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. ' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
So are Jesus and Isaiah socialists?
The answer to that is “No.”  You can’t put Jesus, or Isaiah, into any of our political boxes.  And we shouldn’t.
But on the other hand, in this teaching of Jesus he specifically says things about how our nation will be judged, things like feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.
If that sounds like socialism, then so be it.
But when Jesus said it, socialism didn’t exist as a political movement.
When Jesus said it, as when Isaiah said it before, it was not to conform to any particular political movement or ideology, nor was it about any form of governance.
Caring for the sick is a Godly thing.
Feeding the hungry is a Godly thing.
The point is that rather than identifying these commands of Jesus, of God, with any particular political movement, we need rather to recognize that indeed, this is God’s Word and God’s will.
And if you want to make America great again, listen to his word and do his will.
And God doesn’t really care how we cure the sick or feed the hungry.
God simply wants the sick to be healed and the hungry fed.
And we don’t do these things to be part of some great political movement.
We feed the hungry because they are hungry.
We care for the sick because they are sick.
We’ve been hearing Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount these weeks.
Jesus says some radical things there.  For example, he says: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
OK, so this is the thing.
When I or anyone else suggests that we should do that people are free to disagree and share that they don’t believe it.
If you don’t believe that we should love our enemies, though, it’s not that you don’t believe me, it’s that you don’t believe Jesus.
Whether or not you believe me is irrelevant.
Whether or not we believe Jesus matters.
This is the thing, though.
If we don’t believe Jesus then all our pious prayers and lip service is simply nonsense.
Here I’ll share a personal pet peeve.
If you listen to some of the public discourse you’d think that all Jesus was concerned about was whether the Ten Commandments should decorate the walls of our courthouses, or whether teachers in our public schools should lead prayers, or whether we call that decorated evergreen tree a holiday tree or a Christmas tree.
Jesus said nothing about any of this.
Jesus spoke of forgiveness.  Loving enemies.  Feeding the hungry.  And all that jazz.
Christmas trees.
That’s such a non issue.  Actually, there is nothing whatsoever “Christian” about a Christmas tree.  It’s not biblical.  It’s a cultural, perhaps even pagan, practice to decorate evergreen trees during the midwinter.
And yet Christians want to make a big deal about what we call this tree.
That doesn’t matter.
Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
That matters.
Feed the hungry.
That matters.
Care for the sick.
That matters.
Free the oppressed.
That matters.
Forgive those who have wronged you.
That matters.
This is the thing.
To be a Christian means that we listen to the words of Jesus and actually seek to live our lives according to his teaching.
It doesn’t mean that Jesus simply blesses whatever we choose to do.
It isn’t about offering all sorts of pious prayers and platitudes.
It’s about conforming our lives to Christ.
That’s it.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Year A, Epiphany 4, Matthew 5.1-12 Grace

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
This has been an exciting week for me.
Ever since 1979 I’ve been a cabinet maker.  But throughout all of those years I’ve never had a real shop.
I’ve worked out of make shift space in basements, which is a real pain in the neck when you have to carry all the material in through the house and down the stairs.
I’ve worked in garages.  That was always a challenge for space.
That was always a challenge, though the one I have now is as good as any,  it even has radiant heating in the floor.
 But space is an issue.
Well, this last week our new shop was constructed on my son’s property in Sagle.  It’ll still be a few months until it’s finished but it’s exciting.
We had a wonderful crew, all of them part of one family, a father and his sons and daughters.
The older men had distinctive beards.  The younger men were clean shaven, and the women’s heads were always covered.
After a few comments about our faith, I asked and found out that indeed, they had Amish background.
They were actually no longer part of an Amish community, but the heritage was very evident.
I got to speaking with Vern, the father, and he shared something about his faith.
It was actually a criticism, at least an observation, about much of Christianity.
As best I recall, what he said was “What happened, from the very beginning, was that Christians became so preoccupied with Christ’s death and resurrection that they entirely missed his reason and purpose for coming, and that was his teaching about living in the Kingdom of God.”
Basically, what he was saying is that we should listen more to Jesus, and less to Paul.
I’ve been thinking about that a bit, and you know, he has a point.
One of the interesting historical facts is that Paul had a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, but was not personally one of the disciples who were with Jesus during his life and ministry.
Paul was not present to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or all the parables, and other teachings.
Well, what about Jesus?
And what would it be like if we concerned ourselves more with Jesus’ teaching and less with Paul’s focus on the meaning of his death and resurrection?
For starters, we would have to learn about the Kingdom of God and the values of that Kingdom.
It would be about living and loving as Christ lived and loved.  Like the Amish, we would devote ourselves to peace and forgiveness, and perhaps even, learn about what it means to be “meek”.
What it means is “enduring injury with patience and without resentment” and “not violent or strong”, qualities that the Amish seek to live out in their lives.
Well, before we go any further, it would be helpful to step back and think about the values and beliefs that were present throughout the Old Testament.
Blessing and Curses.
That is the major theme that runs through the Old Testament.
Be faithful to God and you will be blessed.
Unfaithfulness will be cursed.
To be blessed meant prosperity.  Good crops, herds, and children.  Prosperity also extended to the nation.  When the nation was faithful to the covenant good things happened.  And it was also the case that “as goes the king, so goes the nation”.  If the king was righteous, so also the nation.  If the king was corrupt, so also the nation. 
Faithfulness was always rewarded by God.
But unfaithfulness resulted in curses.
Barreness was one of the most dreadful curses.
For a woman to not be able to have children was a source of great shame.
Hence the overwhelming joy experienced by Sarah, for example, when she conceived in her old age.
Today, civil religion as well as preachers such as Joel Osteen, preach about this theme of blessing and curses.
I’ll quote for you from the Wikipedia article on Osteen:
Osteen's sermons and writings are sometimes criticized for promoting prosperity theology, or the prosperity gospel, a belief that the reward of material gain is the will of God for all pious Christians. On October 14, 2007, 60 Minutes ran a twelve-minute segment on Osteen, titled "Joel Osteen Answers his Critics", during which Reformed theologian Michael Horton told CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts that Osteen's message is heresy. Horton stated that the problem with Osteen's message is that it makes religion about us instead of about God.

When asked if he is a prosperity teacher, Osteen responded that if prosperity means God wants people to be blessed and healthy and have good relationships, then he considers himself a prosperity teacher, but if it is about money, he does not. He has specifically stated that he never preaches about money because of the reputation of televangelists.
In an interview with The Christian Post on April 21, 2013, Osteen expressed his sentiments on being perceived as being part of the prosperity gospel. "I get grouped into the prosperity gospel and I never think it's fair, but it's just what it is. I think prosperity, and I've said it 1,000 times, it's being healthy, it's having great children, it's having peace of mind. Money is part of it; and yes, I believe God wants us to excel ... to be blessed so we can be a bigger blessing to others. I feel very rewarded. I wrote a book and sold millions of copies; and Victoria and I were able to help more people than we ever dreamed of. But when I hear the term prosperity gospel, I think people are sometimes saying, 'Well, he's just asking for money'."
Well, the basic theme, however you state it is that if you’re faithful you will be blessed and good things will happen to you.
Many people believe that.
And like I said, it’s a major theme in the Old Testament.
Now it’s true that actions have consequences.  For example, because of my alcoholism I now have some neuropathy in my legs.  I haven’t had a drink in over seven years, but the consequences of my drinking are long lasting.
But it’s also true that bad things happen to good people.
Well, what does Jesus teach?
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Now some of those whom Jesus called blessed would appear to be living a good and faithful life, manifesting Godly virtues like being merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers.
But others that Jesus says are blessed are actually suffering.
The poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those who are reviled and persecuted. 
It simply is not true that good people will always experience good things, and bad people will always suffer.
Sometimes it is just the opposite.
The good die young and the evil become rich and powerful.
Paul writes in 2 Timothy:
The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
And again in Romans 8:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What does all this mean for those of us who would follow Jesus?
It means that throughout life, both in the good times and in the bad times, we will experience the grace of God and be surrounded by his love.
In fact it is often in the midst of life’s greatest tragedies that grace abounds beyond measure.
This is the way of Jesus.  That whether we live or die he is with us full of grace and truth.  And to follow Jesus is to live gracefully.
St. Francis’ prayer speaks to this.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred,let me sow charity;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and Where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.  Amen."