9/25/2016 Sermon – God Never Said That #2: “God Wants You to Be Happy”

This morning, we’re finishing a very brief series called, “God Never Said That.”  We’re thinking a little bit about the common things we might believe that seem so right, well of course, they must be in the Bible.

“Everything happens for a reason.”  Not in the Bible.  This seems to imply that God is manipulating every detail of our lives for a purpose.  Everything that happens does happen for a reason – there is a cause and an effect with things that happen.  And God may know everything (God is omniscient).  But that does not mean God is involved in everything that happens, and there is a lot of life that happens because of the choices we make.  If I text while driving and crash, God didn’t make that happen.

20140826_130621Last week, we looked at a little proverb: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  Not in the Bible.  God never said that.  God will get you through the times when you are overwhelmed and will walk with you through the “dark valley.”  (Psalm 23:4) God answers prayer and God does good things in our lives, but scripture is full of stories of people with more than they could handle.  God was with them and will be with you.

These are sayings that give a little bit of “feel-good” truth, maybe even a little bit of wisdom.  The problem comes when you give words the authority or meaning they were never meant to have.  You think they are from the Bible and they are not. God might have a different kind of truth or wisdom and might have more to say.

Today, we’re going to look at the idea that “God wants you to be happy.”    Not in the Bible.  God never said that.

Are you happy right now?  Is there something that’s caused you to feel that way?  Did you feel that way yesterday?  We really need to get a handle on what happiness is, and you realize that being in a state of bliss, or happiness is different for everyone. Think about a time when you were happy.  Whom were you with?  Would you have had the same experience if you were by yourself?  How long did it last?  Were you thinking of a happy event, or a happy time of life?  Have you ever needed to do something “artificial” to be happier?  Something from a bottle?  Hard question.

Let me give you a sense of how complicated this can be.  Think of that moment when you were really content, when things were good.  You were happy.  Lock into that picture.  Your mind might go to some event, like a wedding, or a graduation, or a birth.  Are you there?  It was awesome, right?  Felt pretty good.  Oh, yeah.

Now think about the hours, or days, or weeks on either side of that moment.  I was brought to tears when our kids were born – I was there, thanking God in a major way.  In the moment, I think Kathy was brought to tears for other reasons.  Her happiness came a little later.  It’s possible that your happy moment was the product of a little suffering and you wouldn’t have gotten to the happy place without walking through that valley.  Last week, we looked at how God can use a time of suffering to build up faith.  It’s hard to know it at the time, but the unhappy experiences help us lean on God more than the happy moments.  You can’t call that experience happy; it’s deeply meaningful in other ways.  The valley did lead to a mountaintop, if you know what I mean.

Or, your mind might go to a period of time.  Maybe it was a time when things were relatively peaceful, stable, predictable.  When you think back on it now, you were happy, even though you might not have felt that way then.  Have you had a time like that?  What was going on before that time.  If it came to an end, how did that happen?

The Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Let’s think about how we pursue happiness.

Vieques, Puerto Rico. CN - 2006
Vieques, Puerto Rico. CN – 2006

Over the years, God has given my family and I the opportunity to travel to some wonderful places.  That beach was in Puerto Rico.  We were the only ones there.  The water was warm, and that beautiful turquoise color.  The air was just the right temperature.  The sunscreen smelled good.  Ahhhh.  Perfect.

My family was in the water just off to the left.  I sat on the beach watching, being a lifeguard.  A few years before, while traveling in a place just like this, we had had a near-drowning incident.

So now, whenever we go to a beach like the one in that picture, or if I go with a mission group to that kind of place, I sit on the beach and watch a little nervously.  I don’t go in the water and there are happier places for me.  My family is sitting here thinking, “You really need to get over this.”  And that’s true.  I need to face it.  We are still going to plan beach trips.

This is all to say that your “happy place,” your idea of happiness, might not translate well for other people.  It’s all relative, and God doesn’t have much control over how happy you are at any given moment.  God chooses not to control your happiness.  You have a free will when it comes to happiness, and God cannot force you or cause you to be happy.

We all have had those times when we were talking to God, or maybe talking to someone else, or to ourselves, and saying, “I wish I were happier, more content, more joyful.

We’ll look at some scriptures to see what God has to say about being in a happy place.

1 John 2:15-17.  Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh [temporary, material things], the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

I’m thinking back to that opening video, and the idea that buying a car can make you happy.  Pretty funny, right?  Well…  the new car smell was nice.  The new gadgets that weren’t in the old car.  And how long did it take for the happy feeling to go away?  Hopefully, our kids learn this at some early age.

What are the “things of the world?  The world and its desire are passing away.  Have you ever loved something that “passed away?” On the other side of that love is “those who do the will of God live forever.”  Doing the will of God.

I was sitting with some of our high school students over breakfast yesterday and one of the questions in their devotional time was, “Would you rather have fame or fortune?”  There are advantages and disadvantages to both fame and fortune.  And they talked about the story Jesus told about the guy who needed to build bigger barns (Luke 12:16-21). When he died, his stuff couldn’t save him.

Jesus asks: “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’   (Luke 12:20-21)

And we talked about being rich toward God.  I think there are a bunch of ways to be rich toward God.  Think about those things that give you a sense of contentment that you never could have paid money for. I challenge you to find ways to share those things.

The students talked about serving other people, about intentionally bringing happiness to strangers.  They said that mission experiences were treasures for them.  They had great meaning.  The church did that.  God used St. Paul’s to build up that treasure for them.

And I’m sure that God has given you opportunities to build up treasure that added to your happiness.

Those who do the will of God live forever.  Living forever – God’s “happy place” – has a connection to doing.

dsc_5383
CN – 2010.

Here’s what Paul has to say:

Philippians 4:4-7.  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Have you heard those words before?  “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice!”  And those words about the peace of God that passes understanding.  Powerful stuff.

When you’re looking at these readings, does your mind ever wander and you find yourself reading other words on the page?  I want to encourage you to do that now.  Right before Paul says those awesome words, he says, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”  (v. 4:2)

This rejoicing Paul talks about came out of a problem!  There was tension between two women in Philippi: two women named Euodia and Syntyche.  Paul never says exactly what the problem was, and maybe he didn’t know himself.  But the fact that he’s talking to these two women, and about these two women, must mean that their problems were everybody else’s problems too.

In his care for them, Paul needs do what he can to see that the problem reaches some kind of resolution.  He knows that Christians can also give great happiness to each other, and that’s there he wants to lead this situation.

Don’t most of our problems, our unhappiness, come from other people?  And wouldn’t we love to find some resolution?  And wouldn’t we all like to find some peace of mind – “peace that passes understanding?”  That sounds a lot like happiness.

I believe it starts in a relationship with God that eliminates the need to worry.  This is where a Christian’s peace comes from.  It’s a deep knowing that God has the future under control.  I believe it’s a practice, this peace.  Giving yourself to God, giving yourself to the living Christ, and allowing God to fill that inner void.  I believe this also allows us to have access to God’s wisdom when relationships need to be worked out.  Enough calmness to get through a hard moment.

This is the peace what allows us to “be of the same mind in the Lord” (as Paul says).  In the conflict, in the unhappiness, you don’t have to react.  In fact, wild as it sounds, you can “Rejoice in the Lord.”  Lock into that knowledge that you don’t have to worry.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (v. 7)

A few years ago, I read a book called, The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner.  He’s a traveling journalist who began to notice that people in some countries were much happier than others.  People in Bhutan (eastern Asia) didn’t have much compared to people in Qatar (on the other side of Asia near Saudi Arabia).  But they are much happier.  You might have seen this somewhere yourself.

dsc_0433
Dominican Republic, near Luperon. CN – 2014

In surveys, you’ll find that people in the Dominican Republic are much happier than people in the United States.  Most of the people in the Dominican Republic live in poverty compared to us.  But they are happy.  It has much to do with things you can’t buy.  For me, I always leave those places thinking about the things I’ve bought that occupy my “heart and mind” and leave me unhappy.

And I wonder: Can you actually move to a place that will make you happier?  A little story…

A farmer was working in a field when a stranger approached on the country road that bordered his farm.  The traveler asked, “What kind of people live in the next town?”

Without even looking up from his work, the farmer asked, “What kind of people lived in the town you just left?”

“Oh, they were horrible.”  The traveler began making hand gestures for emphasis.  “People were dishonest, selfish, and inconsiderate.  I couldn’t wait to leave!”

Now looking up, the farmer shook his head and said, “I’m sorry to say that’s probably what you’ll find in this town too.”

The stranger moaned and walked away.

Later that day, another stranger came walking down that same road.  When he saw the farmer, he called out, “What kind of people live in this next town?”

Without looking up, the farmer asked his own question: “What kind of people lived in the town you just left?”

The traveler said, “They were thoughtful, friendly, and kind. I hated to leave them.  They made me a better person.”

Now the farmer put down his hoe, extended his hand and smiled.  He said, “I’m pleased to say that is about how you’ll find the folks here.”

The traveler smiled back and then headed toward his new home.

Prayer

God, we would like to be that kind of home, and many of us would like to be happier.  Take us to the new place.  Open our eyes. Knowing what you want for us, give us opportunities to bring happiness to others.  Through your Spirit, help us be sensitive to justice and injustice; help us break cycles of violence.  Let the peace that passes understanding flow through us.  Make us the examples of healthy relationships.  Give us the courage to love in sacrificing ways, for the sake of Christ, who gave himself for us so that we might have the amazing joy of knowing you.  Amen.

9/18/2016 Sermon – God Never Said That #1: “God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle”

jesus-in-gethsemaneI’ve wanted to preach on this for a long time.  This morning we’ll start a very brief series called, “God Never Said That.”  I hope this will get us all thinking a little bit about the common things we might believe that seem so right, well of course, they must be in the Bible.

One of my favorites is “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”  There are some scriptures that might refer to purification, or becoming clean, but there is nothing in the Bible that says cleanliness is next to Godliness. In fact, some of God’s favorite people were pretty messy. Read about John the Baptist.  Kids, this does not give you a comeback when your parents want to please go take a shower or clean your room (and take some air freshener in there!).

Another one might be, “God helps those who help themselves.”  You won’t find that one in the Bible either.  I think we probably get the intent.  There comes a point when you have to stop praying and do something.  Just do it!  But the Bible never says God helps those who help themselves.

Next week, we’re going to look at the idea that “God wants you to be happy.”  The Bible never says that, and I’ll say more next week!  There are so many more!

These are sayings that give a little bit of “feel-good” truth, maybe even a little bit of wisdom.  The problem comes when you give words the authority they were never meant to have.  You think they are from the Bible and they are not. God might have a different idea.

What I’d like to do right now is look at one statement:  “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  Not in the Bible.  God never said that.

20140826_130621God won’t give you more than you can handle.  Has anyone ever said that to you?  I don’t think I have ever said that to anyone, but I’ve thought things like that.  I may have said a version of that to someone.

The problem begins with the first few words:  God won’t give… and you fill in the blank with some kind of suffering.  The assumption is that suffering comes from God, or that God is purposely allowing suffering, that God has a hand on the spigot of suffering for each of us…  …and will only allow a certain amount of it.

Right about now, you should be thinking, “Yeah, well, I remember the time when it got so bad, all I could do was sit in a corner with my head in my hands.”  There are times when the experiences of life will drive you to your knees.  You were overwhelmed.  You weren’t doing such a great job of “handling it.”  You know what I’m talking about.  Does it mean that when life got overwhelming, you weren’t faithful enough, that maybe you didn’t pray enough, that you weren’t as close to God as you should have been?  The answer is NO.

It’s true that God does bring healing sometimes.  The miraculous does happen, thank God.  But most of the time, God simply allows life to happen and is waiting for the chance to walk through it with us.

20150722_114506A good verse to remember in those times is:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley (KJV – valley of the shadow of death), I fear no evil, for you are with me.  (Psalm 23:4)

Does God take away the dark valley?  No.  Does God take away the evil?  No.  Is God with you as you face the dark valley and evil?  Yes.  You are never alone.

In scripture, there are consequences for stupid choices and disobedience sometimes, and people get themselves in all kinds of trouble (they still do!) People do things to each other.  Earthquakes and hurricanes happen.  And this is life.   God does not save us from the experience of life.  God promises to walk with us through all of it.

The last part of that sentence is a bigger problem:  More than you can handle.

 When you read the stories of people in scripture, if nothing else, you should see that these are people – mostly normal people – being overwhelmed and calling out to God.  The book of Job is all about being overwhelmed by the attacks of Satan.  Moses runs away to the desert for 40 years.  Peter falls apart after denying Jesus, literally has a breakdown (Mark 14:72).  All of them had more than they could handle, and you have to remember that God has the last word in all of these stories – especially the story of Jesus!

God won’t give you more than you can handle?  The closest we can come to that idea is when the apostle Paul says this:

So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.  1 Corinthians 10:12-13.

patio-statuePaul is not talking about the pain of life; he’s talking about the temptations of life.  Specifically, he’s talking about the temptation of sexual immorality (harming others through the practice of sex), the temptation of idolatry (worshiping things that are not God, and the temptation of prejudice (rich people working against poor people).  God… “will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Life is a roller coaster filled with amazing joy and indescribable pain.  And God wants to sit with us for the ride.  Maybe that metaphor doesn’t work for you, but I think you get it.

If Paul had heard somebody say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” he might have said this:

2 Corinthians 12:2-10.  2I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,9but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

“I know a person in Christ who … was caught up to the third heaven. (2 Corinthians 12:2)

“I know a person…”  Paul is talking about himself, but he does not want to be some kind of hero in his own story.

Caught up to the third heaven?  What is he talking about?   Something that brought him as close to God as you can get without dying.  This thing that happened to him that was so amazing, he can’t find the words to describe it.  It was awesome.  But on the other side of this awesome thing that could make him a spiritual superman, he’s got a “thorn in the flesh.”  (v. 7)

Nobody knows what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was.  Some bible scholars think that Paul might have had a problem with his eyesight, or some other physical problem.  He might have had some kind of personal problem, maybe with depression.  I think it was something that caused him chronic pain.  Some think he’s talking about problem people in his life, but nobody knows.

Back in the first century, in times and places of warfare, sharpened wooden stakes would be placed in pits, so that that enemy soldiers would fall on them and be impaled. These stakes were also used for torture. Sharpened stakes were the roadside bombs of that world, and the Greek word for them is skolops — the exact same word that Paul uses for his thorn in the flesh.

So Paul was stabbed — by a messenger of Satan, he says — “to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” (v. 7)

Paul is suffering and he prays, and God chooses not to act.  Paul doesn’t blame God for his problem.  Instead, he hears God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (v. 9)  The self-sufficient Christian who operates on their own strength, who is “handling” things on their own, is a weak Christian.

20140826_131220Some people wonder why Christians have problems, why God doesn’t make things easier for believers.  If there is anything to be learned from problems, from vulnerability, it’s that in order for God to accomplish anything with us, we have to rely on God.  We have to be stretched.  We have to come to a point where we see that there is no other choice than to give ourselves to God.  We have to say, “God, I can’t handle this; I can’t do this on my own.  I need you.”

It’s really the opposite of “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

My Story:

Most of you know that I’ve not been well and until a few weeks ago, had  been gone from the church for about four months.  This started a year ago.  Small inflammations that became more frequent and worse.  Eyes, glands, ears (lost hearing for about a month in one ear).  Lots of pneumonia of different kinds.

Nine months later, the diagnosis was a rare immunity disorder.  It’s an irony: I had to keep getting sick in order for the doctors to see the pattern and figure out what was happening.  Eight times in the hospital since January.  One scary ride in an ambulance.

I’ve been treated and they think it’s under control.  But no shaking hands for a while and I still have to be careful being around anyone with a cold!

It was an unusual experience for someone who never smoked, has no allergies to food or medicine, and rides his bike 1,000 miles a year!

People ask, “What has God taught you?”  Well, I am thankful.  Extremely thankful.  I see things with a new type of gratitude.  For God.  For my family.  For this church.  For each day.  I have no anger or “why me?”   Well, why not me?   Many people have prayed and sent so many cards (a stack about 6 inches high).  People I don’t know have told me they have been praying for me.  I believe God is blessed by so much prayer.

As a church, maybe God is teaching all of us something here.  I have learned that the pastor can’t do this work by him (or her) self.  I have learned that what we do as disciples of Jesus matters.  And if we all find ourselves in a hard place together, maybe that’s exactly where God needs us to be.  Maybe the thing the amazing God is about to do will look nothing like what we’re expecting.

Christians who are human beings, and churches, learn this lesson over and over again.  When we come to worship, what we do here is not about us; it’s about God and our need for God.  We need God.  We need each other.  We are weak people who need God and each other.  That’s why we are here.

Think of that issue, that problem, that crisis that has you captive.  The thing that you can’t stop thinking about.  You can’t handle it.  Let that be the subject of the prayer God needs to hear from you.  Say it silently now.

And hear God say back to you….

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Prayer

 O God, we cannot be the people we should be, the people we need to be, on our own. Live in us and change us.  Use the circumstances in our lives to teach us to depend on you.  And as we trust in you, help us understand in a deeper way that we need each other.  Renew us and recharge us to be a true church of Christ.  Help us, together, to be an expression of your concern and love for our families, for Manheim, PA or wherever you are, and our world.

9/11/2016 Sermon – Faith Attitude #3: “Encouragement”

This morning, we’re finishing a short series called “Faith Attitude.”  As we have faith, as we believe in the unseen God and what God has done for us through the risen Christ, we are changed.  Faith creates a way of seeing ourselves and the world – an attitude.  Our attitude can govern how God uses us to make a difference, to change the world, to communicate God’s love to the people around us.  We’ve thought about humility, owning your own shortcomings so that you might better tolerate the flaws in others.  And we’ve thought about mercy – our need for God’s mercy and God’s need for us to show mercy to the people in our lives, the people we know and the people we don’t know.

This morning, we’re going to look at the importance of encouragement.  Then next week, we start a series called “God Never Said That,” looking at some favorite quotes (and ideas) of ours that we think are in the Bible, but are not!

dsc_2395Stop for a moment and think about the people you’re sitting with.  There are all sorts of people in this room today.  There are teachers.  There are builders and people in medical professions.  And I wonder how you all got where you are.  Was it some natural ability or interest?  Or was there somebody who said something to you – just the right thing at the right time?  And it was that person, that encouragement that headed you toward where you ended up.  Not necessarily your job, but something that defines who you are.

When we think back to our school days, I think that most of us had maybe one or two teachers or coaches who stand out in our memories because of the encouragement they gave us.  I had a combination of teachers in elementary school who always seemed to have good things to say whenever I drew something.  I know that it was because of them, and the encouragement of my mother that I ended up in my first career as an art teacher.

I also have a yellowed newspaper photo of myself sitting with a confirmation class when I was in 8th or 9th grade.  I have very few memories of that class; I don’t remember it having much of an effect on me.  But what I find interesting is that three people in that photo became ministers.  I have no explanation for that.  I know it wasn’t on my mind and we never talked about it.  None of us have seen each other since high school, a very long time ago. But, I suppose that somewhere along the way, somebody gave us each some encouragement.  For me, the seed took a long time to grow; I didn’t head in this direction until my late 20’s!

Who knows, maybe one of our Sunday School teachers will light a fire under someone this year, or that conference at Hartman Center will change the direction of one of our kids.  And I imagine that each of us has a story of how the words or support of someone made a huge difference.

dsc_2434A simple definition of encouragement goes like this:  the action of giving someone support, confidence, or hope.

I think encouragement can come in different flavors.  You can give – or receive – encouragement to keep doing a good thing.  Or, there is encouragement to change direction.

The apostle Paul seemed to be big on encouragement.  Even when he was angry with one of the early churches, or one of the people in those churches, he also seemed to be able to find something good to say.

His letter to Philemon is one of the shortest “books” of the bible.  It’s too short to have chapters!  And it will be clear when you read it that it’s not a book at all; it’s not even a letter to a church; it’s a personal letter to a personal friend.  Listen for the encouragement.  This is a little like eavesdropping on a conversation, but only hearing one side of it:

Philemon.  4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. 6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, 16no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

There are three people involved in this situation; it’s a triangle.  A little soap opera!  Or, a script for a TV mini-series. There is Philemon, a friend of Paul’s, who is the leader of a church somewhere in Asia Minor (Turkey).  There is Onesimus, who is a younger member of that church, or maybe a slave in Philemon’s house, or maybe even related to Philemon in some way.  And there is Paul who is a friend to both of them; and Paul is in prison in Rome.

It’s hard to know what went on here.  Who knows what argument, or who wronged whom?  It’s a triangle: two people both play an important role in Paul’s life – they encourage him.  But they have issues with each other, and whatever the problem was, Onesimus has run away to Italy – halfway across the Mediterranean – to be with Paul (who is in prison).

Now it’s Paul’s turn to encourage, so Paul talks to Philemon like family, and the core of their relationship is Christ.   Christ is the family tie that brings Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus into the same circle.  When they said “yes” to God, when they gave themselves to Jesus and became members of the family of the church, they obligated themselves to reconciling whatever differences they might have. That’s what family does.  Paul can’t fix their relationship, but he can encourage them to move in a different direction, to reconcile.

In a difficult situation between Christians, that’s the first thing to remember:  if you have Christ at the center of your life, you have the power to reconcile, and that is God’s will.  You don’t have to do this alone; you have God inside you, helping to do the stuff that seems impossible.  Reconciliation is God’s middle name.  Okay, God doesn’t have a middle name, but if God did, it would be reconciliation.  Paul also wrote:

…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  2 Corinthians 5:17-19

So, reconciliation is the “encouragement” target for Philemon and Onesimus.  This encouragement has a specific purpose; it’s not random.  Paul is encouraging reconciliation.  One of the ways Paul encourages reconciliation is through prayer; he prays for people; he prays for Philemon.  Prayer not only brings God into situations, but brings the person praying closer to God.  When the conversation becomes difficult, pray; it’s as simple as that.

Now, Onesimus might have done something really bad.  Paul seems to imply that he might have even stolen some money from Philemon, but Onesimus is willing to come home and make things right.  So now the ball is in Philemon’s court.  What is he going to do?  I’d love to know how this story turned out.  It ends with Paul doing what our school-days teachers did – he gives encouragement.  He says, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”  You can do this, Philemon: forgive Onesimus.

This is one more way that God needs us to stand against the things our culture teaches us – especially during an election season.  Give encouragement, be open to reconciliation when conversations “go south.”

img_2734In our families, in the community, and in the church there are all sorts of opportunities for grudges, all sorts of opportunities to step on each other’s toes.  That is how relationships are, and the only way to avoid completely avoid tension is to not have relationships, and I don’t think God would support that.

Philemon and Onesimus are two people on either side of a wall, and Paul is trying to break through the wall.  “Philemon, you are a great example of love and faith; let go of this problem.  Just let it go.”  Maybe Philemon felt some encouragement from those words; maybe God used those words to change his heart somehow.  And then maybe he was able to encourage somebody else.  When we are encouraged, we have the power to pass along encouragement to someone else.  But someone has got to start the ball rolling.

Maybe you saw this happen during the Olympics:  during the women’s 5,000 meter final, runners from New Zealand and the United States clipped each other and fell. They picked each other up, gave each other encouragement and both finished the race, even though the US runner was injured.

thumbs-upFor each of us, there is someone.  The easiest encouragement is a simple compliment.

Some child might need to hear, “Good job; I’m proud of you.”

Some person struggling might need to hear: “Don’t give up.”

Someone might need the encouragement of silence.  All they need is for you to be with them.

Pass along some encouragement today.

Prayer

O God, we thank you for the people you put into our lives to encourage us.  We thank you for the way you use your Spirit to encourage us through them and we thank you especially for the people who have brought us closer to you.

We thank you God, for the fellowship in this room, for the family you have created here.  Through your Spirit, help us encourage each other and live out your healing and forgiveness.  Help us find the words to say that will build up your church.  Help us find the good things and build on them.  Use us to help others find their worth as people you love and sent your son to die for.  In His name we pray.  Amen.

9/4/2016 Sermon – Faith Attitude #2: “Mercy”

C3 - beach & sunsetThis morning, we’re continuing a short series called “Faith Attitude.”  As we have faith, as we believe in the unseen God and what God has done for us through the risen Christ, we are changed.  Faith creates a way of seeing ourselves and the world – an attitude.  Our attitude can govern how God uses us to make a difference, to change the world, to communicate God’s love to the people around us.  Last week, we thought about humility, maybe defined best by C.S Lewis when he said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

This week, we’ll think about mercy, and next week, encouragement.

I wonder if you’ve experienced mercy.  Maybe as a child?  If you have received mercy, you know how to show mercy.  Can you lock into that memory when you know you deserved some form of justice, but instead you were given mercy?

Here’s a definition:

Mercy:  Compassionate or kindly tolerance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence.  [http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mercy?s=t]

This is another one of those attitudes our culture does not encourage. How much mercy do you see between political candidates?  It’s not how our political process works!

There might be no one in scripture who had a deeper experience of mercy than the Apostle Paul, and he describes that experience several times.

1 Timothy 1:12-17.   I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,  14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

 I received mercy…

stained glassThere is so much in that little paragraph and I don’t know about you, but I can absolutely relate to what he is talking about.  I was, now I am.  God has changed my life (and it needed changing!), not because I deserved it, but because God is merciful.

I received mercy.  There is so much power in that little phrase.  You can attach your own experience to those words.  Even though I _______ (fill in the blank with a memory of something you did), I received mercy.  Receiving mercy, especially from God, can change your life.

Another definition:

 “The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hesed, and means steadfast love. The Greek words for ‘Lord, have mercy,’ are ‘Kyrie, eleison’  that is to say, ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.’  [http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7124]

Isn’t that a great image?  Wouldn’t you like to have God give you an oil massage?

Contrast that with what we seem to be taught:  No mercy. That’s how you win.  That’s how you take control.  That’s how you have power over whomever it is that threatens or hurts you.  Our need for justice outweighs any thought of showing mercy.  Instead, we react and maybe sometimes seek revenge.

Now, God is huge on justice, there are natural consequences for mistakes, and sometimes, self-defense has to happen, or defense of the nation.  But I think that most often the anger that we feel, those times when we are on a slow burn, just reflects our lack of willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, to remember that they are human, too.  Maybe then we would give them a break, show them at least some small amount of mercy.

The Bible is full of encouragement to seek mercy… and to be merciful.

Jesus gives mercy to the woman caught in adultery and tells stories about the mercy of God – and how that mercy needs to flow through us.  That’s what the story of the Prodigal Son was all about.

As an older man and a seasoned church leader, Paul writes to his young friend Timothy and says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”  (1 Timothy 1:15) I would have loved to hear the Apostle Paul preach and expand on those words.

I think he was probably much more graphic than he let himself be in this letter to Timothy.  You see, this man who wrote about half of the material that was later collected into the New Testament, whom, of all the followers of Jesus, is probably the most responsible for us being gathered in this church, was an accomplice to the murder of a man named Stephen.  He was part of the first persecution of Christians (Acts 8).  Actually, he wasn’t just part of it, he was leading it! As he said, he was a man of violence.

…[he] was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.  (Acts 8:3)

Okay, not long after that he had a powerful conversion experience and his life changed dramatically.  You would think that after this huge change, after he turned away from his sin and let Christ take over, that his life would be totally pure, and he would be proud of that halo over his head, but years later he writes and says…

“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… wretched man that I am.”  (Romans 7:18-19, 24)

To paraphrase, “I was and am a sinner.”  This, from the most significant church father who lived.  There is something incredibly important in that confession Paul makes:  The doorway to mercy is repentance, which simply means acknowledging a wrong way of living and a willingness to change.  We don’t receive mercy unless we know we need it!  There is a release that comes with confession.  The burden lifts when you admit to God that you need God, that you need healing and forgiveness.  You need mercy.  We will always need God’s mercy.  When we receive mercy, then we can give mercy.

Have you ever heard the story of Corrie ten Boom?  She was a Dutch woman who was imprisoned by the Nazis, with her sister Betsie, for protecting Jews.  She told the best story of forgiveness (and mercy) that I think I’ve ever heard.

“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands.

People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

“It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. …’

“The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.

“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man.

I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]

“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’

“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”

(excerpted from “I’m Still Learning to Forgive” by Corrie ten Boom. Guideposts Magazine. Copyright © 1972 by Guideposts Associates, Inc., Carmel, New York 10512).

Galilee forgiveness
Statue near the ancient town of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, Palestine: “Jesus Restores Peter.” CN – 2011.

I’ve often said that I can picture myself in a crowd around Jesus.  I love to imagine that he has just walked into the room and sat in a pew.  In his presence, I am utterly and completely aware that I am not who I should be.  It’s at that moment, with my head in my hands, that I feel this tap on the shoulder, and this voice saying, “Let’s have dinner.”  It’s at that moment, when I realize that he wants to be with me, that I realize God is much more concerned with how I live my future than how I’ve lived my past.  And he will be there with me, and because of his mercy, I am not lost anymore.

Prayer

God, we have sensed over and over again that something is not right, that something is missing.  Deep within ourselves, we know that the something we are missing is you, and now we know, you have been walking with us all the time.  At the moment of our deepest need, when it seemed healing and forgiveness was so far away, you are there.  We confess our need, and knowing you sent your son Jesus for us, invite you to be our savior through him.  Now use us to be lights in a dark world, live through us, and use us to make a difference in this world you love.

(Pray with me)

God, I know I need you.  I have always needed you.  And so, today, I give myself to you, knowing that you will always be with me, directing my life, and giving me peace, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.