872) This is Your Life

Based on a sermon by Methodist pastor and bishop William Willimon  (1946- ), in which he tells his (and our) story.

     There was a time when I was not.  I look through old family photo albums, and I see whole generations of people who came and went without me.  All kinds of people, blood relatives of mine, were born, lived, died, and were buried without any knowledge of me.  There was a time– a very long time— when I was not here, or anywhere.  There was no me.

     Then the sperm cell met the egg cell, and an embryo was formed.  Cells divided rapidly, over and over again, and before long, something that sort of resembled a human was taking shape.  Gradually, through various chemical and biological processes, I was becoming.  When did I begin to be aware that I was ‘something,’ when did I become aware of me, aware of myself?  It seems clear that the fetus in the womb, can before very long, feel and react to pain.  Therefore, I could no doubt feel the pleasure and coziness of that watery, warm, and comfortable, though very dark, home; even though I was a still a long way from full consciousness.  This is what I think that it must have been like for me.  But I remember none of this.  By this time, my parents were announcing to the world that I was coming, but still, there was no ‘me’ showing up on the family photos.

Psalm 139:13  —  (Lord), you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

     Gradually, my comfortable home seemed to be getting smaller, and I began to feel cramped.  Then one day, all of a sudden, things began to move.  Something was pushing on me, pushing more and more; and then, something was pulling on me.  No one had asked me about any of this, and given the choice, I probably would have said “No, I don’t want to go anywhere, I am comfortable where I am.”  But I had no free will in the matter.

     Finally, I was going through a canal; and then, a shock.  There was a big temperature change, a big slap, and light– light which was all new to me.  I didn’t like any part of it, and so I cried.  That was new too, I didn’t know I could do that, but before long I found out that crying could be very useful.

     In fact, crying was about all I could choose to do.  Everything else was done for me, whether of not I wanted it to be done.  Cold hands picked me up and put me here and put me there, hands put food in my mouth and then took it away, and hands dressed and undressed me.  I would even be put me into a warm tub, which felt good, even familiar, like the good old days; but then, I would always be taken me out of the tub, which did not feel good.  But again, I had no choice.

    I had no choices, but there were lots of orders as time went on.  ‘Roll over, sit up, smile, stop crying, eat your food, don’t touch, pull up, stand up, take a step;’ there was no end to it.  I was given a name, and then somewhere along the line, I figured out that when I heard ‘William’ that meant me.  I had become a ‘me,’ and I was beginning to be aware of myself and how I fit in.  Somebody had named me, claimed me, and was there for me.   They were nice to do all that, but I began to notice that they were running the whole show.  They did not ask me about my opinion or wishes on anything.

     And then, I learned a couple new words.  By this time saying ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy,’ but then I learned to say ‘no’ and ‘mine.’  That was a big step.  Now, I began to assert myself, make my wishes known, and, establish my territory.  I could tell that others did not always liked the new ‘me’ I had discovered, but that didn’t matter.  I was in the very first steps of a process that would last a very long time, the process of taking control.

     I was still always being told what to do.  ‘Eat now, sit down, don’t put food in your hair, take a bath, stop begging, put your toys away, play nice;’ and then later, ‘go to school, learn this alphabet, clean up your room, go outside and play, come in from outside, take a bath;’ and then still later, ‘learn the multiplication tables, read your assignment, get better grades, think about what you want to do for a job,’ and so on.  I was still getting pushed, but I was beginning to take control.

     I had learned the word ‘mine,’ and I was beginning stake my claims.  It was my room, and I had my toys, and it was, even, my mommy and daddy.  And I learned that I could resist the control others tried to exert.  I would come to say “No” more and more often, realizing that sometimes it even worked and I could win.  I was getting bigger and I was getting stronger, and I was finding my place in the world.  It was, at first, a very small place, to be sure.  A room, and a bed, and a few toys.  But before long, much was added.  My teams, my ability to get good grades, my wit, my popularity in school, my car, and pretty soon, my plans.  Then, when my plans started to work out, it was my degrees, my career, my positions, my authority, and my prestige.  It was my wife, my own family, my big house, my cabin, and all my many achievements.  There was so very much I could call mine; so very much I could control.  Nobody was telling me what to do very much anymore.  People had to listen to me.  I was now a force to be reckoned with.

     And then, somewhere between age 50 and 60, I turned a corner.  At some point, I stopped growing up– upward and onward, that is.  I seemed to level off, and then, began a downward ascent.  I still had the position and the authority, but not the energy, and no longer the drive.  I had risen about as high as I could go, or wanted to go, in my career– and I started getting tired.  Tired of getting more and more, yes, I had enough; and tired of clawing my way to the top, yes; but also physically tired.  I began to doze off at meetings, I could not work as many hours, and my tennis game was going downhill fast.

     What’s worse, I had to start taking orders again; now from kids, that is to say from doctors that were the age of my kids.  “You have to change your diet, Rev. Willimon, you can’t eat as many sweets anymore, and you better get more fiber in your diet, and you’ll have to start taking these pills for your heart…  What?…  I don’t care if you don’t like to take pills, take them anyway.  And we’re going to keep an eye on that knee– we might have to replace it.”  So this is where I am at now, at the twilight of my working career, and moving into the ‘downhill and doctor years.’

     I am a minister, so I’ve been with enough elderly people to know how the last years of my story will go.  For many years, all that I could call ‘mine’ was increasing.  Now it will be rapidly decreasing.  One by one, everything I worked for will be taken away from me.  My career will be taken away, and that’s okay; as I said, I’m tired.  Then, if I’m lucky, I’ll have some good retirement years, but sometimes that gets taken away.  My house will get to be too much to take care of, my travel plans will become more of a hassle then its worth, I’ll have to get rid of all my stuff, and then, worst of all, I’ll have to get rid of my car.  One by one, if I live long enough, everything will be taken away from me, and it will be like I was when I was a child, without much I can call my own anymore.  Not only that, but there will be somebody pushing me here and pushing me there, telling me when to eat, and when I should have a bowel movement; waking me up, putting me to bed, bathing me, even changing my diaper.  

John 21:18  —  When you were younger you would fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you, and take you where you do no wish to go.

     Gradually, everything I accumulated will be relinquished, including my dignity.  And each letting go is just a practice run for the final relinquishment of breath itself.  To simply lie on a bed and breath will be all I be able manage, and then a great fatigue will overwhelm me.  Once again, I will be pushed and pulled; but pushed and pulled to what?  Is this to be like birth, another going out into something else, unknown to be sure, but something else?  Or, will it just be the end?

Job 14:14a  —  If a man die, shall he live again?

John 14:19b  —  (Jesus said), “Because I live, you also will live.”

     If Jesus rose from the dead, as we believe he did, this final letting go is not the end but a new beginning.  It will be a new birth into a new life, through another canal and another time of darkness; and then light, and another opening of the eyes into something entirely new and different and infinitely better.  What is seen as a departure here, becomes a homecoming in heaven, with new hands to welcome me.  

John 14:2-3  —  (Jesus said), “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

     Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:17).  This verse takes on new meaning after looking at our story told in this way.  We might well dread all that we must give up as we near the end of our earthly stories, but if we believe what Jesus tells us, becoming again like a helpless little child is just part of the process.  Martin Luther once said, “As little as children in the womb know about their birth, so little do we know about life everlasting.”  At the beginning of our stories, warm and comfortable in the womb, we had no way of knowing what wonderful things were ahead for us after being born.  In the same way, we can’t begin to imagine the wonder awaiting us after death, that new birth into eternal life. 

I Corinthians 15:56-57  —  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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LORD, TAKE MY HAND AND LEAD ME by Julie von Hausmann  (1826-1901)

Lord, take my hand and lead me
upon life’s way;
direct, protect, and feed me
from day to day.
Without your grace and favor
I go astray,
so take my hand, O Saviour,
and lead the way.

God, when the tempest rages,
I need not fear;
for you, the Rock of Ages,
are always near.
Close by your side abiding,
I fear no foe,
for when your hand is guiding,
in peace I go.

God, when the shadows lengthen
and night has come,
I know that you will strengthen
my steps toward home,
and nothing can impede me,
O blessed Friend!
So, take my hand and lead me
unto the end.

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871) Rich Mullins; The ‘Awesome God’ Guy

Rich Mullins  (1955-1997)

     Rich Mullins was an American contemporary Christian singer and songwriter.  He was born in Richmond, Indiana.  

     Mullins was best known for his worship songs Awesome God and Sometimes by Step, both of which have been embraced as modern classics by many Christians.  Some of his albums were considered among Christian musics’s best.  His songs have been performed by numerous artists, including Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, John Tesh, Christ Rice, Jars of Clay, and many others.  

     Rich Mullins is also remembered for his radical devotion to the Christian faith.  He was heavily influenced by St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226).  After his song, “Our God is an Awesome God” hit the top of the music charts and his music started earning millions, Rich entrusted the profits from his tours and record sales to his church.  He asked only to be paid the average salary for an American each year, and that the rest be given to missions to help the poor.  

     Although Rich Mullins grew up in the church and never wavered in his faith, he struggled with depression, loneliness, and eventually alcohol.

     Rich leaned heavily on the love and wisdom of pastor and author Brennan Manning, who had also wrestled with alcohol.  Manning wrote a wonderful book entitled The Ragamuffin Gospel, and Rich’s group became the Ragamuffin Band.

     Rich Mullins died in 1997 in a car accident.  In 2014 Color Green Films released a feature-length docudrama on the life of Rich Mullins entitled Ragamuffin.

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RICH MULLINS QUOTES:
 
We were given Scriptures to humble us into realizing that God is right, and the rest of us are just guessing.
 
Bear in mind, children, that parents listen to you because you are their kids, and not because you are right.  And that is how our heavenly Father listens to us.  We hardly understand what we are praying for, and God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayers according to our understanding, but according to his wisdom.

The thing I like most about the Bible is all the weirdos that are in it.  The Bible is just packed with them.

David didn’t kill Goliath because he set out to kill giants.  He set out to give sandwiches to his brothers, and Goliath got in the way.

I never understood why going to church made you a hypocrite, because nobody goes to church because they are perfect.  If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need to go.  You can go jogging with all the other perfect people on Sunday morning.  Every time you go to church, you are confessing again to yourself, to your family, to the people you pass on your way there, to the people who will greet you there, that you don’t have it all together.  You need some direction and you need some accountability and you need some help.

Closeness to God is not about feelings, closeness to God is about obedience.  I don’t know how one ‘feels’ close to God.  And no one I know that seems close to God knows anything about those ‘feelings’ either.  I do know that if we obey, sometimes the feelings will follow; not always, but occasionally.  And, I know that if we do not obey, we don’t have a shot at ever getting those feelings.

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Psalm 149:1  —  Praise the Lord.  Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.

Psalm 68:35  —  You, God, are awesome… the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.  Praise be to God!

Romans 12:3  —  For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.

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OUR GOD IS AN AWESOME GOD by Rich Mullins, 1988

Listen/watch at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJL_bChiTI0  (sung by Rich Mullins)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaU6EMR37NA  (sung by Michael W. Smith)

—–

When He rolls up His sleeves
He ain’t just putting on the ritz
(Our God is an awesome God)

There’s thunder in His footsteps
And lightning in His fists
(Our God is an awesome God)

And the Lord wasn’t joking
When He kicked ’em out of Eden
It wasn’t for no reason
That He shed His blood
His return is very close
And so you better be believing that
Our God is an awesome God

Our God is an awesome God
He reigns from heaven above
With wisdom, power, and love
Our God is an awesome God (2x)

And when the sky was starless
In the void of the night
(Our God is an awesome God)

He spoke into the darkness
And created the light
(Our God is an awesome God)

Judgement and wrath
He poured out on Sodom
Mercy and grace
He gave us at the cross
I hope that we have not
Too quickly forgotten that
Our God is an awesome God

Our God is an awesome God
He reigns from heaven above
With wisdom, power, and love
Our God is an awesome God (5x)

870) Church Ladies Learn About Temptation

————–

From The Last Word, by William Willimon, pages 119-121.

     In one of my congregations, we decided that we needed to grow.  We voted to launch a program of evangelism.  We studied a program from our denomination telling us how to get new members.  Among other things, the church-growth program advocated a system of door-to-door visitation.  So we organized ourselves into groups of two and, on an appointed Sunday afternoon, we set out to visit, to invite people to our church.  The teams went out, armed with packets of pamphlets describing our congregation, pamphlets telling about our denomination, fliers portraying me, the smiling pastor, inviting people to our church.  Each team was given a map with the teams assigned street.

     Helen and Gladys were given a map.  They were clearly told to go down Summit Drive and to turn right.  That’s what they were told.  I heard the team leader tell them, “You go down Summit Drive and turn right.  Do you hear me, Helen?  That’s down Summit Drive and turn right?”

     But Helen and Gladys, both approaching eighty, after lifetimes of teaching elementary school, were better at giving than receiving directions.  They turned left, venturing down into the housing projects to the west of Summit Drive.  Which meant that Helen and Gladys proceeded to evangelize the wrong neighborhood and thereby ran the risk of evangelizing the wrong people.

   Late that afternoon, each team returned to the church to make its report.  Helen and Gladys had only one interested person to report to us, a woman named Verleen.  Nobody on their spurious route was interested in visiting our church, nobody but Verleen.  She lived with her two children in a three-room apartment in the projects, we were told.  Although she had never been to a church in her life, Verleen wanted to visit ours.

     This is what you get, I said to myself, when you don’t follow directions, when you won’t do what the pastor tells you to do; this is what you get, a woman from the projects named Verleen.

     The next Sunday, Helen and Gladys proudly presented Verleen at the eleven o’clock service, Verleen along with two feral-looking children.  Verleen liked the service so much, she said, that she wanted to attend the women’s Thursday morning Bible study.  Helen and Gladys said they would pick her up.

      On Thursday, Verleen appeared, proudly clutching her new Bible, a gift of Helen’s circle, the first Bible Verleen had ever seen, much less owned.

     I was leading the study that morning on Luke 4, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  “Have any of you ever been faced with temptation and, with Jesus’ help, resisted?”  I asked the group after presenting my material.  “Have any of you refused some temptation because of your Christian commitment?”

      One of the women told about how, just the week before, there was some confusion in the supermarket checkout line and, before she knew it, she was standing in the supermarket parking lot with a loaf of bread that she had not paid for.

     “At first I thought,” she confessed, “Why should I pay for it?  They have enough money here as it is.  But then I thought, ‘No, you are a Christian.’  So I went back in the store and paid them for that loaf of bread.”

     I made some approving comment.

     It was then that Verleen spoke.  “A couple of years ago I was into cocaine really big.  You know what that’s like!  You know how that stuff makes you crazy.  Well, anyway, my boyfriend, not the one I’ve got now, the one who was the daddy of my first child, that one; well, we robbed a gas station one night– got two hundred dollars out of it.  It was as simple as taking candy from a baby.  Well, my boyfriend, he says to me, ‘Let’s knock off that 7-Eleven down on the corner.’  And something in me, it says, ‘No, I’ve held up that gas station with you, but I ain’t going to hold up no convenience store.’  He beat the hell out of me, but I still said no.  It felt great to say no, ‘cause that’s the only time in my life I ever said no to anything.  Made me feel like I was somebody.”

     Through the stunned silence I managed to mutter, “Well, er, uh, that’s resisting temptation.  That’s sort of what this text is about.  And now it’s time for our closing prayer.”

     After I stumbled out of the church parlor and was standing out in the parking lot helping Helen into her car, she said to me, “You know, I can’t wait to get home and get on the phone and invite people to come next Thursday!  Your Bible studies used to be dull, but I think I can get a good crowd for this!”

     I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  But the church, by the grace of God, grew.

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MORAL OF THE STORY:  We usually think it is yielding to temptation that will make us feel good.  What we want to do might be wrong, someone might get hurt, we might hurt ourselves in the long run– but at least it feels good for the moment.  But Verleen, who had always given in to temptation, found out that resisting temptation made her feel great.  It made her feel ‘like I was somebody;’ somebody who was strong enough and smart enough to say no.   

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Luke 4:1-2a  —  Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil…

James 1:12  —  Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

Luke 5:30-32  —  …The Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

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Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day:  Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   

Book of Common Prayer

869) Ask and It Will Be Given You?

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.  –Psalm 37:4 

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     Psalm 37:4 is one of those verses that Christians can twist to suit their own fancy.  I have heard some preachers claim, on the basis of this verse, that God will give us anything we want.  If we simply “claim it,” God will give us mansions, yachts, luxury cars, and, well, you name it.  To be sure, God can and does bless us materially.  But if we argue from Psalm 37:4 that “God will give you anything you want,” we miss the whole point of the verse.

     Yes, this verse does promise that the Lord “will give you your heart’s desires.”  But notice the context.  That promise comes after a command:  “Take delight in the Lord.”  If we put our delight in God, THEN he will give us the desires of our heart.

     How does this happen?  It isn’t some kind of divine system of rewards.  Psalm 37:4 does not mean that if we enjoy God, he will decide to reward us by giving us all the luxuries we want.  Rather, if we delight in God, if we focus on God’s nature, if we love God with all that we are, we’ll discover that the desires of our heart will be transformed.  We will stop being so concerned about our own “stuff;” even about our own well being.  Instead, we will start to yearn for the things of God, for his truth and peace, for his justice and mercy.  Our desires will begin to reflect God’s own desires for us and for this world.  Thus we will want what God wants, and he will give that which is according to his will.

     Moreover, the more we take delight in the Lord, the more we will discover that what we desire most of all is a truer and more vital relationship with him.  Strangely enough, a closer relationship with God both satisfies our deepest longing and intensifies that longing.  So as we learn to know God better, our heart’s desires will be increasingly focused on God.  We will seek him above all and, by his grace, find him.  Thus, in this way, God will give us the desires of our heart.

–By Mark Roberts, Daily Reflections, March 5, 2011 Blog at: http://www.thehighcalling.org (adapted).

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Matthew 7:7-8  —  (Jesus said),   “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Psalm 37:1-5  —  Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.  Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.  Take delight in the Lordand he will give you the desires of your heart.  Commit your way to the Lordtrust in him and he will do this.

James 4:1-3  —  What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You desire but do not have, so you kill.  You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.  You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

James 4:8a  —  Come near to God and he will come near to you.

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I ask you, Lord, to align my desires according to the ways of your own heart.  May I want what you want.  May I seek that which is consistent with your will.  Let your will guide my prayers, my actions, my words, and my desires.  All praise be to you, gracious God, because you give me the desires of my heart.  Most of all, you give me the gift of close relationship with you.  Amen.

–Mark Roberts

868) Funeral Sermon for a Confident Man (b)

     (…continued)  The Bible has a great deal to say about confidence.  There is a little bit there about self-confidence, a little bit more about having confidence in others, and quite a few verses about confidence in God.  Proverbs 3:25-26 says, “Have no fear, for the Lord will be your confidence;” and Proverbs 14:26 says, “The fear of the Lord gives strong confidence, and his children shall always have a place of refuge.”  Psalm 27 says: “The Lord is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life, — of whom shall I be afraid?  Even though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; even though a war break out against me, even then, I will be confident... I am confident of this; I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Isaiah 30:15 says, “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”

     The New Testament builds on those Old Testament expressions of confidence.  In Philippians chapter three, Paul speaks of Christians as those who glory in Christ, but put no confidence in the flesh; this ‘frail, frail flesh’ as Shakespeare described it.  We do have to depend on this frail flesh for a while.  You wouldn’t be sitting here today without it.  But we can’t depend on it for very long.  75-80 years, or perhaps a few more, and that’s all.  So Paul says, it’s no use putting much confidence in such a temporary thing as that.  Those of you who watched Ray die saw in these last few weeks saw how ‘frail‘ this flesh really is, and what happens when it does fail.

     But Paul has more to say on the subject.  In II Corinthians chapters four and five he wrote: “Therefore, we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away… (that’s what happens to flesh), yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles here, are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal…  Therefore, WE ARE ALWAYS CONFIDENT.”  Paul goes on to say that when we leave this body, we go home to be with the Lord.  That is our ultimate confidence.  That is the confidence that will get us not just a long ways, but all the way to our eternal home.

     “If a man die, shall he live again?” asked the desperately ill Job in the Old Testament.  ‘No problem,’ says the Lord.  The Lord who put our soul and our spirit into this body and this flesh, can certainly have for us another body ready to go when this wears out.  In that same passage from II Corinthians that I referred to above, Paul said, “Now we know that if this earthly tent (this body) is destroyed, we have a building from God, (another body), an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”  Even when weakened by old age, riddled with cancer, and finally destroyed by death, the Bible tells us there will be a building for us, a body, from God, an eternal house in heaven.  And so God says, we can be confident.  This, says Romans 5:5, is a hope that will not disappoint us.

     Ray died at home last Friday afternoon with his family around him.  When it was looking like the end was near, someone started praying the Lord’s prayer. Right after they all said ‘Amen’ Ray breathed his last.  The very last words Ray heard on this earth were the words of that wonderful prayer of Christian confidence: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven… for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.”  Even in death we are in the hands of that God, and that is a good and safe place to be.  As the New Testament says, nothing, not even death can separate from the love of God.  Believe that and you will have a hope and a confidence that will never be disappointed.

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Jeremiah 9:23-24a  —  This is what the Lord says:  “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this:  that they have the understanding to know me.”

II Corinthians 3:4  —  Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.

II Corinthians 5:8  —  Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Hebrews 10:35-36  —  Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward.  For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.

Romans 8:38-39  —  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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.

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AMAZING GRACE, John Newton, verses 4-6:

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

867) Funeral Sermon for a Confident Man (a)

CONFIDENCE

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     Whenever I think of Uncle Ray, there is one particular memory that comes to mind.  I remember a hot summer afternoon, perhaps about 15 years ago, when Ray and Laverne were living on East Silent Lake.  Many family members were there for a weekend visit.  We swam, went boating, did some fishing, and had many good conversations.  On the afternoon that I remember best, all the men were sitting on lawn chairs in a circle on the driveway talking about the good old days; and for the longest time, all the attention was on Ray.  He was in his finest story-telling form that day, and he told story and after story.  Stories of childhood, stories of his days in the military, stories of the truck driving days, stories of loved ones long gone; on and on he went.  I remember thinking, “This guy can really tell a story;” and he had so many to tell.  He never ran out.  I recall thinking back to seminary classes where I was taught how to tell stories and use them effectively in sermons.  But as I listened to Ray I realized that to be able to tell stories like that isn’t something you learn in a class.  It’s a gift, and either you’ve got it or you don’t.  Ray had that gift.

     The part of Ray’s personality that impressed me the most was his self-confidence.  Maybe that is part of what it takes to be a good storyteller– you have to be confident enough to believe you have something to say.  And Ray was confident of his opinions and confident of his decisions and confident about everything he said and did.  He was a bold, forward moving guy, who didn’t spend any time hemming, hawing, or having second thoughts about anything.  That doesn’t mean he was always right.  And that doesn’t mean that such bold confidence is always the best way to be.  Every personality trait has its advantages and disadvantages.  I am not saying any of this to flatter or to criticize, but simply to state a fact.  Ray went at life with a great deal of zest and drive and an unshakable confidence.

      I have been wondering these past few days where such confidence came from.  Ray was the baby of the family, his mother died when he was only 14, he grew up during the depression and then the war, and he was poor.  When he was seventeen he came to live with my grandparents.  He was grandmother’s little brother and was going to work for my grandfather; and so he was going to stay with them for a while.  My dad, a young boy at the time, remembers how Ray arrived at the door carrying everything he owned in a paper sack.  Ray had a humble start in life.

     So where did Ray’s powerful self-confidence come from?  I don’t know.  I do think God makes us in a certain way, not only physically, but also on the inside.  And then, I believe it is up to us to make something of what God has given us, by making our own good decisions.  Ray had to depend on himself and he had to work hard, and that can build confidence.  We can make some guesses about why people are the way they are, but we really can’t say for sure why some lack confidence, and others, like Ray, are filled with self-confidence.

     And that self-confidence, that ‘depending on yourself’ can get someone a long ways in life.  It served Ray well, and he enjoyed great success in all that he did.  But such confidence can only get you so far.  That ‘self’ we have to depend on does eventually get old, and it can get sick, and it will weaken and die.  And that ‘self,’ no matter how strong and confident and self-sufficient, may well, in the end, have to depend on everyone else for everything.  And then death comes, when no one help you any more.  Self-confidence can get you only so far.

     That is why it is of such great comfort today to remember that Ray had another, deeper confidence, a confidence that relied not upon himself, but upon God.  Romans 14:7-8 says, “None of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone; whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.”  We do not have to depend only on ourselves.  We belong to the Lord.  And that is what gives us hope and confidence on a day like today.  Our deepest confidence comes in knowing that death does not get the last word.  God gets the last word, and his word is a word of life for all who will believe it.  We give thanks today for that good word and promise of God, and we give thanks because we know that Ray knew and believed in that Lord of life.  God gets the last word over us, and God says that because of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, we are forgiven of our sins and we will live again.  We express that deeper confidence ever time we say the Apostles Creed when we say we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  (continued…)

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II Corinthians 11:17  —  In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool.

Romans 14:7-9  —  For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.  If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.  For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

Jeremiah 17:7  —  Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lordwhose confidence is in him.

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For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lordmy confidence since my youth.  From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.  I will ever praise you.

–Psalm 71:5-6

866) The Problem of James (b)

 

     (…continued)  One of the keys to this is in our understanding of faith.  Here too there is a tension in how the Bible defines and presents faith.  Is faith itself something we do, or, is it a gift of God?  We can find Bible passages that seem to describe it both ways.  Ephesians 2:8 says that even faith is God’s gift, and not “from yourselves.”  Luther included this truth in his catechism explanation to the third article of the Apostle’s creed when he wrote, “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.”  But in many other places, including many of Jesus’ own words, we are commanded to have faith, and to be faithful, implying that faith is something that we do.

     Ephesians 2:8 says that faith is “the gift of God.”  But a gift can be rejected.  A gift can be ignored.  A gift can be left on the table and not even picked up.  So even though faith is a freely given gift, we still have to be faithful.  And this brings us back to what James is saying in his little book.  He says faith without works is dead.  Another way we might say that is to say that faith without works WILL DIE.  

     The faith is freely given.  Salvation is ours “without any merit or worthiness on our part,” as the catechism says.  But if one repeatedly refuses to pay any attention to God, carelessly disobeying God without any regret or any confession or even any thought of God; if one insists on turning away from God; then the gift is rejected and faith will die.  The Bible does not spell out exactly how and when that happens.  In fact Jesus says that on the last day there will be many surprises among the saved and the unsaved.  The Bible doesn’t give the specifics.  But the Bible is constantly going back and forth between the promises and the warnings.  The promises are wonderful:  the love of God, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting– all freely given.  Salvation is all by God’s grace, so we can have complete assurance.  We can know without a doubt where we stand with God.  But at the same time, the Bible issues warning after warning, and command after command:  don’t turn away, don’t disobey, believe, have faith, and stand fast.  

     It is not that God will reject and turn away from us, but by continued disobedience and unbelief, we may, in time, turn our backs on God.  God has given us the awful freedom to be able to do that.

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John 14:12a  —  (Jesus said), “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.”

I Corinthians 16:13  —  Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.

James 5:8  —  Be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.

I Peter 5:8-10  —  Be alert and of sober mind.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

Revelation 14:12-13  —  This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.  Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this:  Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

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Almighty God,
You alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners:

Grant Your people grace to love what You command and desire what You promise;
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

865) The Problem of James (a)

     The New Testament book of James has been a source of controversy ever since it was written almost 20 centuries ago.  Martin Luther, for example, did not like it at all.  When he published his first German translation of the Bible, James was not in its usual place right after the book of Hebrews.  Rather, Luther put it at the end, along with a couple other books he wasn’t too wild about.  In later editions he changed his mind and included all the books in their usual order, but Luther never grew very fond of James.  He called it a ‘straw Gospel,’ criticizing it for hardly ever mentioning Jesus.  The name of Jesus appears only twice in five chapters.

     But the primary problem for Luther and many others is the emphasis in James on the place of good works in the Christian life.  All would agree that God expects us to obey his Law.  Many books in the Bible contain all kinds of laws and rules and admonitions to obey.   But Martin Luther rediscovered the grace of God, and proclaimed that we are saved by faith and not works.  Yes, we are expected to obey God’s Law, just like children in the home are expected to obey their parents.  But a child’s place in the home is not dependent on the number of rules that are obeyed, and neither is our place as God’s children dependent on our goodness.  It’s all by the Grace of God, said Luther, pointing to Ephesians 2:8, where Paul wrote “For it is by grace you have been saved, THROUGH FAITH, and this is NOT from yourselves, but it is the gift of God, NOT by works so that no one can boast;” and Romans 3:23,  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we are justified FREELY by his grace;” and Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death, but the GIFT of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

     But James seemed to say something else, and thus has been a thorn in the flesh for many theologians and preachers.  Paul seems to put all the emphasis on God’s grace through faith, but James created confusion by saying “What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such a faith save him?  No, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is DEAD.”  

     But what is the alternative?  Shall we say that it doesn’t matter what we do?  Is that Christianity?  Someone once said to me after a sermon on God’s grace, “You preachers make it all sound too easy; it can’t be like that.”  James would say the same.

     There has always been this tension in Christianity between faith and works, because the tension is in the pages of the Bible itself.  In terms of strict logic, this may look a contradiction; but we are not here dealing with logic, we are dealing with a relationship.  And when one looks at this in the context of a relationship, this is no more a contradiction than it is for a mother to know in her heart that she will love her children forever no matter what, while at the same time be saying to them, “You better do what I tell you to do, or else!”  Or else what?  Well, of course there might be consequences, but total abandonment and rejection of the child forever is usually not one of them.  In the same way, in God’s infinite wisdom and providence, there may well be consequences for our disobedience, as God seeks to bring us back to faith and obedience.  But we can talk about that without saying that our salvation is dependent on our obedience; just as we do not say a child earns his or her place in the family home by their obedience, good will, or completion of daily chores.

     The Bible tells us these two different things at the very same time.  It says, “You are saved by grace– it is all God’s doing and none of your own.”  And at the same time the Bible says, “Everything you do matters.”  Martin Luther did not like how the book of James talked about faith and works.  But when Luther preached about the Christian life, he could sound very much like James, emphasizing the importance of an active and obedient faith that does indeed work.  Luther would do both, sometimes proclaiming God’s grace, and other times proclaiming what we MUST do in obedient response to that grace.  

     James and Paul did not contradict each other, but merely emphasized two different aspects of the same truth.  Paul comforts us with the unconditional love and acceptance of God’s grace, and James reminds us of how we ought to respond to that Grace with faithful and obedient lives.  (continued…)

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Ephesians 2:8-9  —  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

Romans 6:23  —   For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

James 2:14  —  What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?

James 2:17  —   Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2:26  —  For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

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Pray as though everything depended on God.  Work as though everything depended on you.

–St. Augustine

864) Helping Yourself by Helping Others

From Let Me Tell You a Story, by Tony Campolo, copyright 2000, page 91

     The story is told by M. Scott Peck, the famous psychologist and author, of a woman patient who was suffering from extreme depression.  One day, when she was due for an appointment with him, she called on the telephone and told him that her car had broken down.  Dr. Peck offered to pick her up on his way into work, but he explained to her that he had to make a hospital call before he got to the office.  If she was willing to wait in the car while he made the call, they could have their appointment.  She agreed.

     When they got to the hospital, he had another suggestion.  He gave her the names of two of his patients who were convalescing there, and told her that each of them would enjoy a visit from her.  When they met again, an hour and a half later, the woman was on an emotional high.  She told Dr. Peck that making the visits and trying to cheer up those patients had lifted her spirits, and that she was feeling absolutely wonderful.

     Dr. Peck responded by saying, “Well, now we know how to get you out of your depression.  Now we know the cure for your problem.”

     The woman answered, “You don’t expect me to do that every day, do you?”

     That’s the tragedy of our lives.  Doing what Jesus would do lifts us out of our doldrums into a higher quality of life.  And yet, we often think that imitating Jesus is something burdensome.  It’s not!  Doing what Jesus would do feeds us emotionally and lifts our spirits.  One experiences the flow of the Spirit in the context of serving others.

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II Corinthians 1:3-7  —  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.  And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

Philippians 2:1-5 — If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus… 

Deuteronomy 32:46-47 — (Moses) said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.  They are not just idle words for you– they are your life.  By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”

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This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.  If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.  Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

863) A Good Role Model

2007

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2014

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By John Stonestreet, August 20, 2015 blog at:  http://www.breakpoint.org

     Scarcely a week goes by that the NFL doesn’t make more news for what’s going on off the field than on it.  Just in the past few weeks, we learned the 49ers released former Pro Bowl defensive end Aldon Smith after his third arrest for driving under the influence.

     And then we found out that the Jets’ quarterback Geno Smith will miss 6-10 weeks with a fractured jaw after being sucker-punched by a teammate.

     NBA legend Charles Barkley once came under fire for a commercial in which he said, “I’m not a role model . . . Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

     Well, given the contemporary professional sports climate, he would simply be stating the obvious today.  But there are exceptions.  There are athletes who our kids would do well to emulate.

     One of them—Ryan Broyles, a receiver for the Detroit Lions.  Drafted in the second round in 2012, he signed a contract worth nearly $3.7 million, including a $1.1 million signing bonus.  But unlike many other players, Broyles didn’t splurge on a new car or a fancy home.  He still owns the 2005 Trailblazer he drove in college.  And though he and his wife recently bought a new home, they bought far less home than they could have afforded.

     I know this, because as ESPN reported, Broyles and his wife “have lived on $60,000 a year, ‘give or take,’ throughout his career.”  And, he told ESPN, he knew that NFL players and athletes in general tend to go bankrupt after their playing days are over.  That story has been fully told in the ESPN Films documentary appropriately titled “Broke.”

     Not to be another broke ex-jock though, he came up with a budget to live on and decided that everything else would go into savings and investments.  “I studied as much as I could,” he told ESPN and “talked to people wealthier than me, smarter than me.”

     And what’s more, he’s working with “VISA and the NFL on promoting a Financial Football video game in classrooms to help teach financial security and planning.”

     Broyles wasn’t always this responsible.  Although he grew up in a Christian home that taught him right from wrong, by his own admission he didn’t really know God.  Instead he took the blessings he enjoyed for granted.  In fact, as a college freshman, he was arrested for stealing gas from a gas station.

     But the arrest and its consequences got Broyles to thinking about all the things he took for granted in his life.  And then a trip to Haiti fully transformed his ideas about God into a relationship with God.

     As Broyles told the Oklahoma News, he went to Haiti with two dozen other Oklahoma University athletes who volunteered to work with Mission of Hope, a group dedicated to “meeting the physical and spiritual needs of the Haitian population.”

     During that trip, Broyles “witnessed poverty unlike anything he’d ever seen.”  Everywhere he looked, he saw “people with nothing—nothing but their faith.”  And yet they were joyful.  As he told the News, “I was jealous . . . I wanted to be like that.”  Yes, you heard that right.  He was jealous.

     Upon his return from Haiti, he told his then-girlfriend and now wife, Mary Beth, that there “was no turning back” to the way he was.  Part of this meant being aware that football gave him an opportunity and responsibility to set an example for others.

     While his NFL career hasn’t gone as well as he would have liked, he’s doing just fine in the example department.  Ryan and Mary Beth are examples of one of the rarest and most counter-cultural virtues:  the ability to delay gratification.  And his character is the reason that one Washington Post commentator called Broyles his “new favorite wide receiver.”

     And I’ll add another label for him—role model.

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Matthew 5:14-16  —  (Jesus said), “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp-stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Acts 22:15  —   You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard.

Romans 12:2  —  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

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O God, help us to be masters of ourselves that we may be servants of others.  Amen.