Article: Love? Really?

“But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.

Paul writes to the conflicted church in Corinth that he “planted” several years earlier…

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3

Most of us know this passage because it is often read at weddings. Paul did not intend for this letter to become a part of “Christian scripture” because it was merely a letter written to a church that he started and they were struggling. Even more so, I think Paul would be surprised that this portion of his letter to the church in Corinth is read at Christian weddings. 

Saint Paul tried to convey to the church that there were more important things than speaking in tongues, healing others and overseeing the administration of the church. Then he proceeds to tell us that love surpasses any title or spiritual gift ever given. Imagine that? Love is something everyone can do and it is the greatest gift given and as Paul says, it is “the most excellent way.” 

Then he applies love (or the lack of love) to several situations. 

  1. If I speak in tongues (which he just talked about in chapter 12 of 1Corinthians) but do so without love, I would be like a noisy, annoying instrument. (Think drum kit given to a 3rdgrader on Christmas.)
  • If I had the power to declare God’s intentions (prophecy) and understand the secret will of God (mysteries) and have a perfect understanding of theology (knowledge) and I have an unshakable trust in God (faith) but I am without love, I am nothing. 

By the way, if you look to the original Greek in which this letter was written you will find that my rendering is a little closer to the original intentions of Saint Paul.

  • If in an act of faithful, selfless devotion I give everything I have to the poor and even give my life as a burning sacrifice as sign of my faith but do not have love, I am nothing. 

All of this is surprising to me because Paul is the superstar apostle who speaks in tongues, gives prophecy, has the clearest understanding of the Christian faith (theology), seems to have an unshakable faith in Christ and does not draw an income for preaching and starting churches. This guy can do it all and yet he says that love is the most excellent way. 

He even mentions that the three greatest things are “faith, hope and love” and out of those three only love will continue on forever. 

I don’t want you to miss this… Paul is an intellectual. He is a theologian. He is heady. Paul is not known for being “warm and fuzzy.” I definitely do not think Saint Paul is a hugger. I think it is amazing that he is advocating for love above correct theology and wisdom. I would think that love would be secondary for Paul but it is not. That should perk up our ears.

Even Paul knows that God is love. Love that comes to us in the person of Jesus. 

As we continue to make our preparations for Christmas, just remember that there is no such thing as the “perfect Christmas.” Let those images go and focus on love. The love that God sent to us in the person of Jesus and the love we share with one another. 

God bless you, 
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Getting Ready for the Holidays: Part 2

We continue to look at ways to spiritually getting ready for Christmas AND our future! Yes, we play another round of Family Feud too! Once we do a little cleaning there is a “next step.” Find out what that next step is!

Article: Reflections on President Bush

I believe in love. I believe in the end that love wins. No matter what may or may not happen to us in this life, love has the final word and love is the final and eternal Word. I have committed my adult life and career to this truth.

As a human, I forget that love has the final say in all things. I am grateful for the illuminated reminders that God provides in times of darkness.

The stories shared of President George H.W. Bush shared by his friends and family at his funeral and on the news reminded me that in the end love wins . I was also reminded how that love should be shared as we live our lives.

President Bush and his family are people of faith. His pastor was present with the president in his final moments on earth. The same was true when his wife Barbara died. Their faith in Christ informed their living and their dying. I am strengthened knowing that.

President Bush loved his wife deeply. When asked (hypothetically) if he could come back and be anyone in a new life, who would he be? He answered, “Barbara’s second husband.” He loved her so much and wouldn’t want to live a second time without his best friend and wife. I am strengthened knowing that.

When President Bush’s close friend Secretary of State James Baker visited the president on his final day of life, the president asked, “Where are we going, Bake?”

Baker answered, “Well, Jefe” (Spanish for boss) “We are going to heaven.”

The president responded, “Good, that’s where I want to go.”
I am strengthened knowing that.

People said that he never talked ill of anyone. Someone even combed through his letters and the meanest they found was that the president described someone as being “not much of a gentlemen.”

President Bush loved his family too and they knew it. His son President George W. Bush called his father near the end and told his father that he loved him and he was the best father. I am strengthened knowing that.

On Thursday afternoon, President Bush was laid to rest at his presidential library in College Station, Texas. He was buried next to his beloved wife and their daughter Robin who died at three years of age because of leukemia. They are all together again symbolically and literally. As the honor guard moved the president’s casket to his final resting place, the band played the beautiful hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

Immediately the words of the second verse popped into my head (thank you God)…

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

President George H.W. Bush was once the most powerful man in the world. Yet, when he entered into the presence of Christ President Bush willingly and joyfully cast his symbolic golden crown in front of King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. You see, President Bush was a child of God and is now home.

Historians and political pundits will debate his political career and his stand on various issues. That is not what I experienced this week. I saw person of faith who lived that out to the best of his ability. I also know that in the places President George H.W. Bush failed to live into love… Christ forgave Him. I am strengthened knowing that.

May we be people who always love deeply and live with integrity.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Getting Ready for the Holidays: Cleaning Up

We begin this Advent season with a sermon series about getting ready for Christmas. The same things we do to prepare to have company at Christmas we can do spiritually to get ready for Jesus. Oh and we play Family Feud too!

Article: God First

I am not an expert in most things. However, I am a theologian. You may even question my expertise in that field of study, yet that is what I am. I look at  everything through the lens of God’s word as found in the scripture and through the filter of the living Word of God who is Jesus the Christ.

The season of Advent is here and our focus is on the “arrival” of Jesus on Christmas Day. We are not only looking back but we are also looking forward to the day Jesus returns in power. As we look at the events of 2018, we need Jesus more than ever.

When I think about all the trouble in the world, I am reminded of something one of my seminary professors once said in class. “If we could obey the first commandment perfectly we would not need the other nine.” He was referring to the first commandment of the Ten Commandments and that is “You shall have no other gods.”

What did my professor mean by that? He was not talking about other gods. He was talking about us. Not that we become a god but we take the place of God. What do I mean by that? Our priorities and preferences take precedence over God’s will for our lives. Now multiply that by the 7.5 billion people who live on earth. No wonder there are so many problems! We are all using our own playbooks!

For example, I see this most often when it comes to an individual’s political preferences. I see over and over again how God’s sovereignty in a person’s life ends at political preferences and policy. Somehow the First Amendment of the US Constitution applies to how people of faith think about God’s will for our nation. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue, it is a personal perception problem. God doesn’t appear to be welcome in our personal political deliberation as individuals. God is relegated to church and not allowed in the public forum as it relates to deliberation and discernment of important national issues. Why is this happening? This goes back to our inability to fully live into the first commandment and letting God lead all areas of our lives (and thought processes).

If I have hit a nerve, I apologize. However, it also means there is an element of truth in what I am writing.

Jesus reminds us that the two most important concepts as His followers are “to love God and love people.” (The Great Commandment as found in Matthew 22.) You may disagree but I believe this applies to every aspect of my life including larger issues in our nation, including how our nation treats the poor and those who have no legal standing and are seeking asylum.

Don’t read into my comments. I am not advocating for a welfare state or have open borders. (I am not interested in debating these issues either.) What I am saying is that we need to treat all people with dignity and love… even when they don’t return that love. That’s all I am saying.

I want God to lead every aspect of my life. Am I there yet? Nope but it is my desire. I continue to work towards surrendering all areas of my lives.

I am thankful we are moving toward Christmas. I need to be reminded that God comes to us and forgives us. I need reconciliation and a change of heart.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: Thanksgiving Article/Sermon

This is the text of my Thanksgiving Eve sermon at Bethel…

I don’t know if you saw the tragic news this morning but a Lutheran pastor in San Francisco was arrested for having many pornographic images of children on his computer.

It is just unbelievable and it is sad.

It is just another thing in this bad news month… and you know what those things are…

Massive wildfires, almost 900 people unaccounted for. And it seems to be a blessing that the rain has arrived… but there are flash flood warnings up north now because of the 4-6 inches of rain anticipated and no ground cover.

A mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and at a bar on college night down in Thousand Oaks.

I am sure you could several more things to this list that you’ve seen in the news over the past couple of weeks.

It would really easy to focus on the reasons not to be thankful. We could lament that life is coming apart at the seams.

We may rank this as one of the worst years ever… but according to the Universities of Nottingham and Maine we aren’t even close. Can you imagine a year much worse?

Well according to these researchers 536AD was the worst year ever for humans.

That year had a massive volcano eruption which caused mass cooling. There were crop failures and famines. Then the bubonic plague… Black Death swept across the known world at that time. ¼ of the world’s population died.

I can’t help but wonder… what did the Christians do in this time of great suffering?

I do know that Saint Benedict lived through this time in the 6thcentury and he really was the first to establish monasteries. He began as hermit pulling away from everyday life but then established monasteries as a way to live communally and even serve within a community.

In other words devotion to God did not wane in times of trouble. I am hopeful that we will be the church in whatever situation we might find ourselves—whether good or bad.

I do believe that whatever we focus on is what we see. If we are to only look for the bad and talk about the bad—our minds will see mostly evil in the world.

If we look for the good… we will see that too. That’s not to say we won’t see some bad stuff too… I am not a total Pollyanna. But where we choose to put our focus is what we will see most of the time.

Do you remember what Mr. Rogers who was also a Methodist minister said about this topic?

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.”

We also have the opportunity to be those helpers at different times. That seems to be one of the roles that Jesus took on whenever he was out in the world.

Listen to this..

As Jesus was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance  and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” Luke 17:12-13

 Jesus was a first responder… actually he was their last resort.

These men were desperate. They had been cut off from community, from family, from working from EVERYTHING.

They had nothing. They had to live outside of town in case they were contagious. They didn’t have lives and were treated like they were less than human.

Obviously rumors about Jesus had circulated through their families to them and so when they heard Jesus was coming through they probably knew this was their only chance.

Everything else had failed them at this point. It was either Jesus or living in exile for the rest of their lives.

As I said, they were desperate men.

We know what happens next right? Jesus almost always says yes to these kind of requests.

When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. Luke 17:14

 He freed them from their oppressed state.Now it was common practice to get the “all clear” from the Jewish priest (not Judas Priest the rock band) who was the expert on “clean” and “unclean” things.

One of them recognized that he had been healed and came back to Jesus to thank him. On top of that he wasn’t even an observant Jew… he was a despised Samaritan. “People like that don’t come back and thank anyone. How can this be?”

This doesn’t seem right? But there it is. Jesus notices too and asks, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Luke 17:17-18

 Jesus accepts his gratitude and that is the end of the story… there isn’t a chapter 2 when the 9 arrive to be examined by the priest only to discover that Jesus DID NOT heal them because of their lack of gratitude.

That kind of ending would make my life easier as a pastor… I could just say, “be thankful or else” and say “amen.”

But Jesus isn’t like that—even if we want him to be.

After the retelling of that story, I could simply summarize the story this way, “Be like Jesus and help the less fortunate.”

I could do that but I am not.

If this were Sunday School and we were going to act this story out… I wouldn’t want any of you to play the part of Jesus. I want us to all be lepers. All of us.

It is too easy to say, “Be like Jesus.”

It makes a lot more sense for us to be lepers.

I know what you’re thinking… I don’t want to be a leper.

Sure you do, you just don’t know it yet.

Here is why we should be lepers… they are desperate.

I think there is an important lesson to be learned in situations of desperation.

Don’t forget this: desperation can lead to dependency.

When you are at the end of what you can do… that is where God can step in.

When we are trying to fix everything ourselves and be in control—there is no room for God to act.

This problem is compounded by our comfort. The more secure we feel (financially and otherwise) the less dependent we are on love of Jesus.

I don’t wish bad on anyone… but I do hope we (as Christians) continue to increase our dependency on Christ the same way those lepers did… only without the leprosy.

Or maybe like those pilgrims in the Plymouth Colony who in spite of hardship still gave thanks to God for their first harvest of the land. They knew about dependency and didn’t let the circumstances of hardship over shadow their gratitude.

Sometimes we are too comfortable or too insulated and our dependency on God suffers because there is zero desperation in our lives.

We don’t want to give thanks to ourselves tomorrow taking credit for all we have done and how good things have been.

No, tomorrow is the day to give thanks to the One who is the giver of all good gifts. Let us cling to Jesus… like a Samaritan who has been cured of leprosy.

Happy Thanksgiving and God bless you,

Pr. Ben

Sermon: Do We Really Want What Jesus Offers?

As the title states, I am not really sure we want what Jesus offers. If that sounds unbelievable, listen in and decide for yourselves. Is it possible that Jesus knows what we need more than we do? I think so.

Article: Dismantling Performance Theology

“Cursed is the person who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” Deuteronomy 27:26

In chapter 27 of Deuteronomy we find a litany of  “calls and responses” of all of the things the Israelites should be about. After each proclaimed instruction the people shout “amen.” This “call and response” culminates with the instruction above.

I understand that I am not an Israelite… but I can’t imagine saying “amen” to that. It seems more like a burden than a joy.

The Priests: We are going to do EVERYTHING the law commands!

Me: Wait. What? Everything?

The Priests: Yeah, everything! Can I get an amen?

Me: (In a quiet voice) Amen?

I don’t go around thinking of myself as “cursed” but I certainly have not been perfect my whole life let alone a week. Even if I just compare myself to the 10 Commandments (and not the whole law of 613 commands) I fall short… way short.  I am not Jewish but that seems like a lot of pressure to be good.

The Jewish Law has a lot of instruction for various things including worship and civil law, but there are many, many directives on how to live your life (morally). Even if you excluded the ceremonial laws, the worship commands and the civil law contained in the Hebrew Bible, the pressure is on to be a good person. A really good person.

I am not against being a good person and it is admirable to be guided by your morals BUT if our relationship with God depends upon it, then we are all going to struggle.

Do you know the other place Deuteronomy 27:26 is referenced? In Paul’s letter to Galatians (chapter 3).

Paul reminds the church that he started that “following the law” (read being morally upright, good people) is pretty much impossible.

Paul writes, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse…Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Galatians 3:10a-11.

 Let me translate this a little bit…

Everyone who thinks their relationship with God is built upon doing good is in big trouble. No one is acceptable to God by the good things they do. Those who have good relationship with God trusts Christ for all things.

I can’t imagine always wondering what God thinks of me based on the things I do or don’t do. That is a burden too heavy to carry.

God came to us in the person of Jesus not to evaluate our behavior but to free us from bad theology and the notion that God only likes good people. (Spoiler Alert: No one is that good.)

Paul (who wrote Galatians) wants us to know that we are people of faith and not people of good behavior. (Don’t read that the wrong way!)

In chapter 5 of that same letter Paul writes, It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

He is talking about the same things. We are free from performance theology and don’t fall back into thinking that God will love you more if you are good all the time.

Christ came to forgive what we can’t let go of. Jesus loves sinners. God does not want us to be burdened with guilt, remorse and shame over past deeds. Why? Because we convince ourselves God could never love a person like that.

We who believe in Christ are free from our past and free from the burden of trying to please God. That is good news.

Jesus loves us just the way we are.

Pr. Ben

Sermon: Judging Others: Are You Sure You Want to Go There?

Today’s message is a companion to last week’s message regarding loving your enemy. We are hard wired to judge others. Maybe we need a software update. Jesus gives us a reason to pause and evaluate. This is not about salvation but an important lesson in living out our faith.

Article: Growing in Faith and Knowledge

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;

            I will counsel you and watch over you.

                                    Do not be like the horse or the mule,

                                    which have no understanding  Psalm 32:8-9

Which part of the week are you spending learning about God outside of sitting in worship on Sunday morning (which isn’t a classroom)?

What is the most recent thing you learned about God?

Are you willing to learn something new about God?

I ask these questions because I am committed to learning something new whenever I can. I can remember a pastor once saying, “You are either growing or dying; there is no in between.” So let me ask you, “Are you growing or dying?”

As a matter of fact, whenever I learn anything new (that on the surface looks like it has nothing to do with God) I put that new thing through the lens of my theology and relationship with God. Why? Because everything is theological.

I don’t think I have arrived or do I believe that I have learned everything there is to know about God and the world He created for us.

The opposite of faith (trust in God) is not doubt… it is certainty. Whenever we wrongly believe we have everything figured out, we stop growing in knowledge, we stop growing spiritually and we quite possibly stop growing emotionally.

The resistance to learn is… well… unwise. (see Proverbs 18:2)

As a pastor and quite possibly your pastor, I bear some responsibility in your faith formation and I take that quite seriously. I want you to learn and then grow in your understanding of God’s love through Jesus Christ. Not only do I want you to comprehend the love of God, I want you to experience it as well. But it doesn’t end there. I want all Christians to know and see that God’s love is not just for a few but for everyone.

Never forget that knowledge should lead us towards God’s love… “knowledge puffeth up, charity edifieth.” Knowledge is a means towards a greater end.

I encourage you to pick up a book or listen to an audiobook. Read your Bible. Come to Sunday morning Bible Study. Do something to grow today.

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground. Psalm 143:10