Peace Be With You

Did you know, historians from England, Egypt, Germany, and India tell us, since the year 3600 BC, the world has only been free of war 292 years? During that period, there have been 14,352 wars, killing 3.7 billion people. The amount of property destroyed during those wars would pay for a golden belt large enough to surround the world, 98 miles wide and 33 feet thick. Did you know, that since 650 BC, there have been 1,656 arms races, and only 16 have not ended in war. Most countries involved in a war end up in economic collapse. Did you know, according to the Daily Mail, there are forty wars raging in our world today. Some of those conflicts have lasted more than seventy years. Can I state the obvious? Our time is not the only one. There has always been a shortage of peace in our world. However, this message is not about political peace. It is about spiritual peace.

In March of 2018, Gregory Bush was at a Kroger Grocery story in Jeffersonville, Kentucky. He did not take his shopping list. He took his gun. In time, Bush shot two, one inside the store, one in the parking lot. The victims were doing nothing wrong. Bush shot them for a simple reason. He did not care for their race. The authorities said, the crime was racially motivated, a hate crime. Bush received two life sentences, plus ten years. Taxpayers will be paying for him for decades. Gregory Bush is not alone there are others.

Our society is filled with various prejudices. There is racism, sexism, and ageism. There is classism, homophobia, and nationalism. There is xenophobia, and religious prejudices. There are others I will not mention because I do not have the time. However, each one of our prejudices falls into one of three categories:

  1. Cognitive Prejudices – Those prejudices are rooted in what we believe is true.
  2. Affective Prejudices – Those prejudices are rooted in what we like or dislike.
  3. Conative Prejudices – These prejudices are rooted in assumed behavior.

Let me state the obvious. All prejudices are ugly and have no place within the life of the church. Sociologists tell us our prejudices expose our fears. We are prejudice against the group, or individual, that intimidates us. Our prejudices lie to us. No, we are not always in control. Our prejudices are learned. That means, you are passing your prejudices on to someone else. Sociologists also tell us, each one of us carries a certain amount of prejudicial behavior.  However, this message is not about our prejudices. This message is about spiritual peace. And all of God’s people said, “Amen!” This will make you think. Did you know, according to the Pew Research Group, 12% of all Americans do not even like themselves. According to the same study, 24% of all Americans under 35 do not like themselves. All of this will take us to our scripture reading for today, Ephesians 2:11-22.

We find ourselves today in the Epistle to the Ephesians. The author of this literary piece is the Apostle Paul. It is considered a circular letter. In other words, it was written to the various Christian communities in the area surrounding Ephesus, at the time, the most important city in western Asia Minor (now Turkey). Paul is not writing them to address any problem. Paul is writing them to challenge them to expand their faith. That is what we hear in the second chapter. Paul tells us our past traditions are useless. Paul tells us our differences are not important. The only thing that matters is Jesus, who died on the cross and welcomed all equally into God’s family. That fact is hard for many to accept. However, that is exactly what Paul says in verses 13 and 14a:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one.

This message is about spiritual peace.

The Apostle Paul (5-65) understood the importance of today’s scripture reading because he experienced it firsthand. Let us be honest. There is not much to like about him at first. He made a horrible first impression. The first martyr in the history of the church was Stephen. He was stoned to death. The leader of that stoning mob was Saul. He was a devout Jew, who longed to crush Christianity. He was zealous in his work, and, in time, all the believers feared him. It is one of the great stories in the Bible.

One day, Saul is traveling down the Damascus Road, when he is confronted by Jesus, himself. For a short-time Saul is blinded, and he is converted to Christianity. His name is changed to Paul, which means small or humbled. However, not just his name changed. His priorities changed.  From that moment on he is determined to win the Gentiles world to Jesus. At first the church is uncomfortable accepting him, but our generation accepts the fact that Paul is the great missionary who has ever lived. We are the spiritual ancestors of Paul. If Paul, the onetime murderer, could be saved, then anyone could be saved by accepting Jesus. Even a sinner like you. Yet, not just you, all sinners, who are different from you. God does not see our differences. God sees what we have in common. All humanity is linked together in sin. God’s goal is to have all sinner redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus, so he can spend eternity with everyone because God loves everyone.

I love this story: Hank Aaron (1934-2021) was one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. I remember the night “Hammerin Hank” broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. He held that record for thirty-three years. When his 23-year baseball career ended, he was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame and went to work for the Atlanta Braves. In my eyes, Hank Aaron was something special. Perhaps, that is why I love this story.

One night, he was checking into a hotel, but the desk clerk did not recognize him. She told him there were no rooms available. However, the owner of the hotel recognized Hank Aaron and pulled the clerk to the side. He said, “That is Hank Aaron. He is the one who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. Tell him we will find him a room.” The clerk went back to the counter and said to Hank Aaron, “I am sorry, Mr. Aaron. I did not recognize you. Of course, we have a room for you. I did not know you were a somebody.” I love Hank Aaron’s response. He said, “Everybody is a somebody.” Hank Aaron was right! Everybody is a somebody. I am glad you think everyone is a somebody because many do not. Our world has a hard time accepting that divine truth. It is even true within our own ranks.

The dates you will want to circle on your calendar are August 29 – September 6, 2022. Those are the dates of the next General Conference of the United Methodist Church They are meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Delegates from around the world will be attending. They will be deciding the fate of our denomination. Many believe, including myself, our church will divide. The issue is not preaching or evangelism. The issue is not world hunger or clean drinking water. The issue is sexuality. Traditionally, we have not ordained openly gay people or officiated at openly gay weddings. There are many who want to change that ruling. There is no compromise. It appears whatever is decided, a large block of our denomination will walk away. Many believe, those congregations who walk away will be given an opportunity to buy their building, which historically are held by the denomination. There will be a window of several years for this opportunity. There is no other way to say it. It is ugly. Those that are favor of the change are using the Bible to support their cause. Those that are against the change are using the Bible to support their cause. Both sides have an extra helping of arrogance and a shortage of humility. It is a tough call. Do you believe our church should ordain and marry openly gay people? Do you believe our church should not marry and ordain openly gay people? Do you believe our congregation should leave the United Methodist Church? Do you believe our congregation should stay within the United Methodist Church? Everyone, every church, must decide for themselves.

One day during my time away, I was visited by a colleague. No, I was visited by a friend. He stayed for approximately an hour. We covered a variety of topics. The topic of sexuality came up. In a moment of pure honesty, he dropped his head and shook it. He said, “Russ, we (The United Methodist Church) have forgotten our purpose.” I think he was right. People do not come to church to be entertained. People do not come to church because I am handsome. People do not come to church to hear my political views. People do not come to church to hear my take on the local news or hear my opinion on the state of professional sports. This is equally true. People do not come to church to hear about sexuality. People come to church one reason. People come to church to hear about Jesus. I have said this to colleagues many times. The ministry is not that hard. You just need to do two things. Talk about Jesus and care about your people. It is impossible to talk about Jesus too much. We are all sinners who are dependent on the sacrificial acts of Jesus. The only thing that matters in the life of the church is Jesus. And, when we have Jesus in our world, our society, and our church and denomination, we will have peace. The Apostle Paul said it best:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one.

Do you remember what Augustine said? He said, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God.”

My Story

April 10 was a perfect day! That day will live in the memory of my family for years to come, because that was my daughter’s wedding day. The weather was perfect. It was eighty degrees and sunny. (How many sunny eighty-degree April days do you remember in northeast Ohio?) The spring flowers were in full bloom. The flowering trees were breathtaking. The bride was stunning. The groom was handsome. The ushers and the bride maids were both well dressed and attractive. The music was outstanding. The ceremony went off without a hitch. The receptions, one at the church and one in the community, were perfect. It is safe to say everyone had fun. There is no other way to say it. It was a perfect day. This is also true.

April 12 was not perfect! The bride’s mother and I decided to go to Chicago to escape the post wedding blues. We decided to fly because it was cheaper to fly than park our car in the Windy City. I was at Cleveland Airport when I began to grow sick. That evening I knew I had a problem. The next day I found myself at an urgent care. They sent me to the Emergency Room at the Northwestern Medical Center. They told me I needed emergency surgery because I had an intestinal blockage. The next day, I woke up in pain with a long incision. The problem came from scare tissue from a surgery I had in 1958. I do not remember that surgery because I was only eighteen months old, but I do remember the pain from this surgery. I was told the surgery was successful, except they nicked my bowel during the procedure. Unable to fly home, a good friend came to Chicago to drive us home. I was not home for long.

Forty-eight hours after I got home, I had an intense pain like I had never had in my life. I found out later my bowel was working its way to the surface. I went to a local hospital, who sent me to their downtown location. It was there I met the surgeon. There were more tests and painkillers. In time, the surgeon returned and said to me, “Reverend Adams, you seem like a really good guy. You deserve the best care, and you are not going to get it here. I am sending you to the Cleveland Clinic. I have performed four surgeries that you need. They have done thousands.” That night I was sent to the Cleveland Clinic by ambulance. I was admitted in the middle of the night. In the end, I spent over a week in the Cleveland Clinic, but I never had a second surgery. It was decided my nicked bowel would have to heal on its own. I was warned it would take time and it would not be pleasant. Those words were not untrue. It did take time and it was unpleasant.

I spent my 64th birthday and Mother’s Day, May 9th, at home. It was great to be home, but I had souvenirs from the hospital. I had a port in my upper right chest for my three hours of antibiotics. I had three holes in my abdomen. One that needed to be packed daily. One was covered by a drainage bag. I was exhausted doing the simplest task. The visiting nurse came to twice a week. That means Kathryn and I were on our own for five days a week. I have said it a million times since April 13th, every family needs one medical person, not two, to do those messy medical things. My family has no medical people. I will always be thankful for two people. The first is my ex-neighbor Amy, who came five days a week to pack my wound. She is a practicing nurse. The second is my wife, Kathryn. She cared for me, flushing the port, and giving me those three hours of antibiotics daily. She was way out of her comfort zone. This is the truth. Without her, I would have been placed in a nursing home.

I am glad to report, things did get better. On our wedding anniversary, May 27th, I was released by the infectious disease doctor. The next day it was ruled I no longer needed the drainage bag. At some point, the antibiotics were stopped. My port was removed at a branch of the Cleveland Clinic, Akron General Hospital. In time, the three holes in my abdomen healed and the packing ceased. Today, my pain is gone, but my abdomen looks like a West Virginia Roadmap. The chills, caused by an infection, I was told, may have been the worst part, are no longer. I have no problem sleeping through the night or napping during the day. June 7th was another good day. I woke up and felt like a tired version of myself. I received no physical therapy, but I was encouraged to walk. I was told to eat my normal diet. I am not at 100% yet, but I am making progress. It has been a long four months. On my darkest days, I was thankful for two things. First, I was thankful I was in America. If this would have happened when I was in Slavic Eastern Europe, I would have died. Their medical care is archaic. Second, I am thankful for my hospitalization. Between Kathryn’s heart surgery and my abdominal surgery, we have spent more than $453,000 in medical care. I do not have that figure on hand.

Several years ago, I went to the suburbs of Cleveland to visit a parishioner. He was having heart surgery. Prior to the surgery, we talked for a while and then I prayed. After the prayer, he looked at me and asked, “Russ, have you ever been the one in need?” I that point, I answered, “No.” Today, I would answer differently. In the last nine months, I have struggled with the Coronavirus and had major surgery. Being in need is uncomfortable, but it positions you to learn about yourself. In the last four months, I have learned several things. Let me give you part of my list.

First, I learned I am not John Wayne.       In the weeks, I was at home I discovered something you know. We may get 200 television stations, but there is nothing to watch on TV. We watched a great deal of old westerns, especially old John Wayne movies. In one of his movies, he got shot in the back and the bullet was longed near his spine. A doctor pulled out the bullet on the open range. Being John Wayne, after being shot and having the bullet expelled, he jumped on his horse and road off. It really was impressive. Let me state the obvious. I am not John Wayne. He rode off on his horse, I laid in bed or on my couch feeling all the pain. I am not John Wayne.

Second, I learned I do not do painkillers well. After my surgery, I was in a great deal of pain. The painkiller I was offered was oxycontin. I am told many try to steal oxycontin. I do not know why. I did not handle it well. I imagined all kind of things. One night, I imagined the walls around me were melting. One night, I imagined I was at the Parish House at Saint Monica’s Church in Garfield Hts. (I have not been there for twenty-five years.) One night, I imagined I was at a Burger King and tried to order a Whooper from my nurse. She reminded me I was on a clear liquid diet. I asked to get off the oxycontin because I needed to think clearly. It was the beginning of my recovery. It was a good day when I got off all the painkillers. Let me state the obvious. I do not do painkillers well.

Third, I learned life is hard. On Saturday, I was dancing with the bride and hosting my world. It was a perfect day. On Tuesday, I was having emergency surgery in a foreign land. It was a horrible day. Most of the next four months were horrible. I could preach on this theme weekly, and it would never get old. You know it is true. It is one thing to hear about someone else’s hardship. It is a completely different thing to experience the hardship yourself. When was the last time you experienced hardship? Maya Angelou (1928-2014) once said, “You will face many defeats in life, but never let yourself be defeated.”

Forth, I have learned our society has a surplus of kind people. I am humbled by the kindness shown to me. I was in three hospitals during my saga. Everyone, from the housekeeping people to the surgeons, were kind to me. Fellow patients who heard my story, and they were kind to me. My neighbor mowed my lawn. My neighbors gave me food. One day, a stranger showed up with a casserole dish. I asked her the question, “Who are you?” She answered, “My friends and I were talking about your story, and I thought you may want to eat tonight.” Even my mailman, when he heard my story, said, and still says, “I am praying for you.” We have a surplus of kind people in our society because Christianity is part of national DNA. I have been to other parts of the world where kindness is rare. Let me take it one step farther.

We have a surplus of kind people within this church. The word spread fast about my emergency surgery. On the day after my surgery, I looked at my cell phone for the first time. I had 162 texts. Each one said, they were concerned about me and were praying for me. I received well over 100 cards. Some came from people who have moved out of the area. Some cards came from people who left the church because they were mad me. At one point, I lost 31 pounds, but you cannot be blamed. For weeks, food was delivered to my home. I cannot tell you how many people have offered to do something during my time of need. We have a surplus of kind people within our church.

One day, I was texting someone about all the kindness I had been shown. Her response made me think. She texted: Of course, people are kind to you. What else can we really do? She was right! Kindness of not optional in the Christian faith. Kindness is demanded! It is required! It is dictated! Your kindness is a sign that your faith is sincere, and it has been that way from the very beginning. Do you remember what the Apostle Paul said to the Galatians all those years ago? Galatians 6:10-11 says:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

So today I am not going to reprimand you for some poor behavior or habit. Today, I am going to encourage you to keep doing what you have been doing. You are a disciple of Jesus Christ, and you know the truth. We are not saved by our good works. Even non-believers can be kind. You are saved by grace and by faith in Jesus. You are saved by the sacrificial death of Jesus. He died so we could live. Your kindness is a way of thanking God for saving your soul. How are you going thank God today?

God’s Suffering Servant

Many years ago, before mankind walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name means “The Lord is My Salvation,” but we simply call him Isaiah. He wrote approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ, so he is a contemporary of Amos, Hosea, and Micah. His audience was the people of Judah and Jerusalem. He warned them of their impending judgement.  His book is sixty-six chapter long, so many consider him the greatest writing prophet. Those chapters can be divided into two sections. Chapters one thru thirty-nine deal with judgment. Chapters forty thru sixty-six deal with comfort. Our reading comes from the second section. It is called God’s suffering servant. Twenty-seven hundred years later, we understand that suffering servant to be Jesus.

The scripture reads like a timeline of Jesus’ life. Verse two tells us he was born in the line of Jesse, the father of King David. That is confirmed in the first chapter of Matthew. Physically, there is nothing special about Jesus. Politically, there is nothing special about Jesus. It is spiritually that Jesus is different from the rest of us. Did you know, according to the United Nations, 385,000 babies are born a day in our world. I have no clue how many babies have been born in the history of this world. However, I do know the baby Jesus was different from the rest. He was the very incarnation of God. In other words, Jesus was God in human form. His biological mother was Mary. Joseph played the role of his earthly father, but he was only his stepfather. Jesus’ biological father was God. That uniqueness was not obvious at first. Only Anna and Simeon recognize his uniqueness. (Luke 2:22-40). Everyone loves a baby and Jesus did what all healthy babies do, he grew up.

According to the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is twelve years-old he gets separated from Mary and Joseph. They had been to Jerusalem for the annual Passover. The time came for everyone to return home. Jesus is old enough to have some independence. They traveled in groups for companionship and protection. They had traveled some distance when it was discovered Jesus was missing. A first century “amber alert” went out, but no one had seen Jesus. The frantic parents return to Jerusalem. Three days later they found Jesus sitting in the temple listening to the teachers and asking questions. The scriptures say everyone was amazed at his understanding.

When Jesus is thirty years old, he goes out to the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized by John. The crowd is thick, because it was a sinner’s baptism, and everyone was a sinner. The baptizer recognized Jesus and his uniqueness. He is uncomfortable baptizing Jesus. After all, it was a sinner’s baptism and Jesus had not committed a single sin. Jesus encourages him to do it and God reminds the world Jesus is his son. Once completed, Jesus is taken to the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. It is really no contest. Jesus wins, the angels attend to him, and his earthly ministry begins. (Matthew 4:1-11)

Jesus would have made a great United Methodist minister. His ministry lasted three years. However, the ministry does not end because Jesus was not effective. Jesus’ ministry ended because Jesus was too affective. He did nothing wrong. He loved everyone. He cared for the forgotten and treated everyone with dignity and respect. He healed the blind and the lame. He confronted and defeated demons. He taught people how to live and gave people hope, because they longed to hear about the Kingdom of God. The people responded to Jesus and great crowds followed him. That was the problem. The great crowds bothered the orthodox leaders of his day. They had too much to lose. Jesus had to die. You know the story.

It all began on Palm Sunday. Masses gather for the annual Passover. When Jesus arrived, the people were shoulder to shoulder. The number of people is not in question. The only question is why they cheered for Jesus. Some wanted Jesus to lead a political revolution. They had grown tired of foreign rule. Some wanted Jesus to heal a sick or maimed loved one. Some wanted to see Jesus was he was trending. Very few were there because they understood the eternal impact of Jesus. That crowd confirmed the orthodox leader’s fears. They were threatened by Jesus’ popularity. A lesser man would have retreated, but not Jesus. He attacked! He went to the temple court and disrupted their profitable business practices. He cursed the fig tree, the symbol of Israel. It was the only thing Jesus ever cursed. Jesus challenged the orthodox leaders of the faith and they retaliated. They looked for the weakest link and found him, Judas Iscariot. He betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and the dominos began to fall. Jesus was arrested after supper on Thursday evening. He was tried twice. First by his own people, who lacked the power to execute him. Second, he was tried before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilot, who had the power to execute him. He used that power to send Jesus to the cross because he wanted to appease the crowd. Surrounded by two common criminals, one on his right and the other his left, Jesus died on a Roman instrument of execution, a cross. His death is hard to imagine because his death was hard to watch. There is no other way to say it.

Jesus, the incarnation of God, was dead. The life that began in the manger thirty-three years earlier was over. Mary must have been staggered with emotions. She had to face that horrible hour alone. She must have missed Joseph, long gone. Now Jesus was gone too. The same eyes who saw the face of God in the manger saw the son of God die. Can I state the obvious? Parents should never outlive their child. It was hard for Mary to accept, but Jesus’s death was part of God’s plan of salvation for the world. Here is a question you must answer. Why did Jesus have to die? There are many reasons why Jesus had to die. However, let me give you just three for you to consider.

Jesus died to give eternal life to whoever believed in him. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not parish but have eternal life.” In the Christian faith, we believe Jesus is our only hope of salvation. If you do not believe in Jesus, then the fires of hell are waiting for you. If you have never accepted Jesus into your heart, then do not wait. Death is a heartbeat away. Jesus had to die!

Jesus died to save you from the curse of the law. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming cursed for us.” If you believe your salvation can be earned, then you are a fool. Your only hope of salvation is Jesus. His sinlessness made him the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. His sinlessness made him the perfect sacrifice for your sins. Never forget, we are saved by grace and by grace alone. Jesus had to die!

Jesus died to end religion and bring us to a personal relation with God. Christianity is not a religion. It is a relationship with God. That is why the faith must live in your heart. None of the other world religions can make such a boast. Do you remember what the scriptures say? Jesus torn the veil at the temple from top to bottom, so we can have a personal relationship with God. Jesus had to die!

There is an old preaching story that has been circulating for years. I first heard it in the hills of the Bluegrass State. The story is about a young curious boy, who loved his father. Every day he asked his father if he could go to work with him. Every day, the father turned him down. Yet, every day he still asked his father, and, in time, the father agreed. The boy was thrilled, but the father warned him it was going to be long day for him, and he had to stay out of the way. The father was the bridge operator for the local railroad. The bridge remained up until the train came filled with passengers. When the train arrived, the father would pull the levers to lower the bridge. When the father and son, arrive at the bridge station, the son studied everything in detail. The father did his best to explain how everything worked. The father was right, it was a long day for the little boy. In time, the father got busy, and the little boy got bored. When the time came to lower the bridge, the train blew its whistle. The father grabbed the lever to lower the bridge and glanced back at his son. There was only one problem. The boy was not him the office! The father looked out the window and looked at the bridge. There in the cogs of the bridge was his son. The father was in a no-win situation. If he pulled the lever to lower the bridge, then he would kill his son. If he did not pull the lever to lower the bridge, then he would kill the passengers on the train. What would you do? Would you pull the lever to save the passengers, killing his son? Would you save the boy, killing the passengers? Let there be no doubt about it. God pulled the lever on Good Friday. Jesus died, so we could live. May we never question the depth of God’s love. The story ends with the father crying. He had just killed his son. With tears running down his face, he watched the passengers crossing the bridge. Most waved and smiled at him because they did know the sacrifice, he made for them. It has been said, we are not saved by what we do, we are saved by what Christ has done.

Cheers and Tears

We find ourselves today in the eleventh chapter of Mark. (Mark 11:1-11) Like visiting an old friend, we find these words to be comforting. According to the text, it was time for the Passover. A time to remember their proud past as God’s Chosen People. The law required the people to attend within a certain radius, however no legislation was necessary. Everyone wanted to be a part of the great holiday. It was a time to do three things. First, they made their annual animal sacrifice at the temple. Second, they paid their annual taxes. Third, it was a time to reconnect with family and friends. It is for that reason that everyone wanted to be in Jerusalem for the Passover. Over the years, preachers, including myself, have emphasized the massive cheering crowd. Let me say this clearly.

It was a great crowd of people! The size of the crowd cannot be over emphasized. Mark says many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut palm branches from nearby fields. Some people followed Jesus; some people ran ahead of Jesus (Mark 11:8-9). Matthew calls it a very large crowd (Matthew 21:8). Luke says the crowd was so great that the religious leaders encouraged Jesus to rebuke them (Luke 19:39). John tells of a great crowd that had gathered for the festival (John 12:12). You cannot question the size of the crowd.

It has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem swelled to 2,500,000 on that Passover. That is based on the number of animal sacrifices made. That was a massive crowd at that time in that place in history. That was 1% of their world’s population. According to the United States Census Bureau, the total world population in the year 33 AD was approximately 285 million. If 2.5 million people were present in Jerusalem on the day Jesus entered, then approximately .9% of the world’s population was present. Those numbers are hard to comprehend, but it is safe to say approximately 1% of the world’s population was present in Jerusalem that day. (1% of the world’s population today is 7.8 million.) The largest Christian gathering in the history of the world is six million. That crowd gathered in 2015, when the Pope went to Manila. It was a great crowd of people. However, the size of the crowd was not everything. You can question the integrity of the crowd. They were selfish. They all wanted something from Jesus.

There is an old preaching story about a rabbi who was visiting a friend. He took the friend to a window and asked him what he saw. The friend replied, “I see men, women and children.” Then, he took his friend to a mirror and asked, “What do you see now?” The friend replied, “I see myself!” The rabbi replied, “That is the choice we must make in life! Are we going to look through the window and see others? Or are we going to look at the mirror and only see ourselves?” You are a disciple of Jesus Christ! You have no choice. Jesus looked through the window and saw the needs of this world. You must look through the window too. That was not the case of the crowd. That is not the case of many in our world. Selfishness blinds us of the real meaning behind Palm Sunday. Just think about it.

Some cheered for Jesus for political reasons! Some in the crowd expected a political Messiah. They had grown tired of foreign domination. They had grown tired of Roman ways and laws. They longed for independence and believed Jesus had everything needed to lead a successful political revolution. Just like their ancestors did in the past after a successful military campaign, they waved palms and chanted political slogans. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” Hosanna in the highest heaven.” They were not wrong. Jesus did have the right stuff for political success, but they missed the memo. Jesus did not come with a political agenda. Jesus came for spiritual reasons. Jesus came to be the bridge between mankind and God. Do you know of anyone who tries to use Jesus politically? They say true Christians are their political party.

Some cheered for Jesus for personal reasons! Jesus’s miracles were well known. They had heard how Jesus brought sight to the blind. They had heard how Jesus got the lame to walk. They had heard how Jesus had exercised demons. If Jesus could do that for others, then why not them, or a loved one? The crowd was filled with the blind, the lame, and the limited. They cheered for Jesus to get his attention because they wanted a healing. The problem is they did not get the memo. Jesus did not come to improve their health care system. Jesus came for spiritual reasons. He came to be the bridge between mankind and God. If you get the point say, “Hosanna!” Do you know of anyone who is mad at God because a sick loved one was never healed?

Some cheered for Jesus because Jesus was popular! In 1997, Hanson had their one hit wonder, MMMBop. The song was nominated for a Grammy because everyone was listening to that catchy tune and those clever words. Hanson even sang the National Anthem the 1997 World Series between the Indians and the Marlins in Cleveland. Their father predicted they would become more popular than the Jackson Five. He was WRONG! Their popularity faded and no one has heard from Hanson in years. Rumor has it they are singing at birthday parties and grocery store openings. However, in 1997, they were trending. On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was trending.

On the lips of everyone was the name Jesus. Everybody seemed to have an opinion about him. Some believed and some did not believe, but everyone had an opinion. The problem is they did not get the memo. Jesus did not come to be a celebrity. Jesus came for spiritual reasons. He came to the bridge between mankind and God.Do you know of anyone who must be in the middle of the action?

For years preacher, including myself, have made a big deal about the size of the cheering crowd on that day. Perhaps, there is more. After all, the cheering crowd disbanded after a short time and the streets of Jerusalem grew quiet. However, the committed stayed near Jesus. It is safe to say a small minority in the crowd understood what was happening on that day. The Apostle Paul said it best nearly 30 years later in his letter to the Philippians. Speaking of Jesus, he said, “And being found in the appearance of a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.” 

Annually, I attend the Mahoning Valley Spring District Conference of the United Methodist Church. It is not favorite part of my job. Our district is made up of 57 congregations. It is an afternoon filled with reports and voting. It is as exciting as it sounds. It never disappoints. The meeting rotates annually. This year, we host in on April 18. Several years ago, it was held at Warren Grace. On that day, a woman came up to me when the meeting concluded and asked, “Did you go to McKinley School?” I said, “Yes!” McKinley was my elementary school. She said, “I was your first-grade teacher!” I drew a blank. I had to look at her name tag. Her name is Mary Fuller. I thought, “Are you still alive?” I said, “You were a lot taller in those days.” We talked for a few moments about my experience in the first grade and then it was over. I enjoyed talking to her.

As I drove home, I thought about Mrs. Fuller. I do not have many memories. It was a long time ago. To be honest, I only have one clear recollection of the first grade. The date was November 22, 1963. The public address system crackled on. I can still hear our principle’s voice, Mr. Yerman, telling the school that President Kennedy (1917-1963) had been assassinated in Dallas. I remember looking at Mrs. Fuller. She seemed stunned. She walked out of the classroom and into the hall. She gathered with the other teachers. They were talking about the sad news, then something happened that caught me off guard.  I can remember one of the teachers began to cry. I do not think I will ever forget that sound. Those tears pierced my heart. Maybe we give too much time talking about the cheers of the massive crowd, and not enough time talking about tears of the committed minority? The crowd cheered on Palm Sunday. The committed cried on Good Friday.

On Friday evening we are going to gather at Green Haven Memorial Gardens. It is one of our local cemeteries. For what it is, it is a nice place. But what is it? It is a place for the dead. Some people will not go because it is a cemetery. They will be there soon enough. However, I think it is a place we must go. It underscores the fact that Jesus died. We will read the final words he uttered, and we will remember his pain. It is five days from now, but I know what I will hear when I leave. It happens every year. As I walk through the silent crowd after the closing words, I will hear someone crying. It will hit them like a ton of bricks, Jesus died for them! Jesus died for us! Jesus died for you and me. There will be no cheers on Friday evening, only tears. How many tears will you shed for Jesus on Friday? Rick Warren (born 1954) of the Saddleback Church in California said, “Nothing will shape your life more than the commits you make.” How committed are you?

Do You Remember?

One of the most beautiful buildings in the world is the cathedral in Milan, Italy. I had the good fortune to go there several years ago. Worshippers are welcomed by three magnificent doorways. Over the first one doorway, is a carving of a beautiful wreath of roses, and underneath it is the legend, “All which pleases is just for a moment.” Over the second doorway is a sculpted cross, and the words, “All that troubles is just for a moment.” But underneath the great central entrance to the main aisle is the inscription, “Only the eternal is important.” The message is clear. We should live with our eyes fixed on eternity. How much time do you spend worrying about the temporary? How much time do you spend worrying about the eternal? The only things that really matter are those things that will matter in 100 years. What matters in 100 years? The only thing that matters in 100 years is Jesus. That leads us to our scripture lesson for today.

We find ourselves today in the twelfth chapter of John. The story begins with a group of Greeks. It is a great way to begin a story. When I was a young, I was surrounded by a group of Greeks in school. They were great people, and they were all named Nick. In the Bible story, we do not know their names, but we do know they wanted to see, or interview, Jesus. Their interest in Jesus leads us to believe they were God fearing Greeks. At first, they approach is Philip. He was a logical choice for them because Philip is a Greek name. Philip is uncomfortable going to Jesus directly, so he goes to Andrew. He went to Andrew because both were from the town of Bethsaida. According to verse 22, Philip and Andrew together went to Jesus with the request.

We are never told if the Greeks ever got to talk to Jesus, but we are told the moment had come. Jesus cannot escape the painful truth. He is going to die! Jesus did not want to die nor was he surprised by his death. It was all part of the divine plan to save the world. The death of Jesus shows us the depth of God’s love. Comparing himself to a wheat kernel he knew he must die, so others could live. His death would mean life for the generations to come. We stand in the aftershock of Jesus’s death. Without the death of Jesus, there is no resurrection. Without the death of Jesus, we have no hope of eternity. Never underestimate the death of Jesus. It changed everything. It is my experience people are uncomfortable with the death of Jesus. That is why we try to run to the resurrection.

That is one of my pet peeves in the ministry. Everyone enjoys Palm Sunday. It is a great day! Attendance is up and the weather is improving. Everyone is in a good mood because everyone likes waving palms. The traditional scriptures are read, and video is shown of Jesus entering the Golden City. Everyone is looking forward to the great resurrection day. Everyone enjoys Easter. It is a great day! The flowers are beautiful, the traditional hymns are sung, the traditional scripture is read, and the video is shown. Everyone leaves happy because ham is waiting for them. (Who does not like ham?) Please do not misunderstand me. I have nothing against Palm Sunday or Easter. They are both great days, but there is so much more. Most miss the rich days of Holy Week. The crowds of Palm Sunday and Easter are replaced by a small group on Maundy Thursday and a smaller group on Good Friday. I hope that is not your story. I hope you do not just run from Palm Sunday to Easter. I hope you remember what Jesus did every day of Holy Week. Those days are important because they revolve around the death of Jesus. Do something different this year and remember what Jesus did for you each day of Holy Week. So, let me as you the question of the day, do you remember?

Do you remember what Jesus did on Holy Monday? According to the Bible, two significant things happened on that day.  The first event of Holy Monday was the cleansing of the Temple. It had nothing to do with fundraising to help some good cause but had everything to do with using the faith for personal gain. The Temple was a place of prayer, not profit. The church is a place of prayer, not profit. The second significant event of Holy Monday is the cursing of the fig tree. It was the only thing Jesus ever cursed. Like the bald eagle symbolizes America, the fig tree symbolized Israel. The cursing of the fig tree was an act of judgement upon Israel. God was doing something new. Do you remember what happened on Holy Monday?

Do you remember what Jesus did on Holy Tuesday? According to the Bible, Jesus went back to the Temple, where he was challenged by the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It was also there that he taught about the Kingdom of God. Two great stories came from that day. He taught about paying taxes to Caesar and he noticed a widow’s slim donation. He also told the parable of the two sons, the parable of the tenants and others. Then, he went to Bethany, near Jerusalem, where he was anointed. He was being prepared for death. Do you remember what happened on Holy Tuesday?

Do you remember what Jesus did on Holy Wednesday? Some call it Spy Wednesday. It was on that day the plan to trap Jesus was conceived. One of his own, Judas Iscariot, betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Some say, he did it because he was greedy. Some say, he did it because he had grown tired of being an outsider. He was the only non-Galilean of the twelve. Some say, he did it to force Jesus’ hand. He never dreamed Jesus would not fight back. We do not really know why he did it, but he did it. In the end, Judas Iscariot regretted his betrayal and committed suicide. There is nothing else to say. Do you remember what happened on Holy Wednesday?

Do you remember what Jesus did on Holy Thursday? We call it Maundy Thursday. That was the day Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, showing true servant leadership. Then, they observed the Seder. It was a meal with a message. Everything they ate and everything they drank reminded them of their ancestry. After all, they were God’s Chosen. During the meal, Jesus changed the words and created a new memorial, Communion. The bread is his body, and the wine is his blood. After the meal was completed, Jesus comforted the disciples and went to the garden to pray. It was in the garden Jesus was arrested. Do you remember what happened on Holy Thursday?

Do you remember what Jesus did on Holy Friday? We call it Good Friday. It was good for us, but bad for Jesus. He had two trials on that one day. The first trial was in front of his own people. It was a “kangaroo” court. Jesus never had a chance. He was found guilty. They wanted to execute Jesus, but they lacked the legal authority. For this reason, they sent him to the Roman Governor, Pilate. He knew Jesus was an innocent man, but he feared the mob. The crowd rejected Jesus and accepted Barabbas, an insurrectionist. The order was given that Jesus must die. It was a public affair. It was a way of deterring crime. First came the whipping. Then came the crown of thorns. Each step came with ridicule. Finally came the cross, a Roman way to execute. Jesus was not tied to the cross; he was nailed to the cross. He was hung between two common criminals. His death came quickly, and they put his body in a tomb. The sky grew dark, and the people wondered. His family and friends cried, because he was dead, and their dreams were gone. Do you remember what happened on Holy Friday?

Do you remember what happened on Holy Saturday? Some call it, Silent Saturday. Others call it Black Saturday or Easter Eve. There is nothing to remember about that day because Jesus was dead. The people who loved Jesus, both family and friends, struggled with his death. Some of them were in shock. Some were in denial and some of them cried. Their great dreams of a bright future were over. Jesus was dead! How comfortable are you with the death of Jesus? You know what happened on Sunday. It is the worst secret in the history of the world. It is also the very foundation of our faith. It changed everything. What do you remember?

It was become the tradition of this church to go to the local cemetery to remember the death of Jesus. We are joined by other United Methodist congregations in the area. The truth be told, the group is always small. I really do not care. It is the right thing to do. The traditional scriptures are read, and the candles are extinguished. The service ends with the same words annually, May God have mercy on us because Christ died for us. I am always spiritually spent once the service is over. They reality of Christ’s death is hard for me to accept.

One year, on Easter morning one of the saints from this church wanted to talk to me about his experience at the cemetery. He had a bad experience. He could not hear because the woman next to him kept talking. He could not see because he sat in the back. He did not like his seat because it was uncomfortable. He did like going to the cemetery because it reminded him of his own death. He did not like the music because it was too depressing. As he went through list of complaints, I stayed quiet. It was a great way to spent Easter morning. When I finally got a word in, I said, “Good! If Christ hung on the cross for your sins for hours, then you can handle a few unpleasant minutes.” May we never forget Christ died for us! Reformed theologian Richard Allen Bodey (1930-2013) once said, “He drained the cup of God’s wrath bone dry, leaving not a drop for us.”

The Gospel in a Nutshell

His name is Rollin Stewart (born 1944). Some called him “Rock’n Rollen.” Others have called him the “The Rainbow Man.” You may remember him. He was a born-again Christian, who during the 1970s and 1980s, was a fixture at American sporting events wearing his rainbow-colored afro-style wig holding a sign that read: John 3:16. He seemed to be everywhere. He was at the 1977 NBA Finals. He was at the 1979 MLB All-Star Game. He was at the 1980 Moscow Olympics Games, where he was arrested for a short time. In 1981, he was at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, and in 1982, he was at the Indianapolis 500. At the height of his popularity, he was featured in a Budweiser Beer commercial and was portrayed by Christopher Walken on Saturday Night Live. Where is Rollin Stewart today? The man has made a few mistakes. Sadly, he is an inmate at the Mule Creek State Prison in Lone, California where he is serving three life sentences for kidnapping. If you would like to learn more about Rollen Stewart, then read the article, The Rainbow Man: Lessons on How Not to Evangelize. Today, I do not want to talk about Rollen Stewart. I want to talk about Rollen Stewart’s sign. That leads us to our scripture reading for today.

We find ourselves today in the third chapter of John. Our reading is only part of a longer discussion between two men, Jesus, and Nicodemus. You know about Jesus because we speak of him regularly. Jesus was the Son of God, the very incarnation of God, our only hope of salvation. Nicodemus is not as famous, but he is still noteworthy. He was a respected member of his community. He was not just a Pharisee, an expert on the law. He was a member of the Jewish Ruling Council, also known as the Sanhedrin. That body was established to judge in the details of the law. Prior to our reading, we are told Nicodemus sought out Jesus at night. Much has been made over that fact. Some believe, he went to Jesus at night to protect his identity. After all, how would it look for a respected Pharisee, a member of the Jewish Ruling Council, to be looking for help from a lowly itinerant rabbi? I believe, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, because the work of the day was over and the two would have time to talk. The discussion begins with some flattering words. Nicodemus was impressed by Jesus’s miracles. However, Jesus is not interested in being complimented. Jesus is more interested in salvation. The Master says it clearly, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Nicodemus hears the words but fails to understand them. Jesus is baffled by his spiritual ignorance. Jesus explains to Nicodemus his part in God’s plan of salvation for the world. This is where John 3:16 comes into play. They are not Jesus’s words. They are the words of the editor. The verse summarizes what is happening. “For God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” The whole verse pivots on that little complex word, love!

In 1960, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) wrote a book called The Four Loves. He explored the four kinds of loves found in the Christian faith. Each one is found in the Bible. The first word for love in the Bible is the Greek word EROS, which gives us the word erotic. It is sensual or passionate love. It is the kind of love that involves a box of candy, a fist full of flowers and boxer shorts. The second word for love in the Bible is the Greek word PHILA, which gives us the word philanthropist. It is a social love. For example, Andrew Carnegie was a philanthropist. He wanted to improve communities, so he gave a fortune to establish libraries in both the United States and Canada. The third word for love in the Bible is the Greek word STORGE. It is an empathic love. It is the kind of love you feel for family members. It is the kind of love you feel for your parents or your children. The fourth word for love in the Bible is the Greek word AGAPE. That is the word that is used in the New Testament for God’s sacrificial love, which we see in Jesus. It is that Greek word for love that John uses in the Gospel lesson for today, John 3:14-21, for God so loved the world. There is nothing simple about that word. Consider these three things with me. These thoughts are not original. They came from United Methodist preacher James W. Moore (1938-2019).

First, God’s love is wide! John 3:16 begins: For God so loved the world. In other words, it talks about the width of God’s love. Just think about that phrase for a moment. God loves the world! God’s love is not selective. God loves everyone. He loves all nations. He loves people regardless of their language. He loves all denominations. He loves people, regardless of their salvation systems. He loved all people, regardless of their sexuality. He loves the attractive and the not so attractive. He loves the rich and poor. God loves everyone! How do I know this divine truth? Because John 3:16 begins, “For God so loved the world. “That means God even loves you! Never question the width of God’s love.

One of the great personalities of church history was Martin Luther (1483-1546). The great German theologian and reformer will always be remembered as a man of God. However, never forget, he was a man. He was limited by his human tendencies.  He was not a man of great patience. He would often grow frustrated with the people around him. He once grew so frustrated that he said, “If I were God and these vile people were as disobedient as they are now, I would knock the world into pieces!” (How many ugly things have you said in a fit of rage?) The good news for his generation was Martin Luther was not God! Martin Luther was a human being, like you and me. He had limitations. God is different. God has no limitations; God’s love has no limitations. God’s love is wide! God cannot stop loving you because God cannot stop loving everyone! Listen to the phrase again: God so loved the world! The last time I checked we were still in the world. God’s love is wide!

Second, God’s love is deep! John 3:16 continues, he gave his one and only son. In other words, it talks about the depth of God’s love. God loves us, but he did not show up in a with a fist full of flowers, a box of candy, wearing boxer shorts. He was not interested in a one-night stand. God demonstrated his love for us by entering this world to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. That is what makes Good Friday so bad. Jesus, the incarnation of God, died on the cross to atone for your sins. That is a heavy thought. Jesus’ death made eternal life possible for you and me! Never question the depth of God’s love.

In July of 2019, Johnny and Dawn Vann were busy raising their seven children. One afternoon on a North Carolina Beach the unthinkable happened. A massive high tide wave hit the beach and four of the Vann’s children swept into the ocean. Without thinking about his own safety, Johnny jumped into the water and save his children, one by one. The problem is he could not save himself. Rescue crews tried to save him. Despite 45 minutes of CPR, Johnny died. Dawn said her husband will always be remembered as a good person. I think she is wrong. I think John Vann will be remembered as a great person, because his love for his children was deep. He died so his children could live. How can you question his love? It is not just the story of a father and his children. It is the story of God and mankind. Jesus died so we could live. That is part of the message of John 3:16, he gave his one and only son. God’s love is deep. Do you remember the words of Isaiah 53:5? It says, “By his wounds we were healed.” God’s love is wide and deep!

Third, and finally, God’s love is powerful! Do you remember the story of Clara Barton? During the Spanish-American War, she was overseeing the work of the Red Cross in Cuba. One day Colonel Theodore Roosevelt came to her, wanted to buy food for his sick and wounded Rough Riders. But she refused to sell him any. Roosevelt was perplexed. His men needed the help, and he was prepared to pay out of his own funds. When he asked someone why he could not buy the supplies, he was told, “Colonel, just ask for it!” A smile broke over Roosevelt’s face. Now he understood–the provisions were not for sale. All he had to do was simply ask and they would be given freely. It is not just true of food in the Spanish-American War. It is also true of Heaven!

John 3:16 ends: that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Does anyone here want to go to heaven? If you do then there is only one option. You must accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. You must believe in Jesus and your hope of salvation will become a reality. It is the greatest gift you will ever receive. It is too good to be true, but it is true. You can live the rest of your life not worrying about death. It is so liberating. However, it will change you. You will spend the rest of your life trying to find a way to thank God for saving your sin sick soul. The love of God is wide, deep, and powerful!

It is called the Gospel in a nutshell! The major theme of Christianity summarized in in one verse. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. This is the Good News for today. You are loved! You have always been loved. You will always be loved. You are loved today. God just cannot stop loving you. C.S. Lewis once said, “Though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.”

So Close, Yet So Far

When I was in high school, football was a big deal. I never played on the team, but I was a fan. That was a good thing because I consider my high school years to be the zenith of high school football in my hometown. The players on those teams became local celebrities. It was common to see a Division One recruiter sitting in the stands on any given Friday night.

It was during my Sophomore year, the best player on the team was a boy by the name of Tyrone. He had all the skills needed for success. He was big, strong, fast, and quick. He drew a great deal of attention from college scouts. I will never forget the day he signed his National Letter of Intent. The local media was present for the announcement. He made that major announcement from the school’s library. (I believe, it was the first time he had journeyed into it.) Tyrone signed his National Letter of Intent and told the world he was going to Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. The whole community was so proud. One of our own was going to the great northwest to play major college football. Once he signed his name, the recruiter from Washington State gave him a Washington State team jersey, a Washington State baseball cap and a football with Washington State painted on it with the team colors, crimson and grey. Tyrone put on his jersey and baseball cap. He grabbed his football, and everyone cheered. The next day, he came to school showing off his new Washington State gear. As he walked down the hall, everyone congratulated him. When he passed by me, I was standing near a teacher by the name of Dick James. Mr. James yelled out to Tyrone, “So Tyrone, you are going to Washington State!” Tyrone grimed and broke into a Heisman Trophy pose. He yelled back, “Yes, sir, Mr. James. I going to be right there with the president.” The noisy hallway grew quiet. Tyrone was so close, yet so far away.

I will confess, I have told you that story in the past several times. I repeated that story today for three reasons. First, I like telling that story. It is fun. Second, people have asked me to retell the story. They like it. Third, the story makes a point. It is easy to be so close, yet so far away. That is what we find the in the scripture reading for today.

We find ourselves today in the second chapter of John. According to the text, it was almost time for the annual Passover. The law dictated everyone within a certain radius must attend the Passover in Jerusalem, but no legislation was needed. Everyone wanted to go to Jerusalem. It was a time to reconnect with family and friends. However, it was also time to pay their taxes at the temple. Jesus goes to the temple and cannot believe his eyes. There were people selling livestock and small birds. There were money changers. Do not miss the next line. They are not there to raise money for the local food bank. They are not there to raise money to pay off some temple debt. They are not there to raise money for the next youth mission trip. They are there for personal profit. So, to speak, they were selling salvation. The animals and birds were sold to be sacrificed. The foreign currency had to be changed into an acceptable currency. Everything was done at a tremendous profit. In the name of God, they were exploiting people. The money made the temple leaders blind to God and the needs of their own people. It is still true today. Money is the greatest obstacle to our spiritual development. It is more than Jesus can handle. In a moment of rage, Jesus scatters the animals and birds. Jesus upends the tables of the money changers. Jesus reminds the people the temple was a place of prayer, not profit. Each one of those temple leaders played the part of Tyrone. They were so close, yet so far away.

I hope that is not our story. We do not want to play the part of Tyrone, so close, yet so far away. It is one of the great challenges facing the church today. We can fill our calendars with important church work and forget why we exist. We exist to make disciples for Jesus Christ. Preparing for worship is time consuming and important, but it is more than just entertainment. Sending our young to church camps and mission trips is important, but those activities are more than wholesome activities. Fundraising is important because we can keep our church financially stable and helps the needy, but money will not save your soul. May we never forget, we are in the disciple making business. So, to keep you from being like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away, I challenge you to do three things today.

First, I challenge you to reaffirm your personal commitment to Jesus Christ! This is a fair question. How did you come to know Jesus Christ? Everyone’s story is different. Everyone’s story is important. There are no bad stories. It does not matter how you came to know Jesus. It only matters that you know Jesus personally. Your parents can not do it for you. Your grandparents can not do it for you. Your preacher can not do it for you. God wants to have a personal relationship with you. Do you want to have a personal relationship with Him?

When Michelangelo was a young boy, he went to a master sculptor, asking to be a student. As they talked about the commitment needed to be a great artist, the master sculptor said, “Michelangelo, it will take your entire life.” Michelangelo responded, “What else is life for?” It is not just true of art. It is true of discipleship. It will take your whole life, but what else matters. Anything less is to be like Tyrone, so close yet so far away.

Second, I challenge you to reaffirm your commitment to the Holy Habits! What are the Holy Habits? The list differs with every group. According to the Living Church, these are the five holy habits: worship, prayer, meditation, Bible study, and service. Others include communion and generosity. How much time do you spend practicing the holy habits? Your answer is very revealing.

There is an old preaching story about a man who bought a parrot at his local pet store. The man was excited about hearing the bird talk, but the bird never said a word. The man returned to the pet store and told the owner about his untalkative parrot. The owner of the store said the bird did not talk because the bird did not have a mirror in the cage. He said, some birds like to preen as they talk, so he bought a mirror for the cage. Still, the bird did not talk, so the man returned to the store. The owner said, you need to buy a ladder. Some birds like to exercise while they talk. Still, the bird did not talk. Next, the owner suggested the man buy a swing for the cage, so the man bought a swing. Some birds like to amuse themselves as they talk. The next day, the owner of the parrot returned to the pet store and announced the bird had died. Shocked, the owner of the pet store asked, “Did the bird ever talk?” The owner responded the bird only spoke once. Seconds before he died the parrot said, “Doesn’t that pet store sell any food?” If you do not practice the holy habits, then you are going to died spiritually. If you do not practice the holy habits, then you are going to be like Tyrone, close, yet far away.

Third, and Finally, I challenge you to reaffirm your commitment to love as a way of life! There is nothing easy about being a disciple of Jesus Christ. From the moment you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you must find a new way, every day, to thank God for saving your soul. The only way to thank God is by helping other people in the spirit of love. You are not just helping others. You are helping yourself. That is the magic of the Christian faith. Several years ago, Duke University released a study. They reported the most fulfilled people are those who live for a bigger cause. There is no bigger cause than God.

In the tenth chapter of Mark is the story of the rich, young ruler. You remember his story. He had it all. He was rich so he could buy anything his heart desired. He was young so his health was intact. If you have your health, then you have it all. He was a ruler, so he had influence in his community. He had everything, but he did not. The only thing he lacked with spiritual peace. According to the story, the rich, young ruler sought out Jesus to find that peace. He asked the question, we have all asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him if he had murdered anyone, been sexually faithful, offered false testimony, and honored his father and mother.” His heart must have jumped when he answered correctly. His heart must have dropped when Jesus told him he lacked only one thing, sell his possessions, and give the money to the poor. He could not do it. The rich, young ruler walked away broken hearted because he was like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away.

Judas Iscariot is the most notorious traitor his history. For three years, he traveled with Jesus. He heard the lessons. He saw the miracles. He felt the presence of the Master. He was trusted and respected by his peers. He was their treasurer. He should have known better, but he betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. I do not know why. Perhaps, he tried to force Jesus’s hand, thinking he would fight back, but he did not fight back. Instead, Jesus goes to the cross and Judas hangs himself. It would have been better for him if he would have never had been born. Judas Iscariot was like Tyrone, so close, yet far away.

Pontius Pilot should have known better. He was the Roman Governor in that corner of the world. Jesus stood before him, as well as the common criminal Barabbas. Pilot has the power to saved Jesus’s life, but surrendered to public opinion. Instead of releasing the innocent Jesus. Pilot releases the guilty Barabbas. Pontius Pilot should have known better. He was like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away. This is the question you must answer?

Are you like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away? I hope not. I challenge you today to reaffirm your personal commitment to Jesus Christ! I challenge you today to reaffirm to the holy habits! I challenge you today to reaffirm your commitment to love as a way of life. Years ago, Jesus went to the temple and was shocked by their behavior. What would Jesus say to us? Do not be like Tyrone, so close, yet so far away.

Defeating Self-Doubt

Let me begin and end with stories about two bearded presidents. The twenty-third President of the United States was Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901). He was a Republican from Indiana. He served as president from 1889-1893. It was during his term the White House was wired for electricity. The White House was wired for electricity in 1891. Electricity had only been around about ten years. Many were still skeptical. Harrison was one. He must have wished it would have waited for his successor, Grover Cleveland (1837-1908). Historians tells us Harrison was intimidated by electricity. He and his wife, Caroline (1832-1892), refused to touch a single light switch. They were afraid of being electrocuted. They were so paralyzed by fear the Harrisons often slept with the lights on. If no servants were present to turn them off. I tell you that story for one reason. Our fears and self-doubts have a way of paralyzing us. It is a common fact today. That takes us to today’s scripture lesson.

We find ourselves in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis. Abram is ninety-nine-years-old. (I do not play the numbers game. If the Bible says he was ninety-nine, then he was ninety-nine.) His covenant with God was yesterday’s news. It had been twenty-four years since God made the great promise to make his descendants a great nation. There is only one problem. He still has no children with Sarai. Abram must have feared he was the reason for God’s inactivity. Abram had made many mistakes. You can find those mistakes between Genesis 12 thru 16. Yet in Genesis 17, we discover that God’s great promise had not been forgotten. To underscore this reaffirmation, God changes Abram’s name. Abram is now to be called Abraham. Abram means “exalted father.” Abraham means “father of many” or “father of the multitude.” The covenant is not just reestablished. It is expanded. Abraham’s self-confidence must have been restored. The way you look at yourself changes everything.

My goal today is to help you restore your self-confidence. That is no small task. How many people do you know struggle with self-doubt? Do you struggle with self-doubt? It is a serious issue. Have you ever stopped to consider Satan puts self-doubt into your life because he does not want you to maximize your full potential? He wants you to live in a shell, afraid to come out. God, on the other hand, wants you to live up to your full potential. He wants you to have the greatest impact on your little corner of the world because you are His ambassador. After all, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ! I am going to restore your self-confidence by asking you three questions. Each correct answer is illustrated in Abraham’s story.

This is the first question. Do you know yourself? Abraham was 99 years old in the Bible story. That means he had 99 years to learn about the world and himself. That is one of the things I like about growing older. Proverbs 20:29 says, “The glory of the young is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old.” Experience has taught me age makes us secure. When you are young you feel like you have something to prove. You must be the fastest. You must be the strongest. You must be well versed in automotive repairs, construction, and French cooking. You must be the best looking and the most successful. Being young is exhausting. The older you grow the less you must prove and the more you learn to like yourself. Today, the only person I am trying to impress today is myself. I am no longer trying to impress you and I do not care if you do not like me. I do not want to sound arrogant. However, I do want to sound secure.

The most liberating words in my life are the words, “I don’t know!” I am quite comfortable confessing my ignorance. I know nothing plumbing, auto repair, foreign policy, sewing, crafts, and the finer details of physics. I cannot speak a word of Portuguese. I cannot read music or play a musical instrument. Except for my awarding winning chili, I do not cook, but I will eat anything. I do not know anyone interviewed on the late-night talk shows. Saying, “I don’t know,” does not mean you do not know anything. It means only means “I don’t know” about certain things. I do not know anything about cardiology, but I know something about God, preaching, the Bible, church growth and group dynamics. I know I love my wife and my wife loves me. This is the truth. I like being sixty-three years old because I have had sixty-three years to learn about myself, my strengths, and my weaknesses. I have grown secure. Abraham had ninety-nine years to learn about himself. Does anyone here know everything? When was the last time you uttered those three little words, “I don’t know?” Abraham knew who he was, and so did Jesus. Let me ask you the first question again, do you know who you are? Self-confident people know themselves.Do you know yourself?

This is the second question. Do you know whose you are? That is Abraham’s story. We can relate to him because he was so much like us. Genesis 12-16 is filled with one story after another about his mistakes. If God was looking for perfection, then He would have passed over Abraham. However, this is the good news. God was not looking for perfection and accepted the imperfect Abraham to be the father of a great nation. It is still true today. If God was looking for perfection, then God would have passed over us. God hungers to be with us not because we are perfect. God hungers to be with us because he loves us.

One of the great preachers of yesteryear was Philip Brooks (1835-1893). He was extremely confident and optimistic. A close friend asked him what the source of his attitude about life was. He replied, “It is really quite simple. I am a Christian.” Once you discover God’s love for you, everything changes. Just think about it for a second. God claims you as a child. In the end, God will be victorious, and He wants to share the spoils of that victory with you! It really does not matter what the world says about you. The only thing that really matters is that God loves you! Jesus was self-confident because he knew whose he was. Abraham was self-confident because he knew whose he was. You should be self-confident because God loves you too. Let me ask you the second question again, do you know whose you are? Self-confident people know they are loved by God. Do you know who you are? Do you know whose you are?

This is the third and final question. Do you know where you are going? Abraham had hope. He knew he had a bright future. He was going to be the father of a great nation. In the Christian faith, Jesus had hope. He knew he was going to heaven when his suffering in this world was over. May we never forget that Jesus suffered. The Apostle’s Creed says: He (Jesus) suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Jesus knew he was going to heaven when it was all over. All he had to do was hold on, but it is not just Jesus’s story. It is our story too.

Has there ever been a time in your life when you felt completely defeated? There did not seem to be any escape and every day was a challenge. It was a challenging situation, but you have hope because you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You know the main event is not this world. The main event is heaven. Someday the challenges of this world are going to be over and you get to go heaven! I have said it a million times. The only things that really matter are the things that will matter in one hundred years. The only thing that will matter in one hundred years is Jesus. Someday we are going to heaven! Let me ask you the third question again, do you know where you are going? Self-confident people are hopeful. When you find yourself defeated by self-doubt ask yourself these three questions. Do you know who you are? Do you know whose you are? Do you know where you are going? Let me end with this story.

History tells us Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the sixteenth president of the United States. His life is well documented, so it should come as no surprise he was shot at Washington DC’s Ford Theater on April 14, 1865. He died at the Petersen House across the street from the theater a day later. Due to his height, they laid him sideways on the bed. He is considered the last casualty of the American Civil War. The political climate of America on that day was ugly. The country was in turmoil and was ripped to shreds by hatred and a cruel, costly war. In the past, I told you about the items found inside of Lincoln’s pockets on that horrible evening. Do you remember them? In President Lincoln’s pockets were found:

          1. A handkerchief, embroidered “A. Lincoln”
          2. A country boy’s pen knife
          3. A spectacles case repaired with string
          4. A purse containing a $5 Confederate bill
          5. Some newspaper clippings

One of the newspaper clippings was an article written by British statesman John Bright (1811-1889). He called Lincoln, “one of the greatest minds of all times.” Today, that is common knowledge, but that was not the case in Lincoln’s time. Lincoln’s critics were fierce. Lincoln kept Bright’s words for one reason. He could not believe anyone would say he had a great mind. All these years later, we can confess the truth. Lincoln suffered from depression and self-doubt.

I do not have an article which says you are one of the great minds of all time, but I do have a divine truth that cannot be debated. You are a child of God! There is no reason to be filled with self-doubt. You are so valuable to God. You are so valuable to God He sent Jesus into the world so you can spend eternity with him. I hope you do. Canadian author Marty Rubin (born 1964) once said, “Self-doubt inflicts the deepest wounds.”

Proper Identification

Several years ago, I was at the saving’s store. You know the saving’s store. Can I be honest with you? Every time, I go to the saving’s store, I end up back in the electronics department. I am not a big television watcher, but I love to look at all the televisions mounted on the back wall. The screens are all different sizes, but each picture is equally beautiful. I love it when all the screens have the same picture. I was just standing their admiring a picture of a parrot when someone jolted me back to reality. This woman grabbed me by my right arm, spun me around and said, “Randall, is that you?” She gave me a big hung and continued, “Are you home for a visit or have you moved back?” I looked at her and said, “I am not Randall.” She turned a million shades of red and said, “I am so sorry. You look just like my cousin, Randall.” I said, “It is fine. He must be an extra good-looking man.” She smiled and said, “Yes, he is.” Making a proper identification is important!

Several years ago, I received a bill from Alpine Visa. I opened it and discovered I

had been shopping at the Belk’s Department Store in Guntersville, Alabama. I owed about $375. There were only two problems. I have never been to Guntersville, Alabama, or a Belk’s Department Store. I Googled Alpine Visa and found out it was all part of a larger scam. The site suggested I go to my local police department and file a report. About an hour later, I was sitting at the police department and filing a report. The officer told me I was smart for coming. Many would have paid the $375. I am too cheap to pay an extra $375. The officer also said I was a victim of identity fraud. Making a proper identification is important.

In 2014, Katheryn DePrill (born 1987) lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania, along with her husband and three children. She will tell you; life is full of surprises. Her biggest surprise came when she was 12 years old.  She was working on a school project about her family tree. Her parents, Carl and Brenda Hollis, slid a scrapbook in front of her and told her the truth. She was adopted! There is nothing glamorous about her story. She was abandoned by her biological mother in the restroom of the local Burger King. In time, she was adopted by Carl and Brenda, who gave her a loving stable home. Katheryn will always consider them her parents, but she was determined to find her biological mother. She holds no hard feelings against her. She just wants to meet her to fill a void in her heart. It was her mother’s idea to seek help on Facebook. More than 30,000 friends helped Katheryn find her. At 27 years old, Katheryn met her biological mother for the first time.  At the time of Katheryn’s birth, her biological mother was seventeen years old. She had been raped in a foreign country. That story grabbed my attention at several levels. Making a proper identity is important. Making a proper identification is at the very heart of our scripture lesson for today.

We find ourselves in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The first eight verses of Mark introduce us to John the Baptist. He is an interesting character. He wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt. He ate locust and wild honey. His wardrobe and diet underscored his one-word message: repent! Unlike Jesus, who went to people, John retreated from people, living in the wilderness. However, the scriptures tell us people responded to his message. Many found John in the wilderness and repented. Each one received a sinner’s baptism, each one needed a sinner’s baptism, except one. The lone exception to the rule was the sinless Jesus. It is his baptism that grabs our attention today. According to Mark, Jesus was immersed in the Jordan River.

The question that haunts this story is, why would the sinless Jesus need a sinner’s baptism? It is an important question with three answers:

  1. Jesus’s baptism fulfilled all righteousness. In other words, Jesus was part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
  2. Jesus’s baptism ignited his earthly ministry and ended John’s contributions.
  3. Jesus’s baptism shows us that he completely identified with the sins of mankind.

Jesus’s baptism should never be dismissed. It was a red-letter day in Jesus’s life. Even God, Himself, was there. As Jesus is pulled out of the water, the Almighty speaks, “You are my Beloved Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” That line is significant because it eases any doubt of Jesus’s identification. Jesus was the son of God. Jesus was the incarnation. Jesus was the greatest life who has ever lived because he died to make salvation possible for all. Making a proper identification is important. Jesus knew a proper identity was important too.

One of the great stories in the Bible is Peter’s confession. (Mark 8:27-30) It all began with a simple question. Who do people say that I am? (Mark 8:27-30) That is what Jesus asked the disciples. They responded, some thought he was John the Baptist incarnated. Others said, Jesus was the great prophet Elijah. Still others thought he was one of the prophets. They are all impressive answers, but each one of those impressive answers is wrong! It illustrates for us you can identify Jesus in an impressive way and be wrong. That is what we find with other world religions.

If you ask other world religions about Jesus, they have a collection of impressive wrong answers. Let me give you a few examples. Muslims believe Jesus was a great prophet, but he was not the son of God, nor the incarnation of God. Orthodox Jews believe Jesus was the son of Mary, a miracle worker and crucified on a cross. However, he was not the Messiah. Hindus believe Jesus was a Holy or Wise Man. Some Hindus believe Jesus was a god, one of many gods who have existed in history. Buddhists believe Jesus was enlightened. The Bahai faith looks for the best in all world religions. They teach Jesus was one of many manifestations of God. The Druze is a western Asian religion. It is a more of a philosophy than it is a salvation system. They respect the teachings of Jesus and consider him a prophet. They are all impressive answers, but they are all you. Let me ask Jesus’s question again.

Who do people say that I am? In our society, very few completely reject Jesus completely. Most are impressed by Jesus. Some say Jesus was a great role model. He was always loving and forgiving. Some say Jesus was a great teacher. His lessons draw massive crowds, and made each attendee think. Some say he was a great miracle worker, healing the sick, the blind and the demonic. Have you ever called on the name of Jesus to heal a sick loved one? Some say Jesus was a martyr, he died on the cross and created a new way to live. Those answers are not bad answers. They are impressive, but they are incomplete. Making a proper identification is important. Then, Jesus asked the real question.

Who do you say I am? There were twelve disciples, but only one spoke. Peter said, “You are the Messiah.” The rock did not completely understand what he was saying. His understanding of Messiahship would be challenged, but two thousand years later we do understand. Jesus was the very incarnation of God. His three-year ministry changed our world and changed the way we view eternity. Without Jesus, our lives in this world are shallow. Without Jesus, we have no hope of heaven. In the life of the church nothing is more important than Jesus. Without Jesus, we have nothing at all. Making a proper identification is important.

I did some math the other night. I have been on the ministry for thirty-eight years, the last twenty-six here. I am proud of my longevity. My longevity makes me a curiosity in this system, but I feel respected. From time to time, I am asked to be a mentor for a young pastor who come to this district. Generally, I refuse to be anyone’s mentor, but I do offer to be their friend. (Being a mentor would require another pointless form.) I have made some great friends with younger clergy. I feel bad for younger United Methodist clergy because they are beginning their careers in such complex times. The ministry, itself, is simple. I have said it a million times. All one must do is talk about Jesus and care about your people. In the ministry nothing else really matters. Everything else is an extra. Who wants to go to church and not hear about Jesus? God, himself, identified Jesus correctly at his baptism. Jesus was the son of God and our Lord and Savior. In the life of the church, the only thing that really matters is Jesus. Making a proper identification is important.Let me end with an old preaching story, I have told you in the past.

A church received a new minister. The church was full for his first Sunday and he preached a wonderful sermon about Jesus. The second Sunday came, and he preached another wonderful sermon about Jesus. His third sermon was about Jesus. Each week the congregation heard a wonderful sermon about Jesus. This went on for months. Everyone should have been happy, but this was a church. Someone had to complain about all those wonderful sermons about Jesus. One man pulled the minister to the side after worship one Sunday. In the corner of the narthex, he confronted the minister. He began by saying, “Your sermons about Jesus are excellent. However, you have been here for months and all we have heard is about Jesus. Our world is a complex place and there are some many social ills. There are people starving to death. There are diseases that have no curve. There are people who cannot read. There are children lost in slavery and lives being lost in wars. We do not hear about any of those things. All we hear about is Jesus! Doesn’t anything else matter? And the pastor said, “No! Once the world knows Jesus all those other issues will go away.” After all, Jesus is the son of God. Our only hope of salvation. In the life of the church, what really matters to you? Augustine of Hippo (354-430) once said, “Jesus Christ is not valued at all until He is valued above all.”

Real Christianity

We find ourselves in the sixth chapter of Matthew. It was written about the year 50 AD by the disciple known as Matthew, also called Levi. The Gospel was written to Jewish or Jewish-Christians crowd to prove to them that Jesus was their Messiah. The sixth chapter is in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. The scripture is rich. The first verse of our reading introduces three acts of righteousness, giving, praying, and fasting. The entire reading can be distilled down to two words: real Christianity. Jesus wants our faith to be genuine. That is what Jesus is really saying. The Master does not want us to be hypocrites. He does not want us to say one thing and do something else. Jesus wants our faith to be genuine! Jesus wants our faith to be authentic. Jesus wants our faith to be real. So, when you give to the needy, pray and fast do not do it to put on a big show for this world. Do those things privately. Do those things to cultivate your relationship with God, so you can be more like Jesus. Being a real-Christian-sounds easy, but it is difficult. I hope you do not find the next line too shocking.

I was wrong! I thought you punch anything into the google search engine and get an answer, but I was wrong. As I prepared this message, I punched into my google search engine “Examples of Real Christians.” I expected to get a list of names of martyrs or missionaries. Instead, I got qualities of a real Christian, things like loving unconditionally and always forgiving. One site made an interesting comment. They said in the history of the world there has only been one true Christian. His name was Jesus of Nazareth, and he lived several thousand years ago. That means the rest of us are failing in our Christian walk. That means we all have some work to do. I do not want to be depressing, but I do want to be honest. This evening I do not want to just challenge you this evening to do better. I want to help you do better. I am confident your faith will grow if you look at three things.

 First, on this Ash Wednesday, I want to look at yourself. When you look at yourself in a mirror what do you see? I do not mean your mother’s smile or father’s pattern baldness. I mean what kind of a person do you see when you look at yourself? Do you consider yourself a good person? I would guess that most of us consider ourselves good people. The reason we consider ourselves good is because we compare ourselves to the bad people in our community and the world.

If you look at the news, then you know the truth. There are some bad people in our world. Has anyone here looked at the local news or read the newspaper lately? Violence has taken our both the city and the suburbs. Places that were once considered safe are now off limits. We have surplus of murders, abusers, drug dealers and sexual predators. We have suicide bombers and human right violators. There are some bad people in this world. Sin now comes in all sizes and shapes. It is impossible not to compare yourself to them. How can you not feel like a good person when you stand next to a suicide bomber? You can be honest with me?Are you a real Christian or are you a respectable Christian?

 Second, on this Ash Wednesday, I want you to look at Jesus. When you compare yourself to a suicide bomber you reach one conclusion. When you compare yourself to Jesus you come to a completely different conclusion. The gospel story tells us how perfect Jesus was. Jesus was born in the ordinary way but lived an extra ordinary life. He never committed a single sin. His reward for the perfect life was to be executed like a common criminal. His perfection made him the perfect sacrifice for the world’s sins. When you stand next to a suicide bomber you reach one conclusion about yourself but when you stand next to perfection you discover your flaws. If we compare yourself to this suicide bomber you look fine. If we compare ourselves to Jesus, then it is another story. Lent is a time to compare yourself to Jesus. Are you a real Christian or are you just a respectable Christian? We have some work to do.

 Third, and finally, on this Ash Wednesday I want you to look at the cross. The cross was a Roman form of execution. It was designed to make an example out of the criminal. The cross was a common site in the Roman world. Everyone had seen someone die on a cross. It is safe to say, Jesus saw people die on the cross before he went to the cross. He knew the agony that was waiting for him. The dying process took hours! It is difficult to look at the cross, but it is important that we look at the cross. The cross reminds us of God’s great love for us. The cross calls us to rediscover the person inside of you that God intended from the very beginning. Are you a real Christian? Or are you just a respectable Christian? That is the question that haunts us every Lent.

 Andrew Young (born 1932) was the fifty-fifth major of Atlanta. He and his wife did their best as parents. They had four children. They taught each one right from wrong and exposed them to what was important. One night they took their daughter to church to hear an African missionary speak. The speaker was powerful, and their daughter took in every word. Their daughter stayed behind when the program was over to get more information. On the way home she told her parents she believed God was calling her in to the mission’s field. They dismissed those words as a school-girl’s passion. Several years later, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Young stood at the airport saying good-bye to that daughter. She was headed to the mission’s field of Africa. On their way home the Young’s got into their car. They looked at the empty back seat. They fought back the tears and rode in silence. It was Mrs. Young who spoke first. She said, “Andrew, we always wanted to raise a respectable Christian. I never knew we were raising a real one.” It is the question of Lent. How many real Christians do you know? Perhaps, this is a better question. Are you a real Christian?