The Center of Your Universe

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos (1917-1989) was elected President of the Philippines, which made his wife, Imelda (born 1929), First Lady. They held those positions until 1986, when the entire family fled to Hawaii. The international news was fascinated with what she left behind. After having ruled a poor country for decades, the inventory was impressive: 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 1,000 handbags and approximately 7,500 pairs of shoes. (However, Time magazine reported she only owned 1,060 pairs of shoes.) For your information, I only own four pairs of shoes; one is an old pair of sneakers for yardwork. Through the years, Hundreds of criminal charges have been filed against Imelda, who is now 94 years old, but she has never been incarcerated, because her children, Imee (born 1955) and Bongbong (born 1957), hold powerful positions within the federal government. Still today, many consider Imelda Marcos the most selfish person in the world. In other words, the center of Imelda Marco’s universe is Imelda Marcos. That leads us to an interesting question. Who is the center of your universe? That leads us to our scripture lesson.

We find ourselves in the third chapter of John, verses one through fifteen. Any Bible student will tell you the storyline of this gospel is different than the synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus cleansing the temple at the end of his ministry; it is part of the climax. John is different. He has Jesus cleansing the temple at the beginning of his ministry (John 2). That fact is important for one reason; Jesus had the attention of some very powerful influential people from the very beginning.

One of those powerful influential people was Nicodemus. It is a Greek name meaning “People’s Victory.” According to the second half of verse one, he was a member of the Jewish ruling council. That means he had climbed to the very top of his profession. It is safe to say Nicodemus spent his days answering the questions of others. This story is unique because he is the one with the questions. With everything that has been written about this passage through the ages, one thing is important to remember. This story is nothing more than a private discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is John, the author and editor of this gospel, who promotes their private discussion to the public’s attention.

In one way the story is simple to understand, in other ways the story is hard to understand. It is simple to understand what happened. It is hard to understand what was being said – in other words, the meaning behind the words between Jesus and Nicodemus. According to verse two, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. That fact alone is confusing. Some say Nicodemus went at night to see Jesus so the darkness could help hide his identity. How would it look for a trusted member of the clergy to go to Jesus, a man with no credentials? Others say he went to Jesus at night so the two had time to talk. The business of the day was done. Regardless, Nicodemus went to Jesus because he was impressed by the Master. No ordinary man could have performed such miracles; he must have come from God. Jesus hears through these kind words and knows the real topic, salvation!

Jesus says in verse three, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born again. Two thousand years later, the world is still wrestling with those words, so we should not be surprised that Nicodemus wrestled with them that night. He thinks Jesus is speaking of physical birth, reentering your mother’s womb. Jesus is speaking of spiritual birth. The two are as different as night and day. From the moment you were physically born, you struggled to survive. The goal of life is to survive, so the most important person in your universe is you. That is Imelda Marcos’s story. Spiritual rebirth is different. From the moment you are reborn, the most important being in your life is God. For example, that is the story of John the Baptist, who lived for God. His personal agenda meant nothing to him. The only thing that mattered to him was God. Spiritually immature people live for themselves; spiritually mature people live for God. Which is more important to you? Are you the center of your universe, or is God the center of your universe? Don’t worry about your answer. We all have some work to do.

Let me take you a little deeper. One of our primary understandings of God is that God believes in free will. In other words, God may be directing history, but you are directing your own life. The choices you make are yours, so the burden of responsibility rests on you. So many things in life distill down to a choice. I hope you are choosing wisely. Last week, I wrote about the decision to follow Jesus. The primary text was the calling of Andrew, John and Peter. It was not forced upon them; they decided to follow Jesus freely. If you are reading this blog, I assume at some point in your life you decided to follow Jesus. That choice was yours. The same thing is true this week. The choice is yours. Are you going to live a life where you are the center of your own universe? Or have you been born again spiritually, where God is the center of your universe? How influential has God been on your life?

Annually during my time in the ministry, I promoted stewardship. If you think steward is just about money, then you don’t understand true Christian stewardship. True Christian stewardship understands your life is a testimony. The Westminster Confession of Faith says the purpose of life is to glorify God. Take an inventory of your life to this point. Are you using all your resources to being glory to God? Are you spending your time in a way that is bringing glory to God? Are you using your natural talents in a way that is bring glory to God? Are you spending financial resources in a way that is bringing glory to God? Is God influencing the way you live, or are you living for yourself? In other words, is God the center of your universe, or are you the center of your universe? If God is the center of your universe, then you have been born again.

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. I grieved at the news because I have been to Ukraine several times. It is a beautiful country filled with wonderful people. It was reported Russian soldiers were told they would be welcomed as liberators, but that never happened. The fighting has been fierce, and thousands have died on both sides. According to the United Nations, over eight million Ukrainians have fled their country. That represents 18% of the population. During March of 2022, over three million crossed the border. Each refugee has a heart-breaking story.

One of those stories came from a young Ukrainian woman crossing into Poland. Holding an infant in her arms and struggling with a toddler, she spoke to a reporter through a translator. She was alone with her children because her husband went to eastern Ukraine to fight the invaders. With his blessing, she headed to western Europe. She left everything. She left her home. She left her friends and family, including her aging parents. She left everything she knew and was familiar. The reporter asked the obvious question, “Why?” She responded by holding her children close and said, “To give them a future!” The report ended with tears running down the young woman’s face. I still think about that young woman. I do not know is now, but I do know one thing. I know that young Ukrainian woman loves her children. She sacrificed everything for them. They are the center of her universe.

Your life is a testimony. What is your life saying about your relationship with God? Is God influencing the way you live, or are you living for yourself? In other words, is God the center of your universe, or are you the center of your universe? If God is the center of your universe, then you have been born again. American New Testament scholar and Baptist theologian John Piper (born 1946) once said, “Faith is the evidence of new birth, not the cause of it.” Are you born again?

Following Jesus

We find ourselves in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, verses thirty-five through forty-two. It is obviously early in Jesus’s ministry. It is so early in Jesus’s ministry that Jesus doesn’t have a single disciple. That is about to change. According to the text, John the Baptist was with his disciples, when Jesus passes by. John the Baptist, who always was pointing toward Jesus and away from his own earthly success, identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. With his endorsement, two of John’s disciples leave him and follow Jesus. The Bible identifies one of the disciples as Andrew, tradition identifies the other disciple as John, the author of this Gospel. Seconds later, Jesus notices that they are following him and asked them, “Why?” It is an excellent question because no one likes being stocked. They answer Jesus’s question with another question, “Where are you staying?” Jesus answers that question with an invitation, “Come and you will see.” They accepted the invitation and stayed with him. They must have been impressed. They stayed with Jesus until about 4:00 in the afternoon. At that time, the two temporary leave Jesus and told others about him. Andrew told his brother Peter, who decided to follow Jesus too. In this story, three people decided to follow Jesus in a single day. In each case their lives wouldn’t be the same again.

In the scripture lesson for today, following Jesus looks simple. Andrew and John are with John the Baptist. John identifies Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, so they began to follow Jesus. Hours later, Andrew tells his brother, Peter, and he begins to follow Jesus. Their decision to follow Jesus seems easy. I can’t speak for them, and I can’t speak for you. I can only speak for myself. In my opinion, the decision to follow Jesus isn’t easy. It is very complex. Your decision to follow Jesus will affect the rest of your life. I am not wrong. Following Jesus is very complex. That is what I have written about in this blog. I have grouped my thoughts around three questions. This is the first question.

Do you follow Jesus exclusively? On September 11, 2001, our world changed forever. It was a Tuesday and I had taken the day off. My daughters were in school. I was getting ready to stain our deck. My wife Kathryn stuck her head out of the side door of our home and said, “You need to watch this.” I came in and sat down. I saw our world change in front of my eyes. America was attached by terrorists in three places, western Pennsylvania, New York City and Washington DC. Our national innocence was gone, and we entered a new sinister world. The painful truth became common knowledge. America was under attack by extreme members of the Islamic faith. On September 11, those terrorists wanted the world to know that the Muslim faith was the only way. They frustrate us for many reasons. One of the reasons is their narrowness. If you are going to follow Jesus, then you must be narrow too. Are you willing to follow Jesus exclusively because you understand Jesus to be our hope of salvation. Be prepared, some may call us narrow. Look at the story with me.

In the story, Andrew and John begin as disciples of John the Baptist. Don’t forget, John the Baptist was their rabbi or teacher, Andrew and John were his disciples or students. In other words, he gave them spiritual insight and direction. When John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, they listen to him because they trusted him. This story is incredible because Andrew and John turned their backs on John the Baptist to follow Jesus. They were going to follow Jesus exclusively. Are you following Jesus exclusively? Are you willing to tell the other world religions they are wrong? This is the second question.

Do you follow Jesus unconditionally? One of the great stories in the Bible can be found in the Book of Job. Everyone knows the story because everyone has played the part of Job. In the beginning he has everything, wealth, health, and relationships. Satan believes, Job’s loves for God is conditional, so he begins to take things away the good things in Job’s life. His wealth is taken away. His health is taken away. His loved ones are taken away. Job is left with nothing. His friends witness his ordeal and encourage him to curse God and die. Job refuses. He loves God unconditionally.

How many people do you know follow Jesus unconditionally? In my time in the ministry, I witnessed it many times. It is easy to follow Jesus when life is good. It is easy to follow Jesus when you have an enjoyable well-paying job. It is easy to follow Jesus when your health is good and your loved one’s health is good. It is easy to follow Jesus when all your relationships are sound. It is not so easy to follow Jesus when you are unemployed, sick, and alone. It is not easy to follow Jesus when you are overwhelmed with worry. It is not so easy to follow Jesus when your friends tell you to stop following Jesus. After all, we believe in an all-powerful God who resurrected Jesus from the dead. Have you ever wondered why our all-powerful God doesn’t help you? Do you follow Jesus conditionally? Do you follow Jesus unconditionally? This is question number three.

Do you follow Jesus passionately? In the scripture lesson for today, three people decided to follow Jesus. There was Andrew, John, and Peter. They followed Jesus because they wanted to change their lives. You can’t blame them because their lives were hard. Any change seemed to be better. However, they didn’t have a clue how much their lives were going to change. They followed Jesus until the very end of their lives. Only John died of old age. Yet, he experienced the isolation of Patmos because he refused to stop following Jesus. It is there that he had a series of visions. Those visions became the Book of Revelation. Peter followed Jesus to Roman, according to tradition, and was crucified upside down because he wasn’t worthy to die like Jesus. Andrew, according to tradition, was crucified on an x-shaped cross. Each one wanted changed and they got it. No one came question their passion.

How passionate are you about Jesus?  I hope you are open to change. The reason is simple. Once you begin to follow Jesus your agenda your life doesn’t really matter. The only thing that really matters is Jesus’s agenda. In other words, are you willing to let Jesus change you? The faith is not meant to be a Sunday morning experience, the faith is meant to be a life-altering experience. It sounds so easy. Andrew, John, and Peter followed Jesus. The truth is following Jesus is quite complex. Following Jesus will change everything about you. How passionate are you about Jesus?

It is impossible not to know the name C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). As a novelist, poet, lecturer, and Christian apologist, he held academic posts at both Oxford and Cambridge for decades. Yet, he was a blessing to the nonacademic worlds too. His Christian faith can be seen in all his classic literary works. Perhaps, you have read or heard of one of these: The Screwtape Letters, The Chronical of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem with Pain. It is interesting to note that there was a long period in his life when Lewis believed in nothing at all. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, Lewis told how he was baptized into the Church of Ireland, but the sacrament had no influence on him. He walked away from the faith and didn’t return until he was 32 years old. He thanked his friends, including J. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), for his spiritual wakening. Who do you credit for your spiritual awakening? In other words, who do you credit for saving your soul? Perhaps, this is a more profound question.

When did you first decide to follow Jesus? No two stories are the same. No one’s story is better, or worse, than another story. Your story is just that, your story. Your story may include loving parents who sacrificed for you. They took you to church every week so you could know Jesus as your own. For this reason, Sunday school was not an option, it was a requirement. When your heart was just right, God spoke to you in just the right way. You decided to follow Jesus. The people in your life never saw a great change in your life. For this reason, your story is not exciting. I like those unexciting stories because they sound so much like mine. Or maybe, your story is exciting.

There was a surplus sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Maybe your story included long periods away from loved ones. To the outside world you were living the dream. However, you knew the truth. You were miserable and your heart was restless. You were afraid to dye, and you didn’t like the person you had become. When you hit the lowest, God spoke to you. It was an incredible experience. You were born again! That was a good thing because you wanted to start your life over again. The people in your life couldn’t believe the change. They had grown tired of the old you, and they wanted to get to know the new you. Can I tell you the truth? It doesn’t really matter how you came to follow Jesus. The only thing that matters is that you decided to follow Jesus. You are not much different than the Bible characters, Andrew, James, and Peter. You know now what they discovered later. Following Jesus will change everything about you.  American Protestant author, teacher, and preacher Francis Chan (born 1967) once said, “You find that the things you let go of while following Jesus were the things that were going to destroy you in the end.”


We find ourselves in the twelfth chapter of John. It is six days before Passover and Jesus is in Bethany, near Jerusalem. Bethany was the hometown of Lazarus, the one Jesus resurrected. (You can find that story in the previous chapter.) As a way of thanking Jesus, a dinner is held in his honor. Everyone was there, but only three are mentioned. There was Martha, who is serving the crowd. She is as busy as a bee. There was Lazarus. Everyone must have asked him, what do you remember about being dead? There was Mary. Jesus has her complete attention. She is the one who does the unexpected.

According to verse 3, without warning, Mary pours a pint of expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet, wiping it with her hair. The entire house was filled with the sweet smell. Everyone must have reacted in their own way. According to the text, Judas Iscariot, the one who would soon reject Jesus, saw that act as a financial waste. Disguising his selfish motive, Judas Iscariot said the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. It was a good point. Some must have agreed with him. However, Jesus didn’t. The Master saw Mary’s act as a sign of love and devotion. Defending her, Jesus says, “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me”. It pains me to say it, but to date Jesus has been right. The poor are still with us, but his earthly ministry is over.

Our world is the home of many poor people. The numbers don’t lie. I came across these numbers this week. They may be dated because they came from 2017. I doubt things are getting better. They came from an organization called FINCA, The World Bank for the Poor. These numbers reminded me, I have a good life. According to them:

There are approximate 7.88 billion people in our world. Half of the world’s population lives on less than $6.85 per day. Ten percent of the world’s population in our world live on less than $2.50 a day.

In developing countries, 60% to 80% of all income is spent on food. In the United States, it is 10%.

Over 800 million people worldwide do not have enough food to eat. Three million children die annually of malnutrition.

Approximately 1.2 billion in our world live without electricity.

40 million children worldwide live without adequate shelter.

700 million in our world lack clean water.

Approximately one billion people entered the twenty-first century unable to read or write.

Jesus wasn’t wrong, Jesus was right! There are many poor people in our world. America is not excluded from poverty. Did you know, according to the United States Census, 11.6%, or 37.6 million Americans, live in poverty? Do you know of anyone who lives in poverty? Have you ever experienced poverty firsthand?However, after saying all of this about poverty, the text is not about poverty. The text is about the supremacy of Jesus. Look at the text with me one more time.

Jesus is in Bethany, the hometown of Lazarus, the man Jesus resurrected. A dinner is being held in Jesus’s honor. Mary expresses her extravagant love for Jesus by anointing him with expensive presume. Jesus does not reprimand her for her waste. He applauds her for her priorities. Jesus understood his role in God’s plan of salvation for the world. He knew his mission superseded any human need. Jesus didn’t say helping the poor was bad. However, he did know it wasn’t enough. It is not just true in Jesus’s time; it is true in our time. In the life of the church, doing good things isn’t good enough. Like Mary, our top priority must be Jesus! Nothing else in the life of the church really matters.

As I have said in the past, I am not a United Methodist by birth. I am a United Methodist by choice. I was raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I never really thought much about my Disciples roots, but that changed in an instant. A person from a local Disciple congregation joined my church, and I discovered something about myself. My Disciples roots have had great influence on my personal theology. There is a simple line from that denomination that holds great value. It goes like this: No creed but Christ. No book but the Bible. As an ordained Elder within the United Methodist Church, I hate to admit it, but that is how I feel. That is what I taught through the years. Good works aren’t good enough. We are saved by grace. (Ephesians 2:8-9) In the life of the church, nothing really matters but Jesus. If we don’t have Jesus, if we are not passionate about Jesus, then we have nothing at all. We are not a social action agency; we are the church of Jesus Christ. The organizational church must never loose their passion for him.

Annually, as a United Methodist, I observed Charge Conference. It is the highest administrative body within a United Methodist congregation. It is our annual business meeting. Charge Conference is not exciting, but several things do happen. The pastor’s salary is set for next year. Officers are elected. Goals are set and reports are given. Annually, I wrote a Pastor’s Report. Six years ago, I called my Pastor’s Report, The Secret to Our Success. That had been a good year in the life of my church. I would have matched our numbers with any United Methodist congregation in our area. While most United Methodist congregations are struggling, we had seen some growth. The secret to our success has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with congregation. It has nothing to do with what we have done or own. The secret to our success is Jesus. I have understood it for a long time. In the life of the church, nothing really matters but Jesus. If we don’t have Jesus, if we are not passionate about Jesus, then we have nothing at all. This is one paragraph from my report:

I am always amazed how easily distracted we are in the life of the church. We are supposed to be developing disciples for Jesus Christ, but we are lost in a sea of good works. It is one of the things that makes any appointment challenging. It is not a lack of passion or energy. People are passionate about many things. People are passionate about the next fundraiser. People are passionate about the building. People are passionate about the cleanliness of our church. People are passionate about the happiness of their friends. People are passionate about their opinions and their voice being heard. At the general church level, they are passionate about issues and heritage. Many have become passionate about sexuality. Those things really don’t matter if we are not passionate about Jesus. I refuse to be trapped by the good works and understand my role to simply promote Jesus. In the life of the church nothing matters but Jesus.

How passionate are you about Jesus? Every Christian, and congregation, must be passionate about Jesus! Nothing else matters. Let me end with this story.  

Years ago, I was involved in a pulpit exchange. You know the pulpit exchange. It is held on the third Sunday of January. All the ministers go to another church for one Sunday. Everyone likes it. The churches like it because they get to meet a new minister. The ministers like it because they can preach something old. I do not remember who came to my church, but I do remember I went to a church in the community. That church only had one service.

The word must have gotten out. It was pulpit exchange Sunday, and I was coming. The attendance was a little low. I didn’t count heads, but there were maybe forty people. The lay leader worked his way through the order of worship and pointed to me when it was time to preach. I do not want to sound critical, but the crowd didn’t seem impressed by my presence. After a word of welcome, I read the scripture and said a prayer. Two minutes into my sermon a man suddenly appeared in the back. He sat next to another man. The newcomer said something to the other man, and he sprang to life. Together, they ran out. A minute later they grabbed another man, and he ran out. Next, one of them came back and told his wife something. She grabbed a friend and they left. Three nosy people, who no one talked to, got up to see what was happening. In about ten minutes, I lost about half the crowd. I will be honest with you. As I preached, I began to wonder what was happening. Maybe someone had a heart attack. That would explain their sudden exit. Those who were left behind must had wondered too because they keep looking around. I couldn’t take it anymore. I shortened my sermon, only sang one verse of the final hymn, and sped through the benediction. I wanted to see the emergency. I wanted to help. When I walked to the back of the sanctuary, I looked for the escapees. I walked toward them to see what was happening. When I found the source of the commotion, I was relieved to find the emergency wasn’t a person. It was a thing. The toilet was clogged, and everyone was looking for the guilty party. On that day, in that unidentified church, they were more interested in a clogged toilet than in Jesus Christ. In the life of the church the only thing that really matters is Jesus. When you go to church is Jesus your top priority?

Have you ever gone to church and missed Jesus? Have you ever gone to church, and something became more important than Jesus? Let me say it again. In the life of the church there is nothing more important than Jesus. If we don’t have Jesus, then we have nothing at all. The great American evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) once said, “Make sure of your commitment to Jesus Christ, and seek to follow Him every day. Don’t be swayed by the values and goals of this world but put Christ and His will in everything you do.”

Move Forward!

We find ourselves in the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, verses ten through fifteen. The main character in the story is Moses. If you use your sanctified imagination, you can see him. To many, he looks like a young Charlton Heston (1923-2008). He was the one God selected to liberate the Jews from Egyptian rule. You remember the story. After a series of plagues, the Pharaoh released his slave labor. It must have been an exciting day for God’s Chosen People. They were urban people, who were about to begin a rural life. Everyone was enjoying their freedom until our story. Suddenly, the mood changed. The people had made it as far as the Red Sea. Most eyes were on that body of water in front of them. However, someone looked behind them and saw the Egyptian army coming. They knew what had happened. Pharaoh had changed his mind. He had sent his army out to bring them back. What started off as a great day quickly turned into a very bad day. There was nowhere to turn. The waters of the Red Sea were in front of them, and the Egyptian army was behind them. They were in a hopeless situation. However, this is the truth. This is not really a story about a group of Jews who lived thousands of years ago. It is really a story about our time.

Have you ever found yourself in a hopeless situation? It may have been the time you children’s marriage was staggering. You tried to ignore the signs for years. You prayed they would have what you have, a happy marriage. The problem is your grandchildren tell you about all the fighting. You have a front row seat to a bad drama. It may have been the time you flunked out of school. The program was harder than you anticipated, and you just didn’t have time to study. Flunking out of school is embarrassing enough but now then student loans have come due. It may have been the time you tried to sell your house. The appraisal revealed what you have known for a long time. You owe more than your house is worth. It may have been the time you were pulled over at that the DUI check point. Have you ever been in a hopeless situation?

Could it be your church is in a hopeless situation? There are many mainline Protestant churches in hopeless situations. It has been your family church for generations. It was where your grandparents sang in the choir. It was where you were married. It was where your children were baptized. It was where you learned about Jesus. The stained-glass windows still shine as bright as ever, but the future of your church seems dim. You remember when the pews were filled, but now the pews sit empty. You remember when the offering plates bulged, but now they welcome a measly collection. No one complains about the noisy children because there are no children. The only ones who remain are bald and gray. You spend your time talking about the good old days because the future is too difficult to face. Everyone who remains knows the truth. The end is near. No one wants to close a church, but it is your only option. It is true of many churches, and it is true of many individuals. Each one of us has stood on the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. You can’t go forward, and you can’t go back. You are in a hopeless situation.

In this blog, I want to talk about the three ways the Jews handled their hopeless situation. They handled their hopeless situation poorly so they will act as our negative examples. This is what they did. They looked back. They were consumed by self-pity, and they blamed others. Those things did not change their hopeless situation. There is no other way to say it: they were paralyzed with fear. I hope that is not your story. They did not move forward until they were encouraged by Moses in verses thirteen and fourteen and by God, Himself, in verse fifteen. Unfortunately we live in times when many are paralyzed by fear. For this reason, I want to break down the Hebrews negative behavior.

Do you know of anyone who can’t go forward because they keep looking back? That is what the Hebrews did. Look at the text with me. The Egyptians were coming, and things were looking bad. What did they do? They remembered a time when life was better. In two verses, 11 and 12, Egypt is referred to five times. Slavery looked good next to death. They looked back to Egypt and remembered the good old days. When was the last time you recalled the good old days? How often do you recall the good old days? Is it possible your good old days are preventing you from fully living today?

On September 6, 2012, the most sinister character in the history of Cleveland sports died, Art Modell (1925-2012). I remember that day. I know this is wrong, but I have to say it. At his death, it was hard to hear nice things about him. He was the one who moved the Browns out of Cleveland after the 1995 season. I will never forget hearing the announcement on the radio. It seemed impossible. The Browns were leaving! My heart was broken, and I could not understand why. How do you own the Cleveland Browns and lose money? How do you fill an 80,000-seat stadium each week and lose money? How do you walk away from a fan base that supported the team after decades of losing? I did it all. I bought the shirts. I bought the tickets. I bled orange. I sat in the Dog Pound before it had a name. I believed someday they would turn it around. I was a devoted fan, but on the day, Art Modell moved the Browns I stopped caring. (I am sure Art Modell does not need a sweater where he is spending eternity!) His death reopened those old wounds.

On the first family gathering after Art Modell’s death, I started lecturing my family about the ills of the old fool, Art Modell. My youngest daughter, Anna who was 22 at the time, looked at me and asked two questions. “Who is Art Modell?” “The Browns left Cleveland?” Suddenly I found myself being the person I never wanted to be. I was living in the past. Do you know what God was telling me? Stop looking back and move forward. When you live in the past you miss today! Could it be you are living in the past? Does someone need to tell you to move forward?

Do you know of anyone who can’t move forward because they are consumed with self-pity? That is what the Hebrews did. Look at the text with me. Verses 11 and 12 are coated with self-pity. They say, “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Have you ever been frustrated because your life isn’t on schedule? How many pity parties have you thrown for yourself lately?

Did you know there are guidelines for holding a proper pity party? According to the internet, so you know it is true, there are four things you need for a proper pity party. I am not recommending these things, but this is what is required for a top rate pity party.

1. Alcohol

2. Lounging Gear

3. Food

4. Music, movies, or journaling

There is only one problem with a pity party. They don’t change anything. Wearing comfortable clothes doesn’t change the facts. Eating until you explode won’t change the facts. Drinking till you pass out won’t change the facts. Being absorbed in your favorite entertainment won’t change the facts. As a matter of fact, it may make things worse. Self-pity is only a distraction. Don’t invite God to your pity party because he won’t attend. God expects you to deal with your problems; God expects you to move forward. Do you know of anyone who likes a good pity party? Do you like a good pity party? Does someone need to tell you to move forward?

Do you know of anyone who can’t move forward because they are so busy blaming others? You know the slogan: it is hard to soar like an eagle if you are surrounded by turkeys. That is what the Hebrews did. Look at the text with me. Listen to verses 11 and 12 again, “They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” What are the Hebrews doing in those two verses? They are blaming Moses for their situation. If Moses hadn’t taken them out of Egypt, then they would not be in this difficult situation. Do you know of anyone who is having a difficult time taking responsibility for their own lives? Do you know of anyone who blames others for their difficult situation? Do you know of anyone who blames others for their limitations? Is it possible you have blamed others in your time hardship?You know it is true.

One of the most known stories in the Bible is the story of Adam and Eve. They were living in the Garden of Eden. They had everything they needed to be happy, and they only had one rule. You know the rule. Eve broke the rule first and then encouraged Adam to take a bite of the apple. When God discovers their innocence is lost, he confronts them. Do you remember what Adam did? Adam blamed Eve. Do you know of anyone who blames others for their actions? Do you know of anyone blames others for this difficult situation? Has anyone ever blamed you for their difficult situation? Have you ever been paralyzed by fear? As any preacher will tell you, fear has a way of paralyzing us, but faith has a way of mobilizing us. The choice is really yours. You can be paralyzed by fear, or you can move forward trusting God.

Do you know of anyone who trusts God and moves forward? The story does not end with the Jews perishing on the shores of the Red Sea. The story ends with the Jews moving forward and passing through the Red Sea as God holds the water back. If they would have not moved forward trusting God, then they would have missed the blessings God had in store for them. If it is true of them, then it is true of us. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord.

Janez Rus (1914-2001) was paralyzed by fear. He went into hiding in his sister’s farmhouse in May of 1945. He hid because he was afraid. During the Second World War he had been part of the Nazi party. He was afraid his party’s activities would lead to his arrest. He stayed in hiding for years and didn’t come out until he was discovered in 1977. That means he hid for thirty-three years. That means he lost thirty-three years of his life! He missed everything because he was paralyzed by fear and failed to trust God. Let me ask you one more question. How much of your life are you wasting because you are paralyzed by fear? I implore you to trust God and move forward. American evangelical Bruce Wilkinson (born 1940) once said, “Dependence upon God makes heroes of ordinary people like you and me!”

Surrounded By Our Enemies!

We find ourselves in the sixth chapter of Luke, verses twenty-seven through thirty-one. Our reading comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is in Galilee, which means his popularity is high. The Master ascends to a high piece of land, not to escape the crowd, but to be heard by the crowd. From that lofty position, the Master teaches them about the Kingdom of God. He sets the bar high by giving them the Beatitudes. The word beatitude means “supreme blessedness. You remember them. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep, and the rest. To the secular world those seem ridiculous. To the believer those words are a great challenge. The standards are high in the Kingdom of God.

I find verse twenty-seven to be extremely challenging. Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”  There is nothing difficult about these words. They are straightforward. You do not need an advanced degree to unlock some hidden meaning. They are as clear as clear can be. Jesus expects us to love our enemies. However, those words run contrary to our society. Many find it much easier to hate. We would like to dismiss these words, but we can’t do it. Why? Because they are Jesus’s words, and we are disciples of Jesus Christ. Our goal is to be like Jesus. If Jesus said, love your enemies, we must love our enemies. We have no excuse for not trying, because Jesus loved his enemies. Let me ask you this uncomfortable question: How many enemies do you have in your world?

Who are our political enemies?  It is a good question. It is the same question the people at Statista asked Americans. Their results were released in March of 2021. America has a complex relationship with many countries around the world, but here are our top five enemies:



          North Korea



Do you agree those five countries are our enemies? Is there another country you would like to add to the list? I would like to add any country that promotes terrorist activities. Those countries are easy to hate, but this is the problem: You are a disciple of Jesus Christ and Jesus told us to love our enemies. Few Americans are praying for Vladimir Putin (born 1952) these days. Are you willing to love those countries, or do you as a disciple of Jesus Christ have some work to do? Our country has political enemies. Our community also has enemies.

Who are your community’s enemies? It is a good question. In 2017, Kristen O’Conner (born 1990) and June Schweinhart (born 1989) were friends. The two young women did not meet in school. They met in drug rehab. It may have been they had a common interest. It may have been that they were both pregnant. When rehab ended, they stayed in touch. At some point the two women got together with their newborns. Things did not go well. Before the day was done, the two were overdosing on heroine in the front seat of a car as the newborns sat in their car seats in the back. It is safe to say that rehab did not work for the women. Drugs have become such a big part of our society. Everyone seems to know someone on drugs. Everyone seems to know someone who died prematurely because of drugs. Many people believe the dark organizations who are providing the drugs are our community’s enemy. They may be right. It is easy to hate those organizations and those local drug dealers, but this is the problem: You are a disciple of Jesus Christ and Jesus told us to love our enemies. Are you willing to love those drug dealers, or do you have some work to do? Our country has political enemies. Our community has enemies. Be honest with yourself. You have personal enemies. The Bible is filled with personal enemies. Let me give you just two.

Do you remember the story of Cain and Abel? They were the sons of Adam and Eve. The boys could have had a great life, but their parents ate from the fruit of the tree. For this sin they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Forced to work for a living, Abel became a shepherd and Cain a farmer. In time, the boys brought their offerings to the Lord. Cain, the farmer, brought some fruit. Abel, the shepherd, brought fresh meat. The Lord looked at both the fruit and meat and favored the meat. (So would I.) Cain grew jealous of his brother and killed him. It is not surprising that the first murder in the history of the world occurred within a family unit. We are expected to love our family members, but it doesn’t always happen. Do you have a family member who you hate? Do you have a family member who hates you?

Do you remember the story of Joseph, the well-built handsome young man? He knew what it was like to have enemies within his own family. He was one of twelve brothers. Can you imagine having eleven brothers? Can you imagine having eleven brothers when you are your father’s favorite? To demonstrate his favored status, Jacob, their father, gave Joseph the famous coat of many colors. That coat was more than his brothers could handle, so they came up with a plan. The brothers tell their father, Jacob, that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. The truth is, Joseph, the dreamer, was sold into slavery. In the end, it all worked out for Joseph, but for a while Joseph had some difficult days. I have always marveled at the fact that Joseph was able to forgive his brothers and mend the family’s wounds. You can ask Joseph and he will tell you it is easy to have enemies within the family.

Who are your personal enemies? Your personal enemy can be a family member. Your personal enemy can be a neighbor. Your personal enemy can be a fellow worker or classmate. Your personal enemy can be a fellow church member. It is easy to hate those people, but this is the problem: You are a disciple of Jesus Christ and Jesus told us to love our enemies. Are you willing to love that person, or do you have some work to do? Our country has political enemies. Our community has enemies. You have personal enemies. This last question is the hardest one to tackle.

Have you ever felt like your own worst enemy? What is it about yourself you hate? Everyone has something. Do you wish you were thinner? Do you wish you were taller? Do you wish you were younger? Do you wish you were smarter? Do you wish you could stop spending? Do you wish you could stop smoking or drinking? Do you wish you could stop being so negative and critical? Do you wish you could stop gossiping? Do you wish they were braver? Do you wish you have made better decisions when you were younger? Do you wish you could love your most personal enemy, yourself?  Do you like the person you are? When was the last time you prayed for yourself?

In 2017, PBS aired a ten-part series on the Vietnam War. In total, it lasted eighteen hours. They interviewed more than eighty eyewitnesses from all sides of the conflict. I was interested in the topic because I was fifteen years old when it ended. There was much I wanted to learn. In my opinion, the first episode was the best. It covered approximately 100 years of Vietnamese history – how the French colonized Vietnam and how the United States got involved in Vietnam. I wanted to watch all ten episodes, but I couldn’t do it. The topic was too heavy and sad. This is what I learned that still haunts me. In 1962, President John Kennedy (1917-1963) told an aide, it was an unwinnable war. The Vietnam War lasted ten more years.

We stayed in Vietnam for two reasons, Cold War fears and national arrogance. The war was unwinnable for a variety of reasons. One of the greatest problems in the war was that our soldiers couldn’t identify the enemy. Anyone could have been their enemy, men, and women, young and old. This next line disturbs me. Innocent people died because they couldn’t identify the true enemy. The soldiers on the ground felt like they were constantly surrounded by the enemy. They learned to hate everyone. Maybe that is one of the reasons we struggle with Jesus’s words for today? We are surrounded by our enemies, and in the end, we hate everyone. It isn’t just the story of the Vietnam War. It is how many in our world operate, but you know better.

You are a disciple of Jesus Christ. That means you are trying to be more like Jesus all the time. That means you must listen to what Jesus said and apply it to your life. Jesus said, love your enemies! It runs contrary to our world, but we must try.Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) once prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

Comfortable Christianity

We find ourselves today in the tenth chapter of Matthew, verses thirty-four through thirty-nine. In this chapter, Jesus is not speaking to the masses. He is speaking to the disciples. To be more exact, the Master is commissioning the disciples. In the first verse of this chapter, we are told Jesus gave them authority to drive out demons and to heal the sick. However, before they leave, Jesus gives them a few parting words. There is no other way to say it. Jesus was completely honest with the disciples. He tells them clearly that their journey will not be an endless party. Their journey will not be a vacation. Their journey is a business trip, and everyone will not welcome them with open arms. Some will reject their message and resist their presence. In the heart of this hard message, Jesus says, “I did not come to bring you peace, but a sword.”  Those words sound harsh, but they are true words. It has been true of every generation. The gospel message has met resistance from the very beginning. Jesus’ words are prophetic.

Have you ever stopped to consider the violent ways the disciples died in service to our Lord? Tradition tells us, of the twelve, only John died of natural causes. The rest had a violent end. Andrew took the Gospel to present-day Russia, Turkey, and Greece. He was crucified. Thomas went as far as India and died when speared by four soldiers. Philip went to North Africa and died in a prison. Matthew, the writer of this gospel, went to Ethiopia and was stabbed. James went to Syria and was clubbed to death. Simon the Zealot went to Persia and was killed because he wouldn’t make a sacrifice to the god of the sun. Matthias, the disciple who replaced Judas Iscariot, went to Syria, and was burned to death. Paul and Peter went to Rome. They both died in the year 66. Paul, the greatest evangelist the church has ever known, was beheaded. Peter was crucified upside down at his own request because he felt he wasn’t worthy to die like Jesus. Our scripture reading for today is prophetic. Jesus didn’t come into this world to bring peace. It is not that Jesus is promoting violence. It is that Jesus knew the world would resist the gospel. Every generation has resisted the gospel message.

Have you ever stopped to consider how many saints have been martyred in the history of the church? There is no exact number because some are unknown, and not all are accepted by every denomination or sect. Only God knows the answer to that question, but the incomplete list is filled with impressive names. Polycarp of Smyrna (81-167) and Justin Martyr (100-165) died in the age of martyrs, between the second to the fourth century. In the Middle Ages, from the fifth to the fifteenth century, John Huss (1369-1415) and Joan of Arc (1412-1431) were martyred. During the Reformation Era, the sixteenth century, William Tyndale (1494-1535) and Anne Askew (1521-1546) were martyred. Even in the twentieth century believers were martyred for taking a stand for the gospel. Dietrich Bonnhoeffer (1906-1945) and Oscar Romero were martyred (1917-1980). Jesus’s words were prophetic. He knew, every generation would resist the gospel message, and our world is not an exception.

Have you ever stopped to consider the countries in our world today who persecute believers? According to Christianity Today, these are the most dangerous countries in the world to be a Christian:

  1. North Korea
  2. Somalia
  3. Afghanistan
  4. Pakistan
  5. Sudan
  6. Syria
  7. Iraq
  8. Iran
  9. Yemen

Jesus’s words in our scripture lesson for today are prophetic. Jesus knew, every generation would resist the gospel message, yet Jesus’s words in our scripture lesson seem far removed from us. In America, we have religious freedom. In one way that is blessing. Maybe in another way, it is a curse.

Years ago, I visited a friend and his wife who had just taken a cruise. It was an Atlantic coast cruise, starting in New York City and ending in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I have never taken a cruise, so I wanted to hear about their experience. When I arrived, I blurted out the question, “How was the cruise?” She gave me a few highlights, but it was nothing over the top. We soon moved on to other topics. When his wife got up and went to bed. I returned to the topic. I asked my friend, “So you liked the cruise?” He responded, “Russ, I have never been so bored in my life.” He is the perfect product of the Youngstown, Ohio, which means you are wasting time if you are not working. (He also believes if you are not sweating, then you are not working. That means he believes that I have never worked.) He continued, “We didn’t do anything but sit and eat. After two days, I thought I was going to die from boredom. All I wanted to do was go home and go back to work. The ship’s crew was very nice, but they didn’t ask us to do anything.” This is the connection between my neighbor’s cruise and us: Maybe that is the problem with the American church? We aren’t asking people to do anything; we aren’t asking people to make a difference. Let’s look at the text one more time.

Jesus is commissioning the disciples. They are about to leave Jesus and spread the Good News. Jesus is honest with them. He tells them there is going to be some danger and risk. However, it is worth the danger and the risk because they could change the world. The scripture does not say any of the disciples reconsidered and went home, because home was safe. The scripture says they went into the world and told people about Jesus. Ponder the next line.

Maybe, just maybe, one of the fatal flaws in the American church today is that we just aren’t asking people to do anything of worth. We ask people to do simple things, not world changing things. We ask people to make brownies for the next dinner. We ask people to be a greeter. We ask people to lock the doors and turn the lights off when we leave. We apologize for asking for the smallest amount of money. We ask people for small things, but we never ask them to do big things because we don’t want to offend anyone. We don’t want to lose anyone. We ask for next to nothing and that is exactly what we are getting, next to nothing. Our comfortable Christianity is killing us. That is why our churches have become so self-centered. That is why we are preoccupied with our own opinions and comfort. That is why we worry about upsetting other church members. That is why we do next to nothing to solve a single world problem. That is why our churches are only curious about Jesus, not passionate. We are our own worst enemy. I am not the first to recognize this problem. There have been others.

Do you remember the words of the great Danish philosopher, poet, and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)? He said:

“I went into church and sat on the velvet pew. I watched as the sun came shining through the stained-glass windows. The minister dressed in a velvet robe opened the golden gilded Bible, marked it with a silk bookmark and said, ‘If any man will be my disciple, said Jesus, let him deny himself, take up his cross, sell what he has, give it to the poor, and follow me.’ And I looked around and nobody was laughing.”

This is the point: Our comfortable Christianity is our demise. We are our own worst enemy. The great reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) said it another way. He said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”

So, there is Jesus! He is talking to the disciples, yet he is talking to us. His words are not comforting. They are challenging. He did not come to bring peace. He came with a sword. The words were harsh, but the disciples stood united, because they wanted to make a difference in this world. I believe you want to make a difference in this world too.

Do you remember the story of Earnest Shackleton (1874-1922)? He gained fame for his polar exploration. History tells us, he led three expeditions to the Antarctic. In 1914, he attempted to cross the South Pole on foot, going sea to sea. Folklore tells us, he ran this advertisement in a newspaper to recruit his crew. This is the advertisement:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success – Earnest Shackleton

Can I ask you a question? Would you apply for that job? Folklore tells us so many men responded positively to that advertisement, men had to be turned away. The question is, why? I believe many people responded to that ad because they longed for an adventure. They didn’t just want to live and die. They wanted to make a difference in this world. That spirit didn’t die with that generation. That spirit lives on in our generation. That spirit for adventure lives in you. It is time to reject our comfortable Christianity and take a risk for Jesus. Senior pastor of The Bridge in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, David McGee? He said, “We should be more concerned with reaching the lost than pampering the saved.” How comfortable is your Christianity?

What Do You Remember?

We find ourselves in the twenty-second chapter of Luke, verses fourteen through twenty. You know the story. Time is running out on Jesus’s earthly ministry. So much has already happened. The last person has been healed. The last lesson has been taught. The events of Palm Sunday are nothing more than a memory. The tables turned over in the temple courts are now setting upright. The only thing left to do is to have one last supper with the disciples. It wasn’t just any meal. It was the Seder. It was, and is, a meal with a message. Everything they ate reminded them of their past as God’s Chosen People. The Exodus was not just remembered, it was celebrated. It was not their first Seder. They observed it annually. There is nothing negative to say about the Seder. Every Jew looked forward to it. That means, the disciples were looking forward to that particular Seder. They didn’t have a clue that everything was about to change.

We call it Communion or the Eucharist. At one point in the meal, Jesus picked up the bread and shared it with the disciples. The bread was more than a baked good, it was the body of Christ. They believed; it was a sign of fellowship with God. Later in the meal, Jesus picked up a glass of wine and shared it with the disciples. It was more than a fermented juice; it was the blood of Jesus. They believed; blood was the life-giving agent in the human body. The disciples must have been confused because Jesus changed the script. They had no clue they were witnessing history. They had no clue Jesus was giving them a memorial for the ages. However, the disciples must have known something special was about to happen. Jesus said it clearly. “Do this in remembrance of me.” It was not just a command for them. It was a command for us. This is my question for you today: When you consume the body and the blood of Christ, what do you remember?

I am not a United Methodist by birth; I am a United Methodist by choice. I was raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). My parents were members at Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Warren, Ohio. To the Sunday morning worshipper, there is very little difference between the United Methodist Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). However, one thing stands out. In the United Methodist Church, the pastor decides how often Communion is served. My churches took Communion monthly. In some United Methodist congregations, the elements are offered quarterly. It is the pastor’s choice. In a Disciples church, Communion is offered every time the church gathers for worship. If you throw in high holy days, Communion can be consumed sixty times a year. I was raised in that tradition and heard the words of Jesus many times, Do this in remembrance of me. Jesus’s words never changed, but what I remembered about Jesus did change because I changed.

When I was young, I remember sitting by my parent’s side as they took Communion. I remember the minister quoting Jesus, Do this in remembrance of me.  I did my best to remember Jesus. I was influenced by my family’s nativity set. In my mind’s eye I can still see it. The various characters were arranged around a simple barn shaped structure. I remembered the infant Jesus laying in the straw, surrounded by his mother and earthly father, Mary and Joseph. Jesus was the focal point of the set. To the side stood the blue-collar workers, the shepherds. They were the ones who first got the announcement, the Messiah had been born. One had a lamb draped on his shoulders. Outside of the basic structure stood the mysterious visitors from the east, the Magi. At the time I called them Wise Men. They brought the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Years later, I learned my nativity set was wrong. They came two years later. Hanging on a small hook over the doorway was an angel, who sang praises to God. At some point, I started thinking about Jesus’s baptism. I tried to remember as much as possible, because Jesus said those words, Do this in remembrance of me. As a youngster that is what I remembered about Jesus. What do you remember?

I committed my life to Christ in December of 1974. I was seventeen years old. When I took Communion after that pivotal moment, I remembered Jesus’s sacrificial death. I remembered how the great crowd of Palm Sunday abandoned him. I remembered how Jesus cursed the fig tree, the very symbol of Israel. I remembered how Jesus turned the tables over of the money changers. I remembered how Jesus went to the temple courts and taught about the Kingdom of God. I remembered how Jesus was anointed in Bethany. I remembered how Jesus washed the disciple’s feet. I remembered how he went to the garden to pray and was arrested. I remembered how he was tried and led to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. I remembered how Jesus was rejected by the crowd and was executed Roman style. I remembered how the blood Jesus was shed, but most how all, I remembered how Jesus was resurrected, the cornerstone of our faith. Still today, I am humbled that Jesus died for me. I tried to remember as much as possible, because Jesus said those words, Do this in remembrance of me. That is what I remembered when I was new to the faith. What do you remember?

Seven months ago, I finished my working career. Throughout my forty years in the ministry, I offered Communion many times. Sometimes, I offered Communion in the sanctuary. Sometimes, I offered Communion in the fellowship hall. Sometimes, I offered Communion in the outdoor chapel. The location changed, but not the words, Do this in remembrance of me. I encouraged people to remember Jesus, but I remembered the Master too. I remembered Jesus’s miracles. He got the lame to walk. He got the blind to see. He made demonic whole. I remembered his teachings. I remembered how Jesus taught us how to live. We are supposed to be practicing today, what we will be doing in heaven for eternity. How taught us how to handle many of life’s problems. I remembered how Jesus changed lives and I remembered how Jesus changed the world. I tried to remember as much as possible, because Jesus said those words, Do this in remembrance of me. That is what I remembered during my working career. What do you remember?

Several months ago, I lost a good friend, Kay. I sincerely miss her. She was in her mid-nineties when she died. I officiated at her funeral. I met Kay in the Mahoning Valley District of the East Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our friendship grew because I called her daily as I walked my dog, Macy, the world’s best dog. We shared many stories and opinions. She was never afraid to talk or share an opinion. She was concerned about the direction our denomination was taking. I couldn’t disagree. Near the end of her life, she was homebound. Many days, outside of family, who watched her closely, I was her only call. She knew the end was coming, and she faced death head-on. Regularly, she would say, “The only thing that matters to me at this point in my life is Jesus.” We would speculate about heaven. I cherish the memories of those discussions. Since Kay’s death, I remember what Jesus said about heaven. After all, none of us get out of this world alive.

The first significant death in my life was my maternal grandfather, Walter Milligan. I was about eight years old. He lived in Brooklyn, New York with my grandmother, his wife, Nina. My grandmother was harsh and opinionated. She wrote harsh critical letters weekly to Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) to tell him everything he was doing wrong. This is the truth: As harsh and as critical as my grandmother was, my grandfather wasn’t. He was quiet and kind. He worked for his father, who owned apartment buildings in New York City. At his calling hours, I have heard the stories of how he helped his tenants during the Great Depression. He only expected them to pay what they could afford and that wasn’t much. Personally, I have very few memories of him. However, I do remember him smoking a pipe. Every time I smell pipe tobacco, I think of him. I will never forget his funeral because it was the first time, I saw my mother cry. When I get to heaven, I am going to spend some time with Walter Milligan. He was the grandfather I never really had a chance to know. Who do you want to visit first when you get to heaven?

When death invades my personal space, I always remember the fourteen chapter of John. Jesus is with the disciples, and he tells them that he is going to be leaving them. He had told them in the past but this time they hear it, Jesus was leaving them. Upset, the disciples begin to question him. Jesus sees they are upset and tries to comfort them with these words, “In my father house are many mansions,” or rooms. That means there is a mansion or room waiting for you and me when we get to heaven. That means our departed loved ones are already occupying their room in heaven. My grandfather, Water Milligan, is occupying one of those rooms. My good friend, Kay, is occupying one of those rooms. The hope of occupying one of those eternal rooms is only possible because of the redemptive work of Jesus. Death has a way of making us think of Jesus’s eternal promises. When death invades your personal space, what do you remember?

According to the people at World Data, there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world today. In various ways, and at various times, each believer finds themselves partaking Communion. The sacred words are read, and Jesus is quoted, Do this in remembrance of me.” What do you remember? Your answer will depend on your personal situation. There is no such thing as a bad memory about Jesus. In the end, only one thing truly matters, Jesus cannot be forgotten. English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) may have said it best, “We can’t have communion with Christ until we are in union with him.”  What do you remember?

Sometimes God Says, “No!”

When I was a student at Asbury Seminary, I had a friend by the name of David. Prior to seminary, he had to battle for his life. He had a brain tumor. He enrolled in seminary the day his doctor said he was tumor-free. Halfway through seminary his brain tumor returned. This time, the malignancy moved quickly. David seemed to grow weaker daily. Soon the doctors said it was only a matter of time. On the Sunday night before his last hospitalization, David attended a healing service. The traveling evangelist promised a healing if David truly believed. It saddens me to say, David was not healed. I attended his funeral and mourned. I still have questions about his death. In the months to follow, I talked to his twenty-seven-year-old widow, Char. She said David died feeling like a spiritual failure. David believed the traveling evangelist; if he had faith then he would be healed. The problem was, he wasn’t healed. David forgot the divine truth. Sometimes, God says, “No!” That leads us to the scripture lesson for today.

We find ourselves in the seventh chapter of Matthew, verses seven through twelve. Our reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount. These words were not directed to just the twelve disciples. They are directed to the crowd that had gathered in Galilee. Jesus encourages his followers to be bold in prayer. Verses seven and eight grab our attention, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” The primary point that Jesus is trying to make is about the very nature of God. Verses seven and eight were uttered by the Master to explain the depth of God’s love for us. Those are not magic words to get your heart’s desire.  That is how many interpret that verse. They are destined to be frustrated.

That is Ted Turner’s (born 1938) story. The cable television mogul is a true American celebrity. He is worth a fortune and seems to lack nothing. However, he lacks any spiritual foundation. He was raised in a strict Christian home, and at one time he even considered being a missionary. That all changed when his sister died, despite his prayers. Turner has been quoted as saying, “the more I strayed from my faith, the better I felt.” I have a hard time believing that quote. With all Ted Turner knows, he forgot the divine truth. Sometimes, God says, “No!” He is not alone.

How many people do you know who are mad at God because God said, “No!” They will be glad to tell you, their story. With a sincere heart, they prayed. It may have been for a person or a certain situation. They prayed, but their prayer requests seemed to fall on deaf ears. You know it is true because it has happened in your life. How many gravely ill people have you prayed for who have died? How many hopeless situations remained hopeless? How many unemployed people remain unemployed? Have you ever become disenchanted with the faith because your prayers were not answered to your satisfaction? This is the sad divine truth. Sometimes God says, “No!”

In verses nine through twelve, Jesus uses a loving parent to illustrate this divine point. You know it is true. I know many loving parents, so we understand Jesus’s point. We would like to say “Yes” to every request our children present to us but that is impossible. There are many reasons why. Sometimes we say “No” because it is asked out of ignorance. Sometimes we say “No” because our children are short-sighted, and we want to spare them from future harm. Sometimes we say “No” because it is uttered in an emotional moment and there is nothing logical about the request. Sometimes we say “No” because the request is grounded in selfishness. When was the last time you said “No” to your children because you love them? Sometime God says “No” because he loves us too. Let me say this clearly. Verses seven and eight were uttered by the Master to explain to the crowd the depth of God’s love. God wants us to come to Him with the desires of our hearts because he wants an open relationship. God loves us. We struggle with this passage because we assume the main topic is prayer, but the main topic is the nature of God. However, that does not mean that prayer isn’t important.

Prayer is important to the believer for three reasons. First, God expects us to pray. (Matthew 7:7-8, Luke 18:1, 1 Thess. 5:17.) That is the most important reason to pray. Second, it is in our very nature to pray. It is natural for us to reach to God when our problems are larger than our resources. Third, prayer is the link between us and God. It is upon prayer that God gives us His grace and spirit. The next question is key.

Why does God want us to pray? The answer is not to inform God about a certain situation. God knows all things. The answer is not to change God’s mind or alter a particularly sad or hopeless situation. The answer is more fundamental. God wants us to pray to change us. There is no way you can spend time with God and not be changed. Prayer reminds us of who God is and prayer reminds us of who we are! He is the God of the universe. He is the one who created this world out of nothing. He is the one who knows our great dreams and greatest fears. He is the author of history. He is the one who loves you so much he sent Jesus into this world to die so he could spend eternity with you! In prayer, we learn that God is big, and we are extremely small. In prayer, we learn Jesus was right! The very nature of God is love. God wants us to pray not to change particularly sad situations, God wants us to pray because prayer changes us.

History tells us Martin Luther (1483-1546), the great reformer, saw prayer as vital. We are told he got up every day and spent two hours in prayer before he attempted his first earthly task. The night before one particularly busy day, he looked at an associate and said, “I have so much scheduled for tomorrow that I must rise an hour earlier to have an extra hour alone with God.” Can I ask you an extremely personal question? How much time do you spend in prayer? If you are serious about growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ, then you must find time to pray.Did you know John Wesley (1703-1791), the father of the great Methodist movement, got up at 4:00 am every day to spend time with God? How much time do you spend with God? How much has prayer changed you?

I love this story. Mother Theresa (1910-1997) was summoned to the kitchen of the orphanage one day in Calcutta. There was a problem. The head cook was upset because the order of food hadn’t been delivered and she was expecting three hundred for lunch in less than an hour. Everyone expected Mother Theresa to contact one of her sponsors for help. She didn’t. Instead, she looked at the kitchen staff and said, “I suggest you go to the chapel and pray about this situation”. They did, and ten minutes later a stranger showed up at the front door holding a clipboard. He asked for Mother Theresa. When she appeared, the stranger looked at her and said, “The teachers have just gone on strike, so school has been canceled today. I have 7,000 extra lunches. Can you help us use them?” Isn’t it great when God answers our prayers with a yes! The problem is, God often answers our prayers requests with a “no”. It is frustrating when God answers our prayers requests with a “no”. Ours is not the first generation to experience a divine no.

Consider this: God also said, “No!” to the greatest personalities in the Bible. How do you say, “No!” to Paul? He took the Good News to the Gentile world. He was the greatest missionary of all time. Yet, when Paul prayed that God would heal him from the thorn in his side, the thorn remained. How do you say, “No!” to Jesus? He was the very son of God, who left the perfection of heaven to slum it in this world. You remember the story. Jesus prayed in the garden that this cup could be taken from him, but it remained. Jesus went to the cross and died a horrible death. If God could say, “No” to Paul and Jesus, then God can say, “No!” to you. Life teaches us that God often says, “No!” That is what makes our scripture lesson so difficult to understand. It is almost like Jesus is lying to us. The text is not really about prayer. It is about the very nature of our loving God. Let me end this blog with this story.

In the early days of Dallas Theological Seminary there was a critical need of $10,000 to keep the school open. During a prayer meeting, renowned Bible teacher Harry Ironside (1876-1951), a lecturer at the school, prayed, “Lord, you own the cattle on a thousand hills. Please sell some of those cattle to help us meet this need.” Shortly after the prayer meeting, a check for $10,000 arrived at the school, sent days earlier by a friend who had no idea of the urgent need or of Ironside’s prayer. The man simply said the money came from the sale of some of his cattle! What a great story!

Isn’t it great when our prayers are answered, “Yes”! The problem is, sometimes God says, “No.” However, God always loves us and longs to hear the desires of our hearts. Never forget it. Prayer is important. Prayer may not change every situation, but prayer will change you. How much time do you spend in prayer? The great reformer Martin Luther said it best. He said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”

Sell Your Possessions!

Today, we find ourselves in the tenth chapter of Mark, verses seventeen through thirty-one. It is a story we know well. It is recorded, with minor variations, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Combining all three gives us the whole picture. According to the three Gospels, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he is confronted by a rich young ruler. In other words, this man has everything this world has to offer. He is rich, so he can buy anything his heart desires. He never looks at a price tag or is concerned with sales. He is young, so his health is good. His calendar is not filled with doctor’s appointments and funeral home visitations. He is a ruler, so he has influence. He has friends in high places. He has everything this world has to offer, but he doesn’t have everything.

His soul is restless, so he goes to Jesus to obtain spiritual peace. Verse 17 is key. It says, the rich young ruler asked Jesus clearly, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus answers the question with a question. The Master asked him if he was guilty of murder or adultery. Had he ever stolen, given false testimony, or defrauded someone? Had he always honored his father and mother? The man had kept all those commandments because the man had been sincere from birth. He was a true child of his faith. Jesus must have been impressed. However, this is the problem: Salvation is not obtained by what we have not done. Salvation is obtained by what we do. What does Jesus want this young man to do? The Master wants the young man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. That way, he will be free to follow him. Why would Jesus say such a thing? This is the answer: Jesus knows our possessions are often damaging to our spiritual health.Can I be honest with you?

It is my experience that we know the story of the rich young ruler, but we don’t like the story of the rich young ruler. The words of Jesus are too radical. Are you willing to sell all your possessions and give all money to the poor? If you sold all your possessions and gave your money to the poor, you would find yourself both bankrupt and homeless. Jesus’s words seem to be insane, so we dismiss them. Many believe this story is reserved for the truly rich, not us. It is reserved for the 1% of the American population that controls 38% of our nation’s wealth. He can’t be speaking to the 90% of the American population who own 78% of our nation’s debt. This is the problem: Jesus is speaking to us. I don’t want to sound like a preacher, but in comparison to most of the world, we are rich. We don’t consider ourselves rich because we compare ourselves with people who live at the same standard of living. You know the truth. We are much better at seeing the things we want and blind to the things we have. It isn’t just true of the youth going on a mission trip, it is true for all of us. Sometimes, we need to experience someone else’s world so we can appreciate our lives. We need to step out of our worlds to learn something about our world.

I live about fifteen miles from my childhood home. Every time I am in Warren, Ohio, I drive through the old neighborhood. I always liked driving through those east side streets and my wife likes listening to my silly stories about my childhood. The tour is exact the same every time. We drive by the location of my old elementary school, McKinley, which has been torn down. We drove by the location of my old Junior High School, East, which has been torn down. We drive my old high school, Harding, which is now torn down. (All my former school buildings are now torn down. They are trying to destroy the evidence J)  We drove by the homes of my childhood friends. Some are boarded up. We drove by my childhood home. My parents bought that house as their starter house in the early 1950s, but they didn’t leave it until I was out of college in the mid-1970s. The room that was my nursery later was the same room I slept in the night before I left for college. I do not want to sound critical, but the old neighborhood had seen better days. The street along with the rest of the city looks tired and worn out. When we get back to our home, my wife Kathryn always says to me, “Sometimes, I forget how nice our house is.” She is correct. Sometimes, when we step out of our world, we learn something about our world.

In 1996, my wife started making trips to Russia to help orphans who will never be adopted. We have traveled to the former Soviet Union several dozen times. Those trips changed me and the way I look at my life. One of the people we met during those trips was an orphan named Vlad. He lost his legs below his knees in a train accident in a Moscow rail yard. Kathryn brought him to America several times to get, and maintain, his prosthetic legs. We never legally adopted Vlad, but we did emotionally adopt Vlad. She communicates with him regularly. He is now thirty-four years old and lives in the city of Dmitrov, one and a half hours north of Moscow. Vlad lives with his girlfriend, Yulia. We took them out to dinner on our last trip to Russia. They have hard lives. Periodically, Kathryn sends them money to help. If you asked Vlad if Kathryn and I are rich, he would say, “Yes!” When I’m with Vlad, I feel rich. Sometimes, when we step out of our world, we learn something about our world.

Years ago, Kathryn and I were in Russia and stayed behind. The rest of the team flew back to the United States. We stayed behind to visit a United Methodist missionary, Matt Lafferty. He showed us his work and took us to a free medical clinic. That Russian medical clinic was filled with Africans. Their dark complexions caught me off guard, so I asked why they were there. Matt explained, Russians are extremely prejudiced against anyone of color. The Africans go to the clinic not just for their medical needs but for their social needs. I said, “No! What are these Africans doing in Russia?” He told me, many Africans have come to Russia because in Russia they have more opportunity than in their homeland. They see the Russians as rich. They see Americans as extremely rich. Sometimes, when we step out of our world, we learn something about our world.

I challenge you to discover just how rich you are. According to, the average person in the world makes $850 annually. The average American makes $70,930 annually. The average Ohioan makes $51,775. If you make $41,000 annual, then you are in the top 3% of the world’s richest. I know, I have gone on too long to make this point, but I want you to get it. When Jesus speaks to the rich young ruler, he is speaking to us. He is speaking to you! Like it or not, you are rich.

The rich young ruler walks away sad because he couldn’t sell his possessions. You really can’t blame him. Are you willing to sell all your possessions? The disciples are trying to understand. It is hard to comprehend. In verse 23, Jesus tells us why he said such a radical thing. This is why. Jesus said, it is hard for the rich to get into heaven. He did not say it was impossible for the rich to get into heaven. Jesus knows what we want to ignore. While money is a good thing in this world, money has a way of frustrating our spiritual growth. Spiritually speaking, how you handle your possessions and how you view your possessions are extremely important. They won’t just influence your time in this world. They will influence your eternity.

The Bible tells us four ways our money is retarding our spiritual growth.

  1. Money often leads to pride and arrogance. God hates pride and arrogance. God loves the humble.
  2. Money gives us a false sense security. Money can eliminate some of life’s problems but not all. It is God who has the final say.
  3. Money drains us of our compassion and mercy. We often think we deserve our money and judge those who don’t. Your money doesn’t make you right, but your money may make you hard-hearted.
  4. Money has a way of dividing our loyalties. Is money the driving force in your life? Or is God the driving force in your life?

Your possessions are a great test. Are you passing the test?

John Wesley (1703-1791) was the founder of the great Methodist movement. History tells us, he was aware of the influence of money on his spiritual life. He believed in making all you could so you could give more of it away. When he was a student at Oxford, his annual income was thirty British pounds. He lived on 28 pounds and gave away 2 pounds. Thirty British pounds then is worth about $6,500 today. Through the years his income grew. At one point, he made 60 pounds. Then, it grew to 90 pounds, then it grew to 120 pounds. What didn’t change was his living expenses, 28 pounds. He just gave away more all the time. Wesley was aware of the influence of money on his spiritual life. How aware are you?

Here is the good news for today: You are rich! Here is the bad news for today! You are rich! The way you handle your money, the way you view your money is a great challenge to your spiritual maturity. Remember, what Jesus said, “It is hard for the rich to get into heaven”, not impossible. The great evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) once said, “The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.”

Do Not Worry

They tell me along the rural paths in India, there are shoulder-high posts with a shelf on top. They call these posts a Soma Tonga, which means “resting place.” Travelers on foot often carry heavy loads. When travelers come upon one of these posts, they place their heavy loads on the shelf to rest. When Christianity spread to India, the new converts started calling Jesus, “My Soma Tonga.” Jesus was the one who gave them rest. Jesus was the one who shared their load. Jesus was the one who gave them strength. I like that simple illustration because that is my story.

We find ourselves in the twelfth chapter of Luke, verses twenty-two through thirty-four. This section of Luke begins in the previous chapter. It is a busy section of scripture because the author clusters various teachings of Jesus together. The teaching on worry is just one of many topics the Master covers. However, Jesus’s teaching on worrying grabbed our attention because everyone worries about something. You are not alone. Can I make a confession? I have spent many hours in the middle of the night worrying. Worry is one of those topics that unites the entire world. Our is not the first generation and ours will not be the last. That leads us to an interesting question.

What are you worried about today? Are you worried your health? There is an imperfection in your complexion, and you are afraid it is skin cancer. Or are you worried about your age? You are now the exact age your father was when he died. Are you afraid you are going to die in the next 365 days? Or are you worried about your left knee? It hurts and you don’t want to have that operation, because you don’t want to go to a rehabilitation center. They are creepy and smell bad. Are you worried about your finances? You live on a fixed income and life seems to be getting more expensive. Or you are a college graduate, but your degree is useless. Are worried about your children?  They are now in high school, and you haven’t started saving for college yet. Is anyone here worried about the weather? My sister-in-law is preoccupied with the weather. They say the heavy rain in California is caused by “Global Warming.” Do you know of anyone who is worried about global warming? Are you worried about the future? The world can only support so much population. Are you worried about the future of America? The face of America is changing. Caucasian Americans will soon be a minority. Does that fact make you anxious? Are you worried about the future of our world? There are so many hot spots and complex situations. Our society is filled with worried and anxious people. Study after study tells us, it is true.

According to the people at these are our greatest worries:

  1. Health issues
  2. Memory issues
  3. Independence issues, nursing homes
  4. Sight issues
  5. Hearing issues
  6. Financial issues
  7. Being a burden to others, living with loved ones
  8. Their mind failing but their body staying fit

Research from the APM Research Lab, tells us 84% of Americans feel extremely or very worried. So, when Jesus says not to worry, his words fall on deaf ears. Worrying is one of the things we do naturally.

Verse 22 is the perfect example of why you must read the Bible in context. It says, Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.” What is Jesus really trying to say? Jesus knows it is impossible to eliminate our worries, but he also knows it is possible to control our worries. Jesus wants us to control our worries for one reason. He wants you to enjoy every day of life. Psalm 118:24 says, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” The next time you are overcome with worries, remember three things.

First, the next time you are overcome by worries, remember you are valuable to God. You are so valuable God came into the world to have a relationship with you. That is why we celebrate Christmas. It is a time to stand in awe of the Incarnation. God became one of us. It is obvious, but Jesus said it. You are more valuable than a raven. You are more valuable than a lily. You are so valuable to God that Jesus, the Incarnation of God, died on the cross so God could spend eternity with you! Never forget it. You are valuable to God!

Second, the next time you are overcome by worries, remember to seek the Kingdom of God first. In the tenth chapter of Luke, Jesus visits Mary and Martha. Prior to his arrival, there are a million things to do, so Mary and Martha are working hard. The problem begins when Jesus arrives. There are those last-second things that must be done. Martha continues to work hard but Mary stops working to listen to Jesus. Martha goes to Jesus to express her frustration, but her words fall on deaf ears. He reprimands Martha for her poor priorities and praises Mary. That story teaches us one major point. Filling your life with good things isn’t good enough. The driving force in your life must be the best thing, Jesus!

It is easy to fill our lives with good things. I see it all the time. There is nothing wrong with celebrating birthdays. There is nothing wrong with spending time with family and friends. There is nothing wrong with looking fashionable. There is nothing wrong with eating a delicious dinner. There is nothing wrong with watching football or baseball. There is nothing wrong with reading a good book or listening to your favorite tunes. There is nothing wrong with any of those things. The problem is those things are only good. They will not sustain you during life’s worries. They are not the best thing. The best thing is God, who never fails. Jesus is our Soma Tonga. That is why Jesus said to seek the kingdom of God first! We need rest from our worries. The next time you are filled with worry, remember you are valuable to God and to seek the kingdom of God first.

Third, the next time you are overcome by worries, remember to live life one day at a time. Looking ahead and guessing about the future can be overwhelming. You know it is true.Most of the things we worry about never happen. Most of the things we worry about are out of our control. Don’t let tomorrow’s worries rob you of today’s joy. Live one day at a time.

When my children were young, we ate dinner together every night. It didn’t seem like a big deal then, but it does now. It has been years since the four of us ate together. The menu changed but it was the same every night; we talked about the various things that happened throughout the day. Everyone talked. The girls talked about their friends. They talked about their teachers. They talked about what they wanted for their birthdays and Christmas. Often, they would talk about their worries. They spent a great deal of time worrying about things that might happen. If I said it once, I said it a million times, 90% of the things we worry about never happen. I don’t know where I came up with that wise advice, but it is true. Just think about it. Most of the things you worry about don’t happen. The best you can do is the best you can do. Your worries don’t change anything. The next time you are filled with worry, remember you are valuable to God and to seek the kingdom of God first. In the end, the best thing you can do with your worries is trust God.

My wife Kathryn is a proud graduate of Vanderbilt University. I am extremely proud she is a Vanderbilt graduate. It is an outstanding academic institution. Her days in Nashville were filled with all kinds of wonderful memories. She tells the story of being in a history of Methodism class. Like all classes at the Harvard of the South, it was demanding. The only saving grace in that class was the announced quizzes. Periodically, the professor announced there would be a quiz on a certain day, covering a certain amount of material. There were numerous quizzes throughout the semester. One day, the professor announced a quiz would be issued during the next class. Only a fool wouldn’t study that material for the next class. Kathryn isn’t a fool, so she planned on studying the night before the quiz.

Just as she opened the book to study the assigned material, a friend called and needed to talk. She was a young woman by the name of Marion, but everyone called her by a nickname, Mimi. Kathryn said to come and thought she would only stay a few minutes. She had to study for a quiz. When Mimi arrived, she began to talk and a short time later, her words became emotional. Mimi talked about her boyfriend. Mimi talked about their relationship. Mimi talked about their physical relationship. Mimi, it pains me to say it and I never met her, talked about her abortion. Mimi talked about her grief. Mimi talked about her shame. Mimi talked about her regrets. Mimi talked, and Kathryn actively listened. She listened for a long time. After all the words, tears and emotions, Mimi left. Kathryn was exhausted. She looked at the clock, and the hour was late. It was too late to study for the quiz. She was too emotionally spent to study for the quiz. She went to bed and tried not to worry about the quiz. She tried not to worry, but not worrying was impossible. With no other option, she prayed for help.

When she got to the history of Methodism class, she was sick with worry. Then, the miraculous happened. The professor walked in and announced to the class there would be no quiz that day. He simply changed his mind. According to Kathryn, it was the greatest announcement in the history of Vanderbilt University. That leads me to an interesting question.

When was the last time you worried about something that never happened? The only thing that matters are those things that matter in one hundred years. The only thing that is going to matter to you in one hundred years is Jesus. Your worries really do not matter. However, worrying is a part of life. Our worries are part of the human experience. We can’t stop worrying, but our worries can be controlled. Never forget it. In the end, God is in control. American author Leo Buscaglia (1924-1998) once said, “Worry will never rob tomorrow of its sorrow, it can only sap today of its joy.” Jesus said it best, do not worry.