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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon "Believing is Seeing" By Mike Powers - July 31, 2016

Jeremiah 9:23-24

23 Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 2: 1-16
When I came to you, brothers and sisters,[a] I did not come proclaiming the mystery[b] of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,[c] but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.[d]
14 Those who are unspiritual[e] do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.

Believing is Seeing
By Mike Powers
Delivered at WDMUMC July 31. 2016

A wealthy farmer invited the newly appointed minister of his church to have dinner in his home.  After a bountiful meal, the farmer led the minister on a tour of his property and was quite proud to highlight all of the improvements that he had made over the years.  The farmer pointed to the orchard laden with fruit, the numerous livestock, the abundant crops in the fields, the extensive array of modern farm equipment and the ample stocks of grain in the barns.  The new minister was quite impressed and said to the farmer, “It is quite magnificent what you and the Lord have accomplished here!”  The farmer rubbed his chin and said, “Well thank you but I just wish you could have seen it when the Lord ran the place by Himself.”
I tell this story not to diminish the value of the planning and work that the farmer invested in the farm to make it successful.  Hard work on the part of many people is necessary just for ordinary life to happen.  Work is what makes it possible for us to have food, medical care, shelter, clothing, transportation, education, entertainment and numerous other products and services that we all depend upon. 
While it is good to show pride in one’s work, we all need to maintain some humility about it and keep in mind that nothing would happen without God providing us with the skill and resources to make it possible.  Yes, the farmer should be commended and in fact was rewarded with the opportunity to accumulate wealth because of his success, but that success occurred because of the gifts that God had provided.  Consequently, we hold science in high regard.
I believe that to some extent it is more challenging for people to keep God more top of mind today than in the past and I attribute that in some part to the tremendous advances that science has achieved.  Science can now explain many things that use to mystify us and that knowledge is extensively deployed making our lives easier.
Many people think of the roles of science and religion as a zero-sum game.  The more science can explain how the world works, the less we need to attribute to an invisible god.  In that way of thinking, God is there simply to fill in the gaps and the gaps are shrinking more and more every day.
We have a natural instinct to seek logic and rationality in all aspects of our lives. We can find it disturbing if we are unable to clearly connect the dots between cause and effect and accepting something purely on faith is not something that is easily embraced.  We want proof. 
One thing I find interesting is that the Apostle Paul was raised in a culture that also placed a high value on logic and reason.  Paul, or Saul as he was named at birth, did not grow up in Galilee or the area surrounding Jerusalem as did most of Jesus’ earliest followers.  He was raised in Tarsus which was located in what today would be the country of Turkey.   Tarsus was a wealthy city, strategically located near the crossroads of major trade routes. 
The city was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman culture which had given birth to innumerable contributions to the world’s knowledge of math, science, governmental principles, philosophy and the arts.  Tarsus itself was a considered an important intellectual center in the Roman Empire that rivaled Athens and Alexandria in terms of thought leadership, learning and culture.       
Although Tarsus was a predominantly Gentile city, Saul came from a Jewish family of tent makers which was apparently well-positioned as he was born a Roman citizen during a time when only 10% of the empire’s population had been granted citizenship.  Saul likely was instructed in the Greco-Roman schools of Tarsus where he would have learned the art of writing and the basics of Greek rhetoric and logic.  At the age of thirteen, he was sent to Jerusalem to study under a prestigious rabbi.
As a young man, Saul was quite ambitious and sought to make a name for himself by aggressively persecuting Christians, perhaps someday hoping to join the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  Saul supervised the execution by stoning of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr.  The Book of Acts, describes how Saul led a severe persecution against Christians dragging off men and women to prison.  All of this was achieved before he reached the age of 20.  He was a real up and comer in the world of inflicting terror and he was gaining quite a reputation.
Saul then sought to take his campaign to Damascus and while traveling there his life changed dramatically.  Saul was struck blind by a bolt of light from heaven and heard the voice of the Lord question him as to why he was perpetrating such evil.  Saul sheltered for three days blinded and unwilling to eat or drink.  His physical blindness perhaps providing a means for him to become aware of his spiritual blindness.
Then, a faithful Christian named Ananais was directed by God to seek out Saul, lay hands on him and proclaim “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Ananais being fully aware of Saul’s reputation for terrorizing Christians, showed extraordinary courage in approaching Saul as he did.  History would perhaps be much different if not for this act of bravery.
With his sight restored and invigorated by the Holy Spirit, Saul changed his name to Paul, which means small or humble.  Despite the name, Paul was not a meek and unassuming individual and soon became just as ambitious in seeking to spread the news of Jesus as he had previously been in persecuting Jesus’ followers.  In this new role, Paul became a tireless envoy spreading the message to the Gentile world far beyond the borders of Jerusalem and Israel.  It is no small measure due to Paul’s evangelism that one third of the world’s population today is Christian.
One city that Paul visited on his travels was Corinth and today’s epistle reading is the second chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Paul arrived in Corinth, which is located in what today is the country of Greece, on his second of four missionary trips.  Corinth was situated at a strategic shipping point between Rome and Asia and consequently had much wealth.  Paul attended the synagogue in Corinth every Sabbath and sought to persuade both Jews and Gentiles in the city to accept Jesus. 
In today’s reading, which was written a couple of years after Paul had left the city, he admits to the church members in Corinth that he had come to them in weakness and in fear.  He had been afraid because his approach in spreading the news of Jesus to the people of Corinth was not to use human logic and reason but rather rely solely on the power of the Holy Spirit.
So let’s think about this.  Paul was a highly educated person trained in Greek rhetoric and logic seeking to minister to a wealthy, intellectual city immersed in Greco-Roman culture that highly prized the skills in which Paul had been trained.  And yet, Paul set these skills aside because he knew that trying to convince the Corinthians to adopt Jesus as their Savior by using human wisdom, while perhaps effective in attracting followers in the short-term, would not result in the people truly connecting with God.  If someone were to be persuaded to follow Jesus by the power of someone making a clever argument or a scientific proof, they could just as easily be persuaded by some other argument or discovery later.
There is a lesson to us here that our belief in God should not be dependent upon some scientific proof but rather it should grow from the power of the Holy Spirit.  We all have that that power within ourselves.  However, at times it may become hard to see because other stuff gets in the way.
God is not a filler to be used to patch up gaps in our understanding of how the world works.  God surpasses all human knowledge.  Science can explain a few things as to how the world works.  It provides a glimpse as to some of the things that God has created and God does want us to use the tool of science to alleviate suffering and make the world a better place.  Science is a wonderful thing in that regard and we need more scientists in the world.  But science is the wrong tool for gaining an understanding of God.  
How we come to that knowledge will be different for each of us.  For some, it can come as a lightning bolt such as the one the hit Paul.  For others, it may just seep into our lives through a hundred million hairline cracks.  If we don’t want to understand, if we don’t open ourselves to a spiritual connection to God, none of the things I just said will make sense.  But if you do open yourself to connecting with the Holy Spirit that resides within each of us, it can be transformative.  Perhaps as life-changing as Saul changing to Paul.
You have all heard the saying that “Seeing is Believing”. However, as the spiritual discern all things while the unspiritual are unable to fathom God’s gifts, it may be more accurate to say “Believing is Seeing”.
The short passage that we heard from the prophet Jeremiah in our first reading today talks about some of the things that can get in the way of our spirituality.  If we focus too much on attaining wealth or power or close our hearts and minds to knowing God, we will find ourselves in a situation where we are blinded to God’s grace.  Jeremiah tells us we should not brag about how much we know, how much money we have or how powerful we are.  None of these factors compare with the value of knowing God.
     So I have talked about Paul’s visit to the Corinthians, you may be wondering how did that all work out.  Was Paul right to be afraid as to how his message would be received?  Was he successful by elevating spirituality above earthly wisdom in his message to Corinth?
Luke tells us that a number of Jewish leaders in Corinth became followers under Paul’s ministry but others rejected Paul and the gospel he preached.  Paul was soon no longer welcome at the synagogue so he went to the house next door and started his own church.  That church was open to both Jews and Gentiles and many of the people who heard Paul became believers and were baptized. It appears from Paul’s own description elsewhere in this epistle to the Corinthians that most of the converts were poor and few of the wealthier people of that society chose to join Paul’s church.  Ultimately, the leaders of the synagogue brought Paul to trial for persuading others to worship God unlawfully but the provincial governor threw out the case.
  These mixed results show that for someone to connect with God they must have a willingness to drop the shields that are standing in the way of full discernment of God’s gifts.  Not everyone is willing to do that.  The fact that the wealthier elements of the city generally chose not to embrace Paul’s message of Jesus demonstrates that even back then earthly success can serve as an impediment to truly knowing God.
Most of us have probably had the experience of a non-believer telling us the reasons that they don’t believe.  For example, they may say that religion is superstition and that they only believe in things that can be proven.  How do we send the message to believers and non-believers alike that there is a God who cares about all of us?    How do we lead ourselves and others to connect with God in a spiritual way?
There is hope.  For those of us who participated in the church-wide study earlier this year, “Embracing Spiritual Awakening” by Diana Butler Bass, we learned that while participation in organized religion is in a period of decline, there is an increased level of spirituality among people today.  The so-called “spiritual but not religious”. 
What this says to me is that there is present an instinctual yearning to believe in some higher-power and to believe that there is a realm that lies beyond what we can see in the present world.  A realm where peace and justice prevail. 
Our faith tells us that such a realm does exist which is available to all by way of God’s grace.  We also believe that by practicing Jesus’ message of love for God and neighbor that the present world can also be a much better place.   
To send this message, we should show by our actions that it IS Christian
·         to treat every individual, no matter how different they may be, with tolerance and as a being of sacred worth,
·         to practice kindness to others,
·         to provide assistance to those in need and
·         to extend and accept forgiveness when mistakes are made.
We should simply be, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “a light of the world”.  (Matthew 5:14)   
And with that light, we enable ourselves and others to understand and appreciate all that God has provided us.  Amen. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Good Seed, a Sermon by Mike Powers

The Good Seed
By Mike Powers
Scripture
Matthew 13:24-33 (NSRV)
24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[d] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.


Message
At the time of Jesus’ ministry, it had been almost exactly a thousand years from the time of the death of King David.  King David had united all of the tribes of Israel and captured the city of Jerusalem making it the capital of his unified kingdom. David’s son Solomon succeeded him as king and went on to build the first temple in Jerusalem using the plans provided by David. 
The reigns of David and Solomon marked the peak of ancient Israel’s power during biblical times and soon after the death of Solomon, Israel became divided once again into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  Both were ultimately subjugated by a series of outside parties.
The Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and during a fifteen-year period culminating in 597 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia conquered the southern kingdom, destroyed the Temple and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile.
Following the conquest of Babylonia, King Cyrus of Persia did allow the Jewish leaders to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple, but they remained a people under foreign rule.  Israel did recover its own sovereignty for a period of time in 164 BC when the Jews led by the Maccabees revolted against their rulers and re-established their independence.  However, that independence proved to be relatively short-lived.  In 63 BC, the Romans took control of the area and the Promised Land was once again an occupied territory and remained that way throughout the period that Jesus lived there.
In the years of suffering following the death of King Solomon, many of the important prophets such as Isaiah published their writings.  Their message was that the Jewish people should continue to trust in the Lord despite the misery which they were then enduring because a Messiah would be sent to redeem the Kingdom.  Let’s recall verses 9 and 10 from Isaiah 52:
   9 “Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.”
Isaiah 52: 9-10 (NSRV)
You can see how many people would interpret the coming of the Messiah as someone who would lead a great army and overturn Israel’s occupier/oppressors just as King David had done in establishing his reign.  Isaiah’s prophesy that the Lord was going to bare his holy arm could reasonably be interpreted to be an impending demonstration of physical might.
In fact, Jesus’ coming did serve to fulfill this prophesy of Isaiah.  However, it was nothing like what most of the people of the time were expecting.  Jesus brought comfort to the oppressed people of Jerusalem and the kingdom that he brought was indeed more powerful than any other.  The Kingdom of God.
In the gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus tells three relatively short parables that conveyed important messages.  Tucking big messages inside simple stories was a favorite way for Jesus to communicate to those who came to hear him speak and to us as well. 
In the first, a farmer sowed good wheat seed in his field but then at night, an enemy snuck in and sowed weeds in that same field.  As the plants started growing and came out of the ground, it was obvious what had happened and the servants asked the farmer if they should pull the weeds out.  The farmer instructs them not to do so as that may cause some of the wheat to be pulled up as well.  The farmer’s instructions are to wait until harvest at which time the weeds and the wheat can be harvested separately with the wheat gathered and taken to his barn and the weeds to be bundled and burned.
When asked by the Apostles, Jesus explained that the farmer is the Son of God, the field is the world, the good seed are the children of the kingdom and the bad seed the children of the evil one.  The harvest is the time when all are called to account and either are allowed to reside in the kingdom or face dire consequences.
Pretty straightforward right?  It is a simple story but you may be curious as to why the good seed was forced to grow alongside the bad seed?  If Jesus was telling this story today someone might ask why doesn’t the farmer just come in with a herbicide like Roundup, eliminate all of the weeds and leave the wheat seeds to grow undisturbed?  That would no doubt be within God’s limitless power.
If you were in the crowd listening to Jesus at the time and waiting for the Messiah to arrive to remove the Roman rulers and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel this story could be alarming.  In the telling of this parable Jesus was letting the people know that He was not there to overthrow their earthly oppressors.  His message was that tyrants and other elements of evil in the world are going to persist.  The weeds of life will be around until the time of the harvest.
We all too well know that evil continues to exist in the world today.  We could have the same questions as the people nearly 2000 years ago would have had.  “Why doesn’t God pull up the “weeds” and leave the “wheat” to thrive?  Why does an all-powerful God allow evil to exist?” 
I can’t say for sure but perhaps the answer has to do with God giving us the ability to exercise free-will.  Experience shows this can be both a blessing and a curse.  Right off the bat, Adam and Eve exercised their free will to disobey God’s command with disastrous results.  Their son Cain carried on the tradition by murdering his brother and sin has continued unabated ever since.  From the beginning of time, the freedom to make choices is inseparable from the ability to make bad ones. 
Let’s consider what would happen if God did take away our ability to plot our own course.  If it were impossible for us to make a bad choice, what would distinguish humans from a potted plant or perhaps a machine?  We would proceed through life not varying from a pre-written script. 
You might think that would be a pretty good life.  We all make bad choices that can hurt others and presumably if God wired us in a certain way where we could not choose to take actions that could cause harm there would be less suffering in the world.     
But without choice there would be no struggle, no character-defining opportunity to resist the draw of temptation.  Without the gift/burden of free-will and the inevitable failures which accompany the ability to choose there would be no way to test our willingness to seek or grant forgiveness.  No opportunity to extend compassion to those who are victimized by their own or someone else’s errors.  No reason to seek redemption. 
Without choice we would not have the capacity to decide the individual nature of each of our respective relationships with God.  Freedom of choice forces struggle, requires us to discern right and wrong, mandates that we weigh the consequences of our actions.  Without choice, how would we distinguish ourselves?  The choices that we make, both good and bad, define the essence of our being. 
Prematurely wiping out all of the weeds in the parable, or the “bad” people of this world, would also eliminate the possibility that bad seed can mutate into something good. Plants which upon initial inspection can appear to be weeds may turn out to be something quite wonderful.   The same is true of people.
In our own lives, if we feel that we are going down a path that is straying from a route towards God, this parable tells us that God is willing to give us a chance.  He is not going to preemptively pull up plants that at first glance appear to be weeds but rather give us the opportunity to prove our worth.  The kicker is that we don’t know when the harvest is going to take place.  If we feel that we are not right in our relationship with God, we should think about changing course sooner rather than later. 
Along a similar vein, if we see someone making questionable decisions, don’t give up on them.  It is never too late for them to turn things around and we should lend them a hand if possible.
Requiring the wheat to overcome the hurdles of living side-by-side with the weeds can also make the wheat become stronger over time.  The more that we are tested, the better we become.  When faced with a challenge, hold on even tighter to your faith for at harvest time the wheat that survives is taken into the barn.   Allowing faith to support you during difficult times exercises a muscle which as a result becomes even more powerful.
It is not for us to judge those around us in life who we think appear to be weeds.  Our own preconceptions may lead us to wrong conclusions.  God is willing to give people the chance to prove themselves and we should do the same thing. Certainly we should not assume that someone is a “weed” because of the way they look, the language they speak or from where they come.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”.  I think that is good advice.
The second parable is that of the mustard seed which is one of the smallest seeds there are but ultimately can grow into a very large tree.  As we know, Jesus as Messiah did not come onto the scene as a commander of a huge army that sought to sweep aside the vast Roman Empire which at the time held dominion over the Promised Land.  Instead, Jesus came with a rag tag group of a dozen relatively uneducated fishermen.  Definitely a seeming “mustard seed” in comparison to what the people had envisioned for the coming Messiah.  
Just as a mustard seed grows into something much larger, the church started by Jesus and His small band of disciples has now lasted for nearly 2000 years and today has 2.2 billion adherents world-wide.  As impressive as that might be, the heavenly kingdom which Jesus represents is something much greater than what His earthly church has grown to be and much greater than the expectations of what a Messiah would bring to those hearing Jesus speak in the first century AD.  Jesus brings the heavenly kingdom which is infinite in magnitude in every possible dimension be it in terms of size, duration or simply pure joy. 
In the third parable, Jesus tells in one sentence how a woman causes a large amount of flour to rise as leavened dough by mixing in an almost invisible amount of yeast.  In this one sentence, Jesus reminds us how in fact a small almost unseen force such as yeast can cause a very significant and transformational change to something much larger. 
The story also is an elegant tie back to the first parable with flour being the end product of wheat.  Wheat is considered the “good seed” because it results in something that can help nourish us.  When yeast is added to that flour, then we really have something.
20 Once Jesus[g] was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among[h] you.” Luke 17:20-21(NSRV)
The Kingdom of God is among us in that Jesus is always with us.  We are tasked with showing that we can exercise our free-will to do the best we can to resist evil and when we fail, to ask for forgiveness and keep trying to do better.  To prove ourselves to be wheat and not weeds.
In one sense the expectation that the coming of the Messiah would accompany a fierce battle to overthrow the oppressors of the people and establish an all-powerful kingdom is correct.  The battle required to gain access to this kingdom is not fought against Roman soldiers but it is the struggle within each of us to do the right thing. 
We just can’t be content to prove that we are not weeds.  Just not being bad is not good enough.  God is asking us to be an agent for creating good in the world.  Just as flour can be transformed with the addition of the nearly unseen yeast, we need to allow the unseen power of God’s grace to work in our hearts—transforming us by calling us to grow, to serve, to forgive, to lift up others by dividing their burdens and multiplying their joys and to share the good news.
More simply said—we are called to love.  With that love and God’s grace, the greatest kingdom of all awaits.   

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Twilight Zone - A Love Story
By Mike Powers, Delivered at Scottish Rite on Feb 14.


Scripture reading Luke 12:13-21 (The Parable of the Rich Fool)

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family 
inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or 
arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against 
all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of 
possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced 
abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to 
store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and
build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say 
to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink,
be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being 
demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is 
with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Today I am going to tell you a love story.  However, it is a love story that does not
quite fit the mold of what you may have come to expect.  For quite awhile I have
been a fan of the old television series, “The Twilight Zone”.  To be clear, I am
talking about the series that was produced by Rod Serling from 1959-1964 and not
the later imitators.  I don’t get to see the shows much anymore but over the New
Years holiday one of the cable networks ran a Twilight Zone marathon so I was
able to watch more than a few episodes.  The thing that I enjoy about The Twilight
Zone is that generally it tells a relatively simple tale that always has a twist and
communicates a larger message in an effective way.

In one particular episode, there was a young man named Sal who was desperate to
win the love of a young woman Leah.  Leah was a very pleasant, kind person who
lived in meager surroundings with her father who was also pleasant and kind-
hearted.  Sal did not have much money and was not well-educated but was very
anxious to prove to Leah that he was worthy of her.  Sal obsessed about his self-
perceived shortcomings and aggressively pushed Leah to commit to him in
marriage.  Leah saw that Sal did not love her but that Sal wanted simply to control
her as a means of demonstrating to himself his own self-worth.  With this in mind,
Leah rejected the proposal of marriage and broke off the relationship.

Sal believed that Leah’s father had undermined his chances with her so he
confronted the father accusing him of being responsible for the fact that Leah no
longer wanted to see him.  The father responded that while he never would have
chosen Sal for his daughter to marry as he felt the young man did not truly care for
her, he would never stand in the way of the two marrying if that is truly what Leah
desired.

Sal became very angry and swore that Leah and her father were wrong about him
and that Sal would prove that he was deserving of Leah.  As he stormed off in
retreat, Sal in a fit of anger punched a wall and broke his hand.

While in the hospital to get his hand mended, Sal was commiserating with a fellow
patient.  The fellow patient complained about a cough that he had and Sal told him
that he would willingly trade his own broken hand for the man’s cough.  When
both agreed that this would be a good exchange, then as only it could occur in The
Twilight Zone, magically Sal had the cough and the other patient had a broken hand.

Sal recovered from the cough and then went on to discover that he had the unique
ability to prompt other unusual trades.  Sal approached an elderly man who was
quite wealthy and offered to exchange his own youth for the older man’s wealth.
The older man agreed to this and Sal suddenly became very rich but fifty years
older.  Shrewdly, he regained his youth by trading back one year of age at a time
with fifty different young men each for relatively small amounts of money.

With his youth restored and now fabulously wealthy, Sal returned to Leah’s house
and demanded that she see him.  Observing that despite the wealth that he had
attained Sal had not really changed, Leah congratulated Sal on his success but
refused to resume their relationship.  Sal was crestfallen. As he was about to leave,
Sal saw the father and he had an idea.  He would propose a trade to the father.

We will return to that story in just a bit to see what Sal had in mind.  What lessons
can we draw from what we heard so far?  If you had Sal’s unique ability to make
trades of the sorts that he had entered into, what would you want and what would
you give up?  Sal regained his youth by trading amounts of money which, while
perhaps a year’s salary to the young men with whom he traded, were relatively
small compared to the enormous sum that he had received from the wealthy man.
If you were twenty years old, perhaps giving up a year of your life in exchange for
a year’s salary in a lump sum might be appealing.

Now it is not possible to make such a trade in real life but what we do see young
people engage in risky behaviors involving lifestyle choices that can have the
effect of shortening one’s life in exchange for a momentary thrill or to gain social
acceptance.  If we are honest, most of us have probably done this at some point in
our lives.  It is not until later that many of us realize how foolish we may have been
with our choices in the past.  When you are young, mortality is something to worry
about later.   It is probably part of the thought process of thinking only if I knew
then what I know now.

This may have been the thinking of the wealthy man in the story gave up all of his
money in exchange for Sal’s youth—fifty years his junior.  Do you think he
wanted to do things differently with his second chance at living?

What would we do differently if we had a second chance?  Is there something that
we are doing now that in the future we will say “I wish I had been smart enough
not to have done that.”?  While we cannot go back in time to change the past, we
can all change our behavior going forward.

It appears from the story that Sal saw having money as a way to establish himself
as worthy of Leah.  But even though she herself was poor, she was looking for
something else.  She was looking for someone who loved and cared for her.  Not
someone who just happened to have a lot of money.

If Sal was thinking that a long life with Leah would make him truly happy, he was
certainly going about it in the wrong way.  If he had focused on her needs instead
of his own, his chances of spending his life happily with Leah would have been
much greater.  Extending love to another benefits both parties involved.  Acting
selfishly benefits no one in the long run.

Reflecting on our own lives, we should ask ourselves whether we are focusing on
helping others or are we acting selfishly like the Rich Fool in the parable?

So back to the story.  What is it that Sal sought to trade with the father?

After returning from a commercial, we see that Sal and Leah are happily together
and very much in love.  It is obvious that Sal has changed and is now a very kind
and generous person, the same characteristics that we had previously witnessed in
the father.

Sal approaches the father, tells him that he has changed and loves Leah very much.
Sal then asks for the father’s blessing to marry his daughter.  The father stares at
Sal with an uncharacteristic look of anger on his face.  The father tells Sal, “I told
you that I would never have picked you as a man for my daughter to marry.”  He
then pulls out a gun and kills Sal.  The End.  Roll the credits.

Wow that was fast.  Sal’s fate was even more sudden than that of the Rich Fool
who was to die the night that he was planning to start to enjoy his life-long
accumulated riches.  Probably not the feel-good “and they lived happily ever after”
story that you were expecting or perhaps for which you were hoping.

So it would appear that the trade that Sal completed was an exchange of his anger
for the kindness of the father.  Sal was smart enough to realize that it was his anger
and selfishness that was keeping him from a relationship with Leah.
Unfortunately, the path that he chose was not to eliminate that anger but to move it
to another where it was able to return and prove to be his undoing.  The father
killed Sal because of the anger that Sal had traded to him. In essence, Sal was
killed by his own anger.

From the perspective of the father, why did he agree to this trade?  Maybe he
thought that he would be strong enough to overcome Sal’s anger and that by
imparting kindness in Sal his daughter could be with a man who loved her.  It is a
noble thought but the story demonstrates how destructive anger can be.  Once it is
inside of us it is difficult to overcome.  We need to be ever vigilant against
allowing it a foothold within ourselves.

Although we cannot make a trade in real life like the one apparently made by Sal
with the father, anger can be contagious and we can be infected by the anger of
others.  We can also infect those around us.  The words we use and the actions that
we take do have consequences that can harm ourselves and others.

We seem to be a society that is experiencing a high level of anger right now with
respect to a number of topics—the economy, political polarization, terrorism,
immigration, refugees—you pick the topic. We need to guard against this anger
infecting us and diverting us from Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbors.

As I have noted, it is interesting that in both stories that we heard—the parable of
the Rich Fool which was told by Jesus in the scripture reading and the story of Sal
from the television show, the central figure dies suddenly before attaining their
life-long goal.  In the case of the Rich Fool that goal was an easy life of retirement
and with Sal it was a happy marriage with Leah. In both cases, they fell victim to
their own neglect to love others.  The Rich Fool focused on accumulating wealth
for his own benefit which had no worth to his eternal soul.  Sal was more
concerned about establishing his self-worth than showing love for Leah.  In the
end, rather than struggling to overcome his selfishness and anger, he simply moved
them to another person and they proved to be his undoing.

Fortunately, we can learn from their mistakes.  Although acting selfishly may in
some cases provide some short-term benefit, in the long run it is a losing
proposition.  We have the ability to avoid this.  It is within the hearts of each of us
to look to each other with kindness.  God has inculcated human nature with the
desire to want to help each other.  We feel better when we do it.

On the night before His death, Jesus told us to love each other and by our love that
is how others will recognize us as His disciples.  Loving each other is how God has
made us to be, it is what Jesus has instructed us to do and it is the direction in
which the Holy Spirit propels us to go.

As the Apostle Paul wrote in First Corinthians chapter 13 verse 13 as translated in
The Message: “Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And
the best of the three is love.”    

We can make our lives our own love story—not just for today but for all of our
days.   And by this everyone will know that we are His disciples.

Amen

Amen.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Childlike View

The following is the scripture reading and sermon delivered by Mike Powers, member of the West Des Moines United Methodist Church tat Edgewater Retirement Community on October 4, 2015.

Romans 12 (NRSV)

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[d]

3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to
faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I was speaking to one of my work colleagues the other day and she was telling me about a marketing class that she had attended.  The instructor asked the class, “What does a four month old baby see when he or she looks around?”    The answer is everything!  A baby is fascinated by everything because everything is new and requires study by the infant to be understood and retained in his or her memory.

This is backed up by scientific studies of visual cognition in infants.  When seeing faces or objects for the first time, babies will study them very intently soaking in as much information as they can.  Over time as they have more exposure to those same faces and objects, the infant will spend less time looking at them.  

This instinct follows us throughout our lives.  Our human brains employ a form of short hand to bypass a lot of processing time that would otherwise be spent analyzing what we deem to be familiar subjects freeing up a limited resource—the brain’s processing bandwidth—to be available to tackle the analysis of new subjects.  

Youngsters not only look at things more closely than we do they also ask lots of questions—some of them can be a bit amusing but they do show what it means to look at the world with unfiltered eyes.

Darlene was a little 3 year old girl sitting on her grandfather’s lap as he read her a bedtime story.  She would stroke her grandfather’s cheek and then do the same to her own.  Finally she spoke up, “Grandpa, did God make you?”

“Yes darling, he answered, He made me a long time ago.”

“Oh,” Darlene paused, “Grandpa, did God make me too?”

“Yes, indeed He did sweetheart.  He made you just a short while ago.”

Feeling their respective faces again, Darlene observed, “God’s getting better at it  isn’t He?”

There are probably valuable lessons that we can learn from observing the youngsters in our lives.
Simply letting our brains work they way they normally do may be an efficient way for us to function, but there are pitfalls.

Relying upon old beliefs rather than taking the time to take a fresh look at people, places and things can be limiting and inhibit our ability to recognize changes—new things.  You might think that the brain sees what the eyes send it but in reality the eyes only see what the brain allows them to see.
We have all had the experience of looking for something that was right in front of us—if it had been a snake it would have bitten us.

The Apostle Paul in the scripture passage that I just read urges us to “not be conformed to this world” but rather “be transformed by renewing [our] minds”.

One of the ways that I think we are often conformed to this world is to buy into the feeling of cynicism that seems to be so pervasive.  To hear many folks tell it we are in a period of accelerating decline and there is little that we can do to avert impending disaster.

Just so you know, pessimism is not just a recent phenomenon.  Mark Twain was quoted as saying, “The man who is a pessimist before forty-eight knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little”.  I will admit to you that I am older than forty-eight and I am an optimist.

Let’s look at just a few of things that have been accomplished over the span of our lifetimes, all of which by the way occurred after Mark Twain made his remark.

 Following World War II and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, free democratic governments are firmly in place in many countries formerly ruled by dictatorships such as Germany, Japan and numerous countries in Eastern Europe, Central and South America.  More people live in free, self-governed societies today than ever in the history of the world.

 Over that same time period, amazing medical advancements and improvement in public health resources have extended life expectancy by about ten years here in the U.S. and about 20 years world-wide.  

 Breakthroughs in communications--the invention of the Internet, cell phones, satellite television and social media-- have put people living far apart in closer touch than ever before imagined and have made a wealth of information universally available in the palm of your hand.  We can see and talk to our grandkids on a phone that we carry in our pocket—something that would have seemed like science fiction not that long ago.

 In 2014 an agency of the United Nations reported that over the previous decade the number of hungry people had declined by 100 million and that it was within reach of achieving its goal of cutting in half the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries.

 While we still have a ways to go, we have become a society that is more tolerant of those who have been historically marginalized due to race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disabilities.

 I say all of this not to pretend that there are not significant challenges before us.  It would be na├»ve to say that.  The reason that I am taking note of the historic progress that has been made in recent times is to point out that this would not have occurred without the efforts of countless people striving to use their particular gifts to make everyday life better.

As Christians, we need to let the energy provided by the Holy Spirit to move us towards continuing to make our limited time here on earth more like the eternal bliss to come.  We can’t do that if we take the attitude that what we do won’t make a difference or doesn’t matter.  Everything counts.  No deed is too small.  We all have a role.  And we have a guide as to what to do.

The 12th chapter of Romans speaks to the characteristics of what it means to live a Christian life.  It speaks to the transformation in thinking that occurs when one becomes a follower of Christ.  They are not easy things to do in all cases.  It may require us to break patterns of thinking that may have become bad habits on our part.  We may need to cast aside stereotypes and some ways of thinking that may have become ingrained and instead think more like that child for whom everything is news.  Let’s take a fresh look at how we think and live with others.

The essence of Paul’s message in Chapter 12 is that we should subordinate our selfish interests to the interest of the larger community of followers of Christ—Christ’s one body.  Paul asks each of us to not to think of ourselves but that we should use our own unique gifts for the benefit of God’s one body the church.

We can each take an inventory of our own strengths and special skills and determine what we can do to help others.  Certainly something that each of us can do is to treat each other with generosity and cheerfulness.Paul explicitly tells us that we should be genuine in our love for each other, reject evil, hold on to what is good and extend hospitality to strangers.

My guess is that you have new residents coming into this community here fairly frequently.  I encourage you to follow Paul’s advice and extend a warm hand of friendship to them and help the newcomers navigate the transition to their new home with kindness and support.

I can tell you that when my wife Libby and I joined the West Des Moines United Methodist Church after having moved to Des Moines from the Chicago area, we did not know a soul at the church and the warm welcome and heartfelt friendship that was freely given was really important and much appreciated by us.  

So up to now you may be thinking, “OK, that does not seem to be too difficult.  I’m a nice person and can be friendly to others.”  Next is where Paul steps up the challenge for us in a pretty significant way.  He tells us to bless and not curse those who persecute us and to not repay evil for evil but rather to think in a more noble fashion.  If our enemies are hungry we are to feed them.  If they are thirsty, provide them with a drink.  Overcome evil with good.

This message of extending comfort to our enemies is what really distinguishes the teachings of Jesus from all that came before.  Before Jesus’ began his teaching, the rule of society was pretty much of the “eye for an eye” mentality.  Jesus told us that the two most important commandments are for us to love God and to love our neighbor with neighbor being defined in the broadest sense of that word.

This core tenet of our faith was so radically new and such a different notion that it demonstratively marked the new Covenant that God has made with each us.

We are to love, not judge.  Be kind, not vengeful.  Help, not destroy.  Think of others, not ourselves.  In essence, be servants to others just as Jesus was a servant to us.  He served as the perfect role model for us to follow.While I earlier recounted the many good things that have happened in the world in recent times, evil has not been vanquished. We don’t need any clearer reminder of this than the shootings at the college in Oregon this past week and the countless similar stories that preceded it.  We also have the ongoing horror of war in Syria which has cost the lives of many thousands of innocent people and driven millions from their homes into a refugee status.

It has been reported that the students in the Oregon college were asked by the shooter if they were Christian and if they said yes he shot them.  In the Middle East, terrorist groups target Christians for persecution.

I don’t know if any of us can truly say how we would react if faced with the prospect of immediate death if we truthfully professed our faith in Christ.  I’m sure we would all like to think we would stand firm in such a test but it is impossible to speculate.  We certainly admire and pray for God’s special mercies on those who were confronted with such an ordeal.

Being a Christian can be difficult but my hope and prayer is that none of us would be in a situation like that experienced by the people in Oregon or the Middle East or other places where admission of faith can lead to death.  But we do face a tough challenge nevertheless.

It would be easy for us to hate the perpetrators of such horror.  Certainly we can condemn the despicable acts taken and we can take steps to protect ourselves in the future but it is not up to us to judge the people involved.  That is God’s job, not ours.  

Paul tells us that Jesus expects us to extend a blessing and not a curse to our enemies.  Remember Jesus’ words from the cross—“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”   So let us pray for the souls of those responsible for these acts in addition to extending our love and support to everyone impacted by these tragedies.

Above all, we need to take to heart Paul’s final admonition in today’s reading-- to not be overcome by evil but rather to overcome evil with good.

 So let us each act as God’s instrument for good.

 Let us recapture that child-like sense of wonderment and look at the world with fresh eyes seeking out ways that we can help others which we may have previously overlooked.

 Let us recapture our appreciation and be thankful for the many beautiful and awe-inspiring things with which God has blessed us.

 Let us not allow evil to win by ourselves becoming evil.

 Let us work to do whatever we can to make our community a safer, more tolerant, kind, loving, fulfilling and peaceful place.

 Let us show our love for God and for our neighbors in everything we do.

In doing so we can truly live our faith.  We will be following the example that Jesus gave to us and we can in turn serve as a model for others to do the same.   Let’s do this and give evil a little less room in which to operate.

Amen.

Sunday, July 19, 2015



little karma BIG GRACE
by Mike Powers



Sermon delivered July 19, 2015 at Scottish Rite Park in Des Moines, Iowa

Scripture Reading
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2: 1-10)

+++++++

I would venture to say the category of videos found on the Internet most likely to bring a smile to anyone’s face (with the possible exception of course of those featuring cats playing the piano, pestering frustrated dogs, snuggling up against awe-struck babies or really doing almost anything for that matter) would have to be those in which the tables are suddenly turned on scoundrels who are in the midst of attempting to victimize their fellow humans.  Recent examples that I have seen include:

·       A man caught trying to rob a farmer makes his escape across a pasture field only to be chased by a bull causing him to run into a barbed wire fence.
·       A man driving an expensive sports car on the shoulder in order to bypass a long line of people who were stopped and waiting patiently due to road construction becomes stuck and damages his car when he drives into a deep hole that had been dug in that same shoulder just beyond the crest of a hill.
·       A thief grabs the purse of an older lady and while trying to get away he runs into a light pole and knocks himself out which leads to his arrest. 

In each of those instances we could with much justification feel that the perpetrator got what was coming to him.  We could say “What goes around comes around.”  Some would call it karma.

Karma is a concept that is referenced by many people.  Some deeply believe in the concept as a universal law and others just relish it when it exhibits itself in examples such as the ones I just cited.  So what is karma and should we hope that it is in fact bringing fundamental order to the universe? 

Karma is a cornerstone belief in certain religions and is essentially a law of moral causation.  Karma explains the inequality that exists in mankind as either a reward or punishment for previous actions taken by each individual—possibly in an earlier life. Such good or bad fortune can manifest itself in varying levels of wealth, health, intelligence, physical strength, talent, looks, power or other factors.

A trust in karma would lead one to believe that every person gets what he or she deserves—good or bad—based upon their prior actions. This concept of life being an orderly process of cause and effect where good deeds are always ultimately rewarded and misdeeds ultimately punished is one that can be on the surface quite appealing. 

Karma does seem to be an equitable and rational way of organizing the world.  It provides a logical explanation as to why some people are blessed with an abundance of good fortune while others have quite the opposite experience.  It has the very alluring advantage of allowing us to avoid the difficult question as to “Why bad things happen to good people?”  Karma would say that if something bad happens it is for a good reason.

Let’s think about that one.  Can that be true in every case? 

The nine people in Charleston that were attending a bible study and murdered in cold blood.  They had that coming?  In the case of a small child who contracts a deadly disease--is the child being punished for a misdeed in a prior life with no opportunity to redeem herself in this one or are the parents being punished and if so why does the child have to suffer?  In World War II, it is estimated that 60 million people or more were killed including 45 million civilians.  They all deserved that?  And what about the various dictators and despots throughout history--did they obtain their level of power as a reward for good deeds in a prior life?  And if that is the case how did they change course so dramatically and disastrously for mankind? 

Don’t get me wrong.  No sensible person will argue that the actions that we take don’t carry with them consequences.  If you don’t take the medicine prescribed by your doctor you may get sick.  If you exercise and eat the right foods you are likely to have better health.  If you work with diligence and intelligence you have a better chance of achieving the goals that you set before yourself than if you slack off.  If you treat people fairly you will likely have kindness returned to you.  So I would say that karma does exist to the extent that our actions can strongly affect but not absolutely determine outcomes here on earth.  Let’s call it “little karma”. 

If karma is not the universal truth, then back to the question as to why do bad things do happen to good people.  Why would a God who loves us allow such a system to exist?

A partial answer may be that God gave each of us a free will which means that inevitably we are all at times going to make bad choices and hurt someone—sometimes deliberately but often times without even realizing it.  Man’s inhumanity to man is one of the unfortunate side effects of God allowing us to make our own decisions and can explain many of the bad things that happen but not all.  Free will choices can explain wars, crime, bullying, emotional abuse, insults and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment but there are still illnesses, natural disasters, accidents and other misfortunes which defy explanation.

Some would say that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, along with that knowledge came a lot of collateral damage in the form of suffering and death which we continue to experience today. 

As someone who endured much suffering himself, the Apostle Paul saw a purpose to earthly suffering when he wrote in Chapter 5 in his letter to the Romans, “…we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5: 3b-4)

So perhaps suffering is a fire which we can use to test and sharpen our faith.  To further quote scripture in 1 Peter chapter 2 (verses 19-21) “19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
To be fair, Jesus in his ministry never promised that things would be easy for us.  He was much more concerned with preparing us for the everlasting life to come rather than making things more comfortable for us here on earth.    In John 16:33, shortly before facing his own gruesome human death on the cross, Jesus warned his disciples of the challenges that they would soon face saying,” I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
 
So let’s accept the fact that at least from our vantage point, life may not always be fair in how the breaks both good and bad are doled out. Similar to the story of Job in the Bible, bad breaks may happen to us not necessarily in retribution for our prior sins but may just be part of an overall plan that we do not have the ability to discern. 

Jesus came to earth, assumed a human form and suffered greatly for our salvation.  We should view the challenges that are thrown our way as a means to live more like Christ and use our faith to face these obstacles without fear knowing that in the scheme of all things, our life here on earth is but a flash in the pan when compared to the infinite life to come.  Any pain or suffering endured here is nothing compared to the ultimate glory of the kingdom of heaven. 

So let’s talk about our eternal life. If good deeds are not necessarily rewarded here on earth, do they at least get us into heaven? 

You are familiar with the popular imagery of St. Peter sitting up in heaven with a log book that contains a record of all of the actions—good and bad—that we have taken during our time here on earth.  On that day when we arrive at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter totals up our score and if we have performed a sufficient number of good deeds in excess of the bad he will let us in.  Otherwise, he will point to the elevator that goes to a lower floor where the air conditioning doesn’t work so well.

My guess is that is probably not the way it works.  The truth is that because the glory of heaven is so magnificent, so much so that it outstrips our ability to adequately describe or comprehend it, no amount of good works performed here on earth can be said to fairly pay for our admittance.  We can’t earn our way into heaven—it is a priceless treasure.

That is what I believe the author of the epistle in our scripture reading meant in writing, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

So what does this mean?  Is it totally random as to whom God selects to let in?  To whom does He give this tremendous gift?  If good works do not gain us admittance to Heaven, what does?  Is it a waste of time to do good works if there is no payoff in the end? 

Jesus did provide us with an answer as to how to gain everlasting life. In John 5:24, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” A little later in John 14:23, Jesus expanded on this saying, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist denomination, throughout the early part of his life passionately pursued the performance of good deeds as a means of proving his worth in the eyes of God.  He visited the sick, the imprisoned, prayed constantly and frequently fasted all with the goal of proving himself worthy to God.  In spite of this remarkable record of performing good deeds, he felt an emptiness in so doing, even going so far as to say that he did not feel that he was a Christian during this time period of his life. 

He left his native England and sailed to Georgia to ostensibly bring Christianity to Native Americans but in reality he later admitted that he was trying to “convert” himself.  He had adopted a “karma-like” mode of thinking along the lines of “If I do something good, God will love me.” 

When he was forced to leave America and return to England due to a situation where he refused to serve communion to a woman for whom he had a fondness but who had chosen to marry another man, he realized that he had reached a low point in his spiritual life.

Then, one evening while attending a prayer meeting at a house on Aldersgate Street in London, a realization came to him that “strangely warmed his heart”.  And that realization was that he did not have to prove his worth to God but he just needed to accept the love that God already had for him. 

Wesley marked that realization as the point at which he truly became a Christian.  While he continued to perform the many good deeds as he had previously, from then on it was not to earn God’s love but rather it was because God loved him and he loved God. 

You could say there was a sort of “karma-like” cause and effect at work here but not in the way we may have initially expected.  Prior to Aldersgate, Wesley hoped that his good works would cause God to love him.  Following his experience at Aldersgate, God’s love caused Wesley to want to express his love by doing good works.

The lesson for us is that God’s gift of grace is freely available to us right now—today.  It is a gift with a value beyond measure.  We just need to accept God’s love and if that acceptance of His love is sincere and real, our own hearts can be “strangely warmed” and we will be moved to live by His Word by showing our love to both God and our neighbors in our daily lives. 

We must not fool ourselves into thinking that merely saying the words that we love God means that we really do.  God knows what is in our hearts.  If we are sincere we can’t help but express that love  in the way we live our lives and treat our fellow humans—helping those in need, comforting those in despair and extending kindness to all.
 
Life as we all know can be messy and some injustices defy explanation.  Bad things happen to good people.  However, by embracing God’s love we can help each other out through the tough times and celebrate the good times together while here on earth as we look forward to the everlasting glory to come. 

Everyone loves a little karma but it does not compare to the bigness that is GRACE.

Amen.