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Saturday, July 29, 2017

I Love Those Stairs - Pastor Cindy's Devotional - July 27, 2017

Hello friends,

Yesterday I arrived at the church in the morning, came in the lower level entrance, and walked up the steps to the second floor where my office is. 

Anyone who is familiar with the West Des Moines United Methodist Church would tell you that our entrances are not optimal.  The door to the sanctuary is far from the parking lot.  The door on Grand Avenue opens into what feels like a back hallway.  The door from the parking lot enters the basement.  In order to get to the main offices or the sanctuary from that door, you have to climb stairs or ride the elevator.  If we started all over and designed a new building, our entrances would look different, certainly more accessible.  These entrances are the result of a sloping lot and a history of building expansions.
Despite all that, yesterday when I was climbing the stairs, for some strange reason I thought “I love these stairs.”  Sort of an odd thought, but it felt true. 

First, a lot of people have climbed those stairs over the years.  People headed to worship services, children going to Sunday school, brides and grooms ready to say their vows, grieving persons facing a funeral and the loss of a loved one. Up and down the stairs we walk through the events of our lives shared together.  Looking for someone at church on Sunday morning?  Wait at the base of the stairs and there is a good chance they will come down those stairs at some point. 

Second, the stairs have a landing in the middle.  The wall of the landing is curved and a bulletin board follows the curve of the wall.  We have gifted bulletin board artists in the church.  They keep the bulletin board beautiful and informative.  Walk up the stairs today and round the landing and you will discover that the Missions Committee is collecting sanitary products and canned vegetables for Bidwell Riverside mission. The book club is reading A Man Called Ove, a good book.  And we are looking for volunteers to serve in our State Fair Stand.  The act of climbing the stairs reveals the activity of the church.    

Yesterday I was noticing all this but more than this, climbing those stairs felt a bit like rising up, climbing to a higher plane, a more hopeful place.  Come in those lower doors with whatever burdens you are carrying, whatever lowliness of spirit you might be feeling, and prepare to be lifted up. 
So our building isn’t perfect.  And if we could, we probably would make some changes. Not everyone is capable of climbing stairs and we want to be accessible.   But it is OUR building.  And there is a story in this building, a story that has played out on those stairs, about a people rising up, about hopefulness. 

As silly as it sounds, I love those stairs. 

See you Sunday. 

Pastor Cindy Hickman
West Des Moines United Methodist Church
720 Grand Avenue
West Des Moines, Iowa

Like us on Facebook or visit us at wdmumc.org

We worship at 8:30 and 11 on Sunday mornings and we would love to worship with you. 
This Sunday we will start a new sermon series called In the Beginning.  Could God be starting something new in your life?  Looking for a fresh start?  See you Sunday!

Our youth are serving in Hazard, Kentucky this week.  They are repairing homes, making friends and growing as disciples. Important change-the-world work.  Keep them in your prayers!  

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

We Are All Connected - Pastor Cindy's Devotional - July 18, 2017

I am surprised by how connected we are.  It is as though God knew all about Facebook long before Mark Zuckerberg invented it. 

Last Thursday I worshiped at Women at the Well, the United Methodist Church inside the women’s prison at Mitchellville.  (It was lovely by the way!  Lots of joy.  We danced.)  Before worship, a woman who lives within the prison happened to visit with me.  She told me about her life, and her family, and why she worships.  Yesterday I ran into someone at church.  She told me she knew someone who was in prison in Mitchellville.  She had attended her wedding years and years ago, and it was clear the couple were very much in love.  Sometime after that, newspaper headlines told of a horrible tragedy in their home and the woman was sent to prison.  The woman at church wondered how she was doing.  The woman she described was the woman I had met last Thursday.  She is in prison, but she is doing well, worshipping God, loving her family as she can from within the prison, looking forward to the day when she can be with them again.  The woman at church holds her in her heart.  We are connected. 

Yesterday I visited a couple from the church who are homebound.  At some point in the conversation, the man told me that he was in the Navy in WW2, stationed in the Pacific on an LST vessel.  My dad also served in the Navy in the Pacific on a similar ship.  My dad died three years ago, but yesterday as the man shared his experience, I thought a lot about my dad.  I could hear my dad’s stories in the conversation.  We are connected. 

A new couple came to church.  They moved to Iowa from Michigan.  I lived for a time in Michigan.  We are connected. 

At the 11 o’clock service we were creating an altar and we needed an altar cloth, so I went to the fabric store.  I picked three different fabrics, but I couldn’t decide which would look the best.  I am not good at that sort of thing.  The woman at the fabric store liked the green one with circles, so that is the one I bought.  And now when I see the altar, I think of her.  Does she worship somewhere?  Most people are not connected to a church and don’t worship, but when I see that cloth, I think of her.  We are connected. 

A man came to church yesterday asking for money.  On Sunday I preached about people coming to church asking for money.  The man yesterday was the sixth person since I have been here.  I don’t believe that our connection to one another is money.  It is something deeper than that.  And I don’t want to turn people into beggars.  But still, if God is present, we are connected somehow.  The man yesterday was from Iraq.  He had been in a refugee camp in Syria.  His life has been much different from mine.  I did not give him money.  His needs are beyond fixing with money.  Did I give him hope?  I tried.  Did I offer friendship?  I hope so.  According to the United Nations, there are 65 million refugees in the world.  Many were born in refugee camps and have no nation status.  This all worries me.  Jesus began his life as a refugee.   And we who follow him are called to respond to the needs of the poor.  I think the challenge in this is to discover how we are connected.  It may be as simple as this:  we are human beings living on the same planet.  It may be looking at the man sitting on the bench outside my office yesterday and treating him with respect.  It may be using my voice to advocate for those who have no voice.    

We are all connected.  Our roots go deep into the grace and mercy that is God.  I am grateful for that. 


Pastor Cindy Hickman
West Des Moines United Methodist Church
720 Grand Avenue
West Des Moines Iowa
Like us on Facebook or visit us at wdmumc.org

We worship at 8:30 and 11 every Sunday and we would love to worship with you. 

For the last two weeks, we have been exploring Jesus’ commandments to love God, love our neighbor.  This Sunday we will be looking at loving ourselves.  Are comfortable with you?  May seem like a silly question, but so many of us are so critical of ourselves.  Next Sunday we will talk about it.  Hope to see you there. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Good Soil by Mike Powers at Scottish Rite, July 16, 2017

The Good Soil
By Mike Powers
(Delivered at Scottish Rite, July 16, 2017)
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

In ancient times, a king had a boulder placed on a roadway. Then he hid and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king’s wealthiest merchants and courtiers came by and simply walked around it.  Many loudly blamed the king for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the big stone out of the way. Then a peasant came along carrying a load of vegetables. On approaching the boulder, the peasant laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded. As the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the king indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is telling a parable which also speaks of obstacles that lay in people’s paths that if removed would lead to the discovery of a great treasure.
The parable that Jesus tells is that of the sower.  This would seem to be a very identifiable story to be studying here in an agricultural state such as Iowa.  One notable difference between the sower that Jesus tells about and the Iowa farmer is that here in Iowa farmers are very selective how they sow their seed using GPS technology and other science to place the seed in the soil where the chances of it growing into a bountiful crop are good.  In the parable, the sower is spreading seeds somewhat indiscriminately and the seeds are falling on various types of soil. 
Jesus describes four different types of ground upon which the sower’s seed is falling.  We can see these four different kinds of soil symbolizing four different states of health for our souls.
The seed that falls on the hardened path never has a chance to sprout and more than likely just becomes bird seed.  The path poses an impenetrable barrier to the seed just as some people stand behind barriers which are impenetrable to God’s word.  How does this happen?
It could be a situation where a person refuses to admit even the possibility of God existing.  They believe that nothing exists outside of what can be explained in the physical universe.  We heard today Paul write in his letter to the Romans that   “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit[e] set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:5-6 NRSV)
 The flesh refers to life as we know it now, the things that we can see, touch, taste, feel and smell.  Those things are real but pertain to a life with a limited shelf life.  They come with an expiration date.  The physical world, or the world of the flesh as Paul describes it, is but a prelude to a much greater reality which is the eternal, ever-lasting world of the kingdom of which Jesus has provided us an entryway.
Other people, with this hardened barrier between themselves and God, may have had a relationship with God at one time but then turned away.  Perhaps they felt either God had betrayed them or left prayers unanswered.  Perhaps they see tragedy in life, man’s inhumanity to man, and question how there could be a God if such things are allowed to occur.  We have all probably thought about things like that at one point or another.  I know I have.
But one of the really wonderful things about life is that God gave each of us a free will which can be exercised for good or for bad.  We each have the choice.  Unfortunately, when a bad choice is made, whether intentional or not, often-times another person is hurt.  I think this is why Jesus made such a big point in his ministry that we need to love each other and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. 
As far as prayers left unanswered, we need to trust that God has our best interest at heart. We are not privy to His overall plan.  God’s plan is beyond our ability to comprehend but with faith and God’s grace we know it will lead to everlasting salvation.
The seed that falls on the stony ground does sprout but because the ground is so hard, it never gets a chance to set down roots and the plant does not survive.  This symbolizes people who hear the Word of God, acknowledge the truth of it but do not incorporate it into their daily lives.  With true faith we are motivated by our love of God to act as servants to each other, helping each other as we can, using our talents to serve as God’s instruments.  Faith will lead us to the desire to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, care for the sick, comfort those in despair.  A deeply rooted faith leads to action and growth in a spiritual connectedness with God that is marked by love for both God and neighbor.
The seed that falls in the thorns, takes root but is soon choked by other competing weeds and thorny plants and also fails to thrive.  In this case, people hear the word of God but are distracted by competing priorities.  They may place an emphasis on accumulating material wealth or power. 
No matter how one keeps score in life, whether it be the amount of money one has, or power or fame, devoting one’s life to such temporal goals is a short-term play at best that does not extend beyond our earthly lives.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summed it up well when he spoke of the consequences of prioritizing earthly things over a relationship with God by saying “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (Matthew 6:19-20 NRSV)
The seed that falls into the good earth, the rich soil that is conducive to growing, represents people who are receptive to the word and who embrace the word and make it part of their lives.  Paul would say that these people are not governed by the law of the flesh but rather the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus which will free them from the law of sin and death.  These people will serve to spread new seeds and multiply those receiving the Word many times over.
So each of us should probably ask, “What kind of “soil” are we?”  Answering that question can only come from and honest and frank self-assessment. 
Just as we are all individuals, we all experience God in different ways.  To be clear, God is present always and everywhere.  He is our constant companion but we may not be tuned into Him.  However, there are those special times when we may have an acute sense that God is affecting our lives. 
Some people may sense God’s presence when they feel a sudden urge to help others through acts of human kindness with no expectation of repayment. 
Some people sense God’s presence when a feeling of inner peace sweeps through them at a time when confronted with making a difficult decision or facing a formidable challenge?
Some people sense God’s presence through a warming in their hearts when seeing a smile on the face of a child or the touch of a loved one.
Some people sense God’s presence moving them to seek forgiveness when wrong and to grant forgiveness when wronged.
Some people sense God’s presence in pulling, pushing, nudging or otherwise guiding them towards a role that God is calling them to fill? 
God has given us each a soul for which we are the caretakers.  The parable that Jesus is relating to us in today’s scriptures attributes the characteristics of soil to our own souls.  Just as soil holds the possibility of growth and the proliferation of abundant life, our souls are intrinsic to the everlasting life that is possible for all of us to enjoy.  Such life is available by learning and living the word that God is sharing with us. 
  Good farmers realize that the best chance of success for this abundant growth is for the soil to be properly prepared.  The boulders need to be rolled away, the rocks removed and the thorns and weeds cleared.  As the caretakers of our own souls, we need to make sure that we have prepared ourselves to the extent possible to receive and incorporate the word of God into our daily lives.
I had mentioned earlier that the sower in the parable acted differently than our Iowa farmers.  An Iowa farmer would certainly only seek to sow good seed in good earth.  The fact that good seed is in limited supply and expensive, the farmer will seek not to waste it by spreading it in places like a hardened path, rocky ground or ground overrun by thorny weeds.  The Iowa farmer will only sow this good seed on good ground.
The good news for us is that the good seed or word of God is not in limited supply.  And although it is very valuable, it is not expensive but freely provided to all.  This means that at times we are shutting ourselves off from God, his Word is still showering down upon us.  We just need to open our hearts and tune into that awareness that Paul describes to receive it.
Let each of us commit to clearing paths and making God’s word accessible to ourselves and others.  When we do encounter boulders in our path, let’s not act like the merchants and courtiers in our first story where they make no effort to clear the path but instead use that as an excuse to complain about the king.  Let’s be more like the peasant who although burdened by a heavy load, spent the time and effort to clear the path and in so doing uncovered a great treasure.
Clearing the obstacles that stand between us and God will enable us to learn more about ourselves and strengthen our faith in God.   Doing this will yield its own treasure—that of a purposeful and fulfilling life; and, blessed with God’s grace, the everlasting life thereafter.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Rain at My Prison's Window - Pastor Cindy's Devotional - July 11, 2017

Good morning friends, 

I am writing this early Tuesday morning.  I woke up to an early morning thunderstorm.  It was a good way to wake up.  I love the roll of thunder and the crack of lightning.  I could hear the rain on the roof and listen to the water fall down the downspout at the corner of the house.   

An early morning rain like this reminds me that the earth renews itself.  The roll of thunder reminds me that there are powers greater than all of us.  Rain in the early morning feels fresh.  An early morning greeting from God. 

I will be preaching at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville on Thursday evening and I wondered if the women who live in the prison could hear the rain as they woke up this morning.  I have visited there a number of times, but I have only been in their worship space.  I don’t know what their cells look like.  Do they have windows?  Can they hear rain on the roof, or is the roof too industrial-thick to allow the people inside to hear the rain? 

Going to the prison always jars my soul. 

There are more than 600 women living in the prison, a good size town by Iowa standards.  They come from all walks of life.  They are all ages, sometimes surprisingly young, looking more like high school cheerleaders than criminals.  A very few are lifers; most will at some point be released and they will return to their children, their families, and their communities. 

The vast majority have been abused in all the forms abuse takes: verbal, physical, sexual.  The majority struggle with some form of mental illness.  Many fight addictions.  For many of the women, the prison is the safest and healthiest place they have ever lived. 

The Iowa Court System has found them guilty of a crime severe enough to send them to prison. 

I inevitably find myself wondering how did these women get here?  What were their lives like?  Many did not grow up in a family like I had, parents present, sober, and caring every day, the constant security of food, clothing, and shelter.  But some did.  Some came from homes similar to mine.  My logical head always wants to separate me from the women somehow.  My judgmental heart wants to feel superior.  I could never, would never end up in prison.  Surely not me. 


I remember a boy I dated, who my father hated, who was trouble and troubled.  What if I had continued to date him? 

I remember parties in college.  What if a particular night had turned out differently?  What if I had faced abuse, in all its forms, how would I have coped? 

What if the road that is my life had taken a different turn?

On Thursday night at the prison, I am going to preach about the Greatest Commandment.  Jesus said the most important thing we can do is love God.  I preached this same message last Sunday in my church in a western suburb.  After service, we all went out to the parking lot and drove away to our comfortable homes.  I hope, and I pray that what I say about loving God is as true at the prison as it seemed in the western suburbs.   

I hope the women heard the rain this morning.  The renewing rain.  The roll of thunder, a power greater than us.  A fresh greeting from God. 

I pray that I see the face of Christ in the women.  And in some small way, they see the face of Christ in me. 

Blessings to you this week.  Please think of us all on Thursday evening. 

Pastor Cindy Hickman
West Des Moines United Methodist Church
720 Grand Avenue
West Des Moines, Iowa 50265
Visit us at www.wdmumc.org or like us on Facebook.  We worship at 8:30 and 11 and we would love to worship with you. 

This week at West Des Moines United Methodist Church:

Pastor Cindy’s sermon series, Our Grand Adventure, continues.  This week we will be talking about loving our neighbors.  Hi, neighbor!

Preparations are underway for Vacation Bible School!  Vacation Bible School begins Sunday evening at 6 pm.  Check out our website for details and round up the neighborhood kids for a week of fun! 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My Cup Runneth Over - Pastor Cindy's Devotional - July 4, 2017

Pastor Cindy gets fired up and encouraged on Sunday mornings, but by Wednesday her enthusiasm is sometimes sagging a bit.  In order to re-energize she writes a midweek devotion each week.  You can receive the devotion by visiting our Facebook page or our Blog or via email.  Whatever works for you.  And you are encouraged to share these devotions with family and friends. 
Hello, friends!
My cup runneth over.
Those are old-fashioned words from the King James version of the 23rd Psalm.  They are a metaphor.  We always talk about God in metaphors.  We create “word pictures” because mere words are inadequate when it comes to describing God.  God is bigger than our words. 

What do you see when you imagine my cup runneth over?  Maybe we can imagine filling a glass with soda at Panera.  We push the button and the soda shoots into our glass.  And the glass fills up.  But the soda doesn’t stop.  It keeps coming.  It pours over the sides of the glass and it fills up the tray beneath our glass.  Then it spills out onto the counter and then over the edge of the counter and onto the floor.  It surrounds our feet and then spreads out to every table and every booth in the restaurant.  The soda seeps into the kitchen.  The people behind the counter are standing in soda.  Someone opens the door and with a whoosh, the soda pours into the street and it becomes a giant wave.  Someone grabs a surfboard and rides the wave.  And the liquid flows on and on in every direction. 

The person who wrote the 23rd Psalm was describing the abundant and good life God gives us.  They were describing God’s unending grace.  They were “surfing” God’s goodness.    (Okay, people in ancient Israel did not surf.  Still, thinking of disciples on surfboards is an interesting picture.  And it is hot today as I write this and the thought of surfing is refreshing.) 

Currently, in my life, my cup runneth over. 

On Saturday I walked from my house to the church with so many wonderful people.  Disciples on the move.  Walking through the metro we love.  Walking toward a new time. 

And my cup runneth over. 

Sunday was my first Sunday as the pastor of West Des Moines United Methodist Church, it was so good to worship with you.  So many hugs!  (If you are not a hugger please know that handshakes or even bumping elbows are also an appropriate greeting.) 

And my cup runneth over. 

Monday I began to settle into my office.  My office has been newly painted by kind volunteers.  There were several gifts waiting for me on my desk. 

And my cup runneth over. 

I walked through the church, stopping on every floor, flooded by memories of what had happened in these places, sacred because God formed friendships in these rooms.  Seeing to evidence of new ministries in these sacred places.   

And my cup runneth over. 

So many people have excitedly told me about their ministries: Wednesday Night Live, the State Fair Stand, the Bicycle Ministry, the Prayer Shawl Ministry, the Worship Team, the Missions Committee, Covenant Groups……and more and more. 

And my cup runneth over. 

Down the sides of the glass, across the floor, swirling around my feet, out the door, spilling into the street, and on and on beyond my sight. 

So much goodness!  So much to celebrate!  Grab a surfboard!  (I am overwhelmed!  I will need a life jacket too.)

Remember how the 23rd Psalm ends? 

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  Amen. 

And amen.

Glad to be among you in this cup-filling to overflowing time. 

Pastor Cindy Hickman
West Des Moines United Methodist Church
720 Grand Avenue
West Des Moines, Iowa 50265

Like us on Facebook or visit us at wdmumc.org. 

This week at West Des Moines United Methodist Church:
We begin a new sermon series called “Our Grand Adventure.”  Someone once asked Jesus how we are to spend our lives.  He made it clear that we were all invited to an incredible adventure.  We worship at 8:30 and 11 and we would love to worship with you!

Calling all children!  Preparations are underway for Vacation Bible School July 16-20.  Check out our website for details.  

Monday, July 3, 2017

Prayers for the People—July 2, 2017 at WDMUMC By Mike Powers

Prayers for the people—July 2, 2017 WDMUMC
By Mike Powers

Dear Heavenly Father, we praise you as the maker of all things. Thank you for allowing us the great blessing of being able to live in this world and experience the joys and wonders of your Creation.  On this weekend when we celebrate our freedoms, we know that many people today are not free.  There are many parts of the world where people are persecuted and oppressed because of their beliefs.  We know others, even in this country, in our own community lack freedom by being held captive by illness, poverty, hunger, lack of shelter, persecution, addiction, abuse or violence.  God, we ask that you extend your mercy to all who are suffering and enable us to act as your servants in easing such suffering in whatever way we can. 

We see so many examples-- where we, your people, abuse each other in various ways—attacking each other physically, verbally or emotionally.   Such attacks stand in stark contrast to the message of love that Jesus taught us.  Darkness is not eliminated by additional darkness.  Darkness is driven out by light and Jesus is the Light of the world.  Hate cannot be conquered by other hate.  Hate is conquered by love.  Let us serve You by being the beginning of the end for the cycle of hate in the world.  Let each of us serve you God by following Jesus’ example of living lives of peace and forgiveness and spreading Your Word to those who do not yet know You. 

We thank you for the leadership that Reverend Steve has provided our church for the past two and half years and we thank you for returning Pastor Cindy to this church to lead us into the future.  With your guidance, may she shepherd this church along a path which expresses love to both You and our neighbors. 

But we know she cannot do this by herself.  The church is larger than anyone of us.  God, we know that we are most effective in serving You when we work together, each striving to do our own individual part in accordance with your plan to move this church forward in its mission to change lives in the name of your Son Jesus Christ.  It requires the support of every member of this congregation.   Ignite the Holy Spirit that resides in each of us to provide the drive to find our personal mission as to how we can each help the whole of this church by engaging and supporting it. 


From Within Not Above By Mike Powers, July 2, 2017

From Within Not Above
By Mike Powers
July 2, 2017
Genesis 22:1-14
Romans 6: 13-23
Jack was walking along a steep cliff one day when he accidentally got too close to the edge and fell. On the way down he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet.
          He couldn't hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff. So Jack began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something.
          HELP! HELP! Is anyone up there? "HELP!"
          He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice. “Jack, Jack. Can you hear me?"
"Yes, yes! I can hear you. I'm down here!"
"I can see you, Jack. Are you all right?"
"Yes, but who are you, and where are you?
"I am the Lord, Jack. I'm everywhere."
"The Lord? You mean, GOD?"
"That's Me."
"God, please help me! I promise if you'll get me down from here, I'll stop sinning. I'll be a really good person. I'll serve You for the rest of my life."
"Easy on the promises, Jack. Let's get you off from there; then we can talk."
"Now, here's what I want you to do. Listen carefully."
"I'll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do."
"Okay. Let go of the branch."
"I said, let go of the branch. Just trust Me. Let go."
There was a long silence.
Finally, Jack yelled, "HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?"
This is literally a cliffhanger, isn’t it?  We are left wondering what happens to Jack.  We might ask ourselves, “Why doesn’t God just pick up Jack and place him back in a safe location?  Why does Jack have to do something really scary like letting go of the branch?  Why does having faith in God require such difficult choices?”
Speaking of difficult choices, in our first Scripture reading we heard the story of Abraham being called upon by the Lord to sacrifice his son Isaac. This story is one of the most famous in the Bible.  Notable renaissance painters have provided us with their interpretation of this event.  Many churches have this scene depicted in their stain glass windows.
While the story is well-known, some aspects can be difficult to understand.  This story can raise questions such as, “Why would God inflict such anguish on such faithful servants as Abraham and Isaac by making a demand for Abraham to sacrifice his own son?  Or perhaps, “How does this reconcile with Jesus’ later message of love and peace?”  Once again the question, “Why does having faith in God require such difficult choices?”
We need to be able answer questions like these for both for ourselves and others. 
Very importantly, we know that God was not looking for Abraham to kill Isaac.  God stopped that before it occurred.  What God was doing, it seems, was posing a test of Abraham’s faith.  He was presenting Abraham with a difficult choice—to demonstrate his faith in God, Abraham was asked to give up his son whom he loved.   Abraham was being asked in the most difficult circumstance imaginable to trust God in spite of the fact that what God was asking, in addition to being horrific, also seemed to be a betrayal of the Covenant that He had made to Abraham that through his son Isaac a great nation would be created. 
Through faith we know that God never betrays us.  Great leaders are put through great trials and we know that Abraham was a great leader.  We know that he maintained his faith and God maintained His Covenant to make Abraham the head of a great nation through his son Isaac.  That Covenant was ultimately fulfilled in totality by Jesus’ death which in turn served to establish a New Covenant through which all of us have access to the gift of eternal life.
  Many stories in the Old Testament foreshadow events that occur in the New Testament.  The parallels between the story of Abraham and Isaac with that of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross are hard to miss. Abraham is called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac in service to God but in the end Isaac is spared and continued to live to father a great nation.  God the Father did in fact sacrifice His son Jesus for the salvation of all people and Jesus lived on after rising from the dead on that first Easter morning to make the Kingdom of Heaven available to us all.
As difficult as the challenge was that Abraham faced, we can see that God has done all that He had asked of Abraham and more. 
At times we are each Abraham.  We each have and will again face something that tests our faith. 
·        It could be deciding whether or not to pursue a temptation when we know we should not. 
·        It could be deciding whether to do something that would help others but calls for personal sacrifice.
·        It could be deciding in the wake of a serious health issue, a crippling financial setback, a devastating personal betrayal, a senseless tragedy or any number of other ways that events can deal us a significant setback--deciding whether to use that as a reason to turn away from God or to embrace our faith more tightly. 
We don’t know why life has to be difficult.  We don’t know why bad things happen to good people.  But we know they do. 
We also don’t know why God felt it necessary to set such a powerful example of sacrifice for us as to send His own son Jesus to suffer a humiliating and painful death.  We know the purpose was to make eternal salvation available for each of us.  But, you would think there would be an easier way for God, who is capable of everything, to make this happen.
There must be something very valuable associated with the struggle; with confronting adversity.    
It is not necessary for God to challenge our faith to determine how strong it is.  He already knows.  Perhaps, God puts life’s challenges in front of us so that we can find out more about ourselves. 
The famous and highly successful UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.
Some would argue that since God made us in His image, knowing ourselves is a necessary step in knowing God and a deep relationship with God is not possible without truly knowing ourselves.
Adversity is a crucible in which things which can obstruct our view of ourselves are boiled away and the true nature of our relationship with God is uncovered.    Saying that one has faith in easy times is a faith that is of uncertain strength.  Living one’s faith during times of trial fortifies the bond that we have with God.
Faith is an on-going journey that is molded and shaped by experiences that we encounter.  During our time here on earth, we will never achieve the perfect level of faith, there is always room to grow.  Conversely, God is forgiving and always loves us. There is no act that we may have done in the past which can forever disqualify us from God’s grace.  Churchill once said in a different context but the principle remains appropriate, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”  God definitely wants us to continue.   
In today’s reading from his epistle to the Romans, Paul is saying that with true faith we are led as a natural consequence to express our love for God.  With faith, we become slaves of righteousness rather than slaves to sin. 
Faith in God is the bright light that chases away the darkness of sin.  With true faith, our desire to serve God is not based upon a feeling of obligation or fear of punishment but rather of love.   In other words, true faith grows from within our hearts; it is not something we decide to have as a means to appease an omnipotent power watching us from above.  God is not here to catch us if we do something wrong.  He is with us as a helper so we can do something good.  True faith comes from within ourselves, it is not imposed from above. 
There is a popular notion that when we die that we approach the pearly gates and meet with St. Peter who pulls out a scroll which provides an account of all of the good deeds and misdeeds in our life.  The idea being that if we reached a certain threshold of good in excess of bad, the gates would open up for us.  If the score went the other way, well let’s just say we might get pointed to an elevator that only goes down and we won’t need to bother to bring a jacket.
But our faith tells us that the everlasting life with God that lies beyond those gates is a treasure that exceeds our ability to comprehend and that no amount of good that we could do would be a fair exchange.  We cannot earn our way into heaven, our path to this eternal life is strictly through our faith and God’s grace.
This can be puzzling to people.  They might say, “Hey that’s great, that means I don’t need to be nice to anyone. I don’t need to contribute or volunteer to church missions or charitable organizations.  All I have to do is just say that I believe in God and be done with it.”  In fact, in our second scripture reading today from Paul’s letter to the Romans, this exact question is addressed.
And Paul’s answer was, “By no means.”
By no means.  When we have faith in God we want to act as His instruments here on earth and be helpful to others.  Much like how we feel with people that we love—spouses, partners, parents, children and friends—we don’t help them because we think they will do something for us.  We help them simply because we love them.  It is not a quid pro quo.  It is not an exchange. 
Faith is a feeling of “I want to” and not a feeling of “I have too or else”.
Faith comes first and from that goodness naturally flows.
With the arrival of our new pastoral leadership that we are celebrating today, this seems to be an appropriate time for us to commit to being a source of goodness for our church.  I want to acknowledge and give thanks to the way that so many members of our congregation have stepped up and helped this church overcome challenges and move forward in the past and particularly over the last couple of years.  Because of those efforts, we are in a good place from which to grow together as a church family. 
But we cannot just sit back and wait for Pastor Cindy to do it for us.  We can’t sit back and say, “Oh good, now we can relax.  Pastor Cindy will take care of this.  By no means.  We all need to pitch in even if it puts us outside our comfort zone.  So volunteer to help out at the state fair, or agree to teach a Sunday School class or join a covenant group, or help out at Wednesday Night Live this coming year.  Look for a mission and engage.  Faith is not a passive state; it is an active catalyst.    
Paul tells us that without faith, we are slaves to sinful ways saying, “the wages of which are death”.  A life without faith can leave us untethered and drifting in no particular direction.    Faith connects us with the Pentecostal drive of the Holy Spirit which connects us with our greater purpose.  It tells us that we are playing a role in something much larger than ourselves. Faith provides meaning to life and with faith and by way of God’s grace, we will have the free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.   
Abraham had faith.  Even though he did not understand why and the task before him was exceedingly difficult, he had faith that God loved him and Abraham proceeded on the basis of that love.
Jack the mythical hiker was willing to promise to God that he would be a good person if only God would just help him out of the jam that he was in.  God brushed that offer aside and was willing to help him without extracting any such promises.  Jack simply needed to have faith in God, let go of the branch and he would have been saved.   
So that raises a question, how would Jack know that it was God telling him to let go of the branch?  How do we know when God is speaking to us?
By way of the Holy Spirit, God is instilled in each of us and there is a communication channel called prayer.  Often times we think of that as a one-way discussion where we give thanks to God for blessings or ask for His intercession to help solve problems—the communication is going from us to God. 
But it may be even more important that we engage in prayerful listening to let God provide us with guidance.  God is our own personal built-in GPS system.  We need to learn to listen and trust. But in order to tune in and hear this message, we need faith.  So what is faith?
·        Faith is not a performance to impress God or anyone else, faith is a growing, organic thing which permeates us from within.  Faith is inner peace.
·        Faith is not acting out of a fear of punishment but rather seeking to be an agent for good, to act as God’s instrument to serve others in our own unique way. Faith is purpose.
·        Faith is not about keeping score, faith is all about celebrating God’s blessings in times of joy and leaning on Him in times of distress. Faith is trust.
·        Faith is not a bargaining chip to be used in negotiating with God by saying if you God do something for me, then I will do something for you.  Faith is unconditional love.
·        Faith is not an obligation thrust upon us, faith is the path we willingly pursue towards the blessings of God’s grace.  Faith is joy.
Rev. Charles Albert Tindley was an African-American who was a prominent Methodist minister in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Rev. Tindley wrote hymns which lifted the spirits and brought joy to his congregants who were largely African Americans who had moved from the experience of slavery in the South to another form of racial discrimination as they settled in the cities of the North.  As such, Reverend Tindley’s congregants had difficult lives and could have chosen to use that as an excuse to turn away from God.  But they kept their faith; looking forward to the day when they would enjoy the everlasting peace that comes by way of faith and God’s grace.   
I want to close by reading an excerpt from one of his hymns entitled “Beams of Heaven” which captures this message of hope. 
Burdens now may crush me down, disappointments all around;
Troubles speak in mournful sigh, sorrow through a tear-stained eye.
There is a world where pleasure reigns, no mourning soul shall roam its plains,
And to that land of peace and glory
I shall want to go someday.
I do not know how long 'twill be, nor what the future holds for me,
But this I know: if Jesus leads me,
i shall get home someday.
And that is my wish for each of us.  Make the difficult choices.  Have faith in God. Love each other.  Support each other in times of trouble.  Celebrate together in times of joy.  Seek forgiveness when we stumble.  Grant forgiveness when we are wronged. Be engaged.  Embrace our faith; find our mission and do it as best we can to serve each other, our church and God.  With faith and blessed with God’s grace, we shall all get home someday!