FAITH ALWAYS WINS


 A pastor went hiking in a nearby wilderness. It was a clear day, perfect for a walk in the woods. As he followed a trail around a bend he found himself face to face with an angry brown bear.  As the startled bear reared up to seize and devour him, the pastor cried out, “Dear Lord, make this bear a Christian.”  There was a huge clap of thunder. The bear fell to its knees, clasped its paws together and prayed, “Dear Lord, in the name of Jesus I thank you for this meal which you have so generously provided for me.”

When we ask God for something, and we get what we ask for, sometimes things don’t work out the way we intended. Those are the times that test our faith and our character. That’s when we need to remember, faith always wins. This is especially true of pastors and church leaders. Good leaders pray, plan and persevere in pursuit of their goals. Well laid plans create certain expectations, and it’s a hard blow when things don’t turn out the way we hoped they would. It is a test of our faith when success brings with it unexpected challenges that threaten to devour us. It’s easy to thank God when God gives us exactly what we want. But how do we pray when answered prayers include things we don’t want, or aren’t prepared to handle? 

Successes can lull us into a sense of false security that invites us to think we are in control of our plans and the results. But new challenges can be reminders that God is in charge, and that we walk by faith and not by sight. Remember, our trust in God which served us well yesterday, is what will get us through the challenges of today because faith always wins. That doesn’t mean we always get what we pray for.     

After pouring our heart out to God about what we want, let us pray “Not my will, but thy will be done.” That humble prayer requires that we let go of our fears, trust God, and move ahead in faith. Prayer in the final analysis isn’t about getting what we want. It is primarily about aligning our lives with the will of God, and seeking the greater good that comes to those who love God. 

Who knows what good might come from the new challenges we face in faith? Faith makes all things possible.  Perhaps, if that pastor stepped out in faith to treat the bear like a Christian, maybe the bear, seeing his faith, would decide not to treat him like a meal.    


Pastor Norm   


SET FREE

SET FREE

Luke 13:10-17



Omar Bradley said, Freedom—no word ever spoken has held out greater hope, demanded greater sacrifices, needed more to be nurtured, blessed more the giver, or came to being God’s will on earth.


My message today is about the importance of our freedom in Christ. Paul said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Our gift of freedom is not for ourselves alone. We are called to advance the cause of freedom for others, not someday, but today. 


A gift I received on my 10th birthday was a “Paint By Numbers” set. It included 10 small containers, each one full of a different colored acrylic paint. It came with two different size brushes, one for broad strokes, the other for detail work. The center piece of the set was a 14”x14” pressed board canvas, stamped with the outlines of the “masterpiece” I was going to paint. It looked like a drawing of a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle, with a number in each little space.  I could make out the general outline of the picture. It was the face of a cowboy wearing a big smile and a hat. He was cheek to cheek with a horse. It was Gene Autry and Champion against a southwest desert setting. The key to the success of this whole project came in a little instruction booklet. Every color had a number. I had to carefully fill in every jigsaw shaped piece with the color that matched its number. I was enthusiastic, and went to work right away. It was fun. Then it was tedious. Then it was tiring. Finally it was boring. I don’t remember how long it took. By the time I finished it didn’t look like the masterpiece I envisioned. Somewhere along the way I lost interest. But I learned an important life lesson from this experience. Painting by numbers is easy. If you follow the directions you can paint a decent picture—but it isn’t art. Art comes from the heart and soul.  Painting by numbers is conformity to someone else’s rules to achieve someone else’s outcome. Art invites creativity and freedom of expression. Paint by numbers has no room for freedom or creativity.          


This contrast between letter and spirit informs my reading of the story of Jesus, the Stooped Over Woman and the Religious Leader. It’s a story about bondage and freedom. It illustrates the difference between a religion lived by the numbers, and the living religion of one’s heart and soul.


This is a  story about a conflict initiated by Jesus. He initiated a conflict on a holy day, in a sacred place where he was a guest, over an issue he cared deeply about. He was a visiting teacher at a synagogue expounding on scripture. Isaiah 58 may have been his text because there are several points of contact between that text and this story. It’s a prophetic judgment that says, If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil…and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  


As Jesus spoke, a woman with a severe curvature of the spine shuffled in hardly noticed. She walked as though an invisible yoke lay heavy across her neck. Over the course of 18 years her neighbors had become accustomed to her stooped posture. But, her appearance broke Jesus’ heart. He stopped in mid-sentence. He saw her need to be set free from her physical condition as more important than the protocols of tradition or liturgy. So, he called her to him, and said, “Woman, you are set free!” And she stood up straight. I can almost hear a collective gasp from the audience, and the woman’s joyous cry of relief and joy. Then they heard the authoritative voice of the presiding elder. It was stern and tinged with anger. He chided the crowd, “There are six work days when you can come here seeking to be cured. Today is not one of them. Sabbath is for rest and worship. Something wonderful just happened and his response was to characterize a good deed as something evil, and to point the finger of blame at Jesus.


Jesus replied, “It is a common practice among us to untie our donkeys and oxen on the sabbath so we can lead them to water.  How can we deny a similar act of grace to this woman?” Healing her is not trampling on the sabbath. By placing her need for relief over our personal religious traditions we are making the sabbath a day of delight, Isaiah 58:13-14.    

But the religious leader refused to be drawn into the compassion and joy of that special moment. He felt nothing but anger toward Jesus for breaking the fourth commandment. He was painting by numbers. The best he could say was, “come back tomorrow if you want to be healed.” 


But Jesus believed that today is the day of salvation and healing. No good deed that we can do for someone today should have to wait until tomorrow. Because, like that bent over woman, all of us are weighed down by the trials and challenges of life. All of us need help and healing. All of us need to be set free.
















WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE


One of the greatest speeches ever  concludes with the phrase, “With Malice Toward None, With Charity For All.” These words were spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address. People who heard it that day said the President’s  address sounded more like a sermon than a political speech. It drew heavily from scripture. It was exactly what our divided Nation needed to hear at the time. It still speaks to our deeply polarized Nation today. President Lincoln, whether he was aware of it or not, was acting as divided America’s “Pastor-in-Chief.” Lincoln’s goal was to console and heal a wounded nation suffering from a deep, self-inflicted wound. Lincoln concluded his Inaugural Address with these soaring, gracious words that transcended everyone’s expectations: “With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds,...to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” The power of his address comes from its immediate historical context.


America had been at war with itself for 4 years. Our uncivil, Civil War had cost 625,000 American lives. Nearly every town and every family on both sides lost loved ones. The losses in terms of death and destruction to our nation were devastating. The number of those killed in all of our subsequent wars is equal to the number killed in our Civil War.


At Lincoln’s 2nd Inauguration the end of the war was in sight. But Americans on the winning side were very bitter and angry. Any joy at the near prospect of victory was drowned out by a raging desire for revenge. The strong sentiment in the North was that the Secessionist Rebels must pay dearly.  The hot spirit of retribution was widespread. There was talk of treason trials and imprisonments.


The newspapers which had been very critical of Lincoln’s leadership in the early stages of the the war now praised his strong, steady leadership as it drew to a close. This would be the greatest moment of his presidency. They fully expected the President to boast about this great national triumph, and about his personal success as commander-in-chief of the victorious Union forces. 

 

But the president sounded no note of triumphalism. Not a word of self congratulation. No swagger or boasting. No personal attacks directed at his critics in the media. No dancing on the graves of the defeated dead. No demeaning or disparaging remarks about his defeated foes. He did not characterize his opponents as evil. He did not call for revenge. He did not claim that God was on his side. Instead he called on his fellow victors to walk humbly. “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”  


The president did not pretend to know God’s will, but he did speculate that on the slavery question there was plenty of blame on both sides.  Perhaps Providence prolonged this conflict “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” He concluded his address by inviting his fellow Americans to turn away from the anger of war and proceed in the post war period, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” 


Lincoln was assassinated six weeks later—shot on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. He died the next day—and many remembered these powerful words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”  Lincoln’s hope for one nation, undivided by race or region was not realized, but this appeal to forgiveness and reconciliation became an inspiration and beacon for generations of Americans ever since who have sought to transcend partisan politics.


“With malice toward none; with charity for all” sums up Lincoln’s legacy to the American people. These words defined Lincoln’s vision for a post–Civil War America.  Sadly, his words were not heeded by that generation. A great opportunity was missed. But Lincoln’s words have outlived the shortcomings of Reconstruction. His words have have endured because they embody America’s, and humanity’s highest ideals. We need to heed them now just as much as when they were first spoken. 

Lincoln’s generation fought to preserve the Union. Lincoln knew that only forgiveness and love could redeem it.   


“With Malice Toward None, With Charity Toward All” is the heart of the Gospel. These words capture the spirit of Jesus Christ and define the rule by which he lived. They are the golden rule that can make our nation great in the eyes of God. They are the words, if we heed them, that will make us a glittering city on a hill to all people everywhere.  Amen  


Pastor Norm Erlendson 

The Spirit of Holy Happiness

Acts 2:1-8, 12-21

Disney World is popularly known as the “happiest place on earth”. I have been there a few times and it is indeed a delightful place that offers a lot of fun for young and old alike. But whether visitors stay there for a weekend or a week, they might also go away thinking that Disney World is also one of the most “expensive places on earth.” Whatever happiness one finds there certainly doesn’t come cheap. However, happiness is more affordable at restaurants and bars that offer a “Happy Hour” when drinks and certain menu items are available at a discount.  But we all love happy places whether they cost us money, or save us money. We all are engaged in a search for happiness Monday through Saturday, but what about Sunday? Why aren’t churches known as the happiest places on earth? And why isn’t the Sunday morning Church service known as a Happy Hour”? Maybe church attendance across all denominations is on the decline because churches are not generally known as happy places.

In the contest for our attention and time, the contemporary church seems to be losing out. Church attendance has been on the decline for quite some time. More than half of young adults who have grown up in church-going families now identify themselves as unaffiliated with any church. Volumes have been written to explain its loss of popularity.  For one thing our social world is very different from what it was a generation ago. There are certainly a lot more things going on Sunday mornings. Churches today have a lot more competition than they once did. However, I don’t believe the problem of declining attendance and waning interest is totally due to what’s going on outside the church. The church is becoming invisible because much of what the church does happens behind closed doors, and a growing number of people see the Sunday morning worship hour as boring and irrelevant to their lives. They see it as a dreary hour, not a happy hour. Perhaps the beginning of a solution can be found in the Origin Story of the Church.


The remarkable story of the beginning of the Church on the day of Pentecost is told in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. From its first day the church was a place of celebration, so much so that a sanctuary couldn’t contain it. It all began when the apostles, and about 100 others, were gathered for Sunday morning worship. They were quietly sitting, praying and waiting for the Promised Spirit, when they heard the rushing sound of a powerful wind.  Suddenly, the wind blew open the doors of their meetinghouse. As it swirled around them they noticed to their amazement that their hair was on fire! This was the Spirit, crashing into their sedate Sunday morning meeting, rudely interrupting their order of service. 


In the grip of fear and awe, they ran into the street dancing, singing and praising God at the top of their lungs. A large, diverse and curious crowd soon gathered around. This was a crowd of men and women who were pilgrims from all over the world. They had traveled to Jerusalem to observe this High Holy Day. They asked one another, “What does all this mean?” Some thought it must be an Act of God. Others said it sounded like a drunken party. Imagine people mistaking a church service for an Octoberfest! Peter spoke up in defense of his congregation. “We are not drunk. We are not full of wine. It’s only 9 am. We are filled with the Spirit of God. This is actually the fulfillment of the promise that God will pour his Spirit on anyone and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. What you see here is what Spirit-filled people do.” 


Three thousand people responded to that invitation and were added to the church that day. The presence of the celebratory spirit of happiness is the Promise of Pentecost. When Jesus said, “I will build my church,” he intended it to be a community of the blessed, and the happiest place on earth. Jesus people are happy people. Happy people attract others because happiness is contagious. When Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” he meant that we have every reason to be happy in all circumstances. Be happy because God is for you and not against you. Be happy even when you mourn because God will comfort you. Be happy when you feel small and meek because you will inherit the earth. If a church today would flourish, it must recover Jesus’ legacy of happiness. It must embrace the spirit of Pentecost. Let’s work to make our church, the happiest place on earth. Let’s pray that the Spirit will blow open our doors and make 10 am every Sunday morning a “Happy Hour.”


Pastor Norm Erlendson