Earthbound or Heavenbound – 7/1/12

Jesus heals a woman through the touch of his garment

Sermon for Sunday, 1 July 2012

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

2 Samuel 1.1, 17, 17-27:  David leads his troops in a public lament for the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

Psalm 130:  In response to the cry of national mourning, “Out of the depth I cry to you, O Lord!”

2 Corinthians 8.7-15:  Last week, Paul placed the ball in the Corinthians’ court to restore their relationship. This week, Paul reminds the church to make good on its past promise to provide generous support for his collection for the poor in Jerusalem. At stake, says Paul, is not only their integrity, but their participation in the global body of Christ. He expects them to give all that they can so that the standard of living for Christians around the world would be more balanced.

Mark 5.21-43:  Two more illustrations of the power of the Word to bring abundance of life where no life seemed possible: the healing of a woman with an issue of blood (and so unable to sustain a pregnancy) and the raising of the daughter of Jairus who had died.

United Methodist pastor Glen Haworth told his congregation that on Memorial Day this year, his wife and he had a rare day off together, so they decided to spend part of it going out to see a movie together.  He said that they considered the film, “Think Like a Man” but decided against it, because his wife didn’t want to “think like a man,” and he didn’t want to learn how the film said men think.

He went on to say that the two of them have a running joke that’s based on the Asian character named Miss Swan that actress Alex Borstein created for MadTV.  In each skit employing Miss Swan, the dialogue was always brought around to Miss Swan having to describe a person, often for a police officer investigating a crime; and she would say, “He….(pause)….look-a like a man.”  Haworth explained that this didn’t refer in their household to “looking – literally – like a man,” as it did in the Miss Swan skits, but to “employing the searching techniques of men.”

Here, he gives an example:  “look briefly, and then yell, ‘Honey, do you know where my shoes are?’”  Haworth points out that “the whole notion of thinking or looking ‘like a man’ implies that there are other ways to think or look.”

That has actually been a running theme through the gospel readings since Pentecost Sunday – that there is what I want to call an “earthbound” perspective that can be contrasted with what I’m calling a “heavenbound” perspective; and Jesus keeps making a contrast between the two, if not directly, as in his exchange with Nicodemus regarding the distinction between being born physically and being born “from above,” then indirectly, as in today’s reading, in which the woman who had an affliction that had caused her to bleed for twelve years and had tried, literally, “every remedy known to man” to overcome her problem finally turned in faith to the One who could – and did – actually solve her problem, once and for all:  Jesus.  And Jesus, rather than taking credit for her healing, actually told her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well” – her faith!  Instead of remaining “bound to earth,” she broke loose from her tendency to seek earthly remedies for her problem and finally sought what we might call a “heavenly” remedy.  And what was that remedy?

Well, for some in the gospels, it’s bringing their friends to Jesus for him to heal them.  For others, like the blind Bartimaeus, it’s calling out to Jesus and asking for healing.  But for this particular woman, it was not even wanting to bother Jesus, but, instead, in her words, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

Now I want to ask, from where would such a thought have come?  To me, it sounds very intuitive, since, on the face of it, it makes no rational sense.  “How could touching someone’s clothes bring healing?  Doesn’t the person at least have to touch the one needing healing, or even before that, know that the person even needs to be healed?”  Prior to her reaching out to touch him, Jesus seemed not even to know the woman was there, let alone that she needed and wanted to be healed from her affliction.  It was only when he was “aware that power had gone forth from him” that he knew anything about her; and by that time, she had been healed and knew it.

So, one question for us today is this:  are we ourselves, as twenty-first century Christians who are part of Riverside United Methodist Church earthbound in our seeking solutions to our problems and to the guidance of our individual lives and our life together as the Church; or are we heavenbound, reaching out to a Christ who we know loves us, values us highly, knows better than we do what we need, and will give us what we need to be and to do what he desires us to be and do?

I have talked and written a lot – and not without justification – since last fall about the bequest our church received from Mary Spatny Milan’s trust following her death last year.  In fact, I’ve mentioned it so frequently, I’m almost getting tired of doing so.

It’s tempting to think that, because I refer to it so much, that all I care about is the money the church received and, at the same time, the greater amount of money we could actually use to fix all the things that need fixing around the church and to fund all the various ministries I’d like to see us continue and create.

I have to admit, I would like to see more people giving more money.  I’d like to be able to give more money myself.  And, if we really thought about it, each of us could do more than we are currently doing; but we’re likely to do so only if our hearts were in whatever we knew would happen with the money.  So, we’re not going to give more just to make sure the insurance and utility and office supply and staff salary and other bills are being paid.  Those are very “earthbound” concerns, however important they might be for the continuation of this church.  We’re going to give for the sake of our church reaching out to the community and to the world in ministry, caring for the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of others in ways that will transform their lives from being earthbound to being bound to and for heaven.

When I mention Mary Milan’s provision for our church in her trust agreement, instead of focusing on the money she gave – as grateful as we all are for that – I want to focus on the vision that caused her to give it.  Like the woman with the flow of blood – or Jairus and his wife, who came to Jesus to heal their sick daughter – in giving that money to our church, Mary had a vision for what this church might be able to do, what lives this church might be able to change, as a result of her gift.

Now, I don’t actually know what was in Mary’s heart and mind when she made provision for this church as she did.  But I believe that whatever was in her mind was placed there by the God who loves this church more than any of us does, and who has more resources for us to carry out our ministry than any of us could possibly supply; just like God has more than any of us needs to live the life God wants – and created – us to live.

So our final question for today is, will we continue on as Christians and as Riverside UMC being earthbound, or being heavenbound?  Let us boldly choose to be the latter!  Amen.

The Power to Overcome – 6/24/12

Jesus calms a storm

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

1 Samuel 17.1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49:  The shepherd, David, uses the tools of his trade and the power of the Lord to defeat the giant warrior, Goliath.  “The Lord does not save by sword and spear” (verse 47).

Psalm 9.11-20:  The psalm celebrates God’s defense of those who are afflicted by catching the offenders in the traps they have made.

2 Corinthians 6.1-13:  Tension abounds.  Paul argues that his suffering for the sake of the gospel provides all the credentials he needs for the Corinthians to listen to him.  The ball is in their court now.

Mark 4.35-41:  Jesus treats a storm the same way he treats demons.  He rebukes it, and tells it to shut up.  Then Jesus rebukes the disciples for their fear — not just of the storm, but of what Jesus did to end it.

David and Goliath: The Law of Tooth and Claw
The Israelis and Arabs realized that, if they continued fighting, they would someday end up destroying the whole world. So they decided to settle their dispute with an ancient practice: a duel of two, like David and Goliath. This “duel” would be a dog fight. The negotiators agreed each side would take five years to develop the best fighting dog they could. The dog that won the fight would earn its people the right to rule the disputed areas. The losing side would have to lay down its arms for good.

The Arabs found the biggest, meanest Dobermans and Rottweilers in the world. They bred them together and then crossed their offspring with the meanest Siberian wolves. They selected only the biggest, strongest puppy of each litter, fed it the best food and killed all the other puppies. They used steroids and trainers in their quest for the perfect killing machine. After the five years were up, they had a dog that needed steel prison bars on its cage. Only expert trainers could handle this incredibly nasty and ferocious beast.

When the day of the big dog-fight finally arrived, the Israelis showed up with a very strange-looking animal, a Dachshund that was ten feet long! Everyone at the dogfight arena felt sorry for the Israelis. No one there seriously thought this weird, odd-looking animal stood any chance against the growling beast over in the Arab camp. All the bookies took one look and predicted that the Arab dog would win in less than a minute.

As the cages were opened, the Dachshund slowly waddled toward the center of the ring. The Arab dog leaped from its cage and charged the giant wiener-dog. As he got to within an inch of the Israeli dog, the Dachshund opened its jaws and swallowed the Arab beast whole in one bite. There was nothing left but a small puff of fur from the Arab killer dog’s tail floating to the ground.

The stunned crowd of international observers, bookies and media personnel let out a collective gasp of disbelief and surprise.

The Arabs approached the Israelis, muttering and shaking their heads in disbelief. “We do not understand,” said their leader, “Our top scientists and breeders worked for five long years with the meanest, biggest Dobermans, Rottweilers and Siberian wolves and they developed an incredible killing machine of a dog!”

The Israelis replied. “Well, for five years, we have had a team of Jewish plastic surgeons from Boca Raton working to make an alligator look like a Dachshund.”

This story, along with the story of David and Goliath, the story of Jesus calming the raging storm, and the Apostle Paul justifying his ministry in the apparent face of criticism by some Corinthians due to his background and things that had happened to him on account of his ministry, speaks of two different ways of addressing a challenge. On the one hand are those who believe that a challenge is best avoided, especially if it is judged that there is no way to win; and on the other hand are those who believe that one must answer force with force; but in the case of these stories, the “force” used by those who employ the power of God looks differently from that used by their opponents. The wily Jews modify an animal that no dog, however ferocious and powerful, could likely overcome. Little David with his stones faces gigantic, armored Goliath. The very human Jesus faces the full force of the storm and of the disciples disbelief and fears. And Paul challenges the many who think him less a representative of the living God and Christ the Savior than many others with better credentials.

One of the major points of these stories is something that Paul, in discussing God’s using the cross – an instrument of Roman oppression and reign of terror – as a means of salvation for all humanity, refers to as the “foolishness of God” that is “wiser than human wisdom” and the “weakness of God” that is “stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1.25). Those who rely on human perceptions and power, we are told, will forever be at the mercy of their own limitations; but those who trust God both for the divine vision of how God desires things to be and for the wherewithal to bring that vision into reality will always succeed, even in the face of what some may believe to be overwhelming odds.

David, Jesus and Paul had figured out that their taking responsibility for doing their divinely ordained part in bringing God’s purposes to fruition was essential to the accomplishment of the task at hand. Had they reneged, the Philistines would have won, Jesus never would have been born, nor would Paul, and history would have taken a completely different course. None of us would even be here, let alone be Christian or worshiping in this place at this time, had these men not done what God was calling them to do.

What will people a hundred or a thousand years in the future be doing on account of how we respond – or don’t respond – to God’s call to us to be a light pointing the way to Christ in our community, to be salt that preserves what is good and enhances the goodness that life brings by adding its own goodness to what exists?

It is a good thing that we are taking care of neglected maintenance on and around the church, that people are making the church and grounds attractive, that we are doing what we can to fund the church’s ministries. At the same time, we need continually to ask ourselves: what challenges are we fearful of facing, because our minds are earthbound, and, like the disciples, we believe someone else must step in to rebuke the wind and waves, to slay the goliaths, to spread God’s word, because we are inadequate to do so? God has called us to be faithful Davids and Pauls and disciples of Jesus the Christ, to step out in faith to address those challenges without fear, trusting that God will provide the wherewithal to overcome them.

May we not be pre-Pentecost disciples who fearfully cling to the tossing boat but, through the Spirit of Christ given at Pentecost, command the wind and the waves to cease and accomplish God’s purpose in our midst.

God Draws Us – 6/3/12

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

Isaiah 6.1-8:  The temple furnishings come suddenly alive for Isaiah as he experiences the realities behind the symbols, living cherubim ascribing triple holiness to “Lord God of Hosts.” In that encounter, he hears himself claimed and called by the Holy, Holy, Holy One.

Psalm 29:  In a polytheistic world, this Hebrew temple song proclaimed that YHWH rules over all other gods in the heavens and on earth.

Romans 8.12-17:  If we have received the Spirit of God, we can and should live from the power of the Spirit, even — and especially — in the face of suffering.

John 3.1-17:  Jesus uses two different metaphors to help Nicodemus understand life in the kingdom of God — being born again by the Spirit and the story of the serpent in the wilderness.

Mutual Attraction

In the middle of an argument a man said to his wife, “I don’t know how you can be so stupid and so beautiful all at the same time!”

The wife responded calmly, “Allow me to explain:  the good Lord made me beautiful so you’d be attracted to me, and he made me stupid so I’d be attracted to you.”

Stepping on Ducks

Three women die together in an accident and go to heaven.

When they get there, St. Peter says, ‘We only have one rule here in heaven, ‘Don’t step on the ducks!’

So they enter heaven, and sure enough, there are ducks all over the place. It is almost impossible not to step on a duck, and although they try their best to avoid them, the first woman accidentally steps on one.

Along comes St. Peter with the ugliest man she ever saw. St. Peter chains them together and says, ‘Your punishment for stepping on a duck is to spend eternity chained to this ugly man.’

The next day, the second woman steps accidentally on a duck and along comes St. Peter, who doesn’t miss a thing. With him is another extremely ugly man. He chains them together with the same admonishment as for the first woman.

The third woman has observed all this and, not wanting to be chained for all eternity to an ugly man, is very, VERY careful where she steps.

She manages to go months without stepping on any ducks, but one day St. Peter comes up to her with the most handsome man she has ever laid eyes on….very tall, long eyelashes, muscular.

St. Peter chains them together without saying a word.

The happy woman says, ‘I wonder what I did to deserve being chained to you for all of eternity?’

The guy says, ‘I don’t know about you, but I stepped on a duck.’


Each of these little stories deals with relationships in which one or both persons seems to be ‘stuck’ with the other.  The husband calls his wife ‘stupid’ – though also beautiful – and the wife, in return, intimates that her husband is shallow and attractive only to someone of low intelligence.

The second story is kind of odd in that it seems incongruous to have any kind of punishment meted out in heaven, especially for things that one has to wait to get to heaven to do.  Apart from that, it intimates that the first two women who stepped on ducks were attractive and were linked with ugly men; whereas the third woman – the most careful of the three – was the ugly woman with whom the handsome man was forced to be linked.

I chose these two stories in order to invite you to consider what it is like for Jesus to be linked with us and others like us as our Savior.  If he were anything like one of the characters in our story, he would ask God, “What did I do to deserve being yoked with these folks for eternity?”

And yet, as we know, Jesus never asked anything of the kind – nor would he.  Instead, as he suggested to Nicodemus in the famous visit that Pharisee made under cover of darkness, he knew that he had been sent by God to save the world – that is, us – from itself/ourselves.

He made reference to this Son of Man figure in his conversation with Nicodemus, saying that “the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”  But later, he was more direct in referring to himself, telling the people gathered around him, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

How is it, we might ask, that Jesus is “lifted up from the earth”?  Well, we could come up with several answers.  First, we might say that he was lifted up on a Roman cross to keep him from spearheading a revolt against the powers that be of the day.  Then, he was lifted up from the grave and seen and heard and touched by hundreds of disciples for over a month prior to his going to heaven himself.  Third, he was lifted up into heaven prior to the Jewish harvest festival known as Pentecost.  Fourth, he was ‘lifted up’ verbally by Peter and the other disciples on and after the day of Pentecost, as they told whoever would listen about God’s working through Jesus to fulfill God’s plan to make all things right in the world, as God intended at Creation.  And further, we might say that Jesus has been lifted up throughout history since that in the faithfulness of the Church, the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that have shown love of God and neighbor.

And it is here that we come in.  We, too, are to be part of that cloud of witnesses who lift Jesus up, so that the world – whether that part of the world around us here in Riverside and the other communities in which we live and work and shop and socialize – or the part of the world we may never see and yet that will feel the effects of our witness through our gifts to Peace with Justice Sunday or our regular apportioned giving or our gifts to Young Life for their summer retreat or our personal missions to far-off places – will be drawn to Jesus Christ along with us.

Yet we cannot draw anyone to someone to whom we ourselves have not already been drawn.  What has Jesus done, or is he doing, or could he do, to draw us to himself?  Well, he has drawn you who are here to worship today, and draws many of you regularly to worship, so that you might hear a message from him and proclaim your devotion to him as he calls you into service.  He helps me to lift him up in the messages I give.  He also offers himself to us in the elements of Holy Communion, so that, if all else fails, his direct communication to us through the bread and the fruit of the vine will seek to break down any barriers that may remain between us and him.

He calls us, too, to invite others to worship, whether they are long-time members who have been absent for a while or new residents of our communities.  Whoever and in whatever ways we lift up Christ, let us do so with joy, knowing that we are linked with him for eternity.

Uncovering the Truth – 6/10/12

Revelation by Walfrido Garcia

Sermon for Second Sunday after Pentecost

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

1 Samuel 8.4-11:  The elders of the people ask Samuel to appoint a king over them so they will be like the other nations.

Psalm 138:  The psalm praises God as source of life and protection for the people.

2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1:  We pick up in the middle of Paul’s extended argument for the validity of his claim to authority among the Christians in Corinth. Here, Paul notes that the kind of suffering and physical challenges he faces are signs precisely of the death of Christ at work in him, that the life of Christ may be made known to them.

Mark 3.20-35:  Jesus’ power has become so great (and wild!) that some begin to accuse him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Even his family comes to try to restrain him. Jesus names blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the only unforgivable sin, and those who do the will of the Father as his mother, brothers, and sisters.

Missing the Obvious
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: ‘Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you see.’
Watson replied: ‘I see millions and millions of stars.’
Holmes said: ‘And what do you deduce from that?’
Watson replied: ‘Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like earth out there. And if there are a few planets like earth out there, there might also be life.’
And Holmes said: ‘Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.’

The story reminds us that what we see depends on that on which we focus.

Though Watson knew that Holmes was not one to make idle conversation, especially not conversation that would call on Watson to suggest things Holmes himself could deduce, he nevertheless responded to Holmes’ question as though being given the opportunity to show his erudition. In doing so, he missed the obviousness of the crime that had been committed, prompting Holmes’ rebuke and his labeling Watson as an “idiot.”

I think the term “idiot” could have been in at least the backs of Samuel’s and Paul’s and Jesus’ minds when they were in the situations to which today’s scriptures refer. In conveying to the Israelites what would be the consequences of their having a king, Samuel might have said, “You idiots! Don’t you know that a king will only oppress you and not give you commensurate benefits in return?” Paul might have said, “You idiots in Corinth! Do you think because I have experienced such resistance and abuse at the hands of my opponents that such rejection marks my mission as a failure and my message as a falsehood?” And Jesus might have said, “You idiot scribes – and even some of my own blood relations! Do you think what I am doing demonstrates a mental derangement or that I am in league with God’s enemies?”

Clearly, doing God’s work is not always a matter of showing unconditional love to others and getting an invariably positive response. Sometimes being faithful to God brings rejection from those whose power or prestige is threatened by it, and they do their best to thwart the purposes of the faithful, even to the point of suggesting that their opponents are in league with Satan, as Jesus opponents do in today’s gospel reading.

During the past four days the nearly 400 churches of our Northern Illinois Conference have met for our annual meeting in St. Charles, Illinois, to discuss the business of our Conference, to worship, to fellowship, and to consider the budget we need collectively to do what we believe God is calling us to do as a group in concert with what God is calling each of our churches to do in our own locales.

Because I had attended a Unity Banquet in May that was sponsored by our Conference in concert with the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago at a mosque in Villa Park, and had sought after that to find ways in which we United Methodists could openly provide support and encouragement to our Muslim sisters and brothers, I had decided to wear a kufi cap – which I am wearing now – which is a prayer cap worn by many Muslim men. It roughly corresponds to the hijab worn by many Muslim women as well as to the yarmulke worn by many Jewish men at the time of religious festivals of the Jewish faith.

A number of people approached me to ask why I was wearing the cap, and I was happy to explain it to them. On the last day at Conference, in response to my request, Bishop Jung allowed me to explain my wearing of the kufi cap to the entire body gathered there. In doing so, I said the following:

“Thus, by my wearing this kufi cap, I wanted to bear witness during these sessions to the support many United Methodists in our Northern Illinois Conference have shown our Muslim sisters and brothers over the years, and to encourage others to find occasions on which to do so in either this or other ways.”

And then I added, “There is too much ignorance of Islam and there are too many unfounded fears of Muslims in our country to take lightly the ongoing efforts of some – including fellow Christians – to stereotype and malign those in our nation who practice Islam. If we do not take responsibility to address the bearing of false witness against our Muslim neighbors, then we are no better than those who are actively seeking to erect barriers to their full and joyful inclusion in this grand social experiment called the United States of America. Not only that, but we are failing to bear witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, who says to us, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

Now, fortunately, I was not subjected to ridicule or rejection by my fellow United Methodists – at least, not to my face or within my hearing. Those who attend Annual Conference are typically accustomed at least to showing tolerance for differences, if not support for the difference shown. However, were I to continue routinely to wear this kufi cap in public around Riverside and environs – as I go to Tony’s and Ultra Foods and Riverside Foods to shop, or into the First American Bank to deposit our receipts, or interacting with Village officials or neighbors or visitors to our church, I wonder if the reactions of others to me and to our church would be similarly positive? Something tells me they wouldn’t. Those who hold prejudice against Muslims might label me – and our church – as troublemakers, even, perhaps, like the scribes about Jesus, saying I or we are in league with Satan.

And yet, we cannot let the opinions of others who, like Watson, miss the obvious wrongdoing, shape our behavior. Like Samuel, and Paul, and Jesus, and the faithful through the ages, we must follow the call of God to make God’s reign more evident in the world. Our lives, inevitably limited, are of the greatest value only when we are using them to God’s glory and for God’s purposes. Anything less is a waste of a good life.

As Christ gives himself to us once more in the act of Holy Communion, let us rededicate ourselves to showing the faithfulness to God that these three heroes of the faith showed when they were among us in the flesh.

Mutual Love – 5/6/12

Jesus Calls Disciples - St. Paul's Window

Sermon for Sunday, 6 May 2012

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

Acts 8.26-40:  An angel sends Philip, deacon and evangelist, to “hop on board” the chariot of an Ethiopian official puzzling over the meaning of Isaiah 53. Philip re-reads it through the story of the life, execution, and resurrection of Jesus. The man is baptized and will become a “road evangelist” in his own right.

Psalm 22.25-31:  The “turnaround” verses of this psalm of profound lament were chosen as the response to the first lesson because of verse 27: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.”

1 John 4.7-21:  The deep heartbeat of life in the Risen Lord — Abide in love; abide in the Spirit given to all who confess Jesus as Son of God; abide in God and you will above in love; love one another.

John 15.1-8:  Abide in Christ, the true vine, and you will bear much fruit, and even more as the Father prunes you. Bear no fruit, because you are not abiding in Christ, and you may expect to be cut off and cast away. The Father’s will isn’t to cast you away, but that you abide in Christ and bear much fruit.


A man who was planning to marry noticed that his future inlaws, who had been married for thirty years, invariably showed love and respect to each other and seemed never to quarrel.  So one day he went to his fiancee’s father and asked him to share the secret of their success.  The father told him, “When I was about to marry my wife, my father told me, ‘Do not criticize the shortcomings of your wife or blame her when she does something wrong.  She has shortcomings, and sometimes she will do things wrong; and those are a part of the reason she did not find a better husband than you’.”


I called that story “Humility”, because it seemed to me that the future father-in-law was encouraging his daughter’s future husband to adopt an attitude of humility in his relations with her as the primary means of maintaining a healthy relationship.  I want to note that humility as not the same thing as self-deprecation.  Humility says, “If she is imperfect, so am I; so I need to treat her as I would want her to treat me in relation to my imperfections, which is with kindness.”  Self-deprecation, on the other hand, says, “She is superior to me, so what I think of as her imperfection is just a magnification of something wrong with me; so I need to shut up and just do what she tells me.”

As I was looking for my opening story for today, I found a site that included many brief reflections on this subject of love and mutuality that I thought would be beneficial to share with you; and I wanted to do so in light of what John wrote the early church that we heard in today’s epistle lesson from First John chapter 4.

John juxtaposes the love of brother and sister with the love of God and says that they are intertwined.  This seems to echo Jesus’ earlier linking of two commandments from the Hebrew scriptures as being the greatest commandments:  Love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  So, I wanted to consider the nuggets of wisdom I found from the perspective of our love of God, and God’s of us, as a way of helping us see John’s and Jesus’ call to love our neighbor in a different light, hoping it will help us do that more frequently and faithfully.

Actor Peter Ustinov, for example, is quoted as saying, “Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.”  This one, it seemed to me, is very much akin to the advice we heard in the opening story.  But what if we apply it to our relationship with God?

On the one hand, it reminds us that the God we know in Jesus Christ is a God who continually forgives us.  We are reminded of that not only in various scriptures, but also when we receive Holy Communion.  Communion, above all, is a sacrament of forgiveness, in addition to making new life possible.

But what about our forgiveness of God?  Most people don’t think of the fact that we, as lowly human beings, might hold grudges against God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer; but, in fact, we often do more than we realize.  We might blame God for not having put us into better circumstances during our years of growing up, or for not helping us get the job or marriage partner we were after, or for not making us more attractive or for making us gay or for causing us to be someone we would rather not be or keeping us from doing things we wish, in retrospect, we had not done.  It’s my judgment that one of my friends still holds a grudge against God for cutting short his marriage that he considers to be one of the best the world has ever seen through the death of his wife when they were both in their mid-50s; but he doesn’t realize that his anger is with God, so he has no way to process it to come to a place of acceptance and joy.  His grudge actually keeps him from experiencing God’s love, from loving God fully in return, and, consequently, from loving anyone else in his life.

American author Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “Love doesn’t sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread:  remade all of the time, made new.”  When we reflect on this in light of our relationship with God, it helps remind us that God never rests.  God is always working for our good and is creative in the ways God reaches out to us to help us know that love.

One way we Christians recognize God reaches out to us is through encouraging us to gather in worship as we do here weekly and to listen to stories of God’s love and of the love of others for God.  God appeals to our intellect through texts – scripture, prayers, sermons, invitations to service in Christ’s name – and to our senses through music, the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, the beauty of our sanctuary, and the kindness of our sisters and brothers in Christ.

Le Guin’s comment, on the other hand, challenges us to continue to be active and creative in the ways we show our love for God.  How frequently do we worship, whether we are here in town or away?  How many times a day do we give God thanks for our lives and the good things that come to us, or call on God for help and ask God to make something good out of what might otherwise be a bad situation – and then thank God for the result?

The late saint Mother Teresa wrote, “A joyful heart is the inevitable result of a heart burning with love.”  What this reminds us is that God’s heart burns with love for us.  Like the father in the opening story, God knows we’re not perfect; yet God loves us for simply being part of God’s creation as well as for the possibilities we offer of extending God’s love to the rest of the world.

Thus, we, too, are called to develop a heart that burns with love for God – that seeks to embody all the things God desires to do in and through and for us, and to be the loving persons to others that God is and desires us to be as well.

May our hearts burn with love for God and show it to be so through our love for one another.  Amen.


Learning by Example – 4/29/12

Jesus, the Good Shepherd

Sermon for Sunday, 29 April 2012

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

Acts 4.5-12: The leaders who had Peter arrested for healing the lame man and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus demand by what authority he acted. Peter boldly proclaimed it was by the power and name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and that all salvation there is comes through him.

Psalm 23: A familiar psalm expressing complete confidence in the love and power of God in facing all the situations of life.

1 John 3.16-24: By the authority and power of the Risen Christ, we are led to love not in words only, but also in truth and in action.

John 10.11-18: The authority of the Risen Lord, the Good Shepherd over his flock, comes from knowing his sheep by name, caring for them, and laying down his own life to protect them. Jesus also notes his “flock” includes people not in “this fold,” and he extends the same mission and care to them.

As the Twig Is Bent – found on 28 Apr 2012
A father found his small son looking very unhappy.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
The son replied, “I can’t get along with your wife.”

Though the website on which I found this little story didn’t give it a name, I’ve titled it “As the Twig Is Bent.” In his 16th century text, “A Clarification of the French Language,” English linguist John Palsgrave wrote, “A man may bende a wande while it is grene and make it straight though it be neuer so croked.” In the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote to one of his correspondents, “’Tis Education forms the common mind, Just as the Twig is bent, the Tree’s inclined.” And in Proverbs 22.6 we read, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.”

However true all these observations are, they seem to focus primarily on the cognitive process of learning – teaching children something that the children will remember and process and follow as a rule to guide them through the remainder of their lives. And though when we hear these things, we all know that children break rules – in fact, at some point in our lives we’ve probably all said, “Rules were made to be broken,” though some of us have an easier time breaking rules than others – and that the rules by which we choose to live can – and usually do – change over time, either because we change them, or they are changed for us. But essentially we all know the truth of the adage, because we’ve seen it at work in our own lives and in the lives of others around us – as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

And while it is true that the rules learned early in life do serve to guide us and others throughout our lives, it is even truer that the examples we are given by others are actually more powerful influences on us than are the rules we learn. In a very real sense, the rules set by example have a greater hold on us than do the rules we learn by rote and repeat over and over again to ourselves and others.

The truth of this concept is a major part of the reason the frequency of divorce has increased over the decades of the 20th and 21st centuries and the reason fewer people have chosen to marry, even when a child or children result from the relationship. It’s a major element in the fact that we see wars and other conflicts continuously being waged in various parts of the world and so infrequently see a peaceful resolution of problems. That is, the people who have set the patterns of our common life have given us more examples of conflict and of addressing disagreements in a conflictual manner than they have of peaceableness and of coming to agreements that are satisfying to all parties.

Why is this the case? Part of it is because of the way we are “wired.” Psychologist Carl Jung noted from his studies of the human psyche and human behavior that, because as children we do not carefully distinguish ourselves from our environment but, instead, see it all of a piece with ourselves, that education by example is powerful in its formative effects on us, as we absorb it without questioning whether it is beneficial or harmful.

In the more lucid and self-aware moments of our later years we know this. How many of us have said at some point something like this: “That’s my mom (or dad) talking,” or “That’s the parent coming out in me,” or even “Oh, no! I’ve turned into my mother!”? It isn’t as though we have willingly become like one or the other of our parents – or grandparents or whoever it is who nurtured us; it is that they established the patterns in us by their example, and we unconsciously adopted them and are even unable to see, let alone to question, them until we have attained a certain level of maturity and autonomy that allows us to differentiate ourselves from our environment. Some people live their lives so enmeshed in their environments that they never question their behavior patterns and are therefore unable – and, most likely, unwilling – to change them, no matter how dysfunctional and sinful others might judge them to be.

In 1925 Carl Jung wrote, “In the last analysis, all education rests on this fundamental fact of psychic identity, and in all cases the deciding factor is this seemingly automatic contagion through example [my emphasis]. This is so important that even the best methods of conscious education can sometimes be completely nullified by bad example.”

And Jung and his sometime-teacher, Sigmund Freud, suggested that this process involves what they termed “identification,” that is, the psychological process whereby a person internalizes traits, attitudes, and behavioral patterns of another person whom the person consciously or unconsciously wishes to emulate.

So, if we want to emulate those who have successful marriages, for instance, we will not only ask them for the rules they followed in their relationship – though those can be helpful – but we will try to develop our relationship in ways that reflect the ways they relate, changing the rules we follow in order to achieve the quality of relationship we see.

If we as a nation want to resolve conflicts without waging war, we will emulate the practices – however rare they may be in history – through which other nations achieved that end.

Currently delegates of United Methodism from around the world are meeting in Tampa, Florida in our quadrennial General Conference, during which they review and establish a plan for the denomination for the next four years. Every four years since 1972, we have wrestled over the issue of the church’s view of same-sex relationships and the involvement of LGBT persons in the church. In our country, Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and UCCs have lessened, if not eliminated, the conflict in their denominations over these issues, but we haven’t. The question for us is, is this the year in which we will follow their example, or will we continue to follow our rules that keep us conflicted? We’ll see what has happened when the Conference ends next Friday.

Part of the reason I have continued our observance of the weekly Eucharist – Holy Communion – is that, while I believe scripture reading and preaching are important and essential to our spiritual formation, I believe Christ is present to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist in ways that form us beyond the spoken word. As we receive these elements that we set apart as Christ’s body and his blood, as we see and touch and taste and smell those things that make Christ present to us in a more physical sense than simply reading and listening, let us also allow that presence to form us more fully into his image and likeness, so that, overcoming the effects of our having been mis-bent through the inadequate examples we were given in earlier years, we may be re-formed even more fully than before into Christ’s image and give him praise and glory through the ways in which we reveal him to all whom we encounter, or all to whom we reach out in acts of love and mercy.


The Look and Feel of Forgiveness – 4/22/2012

Risen Christ Shows His Wounds

Sermon for Sunday, 22 April 2012

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

Acts 3.12-19: After a lame beggar is cured by the power of the Risen Lord through Peter and John, Peter invites the wondering crowd to repent and follow Jesus. Five thousand of them do!

Psalm 4: Thanks to God for vindication and rebuke/teaching to those who criticize or disgrace.

1 John 3.1-7: We are God’s children now as we abide in Jesus. Abiding in Jesus enables us to live more and more without sin. Repentance is no one-time act, but a lifelong commitment to abide in Jesus. That is why we continue to purify ourselves, that we may be like him when he appears.

Luke 24.36b-48: After his appearance to two dispirited disciples heading toward Emmaus, Jesus tells the rest of those gathered at another meal to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name.

The Final Fixing of the Foolish Fugitive
Feeling footloose, fancy-free and frisky, this feather-brained fellow finagled his fond father into forking over his fortune. Forthwith, he fled for foreign fields and frittered his farthings feasting fabulously with fair-weather friends. Finally, fleeced by those folly filled fellows and facing famine, he found himself a feed flinger in a filthy farm-lot. He fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from fodder fragments.
“Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare far fancier,” the frazzled fugitive fumed feverishly, frankly facing fact. Frustrated from failure and filled with forebodings, he fled for his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he floundered forlornly. “Father, I have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited further family favors…”
But the faithful father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged his flunkies to fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a feast.
But the fugitive’s fault finding frater, faithfully farming his father’s fields for free, frowned at this fickle forgiveness of former falderal. His fury flashed, but fussing was futile.
His foresighted father figured, “Such filial fidelity is fine, but what forbids fervent festivities? The fugitive is found! Unfurl the flags! With fanfare flaring, let fun, frolic and frivolity flow freely, former failures forgotten and folly forsaken. Forgiveness forms a firm foundation for future fortitude.”
(Originally composed by Rev. W. O. Taylor, quoted in More Holy Humor, Cal and Rose Samra, Thomas Nelson Publishers, ISBN 0-7852-7156-2, modified by Robert Woodman. Feel free to publish this but leave the copyright information in place. source:

Last week we heard about the dysfunctional first family – Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel – that was characterized by self-centeredness and separation; and how the life of the early church as presented in the Acts of the Apostles reversed that dysfunction, so that no one considered anything to belong to themselves alone, but all was given to the apostles to distribute as any had need, and there was great fellowship among them all as they learned and, in the process, became part of God’s New Creation.

This week we hear about another dysfunctional family – that of the father whose younger son we call The Prodigal and whose older son is faithful to carry on the work of his father and, at the same time, is prideful over it and resentful of his father’s actions towards his returning younger brother.

It was fortuitous that I found this humorous setting of the story of the so-called prodigal son, because it illustrates in a way similar to that in which the gospel story from Luke also does the generosity of God as demonstrated in forgiveness. The story of the prodigal son does so in fairly succinct fashion; the story as presented in Luke in only partial fashion, requiring a recap of some of what went on before it.

A key element in both stories is the eating of food.

In the story of the prodigal son, the father is so happy that his younger son had returned, that he calls for the killing of a prize animal that was being raised for a special occasion – perhaps the wedding of the older son; we don’t know – so that the whole household could rejoice in the younger son’s return after having been thought “lost” in some sense – certainly lost to the father’s affections.

There is a similar dynamic at work in the story of Jesus and the disciples in Luke. Here, though, rather than it being the son who goes away and returns and the father who remains, it is Jesus – the god-figure in the gospel story – who goes away and the disciples who remain.

What does this tell us?

It gives us, as the sermon title suggests, the look and feel of forgiveness that is unexpected. In the story of the prodigal son, it seems the younger son must “come to his senses” and realize the error of his ways; and that somehow that qualifies him to be welcomed back into the family. We can understand that. You “repent” of the wrong you have done; come humbly to ask for forgiveness; and the gracious recipient of the genuine apology grants the forgiveness we seek. It seems to work, and it resonates with our life experience; so we accept it with some ease, though there may be a bit of the older brother in us, holding us back. We may want to keep reminding our father and our brother of our own sacrificial and faithful life, even after the celebratory feast is finished.

In the gospel story, though, it is the disciples who know they’ve done wrong in abandoning Jesus in his time of need, even after they had followed Peter in claiming that they would stick with him even if it meant their own deaths. Jesus had known better. He had known they would all betray and/or leave him in the end to face the trial and death alone. Even though his mother and the other women stuck with him, he knew they could do nothing to stop what was happening.

In such a situation, it would be natural for the discouraged disciples who had seen their leader killed in such an infamous way to disband and go to their respective homes, realizing that the Powers That Be were always going to be more powerful than the alleged power of the God of Israel, the God of their ancestors. So, when the risen Jesus came into their midst, they were dumbfounded. They didn’t believe it! That’s part of the reason he asked for something to eat and then ate it in front of them: to prove that he had indeed been raised, and that he wasn’t just a disembodied apparition.

But the other reason he asked for something to eat was that he wanted to convey to them that he forgave them their abandonment of him, their doubting, their disbelief, their discouragement, their links to the things of this world, their expectations that things would never change. And he wanted to proclaim, through sharing their simple meal, which is a powerful act of fellowship in Middle Eastern culture, that God’s forgiveness will persist until lives are changed, and that nothing can overcome the power of that forgiveness.

As we share in the Lord’s Supper today, let us see and feel and taste the forgiveness of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ for all our weakness and failings. Amen.

Restoring Eden – 4/15/2012

Christ in Glory

Peace Window - Canterbury Cathedral

Sermon for Sunday, 15 April 2012, Second Sunday of Easter

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

Acts 4.32-35:  Christians living in Jerusalem show clear signs of the Risen Christ among them by sharing all things, bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus, and caring for all who are in need.

Psalm 133:  A meditative psalm that celebrates the unity of those who share spiritual life together. Though the psalm was originally designed to celebrate the unity of a group of pilgrims heading toward the temple in Jerusalem, it quickly came to be used to express the unity of the whole people of God around the earth.

1 John 1.1—2.2:  More signs of the presence of the risen Lord in our midst: honest confession, assurance of God’s forgiveness, and lives where sin’s power is being overcome.

John 20.19-31:  To help Thomas believe, Jesus showed Thomas the scars in his hands and side and invited Thomas to touch them.

Original Dysfunction

Whenever your kids are out of control, you can take comfort from the thought that even God’s omnipotence did not extend to God’s kids. After creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve. And the first thing he said was, “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” Adam replied.
“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit,” God said.
“Forbidden fruit? We got forbidden fruit? Hey, Eve…we got forbidden fruit!”
“No way!” said Eve.
“Way!” replied Adam.
“Don’t eat that fruit!” said God.
“Why?” they asked.
“Because I am your Father, and I said so!” said God (wondering why he hadn’t stopped after making the elephants). A few minutes later God saw his kids having an apple break and was angry.
“Didn’t I tell you not to eat the fruit?” God asked.
“Uh huh,” Adam replied.
“Then why did you?”
“I dunno,” Eve answered.
“She started it!” Adam said.
“Did not!” Eve retorted.
“Did too!”
Having had it with the two of them, God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own. Thus the pattern was set, and it has never changed. If God had trouble handling children, what makes you think it would be a piece of cake for anyone else who has them?

Well, as we know, the dysfunction of the First Family didn’t stop with eating the forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve had two sons early in their life together – Cain and Abel. Cain ended up killing his brother and then trying to cover up the deed by lying to God about it. Though God had already banished Cain’s parents from Eden, God banished Cain even further away, to the land east of Eden. (That term, and the story of the dysfunctional family, lie at the heart of John Steinbeck’s novel by that name, which was made into a film directed by Elia Kazan in which James Dean made his debut in 1955.)

The family that is the focus of Steinbeck’s treatment of the story combines several biblical families in its outworking of the story of sin and redemption – not only that of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, but also that of Rahab the prostitute and of Isaac and Jacob. At the root of Steinbeck’s story is the concept presented in the Second Commandment, that the sins of the elders are visited upon their children to the third and fourth generations; that is, the dysfunctional family produces dysfunctional kids, whose just punishment comes on account of their own misdeeds rather than those of their parents; and yet the pattern of behavior that leads them to commit those punishable deeds is inherent in their upbringing.

Steinbeck, however, provides what I like to call a “Christ-figure” – that is, one who gains insight into his or her situation and intentionally changes the pattern, sometimes at great cost to him- or herself. For me, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars was such a character, as is Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings, or Sister Mary Prejean in Dead Man Walking. In Steinbeck’s novel, it’s Caleb, or “Cal,” whose mother, Cathy, was a prostitute and whose father, Adam, favored Cal’s twin brother, Aron, over Cal. Cal and Aron, by the way, had actually been sired by Adam’s hateful brother Charles, when Cathy went to bed with him to spite her husband Adam; and she gave birth to the twins only after having been unsuccessful in her attempt to abort the pregnancy. Though he commits his own misdeeds in the story, after being mentored by his father’s housekeeper Lee, Cal attempts to right various wrongs and, in the end, succeeds in receiving his father Adam’s blessing.

In the story from Acts, we see that the Holy Spirit’s power working through the disciples had so transformed the people who had responded positively to it and had become part of the church that worshipped and fellowshipped together and listened to the teaching of the apostles about Jesus, the Christ, and the way God intended to save the Creation, that the people were inspired to, as the story says, consider nothing as belonging to themselves alone, but holding everything in common, giving to each as he or she had need – what amounts, in a very real sense, to a reversal of the dynamic that got Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden, and Cain exiled to the land east of Eden, in the first place. That is, each considered him- or herself as being separate from others and able to exercise decisions that failed to take others into consideration. It is this separation from God and each other that lies at the root of Adam and Eve’s sin and the dilemmas that follow.

In the post-Pentecostal era of the narrative of Acts, we see no one doing anything without taking others into consideration. There was such joy and unanimity of spirit among the apostles and those who received their message, that all barriers to mutual love and care were broken down, and what replaced dysfunction was a functioning that resembled God’s original plan for the world – an edenic sharing of all resources as each had need, with the realization that there was enough for everyone, and no one had to be concerned that any would prosper while another had need.

Such a reality seems farfetched to us; and yet it is what we are called to act out, empowered by the same Spirit that came to those first Christians. It is because we have continued to act according to our dysfunctional past that Jesus had to die, both because of us and for the sake of our forgiveness. But his Resurrection is God’s powerful statement that we are being given another chance to “do it right,” as Cal in Steinbeck’s novel finally did. May we allow that Spirit to guide us and to empower us in our attempts to restore functional relationships in place of the original dysfunction of our First Family.

When the Light Finally Comes On – 2/19/2012

Sermon for Sunday, 19 February 2012, Transfiguration Sunday
Riverside United Methodist Church
Pastor Douglas Asbury

2 Kings 2.1-12:  A story of discipleship and transition of leadership.  Elisha dutifully stays with and follows his master, Elijah, knowing that Elijah is about to die.  He seeks one final blessing from his master — a double portion of his spirit. A chariot of fire receives Elijah into the sky.

Psalm 50.1-6:  God calls the covenant people to assemble for a word of judgment and redemption.

2 Corinthians 4.3-6:  Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth that his message was never about eloquent delivery, but always about “Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Just as the “god of this world” blinds those who do not receive the gospel, the true God of all opens the eyes of those who do.

Mark 9.2-9:  Six days after explaining that he would be executed in Jerusalem, Jesus leads three of his disciples up a mountain where “he was transfigured before them.” These disciples saw Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah and did not know how to respond. A voice from the cloud instructed them to listen to Jesus.

Mississippi Student Absentees
These are real notes written from parents in a Mississippi school district. (Spellings have been left intact.)
My son is under a doctor’s care and should not take P.E. today. Please execute him.
Please excuse Lisa for being absent. She was sick and I had her shot.
Dear School: Please ekscuse John Henry being absent on Jan. 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, and also 33
Please excuse Roland from P.E. for a few days. Yesterday he fell out of a tree and misplaced his hip.
John has been absent because he had two teeth taken out of his face.
Please excuse Jimmy for being. It was his father’s fault.
Please excuse Jennifer for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the Sunday paper off the porch, and when we found it Monday, we thought it was Sunday.
Sally won’t be in school a weak from Friday. We have to attend her funeral.

Each of these excuses is a serious attempt on the part of a parent to let the school know a valid reason for their child to be excused from school or from taking part in some aspect of the school program or not to be penalized for being late. They are funny to us because, though we either know or can figure out what the parents meant, the way they phrased it sets up a somewhat different picture of reality; and it is the difference between the picture conveyed by the words and the reality they sought to convey that makes the statements humorous.

When we first hear the statement, we think, “They can’t mean that!” Then, when our minds try to make sense of the odd statement, and we realize the context of the message and add or change a word or two, and we come up with what was meant, we laugh. The light comes on, and all is clear. We realize that Jimmy’s mother isn’t asking for Jimmy to be excused for “being” – but for “being late.” She’s not blaming Jimmy’s father for siring him; she’s blaming him for making him late to school.

In the process of figuring this out, we say we are “in the dark” at first about what is meant, and then “the light comes on,” and we understand the reality in a way that at first we didn’t because the phraseology didn’t make sense – or it made sense, but it was unbelievable. We needed the “aha! moment” in order to come to a knowledge of the truth of the matter. Without that “aha! moment,” we would have remained clueless.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “aha! experience” as “a moment of sudden insight or discovery; the sudden finding of a solution to a problem; also, aha moment, reaction, etc.”

Oprah Winfrey, who has talked about such “aha moments” with many of her guests, defines them as “flashes of understanding.” More extensively, she has described them as “unforgettable, connect-the-dots moments, when everything suddenly, somehow changed.”

As we heard the gospel story this morning about the experience of the disciples on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured in their presence, and they saw Elijah and Moses with him, we heard that, at first, they didn’t know what to make of it all. Peter piped up and proposed that he and the others set up tents, so the three great men in front of them could have places to stay. But then, a cloud came over them, and a voice emerged from the cloud telling them to listen to what Jesus had to say. After the cloud lifted, Jesus looked again as he had before the transfiguration, and Elijah and Moses were gone. At that point Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after “the Son of Man” – by which Jesus was referring to himself – had been raised from the dead – an event that was still quite far in the future and not yet anticipated nor comprehended by the disciples.

The time of viewing the transfiguration of Jesus wasn’t an “aha! moment” for the disciples; but it was an essential element of the aha! moment the disciples were to have following the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The changes in Jesus witnessed by Peter, James and John on that mountain, including his encounters with Elijah and Moses, made little sense to the three disciples when they occurred; but they made all the sense in the world to them after they had also become witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It was after that event that they could tell what had happened on that mountain and would then have a basis upon which to interpret it rightly. They could tell the other disciples, as well as all who would listen to them and might become disciples, that Jesus was a lawgiver comparable to Moses for the Jewish people, and that he was the prophet of God who signified the return of Elijah that heralded the time when God would make everything right in the world for God’s people. What resulted from these two moments in the disciples’ lives – the transfiguration and the resurrection of Jesus – was what we know as Pentecost – the day on which the disciples were filled with God’s Spirit and began bringing good news to the world of God’s salvation from sin and want through the power that had been revealed in Jesus the Christ and that was now present in them and available to all who would come to put their faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Now, not all “aha! moments” have the import that this dual experience of the disciples. Most, in fact, have much less impact; and yet they are not necessarily to be dismissed as unimportant or lacking in value. Take a look at the insert, on which I’ve printed ten aha! moments of an Australian woman named Mia. Some of them have specifically religious content (6, 8); the others don’t, though the last one is a quote from Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California.

On the other side of the insert I’ve given space for you to put your own name and to list ten aha! moments of your own. I want to encourage you to look back over your life and to jot down messages that have come to you in times of challenge or struggle or confusion or darkness that have resulted in something like a light coming on in your life, so that you knew what your next step needed to be; or so that a concern was relieved; or so that an answer was given to a question that had perplexed you. You may be able to think of fewer than ten, or you may have many more. Use the sheet however you find it appropriate for you.

What I want to claim today is that God is always speaking to us; but there are times when we are more open to listening to God, and those are often the more difficult times in our lives. When things are going in ways with which we are comfortable, or at times when we feel in control, though God may be speaking to us, we often are not in a mood to listen. It is often only at times when things have gotten out of control, or we’re thrown into a situation with which we don’t know how to deal, that we become open to that voice of God that conveys some necessary wisdom to us that we otherwise would have missed.

We might still miss the wisdom of God. We might just turn back to some other prejudice or take a route we remember seeing someone else take in a similar situation and apply it to our own, and in the process ignore the light of divine wisdom God is making available to us. But if, like the disciples, we understand that God is continually revealing divine wisdom to us to be applied at the right time in our lives to enable us to do what God has placed us on earth to accomplish, then the likelihood that we fulfill our divine purpose with the aid of God’s aha! moments is increased; and we can trust that God is with us always as guide and friend.

Next week we begin our Lenten soup lunch and book study. The little books by Bishop Rueben Job that we will be using for the study are collections of Bishop Job’s aha! moments in terms of how to live the Christian life with faithfulness and joy. I hope you’ll join us as a part of your Lenten discipline and thereby open yourself to the possibility that you’ll increase your own aha! moments to the glory of God and your own growth in the experience of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.


1. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. – Maya Angelou
2. Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I’ll try again tomorrow.” – Mary Anne Radmacher
3. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. – Nelson Mandela
4. The most influential person who will talk to you all day, is you. So, you should be very careful what you say to you. – Zig Ziglar
5. Wisdom is knowing what to do next; skill is knowing how to do it; and virtue is doing it. – David Starr Jordan
6. Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be snapped. Change is inevitable; don’t get too rigid. Flow with what God is doing today. – Christine Caine
7. It is wise to direct your anger towards problems, not people; to focus your energies on solutions, not excuses. – William A. Ward
8. Hope is not when you compare your suffering to someone who suffers worse than you. Hope is when you compare your suffering to the infinite, immeasurable love and grace of God. – Nick Vujicic
9. In character building, you will not find justice and fairness being upheld for your own convenience. If you focus on gaining them for yourself, you’ll be frustrated in your pursuit. On the other hand, if you strive to do the right thing with the right attitude, you’ll find yourself grow amidst the injustice. – KP
10. When you die, you won’t regret your unfulfilled dreams, just your unattempted ones. The first is reality; the second is tragedy. – Rick Warren

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What a Difference! – 4/8/2012

Sermon for Sunday, April 8, 2012 – Easter
Riverside United Methodist Church
Pastor Douglas Asbury

Acts 10.34-43:  Peter proclaims to Cornelius the resurrection of Jesus and that God has appointed Jesus as judge of the living and the dead.

Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24:  God’s love is victorious! A fitting response to the first reading.

I Corinthians 15.1-11:  Paul declares the things of first importance: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Mark 16.1-8:  Mark’s account of women who went to embalm the body of Jesus, an empty tomb, a young man in dazzling garments, the announcement of the raising of Jesus, and a commissioning to tell the others. They tell no one (at the time) because of their fear.

Middle East Resurrection
George went on a vacation to the Middle East with most of his family, including his mother-in-law. During their vacation and while they were visiting Jerusalem, George’s mother-in-law died.
With death certificate in hand, George went to the American Consulate to make arrangements to send the body back to the States for proper burial.
The Consul, after hearing of the death of the mother-in-law, told George that sending a body back to the States for burial is very, very expensive. It could cost as much as $5,000, he told George. He advised that in most cases such as this, the persons responsible for the remains of their loved ones decide to bury the body in Israel, which would cost only $150.
George thought for some time and answered, “I don’t care how much it will cost to send the body back; that’s what I want to do.”
The Consul said, “You must have loved your mother-in-law very much, considering the difference in price.”
“No, it’s not that,” says George. “You see, I know of a case many years ago of a person buried here in Jerusalem. On the third day he arose from the dead. I just can’t take that chance.”

Though even the resurrection is something about which we can joke today, as we heard in the Gospel lesson today, the women who found the empty tomb on the first day of the resurrection were in no joking mood. They were so overwhelmed by the experience of finding the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid on Friday empty and their encounter with the man in white, that Mark tells us they initially told no one what they had seen or heard. Obviously, at some later time they did tell Jesus’ other disciples; but their initial reaction to the event was fear rather than joy.

And in fact, it wasn’t only the women who went to the tomb that day who had a problem accepting the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection. In each of the Gospel accounts of the first Easter, it is recorded that someone had a problematic response to it. In Matthew’s account, an earthquake occurs, and an angel descends from heaven, rolls back the stone from the grave, and must tell the women not to be afraid, suggesting that these unnatural occurrences had been met with a fearful response. Unlike in Mark, in Matthew the women go “with fear and great joy” to tell the other disciples, and on the way they encounter Jesus himself, who must repeat the angel’s early admonition not to be afraid. Even when Jesus appears to the disciples gathered in Galilee at his direction, Matthew writes that “some doubted.” In Luke’s account, the story the women tell is said to be received by the other disciples as an “idle tale.” Peter doesn’t believe the women’s story until he goes to the tomb to see for himself that it is empty. And two disciples encounter Jesus while walking from Jerusalem back to their home in Emmaus, but they are so disbelieving, they don’t even recognize him until he joins them for a meal in their home and acts as host by breaking the bread. And in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene also fails to recognize Jesus when she encounters him outside the tomb, thinking him to be the gardener until he calls her by name.

But all these early reactions of disbelief to Jesus’ resurrection are nothing compared to the disbelief of people since that day in the power of God revealed by the Resurrection. You see, the importance of the Resurrection is not solely in the fact that God has power over death, so that dead people can be brought back to life – even though that was the only thing that worried George in our opening story. The important thing about the Resurrection is tied up with what was important about the birth of Jesus – son of humanity and son of God. Its importance was tied up with his life and ministry – the healing, teaching, gathering disciples and sending them out to continue his ministry of love and to allow him to live his life through them. It was tied up with his establishment of the sacraments of the Eucharist during his final Passover meal with the disciples, linking the bread with his body that was to be broken on the cross the following day, and the wine with his blood that was to be shed in his death; and of baptism as he gave them the Great Commission to make disciples of all people, as we United Methodists say, “for the transformation of the world.” It was tied up with his witness to the power of God through his appearances to and teaching of the disciples in the forty days following the resurrection, and with his ascension to heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit on the disciples on Pentecost and on every disciple since then, so that the Church could continue not only to be taught the way of Christ but also empowered to follow it. Of not least importance, and arguably, of greatest importance, has been the forgiveness of sins, to which we are good at giving lip service but which we ourselves reveal we have as much difficulty believing as those first disciples had believing that Jesus wasn’t in the tomb any longer, and that he was alive and continues to live not only in heaven with God but on earth with and through all who are faithful to him or who desire to be so.

It is our own disbelief on this Easter day and on the other days of our lives that keep Christ entombed and thwart his returning in power to draw all people to himself, transforming the world into the paradise it was created to be. Because we and too many others fail to accept not just the Resurrection but the forgiveness of sins, and because we fail to live in the power of God revealed in Jesus’ resurrection and fail to extend the forgiveness of sin that has been offered to us to others who need it no less than we, our world continues in darkness and fear.

As we receive communion on this Easter day, I invite you to receive along with the elements of bread and cup a new awareness of the reality of the power of God over death as revealed in Jesus’ resurrection and in the promise of our own, and of the forgiveness of sins, so that we can be freed from the shame and guilt that keep us from living our lives in the ways that fully glorify God as we were created to do. What a difference we could make!

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