The Greatness of a Child

“The Greatness of a Child”
A Message on Matthew 18:1-7
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 18, 2021, Methodist Readiness School Sunday
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 18:1-7 (NRSV)

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

6 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Okay, y’all gather around and put your listening ears on cause today we’re going to explore something that happened in the Bible with Jesus! Since this is Methodist Readiness School Sunday we are going to focus on children and something Jesus says about children.

Okay, so the disciples have been following Jesus around and learning all kinds of things from him.

But then they ask him a kinda weird question: “Who gets the highest rank in God’s kingdom?” They want to know which one of them is the most important, which one Jesus and God like the best.

I think it’s a weird question to ask Jesus, but that’s what they did. Instead of just answering the question, Jesus does something different.

He calls a kid to come stand near him, and he puts the kid in the middle of all the disciples. Then he tells them that unless they change and become like that little kid, they aren’t going to heaven. Yep.

Then he tells them whoever is humble like a little kid is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. So they have to change their attitudes, become humble, and then they go to heaven.

But Jesus still wasn’t through. He says that whoever welcomes a kid in his name welcomes Jesus himself! Wow!

Jesus was teaching the disciples a lesson!

The disciples were getting the big head. Some of them were thinking they were better than the other disciples. They were competing against each other. They wanted to be at the top of Jesus’s list of the best disciples.

There’s something within each of us as humans that wants recognition and to be the best at something.

When I was a kid I wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. I had bought a paperback copy of the book through those programs at school that send home a little catalog and then you check the books you want to buy and turn in your money at the school. I was fascinated reading it and wanted to be in it.

The only trouble was that I wasn’t good at anything. So I thought I would come up with something really weird and obscure, something so strange that other people hadn’t thought about it and therefore there wouldn’t be much competition. And that would increase my chances of getting my name in the book!

So this is what I came up with. I would stack up a bunch of quarters on my elbow like this (demonstrate), and then catch them in my hand (demonstrate).

I didn’t know it at the time but it’s called coin snatching. I know that now because I looked it up. And I found out that the record for this event is held by a guy named Dean Gould from England who balanced — and caught– 328 coins. He also holds the record for the most caught without dropping any at 100. I think the most I ever got was 20 something.

There is something within our brains that wants us to be the best at something, to prove we are better than others. Some want this for fame, others for money, some for both.

But that’s not the way of Jesus. Jesus wants us to be humble, like a child.

That’s just one of the things they teach at our Methodist Readiness School. The MRS started 50 years ago. That’s 50 years of planting seeds, like humbleness, into the hearts, souls, and minds of children. We even have grandkids of some of the members of the first class now attending the school.

I get the honor and privilege to lead chapel with the MRS kids on Wednesdays at 10:30. I have to tell you it’s one of the highlights of my week! Seriously. There was even a time when the kids thought my name was “Chapel Day.” The teachers would tell them on Wednesday, “Come on kids, it’s chapel day.” I would be walking across the parking lot when they were on the playground, and they would run to the fence and call out, “Chapel Day! Chapel Day!”

One of the reasons I like leading chapel for them is that they are authentic. They don’t pretend to be something they are not. There’s one boy that just doesn’t like chapel. He cries every Wednesday, no matter what. He is being authentic.

If I start playing music you can see the rhythm coming out in them. They’ll start hopping or dancing (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference) and clapping and praising God. They don’t worry about what someone else says. They are filled with joy, and that joy is contagious.

Wouldn’t it be great if we were all that way as Christians? Wouldn’t it be great if all the “grown up” Christians lived with the greatness of a child? If we were humble, yet full of curiosity, questions, and awe? If we didn’t judge people by the color of their skin or how much money they had or where they lived, but instead on how they act and how they treat others?

That’s my challenge to you today as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Methodist Readiness School. Do as Jesus asks and become like a child. Be humble. Be curious. Be willing to believe things that you can’t see. Be willing to trust your heavenly father as a child trusts his/her earthly father and mother.

That’s much better than coin snatching, I can assure you.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

“Doubt”

“Doubt”
A Message on John 20:19-29
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 11, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

John 20:19-29 (NRSV)

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Today we continue in the Gospel of John where we ended last week. If you remember (and it was Easter, so I hope you remember), Jesus, who was crucified and dead and buried, didn’t stay dead. The tomb was empty on that first Easter morning. (Praise God!)

The scripture we read today picks up right after Mary Magdalene tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

So Mary encounters the risen Jesus outside the empty tomb on the first day of the week, which is Sunday. That same day, in the evening, the disciples are gathered together trying to figure out what in the world is going on. They are confused, and they are scared. Real scared.

The scripture we read says they had the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” Now at first this might seem kind of strange since all the disciples were Jewish. Jesus was Jewish as well. But the Jewish religious leaders had a lot of power, even though the Romans were the occupying force in that part of the world at the time.

Those Jewish leaders exhibited that power when they had Jesus arrested and then convinced the Romans to crucify him. Ironically, they didn’t want to do it themselves because it violated their religious laws, but it was perfectly okay for the Romans to do it on their behalf. Yeah.

So the disciples are gathered behind locked doors on that evening of the resurrection. They are scared, and worried, because they are afraid that the Jewish leaders will do the same thing to them as they did to Jesus. They were afraid they would be killed as well. So they locked the doors.

Even though the doors are locked, Jesus shows up among them. Poof, he’s there. I don’t know about you, but if I had been in that room I would have been going through a whole lot of emotions. Fear, because people don’t just appear out of nowhere. Joy, because Jesus was alive. Scepticism, because dead people don’t come back to life. Confusion, because how can you figure out what all this means?

So Jesus shows up and what is the first thing he says to them? “Peace be with you.” (Being United Methodist, there’s a part of me that wonders if they responded back to Jesus, “And also with you.” Probably not, though.)

“Peace be with you” was a common greeting phrase in the first century. In Luke 10 and Matthew 10 we find Jesus giving instructions to the 70 followers that he is sending out to tell others about him. In Luke 10:5-6 he says, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.”

And there are Jesus’ words in John 14:27 as well: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”

Jesus gives a similar greeting to the disciples, “Peace be with you.” And he does it not only once, but twice at the first meeting without Thomas, but then again with the meeting with Thomas present.

In the first meeting after the greeting he shows them the scars on his hands and side. Why did he do that? If you think about it, being God he could have had the skin grow back over the scars where they were not visible at all.

But Jesus didn’t do that. Why? I think it was to prove to the disciples that he was who he said he was. But I think it was also for Thomas’ benefit.

Now Thomas kinda gets a bad rap, if you ask me. He is one of the original 12 disciples that Jesus calls to follow him. He follows Jesus, hears his teachings, sees the miracles, and is a passionate follower and believer.

If we back up to the 11th chapter of John we find Jesus finding out that his friend, Lazarus, was sick. Instead of leaving immediately, he stayed two more days where he was, and then said, “Okay, let’s go to Judea to see Lazarus.”

The disciples pointed out, rightly so, that it might not be a good idea to do that. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, lived in Bethany, which was right outside of Jerusalem in Judea. The disciples tell Jesus they don’t think it’s a good idea to go there because the last time they were there the people tried to stone Jesus.

But Jesus tells them he’s going anyway, and he’s going there to wake Lazarus up from his sleep. Well the disciples took this literally, so much so that Jesus has to tell them that Lazarus is, indeed, already dead. He tells them, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

At that point Thomas, the very same person we call “Doubting Thomas,” makes a bold statement to his fellow disciples: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Now that’s a pretty bold statement, if you ask me. I don’t see much doubt there, do you?

Later, in the 14th chapter of John, Thomas makes another statement in response to something Jesus says that we use a lot at funerals. Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas speaks up once again, asking Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” John 14:5

It is then that Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

So we have two instances of Thomas speaking up, once saying that he and the other disciples are willing to risk their lives to follow Jesus, and then a question of clarification about where Jesus is going and how they can follow him if they don’t know where is going.

And yet Thomas gets stuck with the nickname, “Doubting Thomas,” all because of the scripture we read today.

Now there are some interesting things about this scripture. One question I have is this: when Jesus showed up and Thomas was present, did Thomas actually place his finger in the nail holes on Jesus hands and did he actually stick his hand in Jesus’ side?

The scripture doesn’t say that he did. Now there are faith traditions that insist that he did, but the scriptures that we read today don’t say that he did. After Jesus shows up and asks Thomas to do touch and feel his wounds, we find Thomas responding verbally.

“My Lord and my God!”

At Mini Methodists Bible study this past Wednesday we talked about this. My interpretation of this event is that Thomas did this: he dropped to his knees, bowed down before Jesus, and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Even though he had bragged to the disciples that he wouldn’t believe unless he could physically touch Jesus’ wounds with his own hands, when it came down to it he believed without touching. Seeing was enough for him. His response: “My Lord and my God,” tells me he recognizes Jesus as the Messiah.

Jesus responds by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now the beauty of scripture is that more times than not when Jesus is speaking to a particular person he is also speaking to us. What Jesus says to Thomas is a great example of that.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I find this very applicable to us today as Christians in the 21st Century.

We are a people of science, aren’t we? The scientific method is taught to us in school at a young age and is reinforced to us as adults.

Here are the principles of the Scientific Method, as stated in that source that teachers hate and everyone else loves: Wikipedia. “[The Scientific Method] involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings.”

Pretty fancy language there, huh? And yet those principles over time not only affect the way we see the world, but spiritual matters as well.

Many atheists say they don’t believe in God because God cannot be seen or proven. They apply the scientific method to Christianity and find that it comes up short. They want specific, scientific, irrefutable proof before they will believe in God or Jesus. They doubt, and won’t believe until those doubts are scientifically proven wrong.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like the scientific method. I like that it is applied to so many things. The vaccinations that are available now to combat the COVID-19 virus are the result of the scientific method, and I sure am glad of that.

But when it comes to religious matters I apply something other than the scientific method to battle my doubts: faith.

Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” NRSV. The NIV translates it as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The King James translations refers to it as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And The Message paraphrases it this way “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.”

Faith is our weapon against doubt. And we do doubt. We have doubts. It’s part of our human nature. And we shouldn’t feel bad or guilty about it. Seriously, if Thomas, a disciple who knew Jesus in the flesh, who personally witnessed his miracles and heard his teachings; if Thomas had doubts, what makes us think that we won’t?

I worry much more about people who say that when it comes to their faith they have no doubts, than those who admit that they do.

To doubt is human, but to have faith is divine. Faith is believing without seeing, trusting without knowing. And it’s an important part of being a Christian.

If you think about it, if we knew everything, if we had factual data on everything in our lives, we would BE God and have no need for God. The fact that we don’t know — can’t know — everything, provides a nice fertile field for our faith to grow.

So my challenge to you today is to trust faith and don’t doubt. Don’t be a Doubting Thomas. Believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead without actually seeing the wounds on his hands and his side. Rely on your faith, and deepen your faith by practicing the spiritual disciplines, that Jesus Christ, the son of God, went to the cross voluntarily so that our sins can be forgiven and that we can be reconciled to God and are offered an eternity with him.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

He is Risen!

Easter Sunday: He is Risen!
A Message on John 20:1-18
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 4, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

John 20:1-18 (NRSV)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Several months ago Pam and I got a takeout meal from our Panda Express. We brought it home and ate it and then opened our fortune cookies to eat them. Pam read her “fortune” to me and then I opened mine. There was no fortune. Nope. It was empty.

I was disappointed… and a little worried. Not that I believe in the validity of fortune cookies, mind you, but it did make me worry that the absence of that little slip of paper indicated a very bleak future, or worse: non existent. It was not what I expected.

Today we heard John’s holy words describing that first Easter Morning. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb with a saddened heart. The task she faces is not a pleasant one. She plans to tend to the body of Jesus, who has been in the tomb for three days, wrapping the body with cloth and using spices and fragrances used at the time to not only preserve the body, but to cover up the smell of rotting flesh.

In Mark’s gospel we read that Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome had bought spices to the tomb on Easter morning. We have to remember that Jesus died on Friday afternoon and that his body was hurriedly prepared and buried by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19:39). They had to hurry because the Sabbath began on that day, Friday, at sundown. There were strict rules about doing no work on the Sabbath, including preparing bodies for burial. Not only that, but because they were working on Jesus’ body, they were considered “unclean” under the Jewish purity laws.

So Mary came to finish properly what Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had started on Friday.

But when she gets there she finds that the tomb, like my fortune cookie, was empty. It was unexpected, it was unsettling, and it worried her.

God has a way of doing things that is so completely different from the way we humans would do them that it is sometimes hard for us to comprehend. The empty tomb is a great example.

What a strange way to save the world. The human concept of beginning a new kingdom is through military might, using armies to overwhelm the occupying forces. But God chooses one man, fully God and fully man, born of humble beginnings, to bring in a new kingdom using the power of… love. The people in charge don’t like it so they kill him and everybody–including the disciples–think that’s the end of the story.

And yet on Easter morning God shows that he has a better way. (Which is usually the way God does things, you know?) The tomb is empty. God uses death to bring life. It’s a weird-to-us way of the Messiah establishing God’s kingdom, but God’s ways are higher than our ways… and much, much better.

The empty tomb gives us victory over any challenge we may face in this world. This morning there are people living in other parts of the world who are putting their lives at risk just to meet together to celebrate Easter. If caught they face not only prison terms but also execution. And yet they know in their hearts that not even the threat of death, or even death itself, can separate them from the love of God given to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

To quote a song about Easter, “The empty tomb is there to prove my Savior lives.”

So unlike an empty fortune cookie, let us celebrate with joy the empty tomb. Jesus’ death and resurrection atones for our sins, reconciles us to God, and offers us eternal life free of pain, sorrows, and worry.

Easter is a great day. It is a wonderful day. It is a happy day.

And that is so, SO much better than a silly ol’ fortune cookie.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Palm Sunday: Start Spreading the News!

Palm Sunday: Start Spreading the News!
A Message on Mark 11:1-11
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 28, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Mark 11:1-11 (NRSV)

1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

If you haven’t figured it out by now, today is Palm Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

This event is recorded in all four of the gospels. We find it also in Matthew 21:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and in John 12:12-19. And I’ll give you a little theological inside information: If it’s in all four gospels, it’s important.

Jesus has been in ministry for about three years. He’s about 33 years old. He has traveled, taught, healed, performed other miracles (such as raising people from the dead), and stumped and stymied the smartest religious of the time. He had pretty much turned the religious world upside down. He has people who believe he is the long awaited messiah, while other people, especially the religious leaders, not only hate him but want to kill him.

If there had been social media in the first century Jesus would have been trending. Talk of him had gotten around and people were very curious about him. Was he the messiah? But how could he be? He was from little ol’ Nazareth, after all. But he was impressive with the miracles and healing all those that were ill. But word was that he healed lepers by touching them. Surely the messiah wouldn’t be touching “unclean” people, because that would make him “unclean.”

And then you have that whole “walking on water” thing! And calming storms just by talking to them. And bringing dead people back to life. Wow!

So excitement was building about Jesus of Nazareth. There was quite the buzz going on about him.

In the previous chapter of Mark we find Jesus telling the disciples, for the third time, that he will be arrested, beaten, and crucified. And that three days after he is dead, he will rise from the dead.

Now this had to have puzzled the disciples. If this guy really was the messiah, surely he wouldn’t let that happen, right? What’s all this talk of death and rising from the dead?

The disciples just didn’t get it. Immediately after Jesus tells them, again for the third time, that he is going to die and then rise from the dead, two of the disciples, James and John, ask Jesus to name them as his favorites. Really? Did you not hear that death part?

Then Jesus heals Blind Bartamaeus, who immediately becomes a follower of Jesus.

And that’s where the scripture we read today comes in. Jesus knows his time is limited. He knows what awaits him. And he knows that the time has come. It’s time. It’s time to enter Jerusalem.

Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem becomes what we know as Palm Sunday. We call it that because people were so excited Jesus was entering Jerusalem that they tore branches off of the trees along the road and laid them down for the donkey to walk on.

Now that kind of sounds weird to us. But for first century folks it was a way of showing that someone important was coming down the road.

During Bible Study this past week at Mini Methodists we were talking about this with the kids. I asked them why they thought people were laying palm branches in the road for Jesus’ donkey to walk on. They came up with some great and creative answers. Close, but not quite.

Then I asked them if they knew what a red carpet was. They knew that. It was for famous people to walk on, people like movie stars and pop music stars. (Ariana Grande was mentioned by name, by the way. Not sure how I feel about that…)

I told them that the palm branches were the red carpet of the day in first century Jerusalem. It was the way people set certain people above others. It was their way of saying “This person is someone important!”

But Jesus’ ride at the time was not a big, shiny limousine with a well dressed chauffeur. Nope. It was more like an old Super-C Farmall tractor.

One of the expectations of the messiah was that he would restore the kingdom of Israel. At the time the people were living under the rule of the Roman Empire. Rome had an excellent army, and through military might they conquered not only the Holy Land, but much of the known world at the time. They were the big dog of the world at the time.

The thought among the Jewish people was that the messiah would come in and overthrow the Romans. And how was the messiah to do that? Human reasoning said that the way to overthrow a military power was with an even bigger and more powerful military power. They were hoping the messiah would come in with an army of angels armed with swords that would brutally attack the Roman army and devastate them.

Because of this, most thought the messiah would come riding a stallion, a large, muscular, fearless horse. That is what military leaders at the time rode, either that or a big, fancy chariot.

But Jesus doesn’t roll into town in a Hummer or even an M1A1 Abrams tank. He doesn’t ride a huge, fearless stallion. Instead he arrives on a donkey.

Now the scripture we read today from Mark simply says “colt,” as does Luke. But in the gospel of Matthew, we find that it says, “a donkey tied, and a colt with her.” And in John we find Jesus’ steed described as “a young donkey.”

Just to make sure what I learned from my upbringing in Delta County was right, I Googled what the correct terminology was for a young, male donkey. Any guesses as to what it is? Yep, it’s called a “colt.” Specifically it said that “A colt is a young male donkey which is less than four years of age.”

So even though the writers of the different gospels may have used different terms, they are all referring to the same animal: a young donkey.

So Jesus gets on a young donkey that has never been ridden. Now this is significant for a couple of reasons. One has to do with the purity laws of the time. I won’t go into specific details, but you can look them up in Leviticus 15 if you so desire.

Another reason is that it is symbolic that something new is about to happen. Brand new. It’s similar to a VIP rolling up to the red carpet in a brand new limousine compared to a used one. This colt still had that new donkey smell.

Another reason, and the one that impresses me the most, is that the donkey was not “broke.” Being the farm boy that I am, I am familiar with “breaking” horses. This means training them to have a rider on their back.

My dad had a firm belief in breaking horses while they were young. Being the compassionate man that he was, he didn’t want to hurt the young horses by climbing up there on them himself, especially when he had a son that was small and light. Yep. He delegated it to me to break the horses. (Wasn’t that nice and thoughtful of him?)

I faced a choice: crawl on the horse, knowing it would be rodeo time when I did, or face a beating from Dad if I didn’t. (Wasn’t really much of a choice, was it?) I still vividly remember the feeling of flying through the air like a ragdoll knowing that the impact with the ground was coming and knowing that it wouldn’t be pleasant when it did.

Breaking horses takes time, persistence, and a willingness to get back up on that horse again and again. Some horses broke quicker than others. Some horses convinced me that they were the spawn of Satan. But I never had one that didn’t buck any at all.

But Jesus does. He gets on the young donkey and it doesn’t try to throw him off. Instead he humbly carries the Messiah into Jerusalem. (I thought about that a lot as a kid. I always wished Jesus was there to help me break the horses without them bucking.)

So Jesus starts into the city on a donkey. Again, it would be like him riding a Farmall tractor instead of a large military vehicle.

So why a donkey?

A donkey is a beast of burden. It was, and still is in many parts of the world, used to carry things or to pull things. It was an animal used for work.

A tractor is similar. Although we do live in East Texas and will occasionally see people driving the tractors to town as their primary mode of transportation, for the most part tractors are work vehicles. They are used to cultivate fields, to feed livestock, to make hay, and those kinds of things. And while today some of them are super fancy with air conditioning and heat and even GPS computers in them, for the most part they are still humble machinery.

Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem is an expression of humbleness. Just as a donkey works for others, not itself, Jesus also humbly gives himself for others. I think it’s important to remember that just a few days after riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus celebrates the passover meal with his disciples, which has become known as the Last Supper. And in John’s gospel Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, a very humbling act, especially when you consider that he washed the feet of his betrayer, Judas.

As Jesus says in Matthew 23:11-12, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

That is why Jesus rode victoriously into Jerusalem on a donkey. And on Palm Sunday it is a good time to remember that.

The voices that cry “Hosanna!” (which means, “Save us,” by the way), will in a few days time will be the same voices yelling “Crucify him!”

Our mission, as disciples of Jesus Christ, is to share the Good News with others. To quote that old Frank Sinatra song, we are to, “Start spreading the news…” We are to tell others about the difference Jesus Christ has made in our lives so that others may experience it for themselves.

So my challenge to you this week (and every week, actually), is to “Start spreading the news.” Invite someone to attend Easter services with you next week. Invite them to attend Sunday school with you, to become a part of one of the many ministries we have here at the church, to basically become a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ rides into Jerusalem victoriously, humbly riding on a beast of burden. He knows what is coming, what will happen that week, how he will be betrayed and killed. But he rides into town anyway, out of love for you. Out of love for me. Out of love for all of humankind.

Start spreading the news.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Spiritual Disciplines: Self Examination

Spiritual Disciplines: Self Examination
A Message on 2 Corinthians 13:5-6
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 21, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

2 Corinthians 13:5-6 (NRSV)

5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! 6 I hope you will find out that we have not failed.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

There is a story about a couple that had been married for four decades. As happens with aging their bodies were changing. The husband began to be worried that his wife was losing her hearing.

One night he decided to test it out and see if what he suspected was true. His wife was in another part of the room and was behind him. In a quiet voice he said, “Honey, can you hear me?” No response.

So he tried again by increasing his volume to that of a normal speaking voice. “Honey, can you hear me?” He waited, but again, heard nothing.

In a much louder voice he tried again, “Honey, can you hear me?”

His wife walks around until she is in front of him and says with some irritation, “For the third time, yes, I can hear you!”

The humor in that joke is that while the husband thought that his wife was losing her hearing, if he had done some self examination he would have discovered that he was the one losing his hearing.

Today we are going to continue our sermon series on spiritual disciplines. In this series we have looked at study, prayer, fasting, and stewardship, and today we will conclude this series by looking at self examination.

Spiritually speaking, self examination is taking stock of where you are in your spiritual life. Are you practicing spiritual disciplines regularly (and not only on Sundays)? On your spiritual journey are you moving forward toward God? Do you have a deeper spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ today than you did at the beginning of Lent? Than six months ago? Than a year ago? What is your current status?

Self examination is kind of like doing a personal inventory. When I was in college one year for Christmas break my brother and I worked for the local hardware store in my hometown of Cooper to do inventory. This is where a business takes stock or an accounting of all the merchandise they have for sale. Our job was to count the items on the shelves, and then write down how many of each specific item there was in the store.

Today it’s done by scanners and computers, but back then we did it all by counting it and writing it down on paper. It wasn’t difficult, but it was time consuming. I remember getting to the part of the store where there were bolts and nuts and washers in these little bins, and we had to count each one. I didn’t think we were ever going to get through! But we did, and as a result the store owners knew how much merchandise they had in the store, down to the last bolt.

In a similar way, it’s good for us as part of our self examination to do a kind of spiritual inventory of ourselves. What are the gifts God has given you, and are you using those gifts to do God’s work? How is your prayer life? Are you reading the Bible regularly? Attending worship regularly, either in person or online? Are you tithing? How is it with your soul? You get the idea.

There is another aspect to self examination, and that is to discover when something isn’t as it should be.

Most of you know that two of my three sisters have been diagnosed with breast cancer. My youngest sister, Delinda, had surgery in December and my oldest sister, Diane, had surgery this past Monday. They both have had regular mammograms, but the tumors didn’t show up on mammograms. They both had several other tests, and the tumors didn’t show up on those tests, either. Nope.

They both discovered the tumors by self examination. That’s how they discovered them. And it may have saved their lives.

In the scripture we read today we find the Apostle Paul saying that spiritually it is important to self examine ourselves.

“Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves.” 2 Corinthians 13:5

To better understand this scripture we need to look at the background of the church in Corinth and Paul’s relationship to it. Let’s back up to around the year 51 AD or so. Corinth was a bustling city, prosperous because it was at a crossroads of sea and land travel routes.

Because of those reasons it was also a crossroads of religion. A wide variety of religious beliefs were present and practiced. It was officially a city in the Roman Empire, so it had a large representation of the Greek gods and temples to them. It was a wild place, with prostitution becoming so rampant at some of the temples that loose women around the world became known as “Corinthian women.”

It was into this world that Paul walked into in his mission to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. And into this powerful pagan maelstrom Paul starts a church of followers of Christ. We can read all about it in Acts 18.

Now even though the scripture we read today comes from what we refer to as 2 Corinthians, in all probability Paul wrote four letters to the Christians in Corinth. He visited Corinth twice: once when he established the church, which lasted about 18 months; and a second time to get them back on track when they were experiencing some pretty serious challenges.

Frustrated by the members of the Corinth church for failing to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, Paul, after he leaves Corinth for the second time, fires off what is known as the “severe letter.” It’s pretty much what it sounds like. And some scholars believe the scripture we read today is part of that “severe letter.”

Being a Christian isn’t easy. And being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ isn’t easy, either. (Those should be the same things, by the way…) The world and it’s temptations are like the sirens in Homer’s Odessey whose songs lure sailors to their doom. The world’s songs are very alluring and the temptations are great, but so is the destruction.

Now the world is cunning and patient. It sings it’s siren song over time, causing small but serious changes within us. And over time those small changes turn into big changes.

As the musical group Casting Crowns points out in their song, “Slow Fade,”

It’s a slow fade
When you give yourself away
It’s a slow fade
When black and white have turned to gray
And thoughts invade, choices made
A price will be paid
When you give yourself away
People never crumble in a day
It’s a slow fade

That’s why it is important for us as Christians to self examine ourselves. Just as cancer slowly grows without us realizing it, sin can also start off small while growing slowly and imperceptibly in our spiritual lives. It’s a slow fade.

But by performing a self examination we can detect those areas in our life where things aren’t right, identify what is wrong, and then take steps to correct it.

Lent is a good time to have a spiritual self examination. Just as we will clean our house if we know that company is coming, Lent is a season for cleaning our spiritual homes for the coming celebration of Easter.

But self examination is not just for the season of Lent. It should be done regularly throughout the year. While not fun or even enjoyable, it is a good spiritual discipline habit to form.

It is a good habit to establish during Lent, but also to continue after Lent. And here’s a good way to do it.

Beginning the Sunday after Easter we are asking all of our congregation members to be a part of what we are calling Discipleship Groups. These are small groups, with no more than 12 people, that will meet weekly for about an hour to encourage one another in our spiritual journey and hold each other accountable.

These groups are not Bible studies, not gossip sessions, but for the members to meet and answer three questions:

  1. This past week when did you feel closest to Christ?
  2. What did you do this past week in response to God’s call to be a disciple?
  3. Discipleship Denied: When was your faith tested this week through failure?

And that’s it. Simple. Not complicated. The meetings can be done in person, by zoom, by telephone. These small groups can meet at the church, at homes, at a restaurant, and can meet in the mornings, at noon, afternoons, evenings, or whenever.

The purpose of these small groups, described by Kevin Watson in his book, The Class Meeting, is discipleship. Originally started by John Wesley in England, a class meetings is “A small group that is primarily focused on transformation and not information, where people learn how to interpret their entire lives through the lens of the gospel, build a vocabulary for giving voice to their experience of God, and grow in faith in Christ.”

Why do this? There are a few reasons. First is for each one of us to grow in faith in Christ, to grow deeper in the faith. Another reason is to grow the Kingdom of God. The great commission given by Jesus is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Churches with active small groups are growing and vital churches. And we want this church to grow and be vital!

Another reason is that it causes us to pause and self examine our spiritual lives.

One integral part of being a Christian is self examination. Listen to Paul’s words again: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed.”

So my challenge to you today is to test yourself during this season of Lent. Do a spiritual self exam to see “whether you are living in the faith.” As Christians, Jesus Christ should live inside each of us. That way we not only pass the test, but can help lead others into the Christian life as well.

And that’s much better, and much less humiliating, than testing our spouse’s hearing.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting
A Message on Matthew 6:16-18
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 7, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV)

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Today we continue our Lenten sermon series on spiritual disciplines by looking at the topic of fasting.

It was fun during Bible study at Mini Methodists this past week when I asked the kids what the first meal of the day was called. They correctly replied that it was called “breakfast.” I then asked them to spell it, and they spelled it correctly: “breakfast.” I then asked them why it wasn’t pronounced the way it is spelled.

You could tell they hadn’t thought about that and quickly started pronouncing “BREAK-fast.” I then asked them why it was called that, and they replied with some good guesses. I finally explained that basically we are mispronouncing it when we say “brek-fast” and the it should be pronounced the way it is spelled. I also explained that it meant that a person was “breaking” their “fast” from overnight. We don’t eat while we sleep, and so when we eat something after we wake up we are breaking our fast. (A couple of them said they did indeed eat while they were asleep, which worries me just a little bit.)

We don’t talk about fasting much anymore in our world. We think of the term as an adjective, like saying a car is fast, or an adverb, as in he was driving too fast, but rarely as a noun or a verb. And that’s a shame.

The reason that this season of Lent is 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays) is in recognition of Jesus fasting for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. (The confirmation kids freaked out over that, wondering how he could survive that long without food and especially water. I told them that what is impossible for man is possible for God.)

Lent is a time where to reflect on our spiritual lives, to repent of our sins, and to draw closer to God during the time leading up to Easter. It’s a great time to focus on the spiritual disciplines, and one of the spiritual disciplines we can practice during this time is that of fasting.

You’ve probably heard about fasting without the specific term “fast.” When people talk about “giving things up for Lent” they are talking about fasting. If you give up drinking soft drinks for Lent, for example, then you are fasting.

The idea is to give up something that is important to you, something that you value. If you hate broccoli and say you’re going to give up broccoli, that’s not true fasting. (I love broccoli, by the way.)

Several years ago I gave up fried foods for Lent. I knew it would be difficult, but I thought it would be a good thing to do so I did. The trouble was that I forgot that tortilla chips are fried. Yep. And I do love me some tortilla chips.

At the time the Kiwanis Club was meeting at a Mexican food restaurant here in town. The first meeting day in Lent I walked in and sat down and saw the chips and salsa and thought, “Uh oh.” I had forgotten that tortilla chips are fried.

Janice, who works at Austin Bank, used to sit across the table from me and we would always kid each other about the chips and which of us ate more. (It was usually me.) That day she saw that I wasn’t eating chips and asked me what was wrong. I told her I gave up fried foods for Lent and so I couldn’t eat them. Janice was real supportive, crunching on a big chip and saying, “Oh, these taste so good…” Thanks, Janice. Thanks a lot.

In the scripture we read today we find Jesus criticizing the religious leaders of the day because of the way they were fasting. They were following the letter of the law by fasting, but their motivation behind fasting and what they felt in their hearts was wrong.

The religious leaders were fasting to impress others. They were disfiguring their face to impress upon others how holy and religious they were. One of the things they would do is sprinkle ashes all over their head and faces, especially on their cheeks under their eyes so that their tears (which I suspect they faked) would leave visible trails that other people would see.

They were fasting to impress people, not out of obedience to God.

Jesus calls them on the carpet for doing this, exposing their hypocrisy, for their putting themselves and their egos before serving God.

Jesus doesn’t say to not fast. No. What he says is to not do it to impress others. Do it with the proper heart and motivation as a spiritual discipline to move your closer to God.

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:17-18

So my challenge for you this week is to fast during this season of Lent. Be sure and check with your doctor, however, if you are going to fast from food or water. There are other things to fast from besides that. You can fast from social media, from certain tv programs (or tv altogether), from unhealthy foods or drinks, from non-productive habits.

It’s a good idea to add something in addition to giving up something. Add daily Bible reading, intentional prayer time, spending more time with loved ones, writing letters or emails of support, or even watching Bible study videos on RightNow Media (which are free for our church members).

Use this season of Lent to clean out those things that separate us from God, and practice those spiritual disciplines that draw us closer to God.

After all, the spiritual disciplines are much better than tortilla chips. (And tortilla chips are really good!)

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer
A Message on Matthew 6:5-8
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 28, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 6:5-8 (NRSV)

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Today we continue our Lenten sermon series on the spiritual disciplines by exploring the topic of prayer.

As United Methodists we believe a spiritual discipline is “any habit or activity done with intention that helps us be more ‘in touch’ with our spirituality and with God.” [Source: https://www.umc.org/en/content/spiritual-disciplines-and-giving-thanks]

Prayer is one of those spiritual disciplines.

At its simplest, prayer is simply having a conversation with God. And that is an awesome thing. It’s always on, doesn’t need batteries or electricity, isn’t affected by the weather, and is free. Really free. We can pray to God anytime, anywhere, and short of rendering one unconscious, nobody can stop us.

But prayer is also so much more than that. Prayer is holy. It is an expression of God’s grace, given to us by God. And it is one of the spiritual disciplines that we should practice not only during Lent, but at all times.

Prayer is ancient. We read about it in the Old Testament scriptures.

Psalm 34:17 reads, “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.”

2 Chronicles 7:14 reads, “…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Proverbs 15:29 reads, “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.”

Prayer is also a very important topic in the New Testament writings as well. Here are some examples:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” James 5:13-16

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

One of the challenges of prayer is that people will say, “I don’t know how to pray.” I remember as a kid thinking that prayers had to be in “church language,” and since I didn’t know how to use all those “thees” and “thous” and “supplications” and “firmaments” that I couldn’t pray. I didn’t speak God’s language, so I couldn’t pray.

If I could go back and talk to my young self I would explain that kind of thinking was wrong. God, after all, knows all languages, and even understands East Texas dialects. It’s not the fancy or religious words that God cares about, it’s about the heart. The heart is the heart of the matter, so to speak.

Not only can we pray to God anytime and anywhere, but we have help even during those times when we are so exasperated or overwhelmed that we really don’t know what to pray. Yep. It’s called the Holy Spirit.

Listen to these words that the Apostle Paul writes in the letter we know as Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26

So prayer can be very powerful even when we lack the words to know what to say.

In the scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew we find Jesus talking about prayer. Not only does he talk about it, but he points out important distinctions on how we should and should not pray.

I have heard someone say before (and I have to admit that it may well have been me) that there’s no wrong way to pray. I don’t think that is true. And the scripture we read today is one of the reasons I don’t think it is true.

Here’s the situation. Jesus comes onto the religious scene and sees that people have distorted religion to serve their own purposes, not God’s. The Jewish priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes have taken prayer and twisted it so that it served their purposes.

These religious leaders were using prayer to make themselves look good. They were doing it to impress other people with just how religious they were and to satisfy their own egos.

A long-standing Jewish tradition was for the religious leaders to pray formal, liturgical prayers. These were either written out or memorized, or both. At some point these leaders started adding at certain spots spontaneous self-created prayers. And at these spots the leaders would “ad lib,” to take a term from the musical world, and the “ad lib” parts started becoming longer and longer and longer.

The leaders started using these “ad lib” parts as an opportunity to show those hearing the prayers just how religious the person praying was. It became a performance, a spectacle, a “look-at-me-and-how-holy-I-am” opportunity that was too good to pass up.

A good example of this is found in the Gospel of Luke where he tells this parable. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:10-14

In this parable we see that prayer is about the heart. The Pharisee had his nose stuck up in the air and looked down on all those he considered to be the dregs of society, thinking that because he was so religious, he was much better, much holier, than those lowly people.

And his prayer, ironically, reflected that “better-than-thou” attitude. “Thank you, Lord, that I’m not like these scalawags and sinful folks.”

While he was thinking of himself as high and mighty, the tax collector in the parable knew he was a sinner. He didn’t shirk from the fact, or try to gloss it over, or rationalize it away, but admitted he had made some bad choices and had sinned.

This is particularly insightful because of the role tax collectors played in the society of that time. Tax collectors were considered to be the lowest of the low. They were considered by most of the Jewish people to be traitors to their fellow Jews because they worked for the taxing authority, the Roman Empire, which was the occupying force in the land at that time.

So not only were the tax collectors considered traitors to their own people, but they were considered unethical thieves as well. Tax collectors were paid a percentage of the taxes they collected. However, it had become commonplace at the time for them to collect more than was owed, thereby keeping some for themselves. They were profiting by cheating their own people. It was no wonder the Jewish people didn’t like them and considered them lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.

Knowing that, Jesus’ parable had to have a severe sting to the religious leaders of the day. And it reemphasizes the point that prayer is a matter of the heart.

Jesus’ words about prayer in the scripture from Matthew that we read today talks about how those religious leaders would pray in public to be seen by others. Their praying was self-serving, not God-serving. It was something they did for their ego, not as a spiritual discipline to God.

And Jesus says that because these “hypocrites,” which he calls the religious leaders frequently, are doing it for the wrong reasons, they have “have received their reward.” (vs. 5) They got a boost to their ego. They reinforced their unholy thinking that they are better than others. But that’s all they were getting.

To emphasize that prayer is about the heart, Jesus gives instructions on how to pray. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

So does that mean we shouldn’t ever pray out loud in public or with others? No. I think Jesus is emphasizing the point that we should pray with proper intent. We shouldn’t pray to impress others, or even to impress God (after all, how can we even do that?). No. It’s about having the proper heart to communicate with God.

Prayer is a gift, a grace, given to us so that we can communicate with God directly. We don’t have to go through a high priest or a religious intermediary. Prayer goes directly from our lips (or thoughts, as it doesn’t have to be spoken out loud) to God’s ears.

And as Jesus points out, God “knows what you need before you ask him.”

Eugene Peterson correctly points out that “Prayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word.”

So what should we pray? Unfortunately we get in the habit of praying for things. We kind of view God as Amazon Prime and prayer as a way to order online and then just wait for the delivery. Years ago Janice Joplin sang about the hypocrisy of this kind of prayer with her song, “Lord, Won’t You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz.”

We should pray for things such as wisdom, discernment, patience, and understanding. We should pray for others, for our community, our state, our country, our world. We should NOT pray to gain attention or to impress others.

So my challenge to you today is to consciously practice the spiritual discipline of prayer during this season of Lent. Turn prayer into a habit–a good habit–as you communicate with God. Focus on improving your prayer life as we travel through Lent toward Easter. As the song says, “Have A Little Talk with Jesus.”

Now let us have a little talk with Jesus
Let us tell Him all about our troubles
He will hear our faintest cry and we will answer by and by

Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turning
You’ll know a little fire is burning
You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Spiritual Disciplines: Study

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Covenant
A Message on 2 Timothy 3:14-17
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 21, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NRSV)

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter, and during Lent we will be exploring some of the spiritual disciplines that are good to focus on during this season of preparation.

We start off today by looking at “study.”

Now for some folks that word brings back memories of school and some of those memories are not pleasant. I know folks that graduated from high school and college for whom the word “study” brings back bad memories. They figure that they had to study in school, and now that they’re out they’re not going to study unless it is a mandatory requirement for their job.

I find that sad. Somewhere along the way they never developed a love of learning.

My dad was a learning machine. He was Google before there was Google or even the internet. He was knowledgeable about more things than probably anyone I have known, and he stressed the importance of lifelong learning to all six of us kids.

I think the challenge of our educational system should be to focus on creating lifelong learners. It seems to me like we are focusing too much on passing grade level tests, which is how teachers and school districts are evaluated, than on creating a love of learning in students.

It’s almost like that fishing parable: Give a person a fish, and they eat for a day. Teach a person to fish, and they will eat for a lifetime. Teach a child the facts, and they may remember those facts for a while. But teach a child how to love to learn, and that child has no limits.

As Christians, we should be lifelong learners as well.

It amazes me how many Christians never read the Bible. Now don’t get me wrong, I know this because I used to be one of them. I grew up in the church and as an adult attended church regularly, but I just didn’t read or study the Bible. I’d listen to the preacher read from it on Sunday, but that was pretty much it.

I can point to the specific moment in time when all that changed for me. We were living in Kilgore and I was working in public relations at Kilgore College. The church we were attending, St. Luke’s UMC in Kilgore, offered a brown bag lunch Bible study. Not only that, they were offering Wesley Study Bibles (not the one that is out now but an older one) at a very affordable price. I bought one of those Bibles, started going to the Bible studies, and I really started to get a better and deeper understanding of the Holy Scriptures. I discovered what a “study” Bible was, how to use one, and it was awesome!

It’s amazing what you can discover in the Bible! When I first started reading through Song of Solomon I discovered some incredibly beautiful poetry which I wished I had known when I was a teenage boy trying to impress girls. (Then again, maybe it’s best that I DIDN’T know those scriptures then…)

There are many Christians who take strong stances on the Bible being allowed in schools, who want the 10 Commandments to be displayed in public, and maybe even protest things with signs that have scripture on them. Ironically many of those doing those things rarely or never read the Bible. That kind of strikes me as sad.

The Bible is the overall number one best selling book of all time. But unfortunately it’s not the number one best read book of all time.

Why is that? If we, as Christians, claim this book to be as important as we say it is, then why aren’t we reading and studying it more?

One of the things I get asked pretty often as a pastor is which translation of the Bible do I think is the best. My response, which is sort of a smart-alec one, is “The one you read.”

There is a reason that I give that answer. Research shows that 87 percent of American households own a Bible. The average number of Bibles per household is actually 3. But when it comes to actually reading the Bible, the numbers are much, much lower. [Source: https://lifewayresearch.com/2017/04/25/lifeway-research-americans-are-fond-of-the-bible-dont-actually-read-it/\

There is a research group known as the Pew Research Center that does all kinds of studies on the religious life of people. According to these folks, only about 35 percent of adults read scripture at least once per week, 10 percent read it once or twice a month, 8 percent read it several times a year, and 45 percent acknowledge that they read scripture seldom or never. (And there is 1 percent who responded that they “don’t know.” I really worry about those folks…) [Source: https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/frequency-of-reading-scripture/]

In the scripture we read today, the Apostle Paul is writing to his young protege Timothy and giving him some advice. Remember, Paul never met Jesus when he was physically on earth, but first encountered him on the road to Damascus when he (Paul) was on the way to arrest some Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem to be imprisoned or even killed. Paul was a “bad guy” before he became a follower of Jesus.

So Paul’s knowledge of Jesus came from his experiences with the risen Jesus as well as the scriptures as they were at the time. Being a leader, a Pharisee, of the Jewish faith, Paul had an excellent knowledge of what we call the Old Testament. He knew the writing of the prophets about the messiah as well as all the Jewish purity laws. But he also likely had access to some manuscripts of what we know as the gospels, although they were probably not compiled together in what we know as the New Testament. (And Paul, after all, wrote about ¼ of the New Testament.)

In the scripture we read today from 2 Timothy he is telling Timothy just how extremely important the scriptures are for Christians.

Paul tells him that the “sacred writings” which Timothy has been exposed to since he was a child contain instruction “for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The scriptures tell the way to salvation.

Some denominations emphasize what is called the “Romans Road.” This is a series of readings from the book of Romans (written by Paul) that point out the need for salvation, how God provides salvation, how people can receive salvation, and then what we are to do after receiving salvation. In one single book in the Bible are the instructions necessary for salvation.

Of course that is an oversimplification, but you get the idea.

John Wesley emphasized the importance of the Bible. “I want to know one thing, – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be [a man of one book].”

He also wrote, “I am determined to be a Bible Christian, not almost, but altogether. Who will meet me on this ground? Join me on this, or not at all.” [Sermon #116 “Causes Of The Inefficacy Of Christianity”]

How many of us are willing to meet John Wesley (and Jesus) on this ground? Is your Christian faith important enough to you that you will make it a priority in your life to study God’s word?

Our Grow Team is providing every member (and even guests) with an incredible resource for Christian study. It’s called “RightNow Media” and is an online Bible study service.

Here’s how it works: this church pays a monthly fee to RightNow media, which the Grow Team has worked into their annual budget. In paying that fee, which is based on our average attendance (pre-COVID), every member (and guest) of the church is given access to all the materials in the RightNow Media library. They currently have more than 10,000 Bible study videos available from a wide variety of teachers, such as Max Lucado, Jennie Allen, Francis Chan, Tim Tebow, Louie Giglio, Tony Evans, Les and Leslie Parrott, Matt Chandler, and on and on and on.

While most of these folks are not United Methodists, I think it is still good to hear what they have to say and then reflect on that from a Wesleyan perspective. I’ll be glad to visit with you on any questions you have.

And they have videos based on age groups as well. They have some awesome children’s studies, teenage studies, college and young adult studies, and of course, adult studies.

And it’s free to you. Like salvation, the price has already been paid. To quote the Turbo Tax commercials, it’s “Free. Free, free, free. Free.”

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Paul knew the value of the scriptures. We should too. If they are as important as we say they are (and they really are), then we should study them, and the season of Lent is a great time to start if you haven’t already.

So my challenge to you this week, the first full week of Lent, is to study the Bible. Take advantage of the RightNow bible studies online. And if you are not an online-type-of-person, I will be glad to offer suggestions to you in the form of books, study bibles, or reading plans (such as reading through the Bible in a year.)

If the Bible is as important to the Christian faith as we say it is, then we need to be studying it. Become trained in righteousness. Study the Bible.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Covenants

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Covenant
A Message on 1 Peter 2:9-10
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 14, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

1 Peter 2:9-10 (NRSV)

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Today we will conclude our sermon series on the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer that we have been exploring since the first of the year. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, and we will be starting a new sermon series next Sunday.

But for today, let’s stand as your are able and recite this Wesleyan Covenant Prayer together:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O Glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Today we are going to focus on the last part of that prayer: “And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

Wesley mentions the word “covenant” in that last part. So what exactly is a covenant?

A covenant is a promise, but it’s more than that. It is a contract, like a legal contract, between two parties. The wording of the covenant lays out what each of the two parties has agreed to do.

It’s like when you buy a car or a house. All those papers you sign (hopefully after you read them) give specific details on what both parties, the seller and the buyer, are obligated to do. And if either the seller or the buyer doesn’t hold up their end of the agreement, then they can be taken to court and forced to not only do what they signed up to do, but pay penalties as well. There are consequences for breaking a covenant.

There are five main covenants in the bible.

There is the covenant God made with Noah after the flood that he would never again wipe out all the inhabitants and animals on the earth with a flood. The sign for the covenant is the rainbow.

There is that Abrahamic covenant that God made with Abram/Abraham. This is the covenant that Abraham’s heirs would be more numerous than the stars or the grains of sand on the beaches, and that God would give Abraham’s offspring land for them to live and prosper in. The sign of this covenant was circumcision.

Then we come to the Mosiac covenant, the covenant God made with Moses. This is the covenant that was established on Mt. Sinai when Moses gets the 10 commandments and also the covenant law which is listed in Exodus right after the 10 commandments. The sign of this covenant were the stone tablets which God wrote on himself and which were kept in the arc of the covenant (and thus the name).

Then comes the Davidic covenant, the covenant God made with David. This covenant says that if the people will keep the commandments and law then a descendent of David will forever serve on the throne as king. This happens for a few generations but then the people mess up and start worshipping other false gods. As a result the Jewish people are invaded and led off as captives.

And then we come to the covenant that Peter is talking about in the scripture we read today: the “new covenant.” This is the one that Jesus establishes, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Jesus, the only son of God, comes to earth and gives his life so that our sins may be forgiven and we, who are sinners, can be reconciled to God.

In the scripture we read today, Peter is reminding us that when we accept Jesus Christ as our savior, we become part of the new covenant. Our citizenship and loyalty become larger than a country or political ideology, we become like Jesus and therefore, holy.

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

The Apostle Paul points this out beautifully in Romans 8. Here is just a small portion of that:

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” — Romans 8:14-17

When we make the decision to follow Jesus Christ we become Children of God through the covenant that we make.

In our United Methodist Hymnal it describes the baptism service as a covenant service. “The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God promising our response of faith and love. Those within the covenant constitute the community we call the church…”

When we are baptized, we publicly renounce sin and profess our faith. It is only after doing those things is the water applied and baptism happens. Afterwards, each person professes that he/she will be loyal to the church, faithfully participating “in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.”

I love having baptisms on communion Sundays, like we did last week, because while our action of publicly proclaiming to follow Christ is our part of the covenant, in the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of God’s part of the New Covenant: Jesus saying of the cup, “Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

I like the way John Wesley ended his covenant prayer: “And the covenant which I have made on earth, Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

The entire prayer reminds us that when we agree to accept Jesus as our savior, it’s not a partial agreement we make, but a whole one. We are to be fully devoted to Christ, not just on Sundays, not just when we get emotional goosebumps, but full time, 24-7.

It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is the Christian thing to do. Every word we say, every action we take, every comment that we post on social media, should be through the love of Christ.

Our focus for the season of Lent, which begins on Wednesday with Ash Wednesday, will be on discipleship. We will be starting a new sermon series next Sunday based on discipleship. The goal of this is for us to be closer to God on Easter than we are today.

So my challenge to you today is to remember your baptismal covenant every day that you wake up.

Remember the vows you made at your baptism and live your life fully for God.

Remember Peter’s words that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Be willing to proclaim those mighty acts!

And, as John Wesley said, may the covenant you make on earth be ratified in heaven.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Trust

Artwork by Alex Levin.

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”
A Message on Jeremiah 17:7-8
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 7, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NRSV)

7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8 They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Today’s message will be short. We have had a baptism and celebrated the Lord’s Supper both today, and I’ll gladly trade sermon time for those two sacraments.

We continue our Wesley Covenant Prayer sermon series today by exploring the topic of “trust.” And as we do every week, let us now stand (as you are able) and recite the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer together:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O Glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Our scripture for today comes to us not from the New Testament, but from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.

Now Jeremiah is a good person to listen to when it comes to learning about trust. Jeremiah was a prophet who lived in Jerusalem somewhere between 650 to 570 BC who God called to tell the Jewish people that they needed to change their evil ways or bad things were going to happen to them.

Jeremiah lived in Judah, in Jerusalem, during the time of the divided kingdoms. The people at that time had drifted away from the true God. They got caught up in the worship of other gods (with a lowercase “g”), represented by carved wooden objects overlaid with gold. Or worse, the fake god (again with a lowercase “g”) Molech. As part of their worship of this pseudo-deity they would sacrifice some of their children by burning them alive in a fire.

During Mini Methodist Bible study this past Wednesday I actually told the children about this practice. Talk about getting their attention! Some of them reacted vehemently, loudly exclaiming that this was wrong, it wasn’t very loving, and how could parents do this, and things like that. It was pretty impressive how strongly they objected to this and how even they knew that it was not what the true God wanted. They just couldn’t conceive how any parent could do this to their child.

And yet it was done in the ancient world, all in the name of worshiping a false god. They trusted in the wrong things, and murdered their own children as a result of that trust.

Today I want us to explore the topic of trust. The two scriptures we read today, one from Proverbs and one from Jeremiah, tell us a lot about trust.

Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

And from Jeremiah: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”

Jeremiah saw the results of misplaced trust. He saw people worshipping false gods and killing their own children. And so he tried to get them to stop it and turn back to God, to place their trust in God. But they didn’t listen, and the country was invaded and the people who survived were driven off into exile.

Trust is an interesting thing. We use it a lot, every day. When we drive down the road we “trust” that the person driving the vehicle coming toward us in the other lane will stay in that lane. And that person trusts that we will stay in our lane.

We trust our spouses and significant others. In those instances where infidelity takes place it’s not that act itself that is so damaging to a relationship, but the damage it does to trust between the two people. That’s not saying that couples can’t work through infidelity, but it is very difficult, painful, and takes a lot of time.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, knew about trust. In the verse of his Covenant Prayer that we are looking at today he says, “I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”

I believe that phrase is about trusting God.

Now we might say we trust God, but do we really? And how important is it to trust in God?

Trust involves the unknown.

At Mini Methodist I invited one of the kids up to do a “trust fall.” A “trust fall” is when someone intentionally falls backwards and a person or group of people catch them. If you are the one doing the falling it can be quite unsettling because you are falling backwards. You can’t see and you really can’t catch yourself if things go bad.

The kids I did the trust fall with kept looking over their shoulder behind them to make sure I was there. Why? They trusted that I would be there, but our human nature is that we want details, we want confirmation of the data, before we make ourselves vulnerable.

Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

Chariots and horses were the tanks and fighter planes of their time in military terms. A greater number of chariots and horses greatly increase one’s chances of winning a battle. But chariots and horses are earthly things, and although we live on earth our focus should be in heaven. We trust in the Lord.

So my challenge to you this week is to trust in the Lord. Not just sorta kinda, but fully trust him. Don’t be turning your head around and trying to see if he is there to catch you before you do a trust fall. Trust in his word that when he says he will be there, he will.

Freely and heartily yield all things to God’s pleasure and disposal. Trust him. Really trust him.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.