Change: Abraham

Change: Abraham
A Message on Genesis 15:1-6
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
June 20, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Genesis 15:1-6 (NRSV)

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

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Today, on Father’s Day, we will be continuing our sermon series on “Change” by exploring a man who became the father to many, many people and who experienced some massive changes in his life: Abraham.

Now in the scripture we just read you’ll notice that the person is referred to as “Abram,” not “Abraham.” Well, don’t worry, they are both the same person. The name change, just one of many changes that Abraham experienced, happens in Chapter 17 where God makes a covenant with Abram and tells him his name is no longer Abram (which means “exalted ancestor”) but Abraham (which means “ancestor of a multitude”).

So, Abram and Abraham are the same person. Abraham’s wife got a name change as well, from Sarai to Sarah. Both of those names mean “princess,” by the way.

Now the story of Abraham and Sarah is a very interesting one. In the scripture we read today we find that God promises Abraham that he will have more descendents than the stars in the sky. Now that’s a really good metaphor, and if you’ve ever gone out into a dark night out in the country and looked up into the sky and saw how many stars there are it is enough to drive you to your knees.

Pam’s dad lives out in rural Eastland County, about a mile from the nearest paved road. On cold, moonless nights you can easily see the Milky Way, the galaxy that our solar system is a tiny part of.

This photo was taken by a friend of mine, Robert Miller. He is into night sky photography and took this image down at the Big Bend that clearly shows the milky way. What a great photo. Just look at all those stars!

Just for grins I looked up on the Interwebs how many stars in the sky. Scientists don’t know an exact number (I guess they are still counting them…), but the seemingly agreed upon guesstimate is about 10 to the 12th power. That means a 1 with 12 zeros behind it. I have no idea what a number that big is called, but it’s a lot.

So God promises Abraham he will have that many descendents. Now that is pretty cool, you must admit. But there’s only one problem: Abraham and Sarah didn’t have any kids. Like, none.

Not only that, they were getting on up there in age. And as we as humans age, our chances of having children diminish as the years pass by.

Sarah is frustrated that she hasn’t had any children, so she does something that we find very bizarre today but that was somewhat common at the time: she gives her handmaid to Abraham as a wife so that he can have children through her.

As we talked about last week, children were so important in the Old Testament world. There were no social agencies to take care of the aged. Children were important because that’s who took care of you when you got old. No kids meant a very dire situation for someone as they aged.

So Sarah, frustrated that she can’t conceive children with Abraham, approaches him with the idea of giving him her handmaiden, Hagar, as a wife. But there’s a problem here: Hagar is Egyptian.

One of the big things for the Hebrew people in the Old Testament is that the Israelites are God’s chosen people, selected out of all the people on earth to have a special–and exclusive–relationship with God.

All throughout the Old Testament writings you will see warning after warning about the Hebrew people marrying people who weren’t Hebrews. It was a really big deal. The warnings pointed out that doing so would lead to the Hebrew people worshipping the false Gods of these other people, and sure enough, these warnings proved to be true when they were ignored.

So Hagar, even though she is Egyptian and not one of God’s promised people, is given to Abraham as a wife. As sure enough, soon after she becomes pregnant. There’s a lot of drama that then happens between Sarah and Hagar that you can read about in Genesis 16, but the bottom line is that Hagar does give Abraham a son named Ishmael, which means “God hears.”

As we have talked about in the past, having male children was super important at the time. The family name and almost all of the property passed from the father to the first born son, a right known as “primogeniture.” It’s sexist (hey, what about the daughters!), and not fair, but that’s unfortunately the way it was back then.

So Hagar has Ishmael, giving Abraham a male heir. Problem solved, right? Uh, no. While Ismael is a male, he doesn’t count because his mother is an Egyptian. Abraham’s true heir will have to be Hebrew.

Abraham was 86 when Hagar had Ishmael, so you can tell he’s getting on up there in age.

And yet God promises Abraham will have more descendents than the stars in the sky. How?

Readers Digest version: Sarah does conceive, and she gives birth to a boy that they name Isaac. The name means “he will laugh,” and he was named that because Abraham and Sarah both laughed when God told them they would have a child. I love it when God does that!

Having a child will change your life. It changed Abraham’s and Sarah’s, no doubt about that. And having two wives that don’t like each other is a big change as well. But there are other changes that Abraham faced that challenged him.

One of those changes happens in Chapter 22 of Genesis. In that chapter God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac, go to Mount Moriah, and then to sacrifice him as an offering to God.

Now it’s important to remember that child sacrifice to gods was a pretty common pagan practice at the time, especially for the false god Molech. Remember, Isaac is the son that Abraham and Sarah prayed so long for and which they were so happy to have. And now God was calling Abraham to purposefully kill that son?

Abraham is torn. He wants to remain faithful and loyal to God, but Isaac is the son that he and Sarah finally had after years of waiting. I’m pretty sure he didn’t get much sleep the night before the journey. But he is loyal and does what God asks, only to be stopped at the last second by an angel from God.

So, here are the changes in Abraham’s life: got married to Sarah, but couldn’t have kids. Married his wife’s handmaiden, Hagar, and had a son, but this caused mondo trouble between Sarah and Hagar. Finally has a son with Sarah named Isaac, but then is asked by God to sacrifice that son. Is going to be loyal and do so but is stopped at the last minute by an angel. Whew, that’s a lot of changes!

But wait, there’s more! What we haven’t looked at yet is geography. Not only does all this happen to Abraham, but it does so while he is traveling around.

Abraham grew up in Ur, an ancient city located in what is now the southern part of Iraq. When Abraham is a young adult God calls to him and tells him to go to the land of Canaan. God tells him that the land of Canaan will belong to his relatives and that God will give it to them. So Abraham and some other relatives, being faithful to God, pack everything up and head to Canaan, which we know now as the Holy Land.

Their first stop on the trip was the city of Haran, located in what is today the country of Turkey. They stay there a while and then God tells Abraham to go to Canaan, so they do and settle in a town called Shechem. They stay there for a while, but then comes a famine in Canaan and they head to Egypt to find food.

They get to Egypt and through some conniving and semi-deceit (more on that later) Abraham becomes pretty prosperous. But then they get kicked out of Egypt (again, more on that later) and head back and settle at the Negev, but Abraham’s and his cousin Lot’s herds were too numerous to be supported at the same spot. So Lot went toward Sodom and Abraham went the other way.

But then there is a war and Lot gets captured and taken as a prisoner, but Abraham puts some men together and they go and rescue Lot and the others that had been taken.

Then Abraham settled down near Hebron, located on the plain of Mamre. And that’s when all the drama with Sarah and Hagar happens.

While Abraham is lifted up as one of the great leaders not only of our faith, but also that of Jews and Muslims (The Muslims come from the line of Ischmael, by the way.). But he wasn’t a perfect person. No.

When they are going to Egypt to find food, he becomes worried that because his wife Sarah is so beautiful that the leaders in Egypt will kill him and take Sarah as their wife. So he comes up with a plan. He will tell the leaders that Sarah is his sister, not his wife, and then he will be safe. He convinces Sarah to go along with the ruse and that’s what they do.

Pharaoh’s people do take notice of Sarah, and thinking she is Abraham’s sister, take her to Pharaoh. But then a plague breaks out with Pharaoh’s people and they figure out that Sarah is Abraham’s wife, so they basically give a lot of livestock to Abraham to make him go away. So he takes the sheep and goes.

So even with his relationship with Sarah Abraham goes through some pretty stressful changes!

So what can we learn about change from Abraham?

I think the first is to always believe in God, even when things don’t make sense.

Abraham believed God that he would have more descendents than stars in the sky. Even though he was getting old and didn’t have any children at all, he believed God. In verse 6 of the scripture we read today, we read, “And he [Abraham] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Notice that first Abraham believed God, and it was in doing so that he received righteousness.

Now the term righteous gets a bad rap in our world. One of the reasons it does is because so many times it is used with another word: self righteous. Self righteousness is a bad thing, where you believe yourself to be superior or better than others. But righteousness just means being right or correct. Synonyms include: goodness, virtue, moral, justice, and honest. Those are all good things!

So we can learn from Abraham that even in the midst of change, even massive changes in our lives, our belief in God will result in our righteousness. Not “self righteousness,” and we need to be on guard against that evil, but we should seek to be righteous. Humble righteousness is a good thing.

Another thing I think we can learn from Abraham about change is that relationships change over time. Look at Sarah and Hagar. Talk about change! But even in the midst of all our relationships God is still faithful. God will get us through. Even if we try to convince a pharaoh that our wife is really our sister (and please, please don’t try that), God can cause good things to come out of difficult situations.

The third thing I think we can learn about change from Abraham is that God’s timing is different from our timing. Abraham and Sarah didn’t think they would ever have children, but in their old age God granted them their wish of a child. And that one child then leads to more children, and more children, until now, thousands and thousands of years later, we teach our kids to sing, “Father Abraham, had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you. So let’s all praise the Lord.” (Which is a great song to sing for Father’s day, if you ask me.)

God didn’tanswer Abraham’s and Sarah’s prayers then they wanted him to, when they were younger, but it happened when God needed it to happen.

As humans we are often so impatient with God. We expect God to answer our prayers with two-day delivery, just like the stuff we order from Amazon. We are an impatient people, seeking instant gratification in so many areas of our lives.

That’s why I like gardening. Gardening teaches you patience. You can’t just plant a tomato plant and expect to receive red, ripe tomatoes in a couple of days. You have to be patient, but the result in doing so is so delicious that it is worth the wait.

God hears our prayers, and God answers our prayers. But God, the creator of time, gets to choose the time to answer our prayers. We don’t get to pick the delivery date. God does.

So my challenge to you this father’s day is to believe in God. Be righteous (but not self-righteous). Trust that God has a plan, that it’s a good plan, and that his plan will come about in his time, now ours.

After all, God’s plan for Jesus Christ was perfect. It didn’t happen the way humans thought it should have happened, and it didn’t happen at the time people thought it would happen, but it did happen and was good. Jesus ended up defeating death, and giving us victory over death as well, by himself dying and then rising from the grave three days later. What a great way to save the world!

Trust in God in the midst of change. God knows what he’s doing. Just ask Abraham.

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

Change: Naomi and Ruth

Change: “Naomi and Ruth”
A Message on Ruth 1:6-18
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
June 13, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Ruth 1:6-18 (NRSV)

6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

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Today we begin a new sermon series that we will follow all the way to Advent, which is the season leading up to Christmas. The title of this series is “Change,” and during this series we will be looking at people of the Bible that experience some great changes in their lives.

We have all gone through a lot of change this past year, and it looks like we will continue to experience change in the future.

Change is constant. Always has been, always will be. Time marches on and things change, even when we don’t want them to. But as Christians, the important thing is how we respond to change.

Today we kick off this sermon series by exploring two women who experienced some major changes in their lives.

The story of Naomi and Ruth is found in the book in the Bible named after Ruth. It is a true story of tragedy, of hope, and of faithfulness.

The story begins with our first scripture that we read today. It starts in a city that is familiar to our ears but that we usually only hear at Christmas: Bethlehem. There was a man named Elimelech (try saying that 10 times real fast) who lived in Bethlehem who had a wife named Naomi and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Life is good in Bethlehem for the Elimelech family. Well, it was, until a famine hit.

It’s hard for us to imagine the difficulties of a subsistence living. If the crops grew, you ate. If they didn’t, well you went hungry. And hunger will make you do some pretty dramatic things. In the case of Elimelech it meant uprooting the whole family and traveling, by walking, of course, to a place where they heard the crops were better and there was food to eat: Moab.

The distance from Bethlehem to Moab is somewhere between 30-50 miles, depending on which scholar you want to believe. One of the challenges in determining that distance is that Moab is an area, not a city, so depending on where in Moab they went they could have gone 30 mile or they could have gone 50.

Now for us today that doesn’t seem like a very long journey. Hop in the car and we can be 30 miles away in Tyler in about 45 minutes, depending on what part of Tyler you are going to and what the traffic is light. But back in the time of Elimelech a day’s journey on foot was about 10 miles per day. So it would have taken three to five days to make the trip.

As the crow flies it’s not that long of a distance, but the problem is that Bethlehem is on the west side of the Dead Sea, and Moab is on the east side. So they had to basically walk around the Dead Sea to get to Moab.

There were no Uhauls, so everything the family had they would have taken with them. Perhaps they had a donkey or two, but still that’s traveling light if you ask me.

So they get to Moab and sure enough, there is food there. So they are in Moab for about 10 years before tragedy strikes: Elimelech dies. We aren’t told how he dies, whether it was in a war or of disease or what, but he dies. That leaves Naomi a widow, which is bad, but she has her two sons, which is good.

In those times children were so important because there were no security programs for people as they got older. As people aged they lived with their adult children, who took care of them.

It was especially important for women at the time because they were very limited in the ways they could make a living. If they had no husband and no children to support them, they were often left with no choice but to beg or engage in prostitution just to live.

Well after Elimelech dies, that’s the situation Naomi finds herself. Both her sons die. Like Elimelech, we don’t know how they die, but just know that they did.

So Naomi is really in a pickle. She has no husband. She has no children. She has lost all forms of financial support, not to mention the emotional heartbreak of going through the death of her husband AND her sons.

Can you imagine the stress and anxiety Naomi is going through at this moment? One of the things people often think to themselves when major tragedy strikes is “Is God punishing me for something I’ve done wrong?”

It’s something we don’t really want to say out loud to anyone else, but if you’re like me, you’ve thought it. I think it’s a common human emotional question.

The times I have been visiting with people who are brave enough to share this thought with me I have tried to respond something like this: God doesn’t cause bad things to happen. Bad things exist because we live in a fallen world, and while God allows bad things to happen, I don’t believe God causes them to happen. So no, I don’t think God is punishing you for some wrong you have committed. I think bad stuff just happens. But God gives us the strength to get through those tough times.

Naomi, with very few options available to her, gets word that the famine condition in Bethlehem has improved. Rain has come, crops are growing, people have enough to eat. So she gets ready to travel back to her hometown from Moab. After all, she has relatives there. Maybe one of them will take pity on her and help her out.

So she tells her daughters-in-law, Orpah (not Oprah, by the way) and Ruth of her plans. She encourages them to go back to their fathers’ homes where they will not only have a support system, but also the possibility that a man may someday marry them.

There is some back and forth discussion between Naomi and here daughters-in-law as well as some weeping moments. Finally Orpah agrees to go back to her father’s home. Now we need to be careful and not be judgemental of Orpah because of her decision. It was certainly justifiable, and the odds of her security at her father’s house are much better than if she had accompanied Naomi or worse, heading out on her own. Orpah’s decision is an honorable one, and just.

So while Orpah makes the choice to return to her father’s home, Ruth is adamant that she will go with Naomi.

Now let’s think about Ruth’s perspective for a moment. She is from Moab. It’s home to her. She knows the land and knows the people. If she goes with Naomi she is trading what little “known” things she has in her life for a lot of unknown things. She will be traveling to a different country that speaks a different language. (The residents of Moab spoke Moabite, which is similar to Hebrew, which Naomi spoke, being from Bethlehem. While similar it is different.)

There is so much that is unknown for Ruth.

As humans the things we fear the most often have to do with the unknown. We fear what our health will be like as we get older and age because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We worry and fear about finances because we don’t know how much we will need when we retire, or if we will have extreme medical costs that will take everything we have saved. We worry about relationships because we don’t know how it will turn out or if we will grow closer or further apart over time.

We fear the unknown. We really do.

But even with all the unknowns ahead of her, Ruth makes the decision to stay with Naomi. She not only decides to go with Naomi, but to change her life in order to support Naomi. Listen to what Ruth tells Naomi:

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried. Ruth 1:16:17

Ruth ends up going with Naomi to Bethlehem. And the story has a happy ending. Ruth ends up marrying Boaz, a relative of Naomi.

Not only that but Ruth and Boaz have a son named Obed, who in turn has a son named Jesse, who just happened to be the father of a guy named David. (As in King David.)

Ruth, even though she wasn’t an Israelite but a foreigner, (and remember the Israelites were not supposed to marry foreigners), ends up being listed in the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Only five women are listed in that genealogy of Jesus, and Ruth is one of them!

So what can we learn about change from Naomi and Ruth?

I think the first thing we can learn is to overcome our fear of the unknown with a trust in God. When we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, when we start worrying about the “unknowns,” we can trust God that he will get us through it. In Ruth’s case, she overcame her fear of the unknown by being willing to go to another country with another language with a woman who was not a blood relation (which was a really big deal back then). God then blesses Ruth with not only a husband, but with being in the lineage of the Savior of the World: Jesus Christ.

Another thing I think we can learn from Naomi is to never give up no matter how bleak things look. And you have to admit that things that for Naomi thing looked very, very bleak for a while.

Psychologists tell us that there are certain things that, when we experience them, cause us anxiety and stress. They even have a list, called the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, or The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. You can find it online and take it yourself if you want to see where you fit in.

I went to a site on the interwebs and did just that, but instead of doing it for myself I did it for Naomi. I checked the boxes that Naomi would have checked if the inventory had been around back then. For example, death of a spouse, death of a close family member (her sons), change in financial status, etc. I added up the scores and came up with a total of 333.

So what does that mean? Well the scoring guide says that 150 points or less means a low susceptibility to stress-induced health breakdown, 150-300 points means about a 50 percent chance of a major health breakdown within two years, and 300 points or higher means an 80 percent chance of a major health breakdown within two years.

Naomi’s score was 333. That’s a lot of stress!

And yet Naomi came through all that stress. She trusted in God to take care of her, and God did. God worked in ways Naomi could not imagine, but in ways that worked for her good. Like Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Trust in God during those difficult, stressful times. God doesn’t abandon us, but in fact is “near to the brokenhearted.” Psalm 34:18

My challenge to you this week is to trust in God when you experience changes in your life. God promises to never leave us or forsake us. During those dark nights cling to the light of Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection give us power to overcome anything the world can throw at us.

Change happens. Change will come. But God doesn’t change. God’s love for us is constant, regardless of our circumstances. God’s love is much, much more powerful than change.

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


A Message on Deuteronomy 28:1-14
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
June 6, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Deuteronomy 28:1-14 (NRSV)

1If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; 2 all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God:
3 Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.
4 Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.
5 Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
6 Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.
7 The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you; they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways. 8 The Lord will command the blessing upon you in your barns, and in all that you undertake; he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 9 The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. 10 All the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. 11 The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you. 12 The Lord will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings. You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow. 13 The Lord will make you the head, and not the tail; you shall be only at the top, and not at the bottom—if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I am commanding you today, by diligently observing them, 14 and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I am commanding you today, either to the right or to the left, following other gods to serve them.

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Today we are celebrating something pretty special. Today we celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of this church.

Now to put this in perspective, this church was founded in 1846. Texas became a state in 1845 and was all of one year old when this church was founded.

Since then it has gone through some changes. The name of the denomination has changed several times, from the Methodist Episopal Church, to the Methodist Episcopal Church South, to Methodist Church, and then in 1968 it became the United Methodist Church.

I don’t know about you, but 175 years is a long time if you ask me. A long, long time.

Like many organizations, who we are as a church today has been shaped by the roots of our past. And our roots go very, very deep in the red dirt of the Cherokee County soil. I think I can confidently say that this church has made a difference in the lives of people not only in Jacksonville and Cherokee County, but also all over the world.

In the scripture we read today from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, we find Moses, who is credited with writing not only the book of Deuteronomy, but the first five books of the Bible, reminding the Hebrew people of the promises God has made for the Jewish people. We find that their roots go very, very deep as well.

Here’s a quick history. (Take deep breath, then read quickly.) If you go back several generations we find God promising Abram (later to become Abraham) that his relatives will live in what is called the Promised Land, and that he will have more descendents than the stars in the night sky or the grains of sand on the beaches.

Abraham and Sarah have Isaac, then Isaach and Rebekah have Jacob, and then Jacob has 12 sons with four different women. One of those sons, Joseph, is Jacob’s favorite (thus the coat of many colors), causing his brothers to be jealous enough to sell him into slavery. Joseph ends up in Egypt where he works his way through the ranks twice to become the second most powerful person in the land. When a widespread famine hits the Holy Land the brothers go to Egypt looking for food, and after some deception Joseph reveals who he is to his brothers, who go back and bring all their families and their father Jacob to Egypt.

But then Egypt gets a different pharaoh, one who turns the Hebrew people into slaves and mistreats them. The Hebrews are in Egypt for 430 years until God calls a guy named Moses to lead them out to the promised land. The then-pharaoh is stubborn and it takes 10 plagues to convince him to finally let the people go, but he finally does. Moses leads them through the Red Sea and then out into the desert. Then, at Mount Sinai, God gives Moses the 10 commandments and the rest of the laws we find in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus.

Today’s scripture is where Moses is telling the people, these people who have just come out of slavery, what God promises them. Good things are coming. Lots of good things.

But… yes, there’s a but. Over and over Moses tells them that these things will happen only if they follow God’s commandments and laws. “If you will only obey the Lord your God…”

While Moses lived thousands and thousands of years ago, I believe that same holds true with us today. Good things–great things!–will happen not only to this church but to Jacksonville and Cherokee County “if we will only obey the Lord our God.”

As Christians we have the benefit of our history having the Holy Bible that tells us about Jesus Christ, the messiah, who came to earth in human form, taught and performed miracles, and then willingly went to the cross so that the chasm between God and humans could be bridged. We have his teachings, his words, available to us through the Bible, forming not only our history but also our future.

But, to quote Moses, “If you will only obey the Lord your God.” God will not bless sin. He forgives it, that is true, but

You see, our history is really “His Story,” the story of Jesus. His Story is one of compassion and grace, yet firmly standing for what is right and holy. “His Story” is about putting others before ourselves, about loving God with all that we have and loving others. It is about living for God rather than living for ourselves. “His Story” is our story.

So my challenge for you today is to remember “His Story.” Live knowing our history as a church, and our history as Christians. And always remember that our history is “His Story.”

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

Good Workers

“Good Workers”
A Message on 2 Timothy 2:14-17A, 20-26
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
May 2, 2021, Methodist Readiness School Sunday
By Doug Wintermute

2 Timothy 2:14-17A, 20-26 (NRSV)

14 Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. 16 Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene.

20 In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. 21 All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work. 22 Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, 25 correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, 26 and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.

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Today is one of my favorite Sundays of the year: Confirmation Sunday!

The confirmation process for these eight young women and men began in January when we started confirmation classes. Between now and then they have met weekly with me for an hour, and also met with their adult mentors an hour each week.

They have read scriptures and engaged in deep theological discussions on such subjects as the nature of God, the Trinity, creation, why there is evil in the world, and the incarnation of Jesus. They have studied and explored the topic of salvation, answering such questions as “What is salvation?,” “What is required for salvation?,” “What are the benefits of salvation?,” and “How does one live out salvation?” They have discovered more about the Holy Spirit, the church, and what happens after we die.

In other words, this has not been a small, easy task for these young folks. They have worked hard, studied hard, and when appropriate played hard. And I am very proud of them.

Today they take the next step in their spiritual journey. Today they make the conscious decision to proclaim Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, affirming their faith, and in the case of three of them, also being baptized.

In the scripture we read today we find the apostle Paul writing to his young protege Timothy and giving him advice on how those who follow Jesus should conduct themselves.

In the early church that Paul is referring to, disagreements that had broken out between the followers of Christ. These disagreements had turned in to quarrels, sometimes over the smallest of things. And when that happens people tend to focus on those issues and lose sight of the big picture of what it means to follow Jesus.

In Mini Methodist Bible Study Wednesday I asked the kids what were some things that people disagree on. Turner Wade came up with a good one: what brand of pickup truck is best?

Now I don’t know how smart these kids are in school. I don’t know what their grades are in math, or science, or even English or Spanish, but if you could have been present Wednesday you would find out that they know a lot about trucks. Not only that, but they are very passionate about the topic as well.

Good natured quarrels broke out among them, each one proclaiming the superiority of the brand they preferred and loudly expounding supportive arguments for their choice.

And in doing so they lost focus on what we were there for: Bible study. It was a great example of what Paul is talking about in the scripture we read today.

The confirmands that came forward today stayed focused on the main thing these past few weeks. They asked deep, probing theological questions, and great follow-up questions, and sometimes even great follow-up questions to the follow-up questions.

They were well aware of the seriousness and the ramifications of the decisions they made today. I am confident of that. And I am proud of them for that.

In the scripture we read today Paul writes to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”

I believe that is what these confirmands did today. They presented themselves to God, either through a proclamation of faith and/or baptism to be a follower of Jesus Christ, a worker for the kingdom. They have presented themselves as workers who have no need to be ashamed, able to rightly explain the word of truth to those they come in contact with.

I also believe that they will fulfill Paul’s words in verses 24-25: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.”

Today is a great day for all of us to remember our own baptisms and affirmations of faith. No matter our age it is good to remember that we are workers for Jesus Christ, called by him to help bring God’s kingdom to earth through the things we say and the way we act. We are not to be “quarrelsome,” but “kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.”

That is what the world needs now. The world is dying (sometimes literally) to hear the Good News, and it’s our job to share it with them.

So my challenge to you today is to be like these confirmation students: present yourself as a worker who has no need to be ashamed. Be able to rightly explain the word or truth. Avoid being quarrelsome (boy, do we need that now), and instead with kindness, grace, and above all love, tell others about the great things God has done, not only with words, but by actions, too.

That is certainly more important than which brand of pickup truck is best.

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

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

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!

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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.

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

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.

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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

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,

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.

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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

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.

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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

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.

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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

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.

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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:]

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.