Wesley’s Questions: “Am I A Hypocrite?”


Wesley’s Questions: “Am I A Hypocrite?”

A Message on Matthew 7:1-5

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

March 10, 2019

By Doug Wintermute



Matthew 7:1-5 (NRSV)


“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”


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Today we begin a new sermon series titled “Wesley’s Questions” based on the 22 questions that members of John Wesley’s “Holy Club” at Oxford University asked themselves every day.


John Wesley never sought to create a denomination. He became a priest in the Church of England (what we know as the Anglican Church today) and became worried that the church wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do in terms of reaching those in the lower strata of society in England.


While studying at Christ Church at the University of Oxford he and his brother, Charles, started meeting with other students not only as a way to practice spiritual disciplines but also to hold one another accountable to living a Christian life.


They started this group in November 1729 with only four members, but it soon grew. They would spend three or four evenings each week for prayer, Bible study, theological discussion, and accountability. The group grew as time went on.


Now it’s important to note that they were ridiculed by the other students at Oxford. They derided them with the term “Holy Club,” because of their pious devotion. They also called them “Methodists” because of their methodological approach to practicing spiritual disciplines. Both names stuck and actually were used by group members to describe themselves.


One of the ways they were methodical was by having a list of 22 questions that they reflected on every day during their devotions. Yes, 22. I’ll put a link in my message that I post online where you can access all 22 of them. (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/everyday-disciples-john-wesleys-22-questions)


They would ask themselves these questions every day as part of their spiritual disciplines. They didn’t have to, they wanted to. And they did.


The first one on the list is this: “Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?”


That’s a good one to start with. And that is the one we are starting our sermon series with today.


It’s interesting because even though the Holy Club members were asking this question of themselves back in the 1700s it is still a relevant and important question for us to ask ourselves today. As followers of Jesus Christ, do we intentionally or unintentionally create the impression that we are better than we really are? Are we hypocritical in what we say and what we do?


First let’s talk about hypocrisy. The word basically means claiming we are living my moral standards or beliefs that our actions prove otherwise. It’s the opposite of honesty and sincerity. But spiritually it goes deeper than that. I think it applies to when we try to live our lives trying to impress others, when we live not for God, but trying to create an impression of something we are not.


Facebook is a good example of this. And yes, I am guilty as well. If you notice on my Facebook page I’ll sometimes when I go fishing I’ll post photos of fish that I catch. I’m trying to impress on everyone looking at my page that I am a highly skilled fisherman, that I not only know how to catch fish, but that I can also do it as well.


What I don’t post on Facebook is when my lure gets tangled in some brush or on an underwater log. I don’t post when I lose a lure. I don’t post when I get skunked and don’t catch any fish. I don’t post when I get a birdnest on my baitcasting reel that takes me 15 minutes to untangle.


We only put the good stuff on Facebook, don’t we. Facebook presents how we want to be perceived, not how we really are.


And with the new photo software built into the cameras of our phones the photos we take of ourselves and others are automatically “touched up” and don’t represent reality. Have you ever known someone who takes and posts a bunch of selfies on their page and then when you meet them in real life you kind of go “Yahhhha.” You see that the smooth, unblemished skin is neither smooth nor unblemished. The reality doesn’t match the perceived image.


The trouble is when we view these posts that others make it can make us feel inferior, that we don’t have it going on like other people. I think that’s why it’s important to view social media posts with a grain of salt… and sometimes a pinch instead of a grain.


What we don’t see on the posts of people we think have it all together are the sinks full of dirty dishes, piles of laundry everywhere, unmade beds, arguments with spouses or children, unpaid bills, and tears of sorrow and frustration. We are shown views of happy faces and happy people, not the frustrations, the sorrows, the betrayals, the struggles of everyday life. No one posts a photo of their kid with a certificate for making a “C” in algebra.


I can still remember one of the first lessons I learned in hypocrisy, even though I didn’t even know the word at the time.


I was in first grade and my teacher was Mrs. Ethridge. I know this is going to date me, but every morning we would say the Pledge of Allegiance and then Mrs. Ethridge would pray. Yes, prayer. In public school.


Well one morning during the prayer I noticed that the boy sitting beside me, Terry Johnson, didn’t have his eyes closed all the way. That wasn’t right. You were supposed to have your eyes closed during the prayer, everybody knew that.


So after the prayer I decided to correct this wrong. I raised my hand and Mrs. Etheridge called on me. I said, “Terry didn’t have his eyes closed during the prayer.” I thought I had done so good. Surely Mrs. Etheridge would get on to him and straighten him out, right?


Instead Mrs Etheridge said, “Well, Mr. Wintermute, if you would have had your own eyes closed then you wouldn’t have noticed if Terry’s were closed or not.”


Boom. We didn’t drop microphones back in the day, but if we did it would have been a mic drop moment.


Mrs. Etheridge pointed out my hypocrisy. I had been so worried about Terry doing something wrong that it didn’t even dawn on me that I was doing the same thing. My actions were contrary to what I was claiming as a moral superiority over Terry. And it had a strong impact on me, so much so that I still remember it now decades and decades later.


There are many scriptures in the Bible about hypocrisy.


“Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” — 1 John 4:20


“For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.” — Galatians 6:3


“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” — James 1:26


“You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”– Matthew 15:7-9


“They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” –Titus 1:16


And then the scripture we read today from Matthew’s gospel about pointing out the speck in our neighbor’s eye while we have a log in our own.


This scripture is part of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. It starts off with the beatitudes and then goes on for a couple of chapters with moral instructions. And in the seventh chapter Jesus teaches about judging others, saying that it is hypocritical for us to be judging someone else for something when we may be doing the same thing–only worse–ourselves.


It’s easy to do, isn’t it? “Why would you just look at ol’ so-and-so. Can you believe she did that? I swear she doesn’t have any morals, you know?” Or “ “I can’t believe he calls himself a Christian. He never comes to church yet I’m here every Sunday. I bet he doesn’t tithe, either.”


Jesus points out to his audience (and us!) that we need to be aware of being hypocritical.


He does it again in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the 18th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. There we find a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders of the Jewish people, praying to God and thanking God that he is as holy as he is, unlike some of the other people in the room, including extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even tax collectors.


The Pharisee thinks he is much holier, and therefore better, than the other folks. He’s talking about the specks in other people’s eyes. He is so wrapped up in his self-righteousness that he fails to notice the log in his own eye. Jesus points out that the tax collector was praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” which is a much better and authentic prayer than the so-called religious leader.


Now I think it’s important to note here that we all, to some extent, are hypocrites. We strive to be like Jesus but we fall short, and that makes us hypocrites, unfortunately.


That being said, some Christians don’t work very hard at not being a hypocrite. Some Christians can open a lumber yard with the size and quantity of the logs in their eyes.


It reminds me of the story about a big, burly looking guy that goes to a small town preacher’s house and asks to speak with the minister’s wife. The wife was known to be very charitable and had a reputation for helping those down on their luck.


The man starts telling the preacher’s wife about a family that was really in bad shape. The father was dead, the mother was too ill to work, and yet there were nine children she was responsible for feeding and taking care of.


The man said, “They are about to be turned into the cold, empty streets unless someone pays their rent, which amounts to $400.”


“That’s terrible,” the woman replied. “So, how do you know them?


The man looked sadly at the woman, dabbed some tears from his eyes with his handkerchief, and said, “I’m the landlord.” [Source: http://jokes.christiansunite.com/Hypocrites/Trying_to_Help.shtml]


As Christians we shouldn’t be like the landlord in that story. We should be authentic, transparent, and humble.


When we are not, when we are true hypocrites, not only are we not living into the life of a follower of Jesus Christ but we actually pushing away those who may not have a relationship with Christ. Not only are we not doing good, we’re doing harm.


Years ago a guy named Brennan Manning, who himself had some controversy as a hypocrite, wrote something that the group DC Talk used at the beginning of one of their songs. The song starts with Brennan reading these words:


“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”


Jesus didn’t die on the cross for us to be hypocrites. God didn’t send his only son to die on the cross and give us everlasting life so that we can pretend to be one thing when deep down inside we are something else. Jesus didn’t suffer the beatings, the ridicule, being spit on and slapped and tortured so that we can say we follow him with our lips but then deny him with the way we live our lives, by our actions that so often speak louder than words.


So my challenge to you this week is to NOT be a hypocrite. Let us all check our eyes for logs before we point out the speck in other’s eyes. Do all in your power through spiritual disciplines to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.


God wants us to be authentic. Jesus wants us to truthful and humble.  The Holy Spirit empowers us to be able to walk the talk, to truly be disciples of Christ.


Then we will make disciples of Jesus Christ, instead of driving them away.


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

Short Book, Big Message: 3 John


Short Book, Big Message: 3 John

A Message on 3 John 9-12

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

March 3, 2019

By Doug Wintermute



3 John 9-12 (NRSV)


I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.


Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Everyone has testified favorably about Demetrius, and so has the truth itself. We also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true.


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I chose this sermon series many weeks ago. I had no intention of this being the scripture to preach on the Sunday after the called General Conference of the United Methodist Church in St. Louis. I really didn’t.


But as the saying goes, “God works in mysterious ways.” (Or, as my roommate at seminary, Tommy Earl Burton, sometimes says “God works in mischievous ways,” which I think is sometimes true as well.)


This scripture, which is from the shortest book in the Bible, 3 John, is timely in that it reminds us that even in the very early church there was disagreement between the followers of Christ. And it also gives instruction on how to disagree within the church.


First let’s talk about the book of 3 John. As we talked about last week with 2 John there is a pretty good consensus that the author is John the Evangelist, the same person that wrote the Gospel of John. That person is not to be confused with the person named John who wrote Revelation, known as John of Patmos.


It really is amazing, if you think about it, that it is included in the canon of the Bible, which was adopted in the 5th century. Part of this surprise is due to its short length (only 219 words in the original Greek) but also because it has another distinction: It is the only book in the New Testament that does not mention Jesus Christ by name. Now in the NRSV translation the word Christ is used: “…for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers.” But in the original Greek the word used is Onomatos, which means “the Name.”


3 John is an epistle, or letter. But instead of being written to a specific group of believers or church it is a personal letter, written to a person named Gaius. We don’t know much about Gaius but we do know that the name is Roman. It was a somewhat common Roman name with a few people named Gaius becoming very powerful. The best example of this is was someone named “Gaius Julius Caesar” who is better known just as Julius Caesar. (And for you young folks, no, he is not the person who Caesar salads are named after. “Etu, crouton?”)


We need to understand the importance of “Gaius” being a Roman name. In the early church there was quite the debate if Gentiles, which means non-Jewish people, could become Christians. After all, Jesus was a Jew and the 12 disciples were all Jewish. And so the debate came up as to whether Gentiles could become Christians, and also if they had to become Jewish first in order to become Christian. (That’s why there are so many scriptures in the New Testament about circumcision.)


When Paul, who was Jewish, became converted and became a Christian instead of persecuting the Christians, he referred himself as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul also had the unusual distinction of being not only Jewish but also a Roman citizen.


In the scripture we read from 3 John today we find John the Evangelist writing to Gaius the Roman a personal letter. First he thanks Gaius for the followers of Christ in his area for “walking in the truth.” (We talked about this last week with 2 John.)


But then John the Evangelist makes a turn and starts talking about a controversy in the church. That controversy is named Diotrephes, and apparently he is not “walking in the truth” and is “spreading false charges” against John and the believers.


Here is The Message paraphrase of verses 9-10:  “Earlier I wrote something along this line to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves being in charge, denigrates my counsel. If I come, you can be sure I’ll hold him to account for spreading vicious rumors about us.”


As if that weren’t bad enough, he not only refuses hospitality to traveling Christians but tries to stop others from welcoming them. Worse yet, instead of inviting them in he throws them out.


So we can see that even in the very, very early church there was controversy, there was disagreement. Serious disagreements.


There was certainly disagreement in St. Louis this past week at the called General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The conference was scheduled back in 2016 at the General Conference and was supposed to decide one way or the other the issue of same-sex marriage in the UMC as well as sexuality issues relating to ordination.


The conference was live streamed on the Internet. I tried watching it several times but honestly I was disgusted with what I saw and I had to turn it off. It actually made me nauseous.


The results of that three-day, $3+ million conference is that we’re pretty much right where the church was before the conference began, except we took a public relations beating and now have a poorer image among the unchurched as news stories covered the airing of our denominational dirty laundry.


What did happen was that the Traditional Plan was approved by a close margin but was not amended as supporters of it had hoped it would be in order to make it constitutional. The preliminary plan had parts of it already labeled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council so it is expected to have those same parts labeled unconstitutional again by the Judicial Council.




One pastor, speaking in support of one of the plans, got up and said that those who supported a different plan were like viruses that were infecting the church that would spread worldwide and eventually kill the church. Honest. Tell me how that is Christ-like? Tell me how that is speaking the truth in love?


After the traditional plan passed the police were called in to keep demonstrators from storming the floor of the convention center to protest the vote. Yes, you heard that correctly. Police. At a United Methodist Convention!


Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.


Friends, I am grieved beyond words. And if I am honest, it made me question if I can serve in ministry alongside people who say such mean, hate-filled, and unloving things. Yes, it was done on both sides, but the majority of the things I saw that appalled me were from one specific side. It’s one thing to disagree, but it’s another thing to be hateful and mean and… well… un-Christlike.


This past week I have been tempted many times to write mean, snarky, responses to some of the things posted on social media. But I didn’t. I wanted to. Trust me, I really, really wanted to. The temptation was very real. But I didn’t.


John’s words kept coming back to me: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.”


Don’t sink to their level. Don’t imitate what is evil. Imitate what is good. Seek to be righteous before the Lord and others.


Years ago George Bernard Shaw wrote, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”


As Christians, I believe we are called to stay out of the mud unless we are helping others get out of it.


It’s hard to do, especially with social media today. Someone will post something that really gets to us. We get emotional and we want to strike back. We want revenge. We want to show them. And so we post things in the passion of the moment that are not loving, that are mean, that are not Christ-like.


It often sounds like a couple of first-graders on the playground. “Oh yeah, well you are….”


And back and forth it goes, wallowing in the mud.




Now someone might point out that Jesus got angry with the money changers and vendors in the temple and drove them out with a whip. That is true. Jesus did that. But that is righteous indignation. That is being angry but without sinning. It is okay for us to have righteous indignation as well, but it needs to be tempered with love. Everything we do needs to be tempered with love. Don’t let anger lead to sin.


Paul, writing in Ephesians 4, quotes from Psalm 4:4 when he says, “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. — Ephesians 4:25-27.


It’s easy to say but hard to do. So hard to do. It is a human reaction to hit back–harder!. If we let emotions drive our theology (which is not a good thing, by the way) then we will hit back. But if we focus on God and the cross of Jesus Christ we can overcome those emotions.


Back in my junior high days in Cooper, TX I played football in 8th grade. One of the things told to us (I don’t remember if it was our coaches or just an “urban legend” among us players) was that if you hit your opponent harder than they hit you then you won’t feel it and it won’t hurt.


I was about 80 pounds soaking wet back then, and that is being gracious on the heavy side. One night we were playing Wolfe City for the district championship. I was short and small so I normally played wide receiver. (We never passed, so it was a relatively safe position for me to play.)


Wolfe City had a big ol’ boy named Willy Woodberry who, in 8th grade, stood about 6’1” and weighed close to 275. He was making a mess of our offence and we were taking a beating. Our coaches called a timeout and told me to come in and play tight end instead of wide receiver and to block whoever was across from me.


We broke the huddle and I did as I was told. I lined up as tight end on the right side and when I looked across to see who I was going to be blocking, guess who it was? That’s right, Willy Woodberry. It was going to be a battle of the Ws, Wintermute at 80 pounds vs. Woodberry at 275 pounds.


I remembered the saying about hitting the other player harder than they hit you. That’s what I was going to do. I was going to hit Willy so hard that he would fall backward on the ground. I was going to hit him so hard he would think a train had hit him.


We snapped the ball and I launched myself at Willy. I aimed for his thighs, thinking my impact would drive his legs out from under him and he would fall helplessly on the ground. Yeah. Tha’s the ticket.


That didn’t happen. I bounced right off of him. I don’t even think I slowed him down as he plowed right over me. Not only that, but those seemingly size 18 cleats (I have no idea what shoe size he wore, but they seemed that big.) stepped on my hand as he drove into the backfield and tackled our quarterback for a loss.


It was then that discovered that the saying about hitting others harder than they hit you was not true. It was a lie. A big lie. The laws of physics about displacement of kinetic energy being relative to mass times acceleration were the real truth, and he had a lot more mass than me. And it hurt. Really hurt. Bad.


I lasted that one play before the coaches put in a bigger player with more mass to try and block Willy. He didn’t do much better. We still lost. I was just happy to survive. Seriously.


Sometimes in our world we act like that “hitting the other person harder” is true. When something offends us (and God help us for being so offended by every little thing today) we think that if we can hit the other person back harder than they hit us then we will feel better about ourselves.


But it isn’t true. Revenge is not sweet, but bitter. There is a saying that “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.”


Jesus himself said,  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” — Matthew 5:38-42


And he doesn’t stop there. He goes even further: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5:43-48


Which brings us back to 3 John: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.”


So, my challenge to you this week is to be very conscious not to do evil. Love everyone, even those you disagree with, even your enemies. Consciously imitate what is good, not what is evil.

Remember that Jesus loved even those who crucified him. Remember that Jesus loved us, every person, so much that he was willing to die for us.


I do not know what will happen as a result of our General Conference last week. I am afraid we will witness the same thing this next year during our regular General Conference, but I just don’t know. And I’m okay with that.


What I do know is that instead of worrying about that I should focus on living my life like Jesus Christ. I should focus on living out the great commandment of loving God and loving others with all that I have and all that I am. I should make sure that if I get angry it is in righteous indignation and not in a false “eye for an eye” motive. Daily I should focus on John’s words to “not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.”


And don’t try to hit others harder than they hit you. It didn’t work for me against Willie Woodberry, and it won’t work for you.


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

Short Book, Big Message: 2 John

Short Book, Big Message: 2 John

A Message on 2 John 4-6

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Feb. 24, 2019

By Doug Wintermute



2 John 4-6 (NRSV)


I was overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father. But now, dear lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning—you must walk in it.


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Today we continue our sermon series “Short Book, Big Message,” which looks at the shortest books of the Bible, by examining the next-to-the-shortest book of the Bible: 2 John.


Now there is some confusion over 2 John simply from the title. The Bible has the Gospel of John but then also three epistles, or letters, that are titled 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John.


It’s always a fun time in confirmation class when I have the students look up scriptures from one of the epistles of John. Often they will open to the Gospel of John and if the scripture is in say 2 John they will go to the second chapter of the Gospel of John. It can get confusing!


When it comes to who wrote these epistles most scholars agree that it is the same person that wrote the Gospel of John. Sometimes called “John the Evangelist,” there is good scholarship that supports this theory.


Ancient tradition has it that this same John wrote the book of Revelation but most scholars today believe it was another person named John. They base this primarily on the time Revelation was written and so call the author of Revelation “John of Patmos.”


So, back to 2 John. Like I said it is the second shortest book in the Bible. It consists of only 245 words in the original Greek. Like the other shortest books of the Bible it consists of only one chapter. It is divided into only 13 verses.


One of the interesting things about 2 John is that the letter is written to a woman. It beings with “The elder to the elect lady and her children.”


Now we don’t know exactly who this lady is but we do know that it is unusual for any of the biblical epistles to be written to a woman. It proves that women had an active role in the early church not only as followers of Jesus Christ but also in leadership roles of the early church.


The term “elect” does not mean she was a politician but was a phrase used by the early church to refer to the followers of Jesus Christ.


While we know she is a follower of Jesus Christ don’t know her name, where she lives, or why he is writing her.


There is a lot of speculation about her identity. One theory says that it is a metaphor for the Church. The “lady” is the church itself and her “children” are the Christians that make up that local congregation.


Another theory is that the lady is Mary the mother of Jesus. If you remember when Jesus was on the cross he asked the “disciples whom he loved” to take care of his (Jesus’) mother. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” — John 19:26-27


Under this theory the “children” would be the other children that Mary had after Jesus.


And yet even another theory posits that the letter was written to a woman named “Kyria.” This comes about from the Greek word that is translated at “lady.” Some scholars think that the use of “kyria” in the Greek is not a descriptive word but a proper noun, the name of the person John is addressing. In other words, a lady named Lady.


I don’t ascribe to any of those theories. I believe that John purposefully does not include the woman’s name because of his concerns that if his letter was intercepted or fell into the wrong hands then the woman might be persecuted against. We have to remember that Christians at the time this was written weren’t well-liked by much of society.  The Jews didn’t like them and the Romans didn’t like them. So John could have been cryptic in intentionally not using the woman’s name out of a sense of protection.


Regardless of who was on the receiving end we do know that the letter survived and was accepted into the Cannon of Biblical texts and became part of our Bible.


So why did John write this letter? Well, one of the reasons had to do with some heretical movements that some of the Christians at the time were following.


One of these is called the Docetic heresy. This was the belief that God would never actually physically become human and walk around in the dirt on the earth because God is holy, right? And so Jesus could not have had an actual physical body but by some divine trick only made it look like he had a body. So Jesus only looked like he had a human body but really didn’t. It was an illusion.


Now if this sounds like something that is wrong then you would be right. It is heresy, pretty plain and simple. Jesus was fully human and fully divine. And it’s not just me saying it’s a heresy but it was officially condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.


But at the time John wrote the letter we are exploring today the heresy was beginning to gain some traction and people were leaving the true church to follow it.


John writes in verses 7-9 (which follows right after what we read today):


“Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist! Be on your guard, so that you do not lose what we have worked for, but may receive a full reward. Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” — 2 John 7-9


Knowing that we can come to a better understanding of the term “truth” that John uses in the scripture we read today: “I was overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth…”


“Truth” is an interesting word. In today’s world it is becoming more and more common for people to have an attitude that there are no absolute truths. There is a belief that truth is relative, that what may be true for you may not be true for me. We hear about “relative truth” as opposed to “absolute truth.”


Now I will confess that I am more in the “absolute truth” camp than in the relative truth mindset. I believe that there are absolute truths.


Take gravity, for example. I believe it is a truth that on earth we have gravity. It is a force that pull things down (meaning toward the earth). I believe that even though there are minute fluctuations in gravitational forces relative to altitude that gravity is a constant and its force is relative to mass. (And here lately with the way I’ve been eating I’ve been gaining more mass and thus weigh more.)


I think there are absolute truths in Christianity as well. Some of the best examples of these truths, I believe, are found in our creeds. That’s why we say a creed every Sunday. It proclaims what we as followers of Christ believe to be true.


The Apostles’ Creed starts out with “I believe…” “I believe in God Almighty…” “I believe in Jesus Christ…” “I believe in the Holy Spirit…”


The creeds express what I believe to be absolute truths. It proclaims the basis of our faith, the things that I believe a person must believe as truth if they are going to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ.


If you don’t believe what the creeds proclaim, then you might not be a Christian. For example, if you don’t believe Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and then on the third day he arose, then you might not be a Christian. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.


Truth is important. Jesus tells us in the 14th chapter of John that “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus is the truth.


Another subject that John brings up in the scripture we read today from 2 John is love.


Part of the difficulty of us having a clear understanding of love has to do with our language. When I say I love Buffalo wings I am using the word “love” differently than when I say I love my wife or love my children.


Depending on who you believe there are 5 to 14 different types of love. The word has such different meanings that people can’t even agree on how many different types of love there are!


When John wrote this letter he was pretty focused on what love meant. In another letter he wrote, which we know of as 1 John, we find him writing, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” — 1 John 4:7-8


So God is love. That’s pretty heavy. But John doesn’t stop there. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”


Now that’s some seriously heavy stuff! Love is so powerful that God himself sent his Son, Jesus Christ, the only son he had, and allowed him to be crucified and killed as an atoning sacrifice for the sins that we, as humans, committed. Jesus didn’t sin (another of what I believe to be absolute truths) and yet was killed, not for something that he did, but because of the things we did and do.


Love means that we don’t earn salvation. It’s not through our actions that we are saved. It is through the love of God, as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that saves us from our sins and gives us eternal life.


Listen to the scripture we read today, but this time from The Message paraphrase: “I can’t tell you how happy I am to learn that many members of your congregation are diligent in living out the Truth, exactly as commanded by the Father. But permit me a reminder, friends, and this is not a new commandment but simply a repetition of our original and basic charter: that we love each other. Love means following his commandments, and his unifying commandment is that you conduct your lives in love. This is the first thing you heard, and nothing has changed.” — 2 John 4-6.


Love each other. Love one another. Pretty simple, huh?


Years ago there was a song that was recorded by several people, including the Kingston Trio, Jefferson Airplane, and even David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fame. But the song didn’t achieve popularity until a group named the Youngbloods recorded it. Written by a young man named Chet Powers, the song talks about the importance and power of love.


The lyrics go something like this:


If you hear the song I sing

You will understand, listen

You hold the key to love and fear

All in your trembling hand

Just one key unlocks them both

It’s there at your command


Come on, people now

Smile on your brother

Everybody get together

Try to love one another right now


I think John the Evangelist would be okay with that song. As Christians we are called to walk in the truth and to love one another… right now.


So my challenge for you this week is to to walk in the truth and love one another. Remember John’s words that remind us to live out the great commandment to love God and love each other. And let us not only do this with our words but also with our actions as we walk through this life.


May everything we do, everything we say, every action we take, be grounded and rooted in love. May love be the motivating force of all that we do, even when we disagree with others.




Come on, people now

Smile on your brother

Everybody get together

Try to love one another right now


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


Short Book, Big Message: Philemon

Short Book, Big Message: Philemon

A Message on Philemon 17-21

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Feb. 17, 2019

By Doug Wintermute



Philemon 17-21 (NRSV)


So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.


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Today we continue our sermon series on the shortest books of the Bible by exploring the book of Philemon.


Philemon is one of the epistles, which is a fancy word for letters, from the Apostle Paul. It’s at the very end of his letters not because chronologically it is the last one he wrote, but because it is the shortest. The ordering of Paul’s letters in the Bible are done according to length. That’s why Romans, which is probably the last of the epistles that Paul wrote, is listed first. It’s the longest.


Philemon is the shortest. It only has 335 words in the original Greek language that it was written in. That’s short. In fact, that makes it the third shortest book of the Bible.


Like Obadiah, we don’t hear much about Philemon. There is a reading from Philemon that is included in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a selection of scriptures that, over a three year period, covers pretty much most of the Bible. But there’s only one and it only comes around once every three years.


So here’s the background for this letter. Paul is in prison, which wasn’t all that unusual for Paul. He is in prison in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire at the time. While he is there, he writes letters, including what we know today as Philemon.


The letter gets its name from the recipient. Philemon was a wealthy Christian who lived in the city of Colosse. (Paul’s letter to the church members there is known as Colossians, by the way.) It is believed that Philemon is one of the church leaders in Colosse. He may have even had the house church meet in his house. Paul knew Philemon and describes him as a “dear friend and co-worker.”


The reason for the letter deals with another person, named Onesimus.  Onesimus is a slave owned by Philemon. For some reason, and we don’t know why, Onesimus has run away from Philemon’s household. We don’t know why he ran away. Some scholars suggest that he had stolen some money and fled with it (based primarily on Paul’s promise that if Onesimus owes Philemon anything to put it on Paul’s account). The bottom line is we really don’t know.


What we do know is that Onesimus makes his way to Rome and, either by divine fate or on purpose, he finds Paul in prison there.


Paul and Onesimus visit and get to talking and Onesimus becomes a Christian. He helps Paul out by probably bringing him food and water, and perhaps clothing and blankets, which was common for outsiders to bring to prisoners in those day.


But even though Onesimus is helpful to Paul, Paul makes the decision that Onesimus needs to return to Philemon’s household in Colosse. So he writes this letter for Onesimus to give to Philemon.


The purpose for the letter is to persuade Philemon not to punish or be harsh with Onesimus. Indeed, Paul urges Philemon to no longer see Onesimus as a slave but as a fellow Christian, as a brother in Christ.


It’s interesting the Paul does this. Back in Deuteronomy we find a law for the Hebrew people regarding slaves who have escaped.


“Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. 16 They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.” — Deuteronomy 23:15-16


Paul doesn’t do this, though. He sends Onesimus back but with this letter, urging Philemon not to punish him, but to celebrate him as a brother in Christ.


Now let’s pause for a minute and talk about slavery at the time. Slavery is a sensitive subject but the fact is that it was not only practiced in the first century in the Middle East but it actually goes way back into the early days of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament there were basically two categories of slaves: Hebrew slaves and Gentile slaves.


Hebrew slaves, as it’s title indicates, means that someone of the Jewish faith is a slave. Usually this happened due to poverty. If a Jewish person borrowed money but then couldn’t repay it they often became slaves of the person from whom they borrowed the money.


Gentile slaves were people who were NOT Jewish that were slaves. These usually were the result of wars. When the Jewish people defeated another nation then the people of that nation were often taken as slaves.


There is a differentiation between Hebrew and Gentile slaves because the rules were different. Hebrew slaves were to serve six years and then be freed on the seventh year, according to the Hebrew law. Here, listen to this from the 21st chapter of Exodus:


“When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.” — Exodus 21:1


Non-Hebrew slaves had no such laws releasing them, however. There were much fewer instances in which they could be free. Sometimes they could if they were “redeemed,” but usually they never had the financial resources to do so.


We don’t know which kind of slave Onesimus was.


Now I want to be clear on one thing. The Bible doesn’t say slavery is okay. It’s not. Unfortunately certain verses in the Bible were used to advocate for and justify slavery. After all, “it’s in the Bible.” Slavery is not okay. Today it still exists in certain parts of the world and it happens closer to us than we want to think about in the form of sexual trafficking. It is not okay. Slavery in any form is never okay.


Okay, back to Philemon. Why is it in the Bible? How does is inform how we live our lives today?


First I think it reminds us as Christians to focus more on what joins us than what divides us.


We humans are good at dividing and placing people in specific categories. We love putting people in boxes and putting labels on them. Here are some examples: Politics (Republican or Democrat?) Skin color. What part of town we live in. What language we speak. What college teams we root for. You get the idea.


Years ago Emo Phillips, a comedian, told a story about putting people in categories. It went something like this:


Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”


He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”


He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”


Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”


I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.


But the only label that should matter is “Christian.” “Follower of Jesus Christ.”


The only classification of people that Jesus died for was sinners. And we all are that.


Paul himself writes in his letter to the people in the Galatia area, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:28


Another thing I think we can learn from Paul’s letter to Philemon is that we are called to live in community. We are called to help people others who may find themselves in difficult situations.


Paul goes out on a limb on behalf of Onesimus, a slave, a person who has very few legal rights. Listen to how The Message paraphrases the scripture we read today:


“So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good. I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written.”


Too often we look to Christianity to create protected and trouble-free lives for ourselves. We think that if we love Jesus we will have safe desk jobs far from the front lines of the war. The reality is that being a Christian is more like receiving training as medics and being willing to go into the front lines to seek out those needing help. Instead of giving them medical attention we give them spiritual first aid, seeking to take care of their soul “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9b)


The third thing I think we can learn from Paul’s letter to Philemon is to do the right thing.


Paul mentions in the letter that Onesimus is very helpful to him. Being in prison Paul doesn’t have it easy. The self-centered thing to do is to have Onesimus stay around and help him out. And Paul can rationalize that decision by saying that it would probably be better for Onesimus as well. And it probably would.


But Paul doesn’t do that. He goes to the trouble to write a very persuasive letter to Philemon asking him not only to take Onesimus back, but to change the relationship that Philemon has with Onesimus from one of master and slave to one of brothers in Christ. It’s not the easy thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.


I’m currently reading a book about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German minister and theologian at the time Hitler rose to power in Germany. When Dietrich saw how the Nazis were treating the Jews he and a small group of other pastors did what they could to thwart Hitler’s plans.


Even though he was a Christian and a theologian, Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to kill Hitler with a bomb hidden in a briefcase. And it almost worked. But Hitler only received minor injuries. Bonhoeffer was arrested and put in prison and then, three weeks before the concentration camp he was in was liberated by the Americans, he was executed.


Bonhoeffer knew the Bible said “Do not kill.” But after witnessing the deaths of millions of not only Jews but also civilians and learning about the atrocious medical experiments done on live prisoners he knew he had to do something. He wanted to do the right thing. And if the assassination attempt on Hitler had been successful thousands of lives might have been saved.   


As Christians the right thing to do is often not the easy thing to do. We are called to think of ourselves less and others more. We are called to become involved in some of life’s messiest moments, like lifeguards plunging into the waves of the ocean and swimming as fast as we can to those caught in the undertow of evil, rescuing their souls, and, if need be, breathing new life into them.


Jesus did the right thing, not the easy thing. Jesus could have avoided the cross and smote down all those who slapped, beat, spit-on, mocked, and killed him. He had the power. He had the authority. That would have been the easy thing. But that’s not what he did.


Jesus did the right thing. He not only went to the cross willingly out of love for you, but also out of love for the very people who were assaulting him.


So my challenge to you this week is to remember Paul’s letter to Philemon. As Christians let us focus on what joins us more than what divides us. Let us remember that being a Christian means living in community with others, especially when it comes to helping those in need. And let us do the right thing, even when it’s the hard and painful thing to do.


And if you see someone standing on a bridge, help them, don’t push them.


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

Short Book, Big Message: Obadiah

Short Book, Big Message: Obadiah

A Message on Obadiah 17-21

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Feb. 10, 2019

By Doug Wintermute



Obadiah 17-21 (NRSV)


But on Mount Zion there shall be those that escape,

   and it shall be holy;

and the house of Jacob shall take possession of those who dispossessed them.

18 The house of Jacob shall be a fire,

   the house of Joseph a flame,

   and the house of Esau stubble;

they shall burn them and consume them,

   and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau;

for the Lord has spoken.

19 Those of the Negeb shall possess Mount Esau,

   and those of the Shephelah the land of the Philistines;

they shall possess the land of Ephraim and the land of Samaria,

   and Benjamin shall possess Gilead.

20 The exiles of the Israelites who are in Halah

   shall possess Phoenicia as far as Zarephath;

and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad

   shall possess the towns of the Negeb.

21 Those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion

   to rule Mount Esau;

   and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.


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Today we are beginning a sermon series that is based on the shortest books of the Bible. This 4-week series will take us right up to the beginning of Lent.


Now I’ve had more than one person ask me that if the series is on the shortest books of the Bible if that means the sermons will be short as well. Well, I don’t know about that. We’ll have to wait and see.


There are some books of the Bible that are very long, with Jeremiah topping the list with about 33,000 words (in the original language).


But there are also some books of the Bible that are short. Very short. Today we are going to start with the fourth shortest book of the Bible, Obadiah, with only around 440 words.


Obadiah is the only one of the four shortest books of the Bible that is in the Old Testament. The rest are in the New Testament.


So, let’s start with where Obadiah is located in the Bible. At only 440 words divided into only 21 verses it is easy to miss, especially if you are just flipping through. Obadiah is considered to be one of what are called the “12 Prophets,” also sometimes called the minor prophets.


When I was a kid I thought the minor prophets were prophets that worked underground in mines. I kept seeing them as being similar to the Seven Dwarfs except that there were 12 of them and they were prophets. And miners. Thus the 12 miner prophets. Sigh.


The 12 “minor” prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. In your Bible they are located at the very end of the Old Testament, with Obadiah being the 8th from the end of the Old Testament, and located between Amos and Jonah.


It’s easy to miss. It’s only two pages. And it is so short that it doesn’t even have chapter numbers. It’s just one chapter, so in Biblical notation you don’t even put a “1” as a chapter number. For example, the scripture I just read is simply just Obadiah 17-20.


So, who was this Obadiah and why in the world is his 400 word prophecy included in the Bible?


Let’s start with the name. Believe it or not Obadiah was a pretty common name back in Old Testament times. We find the name “Obadiah” several times in 1 Kings as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles, and also once in Ezra and twice in Nehemiah.


Most scholars believe that these were different Obadiahs and that the Obadiah credited with writing the prophetic message that we find named after him is a different person than the others named.


We really don’t know much about the prophet Obadiah. Not only is his writing short, but he simply doesn’t tell us anything about himself. The name itself means “Worshiper of Yahweh” although the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible lists the name as Abdias, which means “Servant of Yahweh.”


Obadiah lived probably somewhere around 687-586 BC. Compared with other prophets this puts him after Isaiah, toward the end of the time of Jeremiah, and about the same time as Daniel.


So, basically still hundreds of years before Jesus came to earth.


So, what is the big deal about the small book of Obadiah?


It had a lot to do with geography and sibling rivalry, believe it or not. It was the time of the divided kingdom, with the kingdom of Israel in the north with its capital of Samaria, and the kingdom of Judah in the south with its capital of Jerusalem. Just south of Judah was Edom. Even though they were neighbors, Edom and Judah Israel didn’t get along. At all.


The fact the two countries didn’t get along goes all the way back to Isaac and Rebecca. If you remember Isaac and Rebecca were married, and when Rebecca became pregnant she had twins. Jacob and Esau. Esau was the first born with Jacob holding on to his heel. As the first-born son Esau had the right of primogeniture which meant he should inherit most of the wealth and property of the family upon the passing of his father, Isaac.


Esau grew to be a hunter and outdoorsman, while Jacob was more of an inside, academic type. Isaac showed favor to Esau while Rebecca showed favor to Jacob. One day Esau came in from hunting and was super hungry. Jacob had made some lentil stew (lentils are tiny beans, by the way) and Esau wanted some. Jacob said he would give him some in return for his birthright, the  right to inherit most of the wealth and property of the family. Esau agreed and received the stew. (I figure that must have been some really, really good stew.)


Then, when Isaac was dying, Jacob, with the propting of his mother, tricked his dad Isaac into blessing him by making him think he was Esau. After pulling the switch-a-roo Jacob took off, afraid that Esau would kill him.


Well the two brothers went their separate ways and basically started two different countries. God changes Jacob’s name to Israel and he goes on to form Israel, while Esau goes on to form the country of Edom. The name Edom means red, and Esau, when he was born, was red, and the stew that he swapped his birthright for was red as well.


And the two countries don’t get along very well. In the book of numbers we find that as the Israelites travel on their journey from Egypt to the promised land they request permission from the King of Edom to pass through his country. The king refuses, which really angers the Israelites.


So the bad blood between the two countries comes to a head around 587-586 BC when the Babylonians attack the country of Israel and captures and plunders Jerusalem. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some of the Edomites (those living in Edom) may have joined in the plundering. In addition, they helped capture the people of Judah trying to flee the destruction and turned them back over to the Babylonians.


So, there is really bad blood between the two countries.


Obadiah, being a prophet, prophesizes against Edom. He tells Edom basically that they are going to pay the consequences for their evil actions. God is going to punish them, and punish them harshly.


Now we need to remember that when it comes to Old Testament prophets there were certain rules that were followed. If a prophet made a prophecy and it came true, great. It meant he or she was a true prophet. But if a prophet made a prophecy and it did NOT come true, then the punishment was death.


Being a prophet in Old Testament times was tough! The punishment was meant to weed out the false prophets, those who would lead the people astray.


Obadiah takes that chance, though, and issues a prophecy against Edom. In that prophecy he comes down hard on the people of Edom for not helping the people of Judah when they were attacked and for helping plunder the country. He tells them, “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.”


He concludes with what we read today, that God will save God’s people, who will actually rule in Edom. “Those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.”


So what can we learn from this succinct Old Testament prophet named Obadiah?


I think we can learn to trust in God. No matter how bad things get, God is still sovereign and in control. God is still on the throne.


Obadiah could have felt like God had abandoned his people completely. He could have moaned and lamented and complained and whined, “It’s not fair!”


It wasn’t. It isn’t. Life isn’t fair. People get cancer. Children get sick. People who lie and cheat and are unscrupulous in their business practices seem to get away with it an prosper. We age and our bodies no longer function properly. Those that yell the loudest get the most attention.


But as Christians we have to realize that Jesus never said life would be fair. Actually just the opposite. He said in this world we will have trouble. But he also said he would always be with us.


Obadiah doesn’t whine about fairness. Instead he points out that  God is still in control, even when bad things happen.


God is still in control even when bad things happen in our lives. It may not seem like it. It might be hard to believe it. But it is true. God IS in control.


I think another think we can learn from Obadiah is about leaving revenge up to God.


When bad things happen to us, especially at the hands of other people, one of our emotional reactions is to get even, to get revenge. “I’ll get you. I’ll show you. I’ll get even with you.”


Obadiah tells Edom that their punishment will come from God. It reminds me of Paul’s writing in Romans 12:19 where he quotes Deuteronomy 32:35, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”


Revenge is never the way for Christians. There’s a saying that implementing “an eye for an eye” results in making everyone blind.


Jesus didn’t seek revenge. Just the opposite. Even as he was being crucified on the cross by the Roman soldiers, the same ones who had mocked him, beat him, and spit in his face, he asked God to forgive them. Why? Because of love. Love is a much more powerful force than revenge. Much, much more powerful.


Revenge is the Lord’s. Leave it up to him.


The third thing I think we can learn from Obadiah is not to kick people when they are down. He is prophesying that God will punish Edom because the people of Edom did not help out the people of Judah. Not only did they not help out their neighbors, but they actually made things worse by participating in the pillaging and by capturing those fleeing the destruction.


So many in our society today love kicking others when they are down. The smell of blood in the water brings metaphorical sharks from all over to participate in the feeding frenzy. There is no worse example of this than the national media.


Years ago Don Henley, a native Texan and member of The Eagles, wrote a song called Dirty Laundry. Here are some of the lyrics:


Dirty little secrets

Dirty little lies

We got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pie

We love to cut you down to size

We love dirty laundry


Kick ’em when they’re up

Kick ’em when they’re down

Kick ’em when they’re up

Kick ’em when they’re down


That’s not the Christian way. We should comfort people when they are down, not kick them. We should help, not hurt. We should be like Jesus, not like Edom.


So my challenge to you this week is to learn from Obadiah. Trust that God is in control. Turn away from revenge. And help people when they are down, not kick them.


And if you see any of the minor prophets dressed up like the seven dwarfs, please let me know.


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

Methodist Vows: Witness

Methodist Vows: “Witness”
A Message on Matthew 5:13-14

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Feb. 3, 2019

By Doug Wintermute



Matthew 5:13-14 (NRSV)


“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.


14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.


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Today we conclude our sermon series on the vow we take as United Methodists to support the church with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness” by looking at “witness.”


Now you may not know it but “witness” is the newcomer to the vow. It was added to the vow after the 2008 General Conference and I think it is well deserved to be there.


Now a witness is someone who saw or experienced something and is telling someone else about it.


We find the term in the legal profession. During court cases “witnesses” are called to testify on a particular matter. They even have a special name for the place where this takes place called the “witness stand.”


And if you watch those tv shows that have court scenes it doesn’t take long to figure out that with very few exceptions the witness can only testify to what he/she witnessed. They cannot testify to what other people told them or one of the attorneys will object on the grounds that that is hearsay and ask the judge not to allow it. They can’t say what others told them, but only their own personal experience, what they witnessed.


Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter I covered several court cases, both criminal and civil. I was amazed at how the system works, especially when it comes to witnesses. The lawyers would try to get the witness to say things to support their side. There was always a court reporter typing away on one of those little machines that only they know how to use, and rarely but occasionally the judge would as the court reporter to read back a witnesses testimony. The court reporter would and by golly it would be exactly what they said.


Witnesses are a powerful part of court cases.


Another thing I liked was when the judge would want something entered into the record and would say, “Let the record so reflect.”


The Bible, our record, has a lot to reflect about witnesses. Back in Deuteronomy, which contains a lot of the laws the Hebrew people were to follow, we find this about witnesses: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.”  — Deuteronomy 19:15


But when it comes to matters of faith, being a witness has special meaning, and that is what the membership vows are alluding to.


We are to tell others what Jesus Christ has done in our lives. We are to be “witnesses” to others sharing with them our faith story.


Now if I was to tell you, “Go out and witness to people” you might be reluctant to do so. Witnessing has collected some negative connotations over the years. Those connotations include being overly aggressive (what I call “Bible thumping”), spouting a “turn-or-burn” message, and basically espousing what I call a “Jesus-as-fire-insurance” theology.


I’m not in favor of those kinds of witnessing. I think they do more harm than good because they miss the main message that Jesus taught: love.


But the problem arises when we who believe that God is love are reluctant to share our faith with anyone because we don’t want to be perceived as “witnessing.”


And yet… just because some people give witnessing a bad impression we are not relieved from our obligation, our duty, as Christians to share our faith with others.


Listen to these scriptures:


“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” — Romans 10:14-15


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” — Acts 1:8


“And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” — Mark 16:15


Those scriptures (and there are more) tell us that sharing our faith is not something we can opt-out of. We can’t check a little box and say, “Well I’ll be a Christian and I’ll do a lot of these things but I’m going to check the box to opt out of being a witness.”


No. If you are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, if you are going to call yourself a Christian, then sharing your faith is not a option. It is mandatory.


Now I will admit it is not comfortable. It will seem uncomfortable and awkward for almost every person here. But God doesn’t call us to the comfortable places because they don’t bring the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s through the uncomfortable places, like witnessing, that we live into the lives God wants us to live.


Jesus tells us this directly in the scripture we read today from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus straight up tells his disciples they are to share their faith.


Here’s the setup. Jesus gets away from the crowds and goes up on a mountain. His disciples follow him. He then sits down and starts teaching his disciples. He starts off the with what we call the “beatitudes.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… etc.


The last one says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. — Matthew 5:11-12


And then, after telling them that they are going to persecuted and lied about and treated badly, he tells them to be the salt and light of the world.


Here’s verses 13-16 of the scripture we read today but in The Message paraphrase. “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.


“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”


When we are reluctant to witness to others about our faith we put a bushel basket over “this little light of mine.” Instead we should be like the kids song and sing, “If the devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack.”


So how do we “witness”? Here is a tip:


“Make a friend. Be a friend. Lead a friend to Christ.”


Start with making a friend. It really is pretty simple to make friends. Listen more than you talk. Be concerned about them. Treat them the way you want to be treated. Be nice. Pray. Show compassion. Be humble.


Then be a friend. Keep confidences. Don’t hog the conversations. Don’t make it all about you.  Be caring. Show up. Check in.


And then lead that friend to Christ. In the course of your conversations bring up your faith. Tell what difference your faith has made in your life. Tell them personal experiences you have had with Jesus Christ, not in a “I’m holier than you” sense, but more as a sinner saved by grace. Invite them to Sunday School and church. Tell them you’ll be at their house at a particular time to pick them up.


Make a friend. Be a friend. Lead a friend to Christ. That’s witnessing.


Don’t put your light under a basket. Let it shine.


Let the record so reflect.


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


Methodist Vows: Service

Methodist Vows: “Service”
A Message on Matthew 20:25-28

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

January 27, 2019

By Doug Wintermute



Matthew 20:25-28 (NRSV)


But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”


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Let me see a show of hands. How many of you know who David Andrews is? How about Joe Thuney? Trent Brown? Shaq Mason? Marcus Cannon? Anyone? (Bueller? Bueller?)


Okay, let’s try again. How many of you know who John Sullivan is? How about Rodger Saffold? Andrew Whitworth? Austin Blythe? Rob Havenstein? Anyone?


Alright, let’s try another direction. How many of you know who Tom Brady is. (And please, no cursing. God loves him, too.) How about Sony Michel, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, or Rob Gronkowski?


How many of you know who Jared Goff is? How about Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds, or Tyler Higbee?


If you haven’t figured it out by now, those are the names of the starting players on offense for the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams, the two teams who will be playing a week from tonight in Super Bowl LIII.


Now if you didn’t know those first two sets of names don’t feel bad. Those are the offensive linemen for each of the teams, the troops in the trenches. About the only time they get their name announced or shown on tv are when they get called for holding or some other penalty.


And yet… the success of the team is very much dependent on how they do their jobs.


In many ways they have servant roles, don’t they? They serve to protect the quarterback on passing plays, and they serve to create holes for the running backs to run through on running plays.


I think that’s one of the reasons that I can’t stand what I call “look-at-me” touchdown celebrations. One person may have scored the touchdown, but he had a lot of folks doing some serious blocking in order for him to be able to do that. Instead of acting the fool in the end zone with egotistical gyrations exclaiming how great he is he ought to be back at the line of scrimmage giving big ol’ bear hugs to the guys who just blocked the defensive players and made it possible for him to score a touchdown.


Today we are going to continue our sermon series on the vows we make when we join the United Methodist Church by looking at the topic of “service.”


When we join the church we vow to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. So what does it mean to support the church with our service?


I think the best place to begin is with the scriptures, of course.


In the scripture we read from the 20th chapter of Matthew we find Jesus explaining to the disciples about servant leadership. And he tells them that whoever wants to be great has to be a servant.


Now when looking at scriptures it is important to look at their context. What was happening before and after it was written?


In this case we find Jesus trying to prepare the disciples for what is about to happen. In the very next chapter we find Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Going the other way, at the beginning of chapter 20 we find Jesus telling the parable of the workers in the vineyard followed by the third time he tells the disciples about his upcoming death and resurrection.


And then, right after that, the mother of James and John come to Jesus and asks him to place her sons at his right and left hands in his kingdom. Now I find it interesting that the mom makes this request, not James and John themselves. (Was she the original “helicopter mom”?)


Somehow the other 10 disciples catch wind of this and as you imagine they are kind of upset. The scripture we read today is Jesus responding to that anger. He basically is saying that they have it all wrong.


It’s not a competition to see who is the best disciple. That’s a worldly voice. The heavenly voice –the Jesus voice– is an attitude of serving others.


Jesus was telling the disciples that they had to choose which voice to listen to. We are faced with the same choice. So which voice are you going to listen to? Which voice are you going to follow?


Part of the challenge of being a Christian today is to overcome the consumerist mentality that pervades our culture.


Pam and I watch some of these home renovation shows on HGTV, and I there are some things about those shows I just don’t understand.


First of all we can’t figure out how these young couples come up with huge amounts of money to buy these houses. How can you be in your early 30s and have $1.3 million to spend on a house?


But what irritates me even more is when they go through and look at the houses they are so… how should I put this… picky! Oh my gosh, are they picky!


They’ll say things like, “Oh, this looks so dated,” or “I don’t like that,” or “This doesn’t have an open floor plan and I want an open floor plan,” or “This doesn’t have marble countertops. I want marble countertops.” They’ll even go so far to say, “This is horrible,” or “This is ugly.”


We have been trained to be consumers and to be… well… picky. And that even extends when it comes to church, unfortunately. We come to church like we go to a store: with the expectation of getting something from it instead of what we can give to the kingdom of God.


We can develop the mindset of having the church as a spiritual vending machine. We put our money in and then we pick what we want, what we like, and expect to get it. “Let’s see, today I’d like some organ music and only hymns that I know and am familiar with, no kids making noises, I want to sit in my spot in my pew, and I don’t want the sermon to step on my toes. Oh, and I want us to get out on time or even a little early.”


Contrast that with Jesus words: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”


This afternoon our district will be having a leadership meeting. We are basing it on our bishop’s initiative to “We Love All God’s Children.” Our own children’s director, Natalie Dawson, will be there to share about our Mini Methodists program and encourage other churches to offer similar programs.


Natalie will tell you that one big reasons for the success of Mini Methodists is because of volunteers. We simply could not have the program without those with servants’ hearts who volunteer each week.


It takes about 40 volunteers for Mini Methodists to happen every week. A lot of churches are shocked to hear that, but it’s the truth. And it is something most churches could do. It all comes down to having enough people with a servant’s heart willing to do it.


When we join the church we pledge to support it with our service. We don’t pledge that we will just show up for what we will receive, even if that is to charge our spiritual batteries on Sunday and leave. We pledge to support it with our service.


When we think of “service” many things come to mind. We think of the waitstaff of a restaurant when we go out to eat and the “service” they provide us. And if they do a good job we even leave them tips to express our gratitude.


We think of those in the military “service,” who leave families and home to serve their country. Many give years and years of their lives in the service of their country. And some give their lives.


We used to think of “service stations,” where you would pull up in your automobile and a person would pump your gas, check your oil, check the oil in your tires, and wash your windshield. (Our own Kent Westbrook has one the last of these service stations in existence, which I think is really cool!)


There are people like our own Tim Swinney who provide lawn services. Tim and his crew will show up and mow your grass, trim around the sidewalks and streets, and make your place look great.


There are others I could mention, but all of these have one thing in common: the “services” they do are done for others, not themselves.


The Bible is very clear on the point of serving. Here are some examples:


“Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” — 1 Peter 4:10


“It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself.” — Galatains 5:13-14, (The Message)


And what I find to be one of the most beautiful example that Jesus gives of servant leadership, “After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” — John 13:12-14


If Jesus, our Lord and Savior, God’s only Son, came not to be served but to serve, then maybe we ought to do the same thing.


Years ago, 1979 to be precise,  Dylan wrote and recorded a song about serving, appropriately titled, “Serve Somebody.”


Now it has seven verses and I thought about getting my guitar and singing all seven of them, each followed by a chorus, but you will be glad to know that I chose not to do that. (Did I hear an “Amen”?)


But here are some of the lyrics:


You may be an ambassador to England or France

You may like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls


But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes

Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody


You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage

You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage

You may be a business man or some high-degree thief

They may call you doctor or they may call you chief


But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody


So, who are you going to serve? Are you going to serve the devil, or are you going to serve the Lord?


So my challenge to you this week is to serve the Lord by serving in your church. Live out your membership vow to support this church with your service.


To paraphrase John F. Kennedy (who likely paraphrased the poet Kahlil Gibran by the way), “Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.”


And I predict that the Super Bowl next Sunday will be won by the team that has the best servant players, the best offensive line.


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

Methodist Vows: Gifts

Methodist Vows: “Gifts”
A Message on Romans 12:3-8

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

January 20, 2019

By Doug Wintermute



Romans 12:3-8 (NRSV)


For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.


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Gifts are a curious thing, aren’t they?


There’s the story of a woman who told here husband one morning, “Honey, I had the strangest dream last night. I dreamed you gave me a long, beautiful pearl necklace. What do you think that means?”


“I don’t know,” he replied. “But you might find out tonight.”


That evening the husband comes home and hands is wife a package that is neatly gift-wrapped. “Is this what I think it is?” the wife asks as she unwraps the package. After getting the package open she saw that her hands held a book titled, “The Meaning of Dreams.”


Today we’re continuing our sermon series on the vows we make when we join the United Methodist Church. We have already explored “prayers” and “presence,” so today we are going to explore “gifts.”


What does it mean to support the United Methodist Church with our gifts?


One of the things that comes to mind is money. We are called to support the church with our tithes and offerings.


Now I’m not going to be like the preachers of the “Prosperity Gospel” that have turned God into some sort of investment machine. I don’t believe the scriptures tell us that. I do believe that financial giving to the church will result in blessings, but I also will tell you that blessings come in many different forms.


So why do we pledge to support the church with our funds? Well, it’s very Biblical. In the Old Testament the scriptures tell the people of Israel to bring their first-born animals, the first fruits of their crops, to the tabernacle or temple as a sacrifice to God.


To me one of the most beautiful stories of the importance of sacrifice happens in 2 Samuel 24. There we find God telling David to go to the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and to build an altar. David goes and talks with Araunah and when Araunah finds out that King David wants it, he offers to give it to the king for free, along with oxen for a sacrifice. But David declines, saying, “No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.”


Our gift of tithes and offerings should cost us something. They should remind us of what’s really important in this life and to stay focused on the things that are above, not the things of this earth.


Our funds are not the only kind of gift we pledge to give the church, though. We are to give of the gifts of our talents and skills as well.


In the scripture we read today from Paul’s letter to the Romans he points out that God has created us with different gifts. “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:6-8)


We don’t all have the same gifts. Paul uses the body as a metaphor to describe how we each have different gifts, and yet those different parts, the different gifts, come together for the greater good. In terms of supporting the church with our gifts, that greater good is the Kingdom of God.


Now Paul listed some of those gifts: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, generosity, leadership, and compassion. But that is not an all encompassing list. Those are examples–and great examples, no doubt–of gifts, but it is not meant to be an exhaustive list.


Let me tell you about a gift I have witnessed one of our members give every Wednesday afternoon. George Griffin, at 91 years old, walks around Waller Hall during Mini Methodists carrying two pitchers, one in each hand. In one is pink lemonade, in the other is ice water. George goes from table to table filling the drinks of the almost 100 or so kids. They even have a system worked out: if a child needs a drink to be filled or refilled, he or she raises a hand and George shows up to pour them their beverage of choice. George, and other volunteers, do this every week.


Well this past week George was under the weather and couldn’t make it to Mini Methodists. I volunteered to “fill in” for him (get it, “filling” cups? Oh, nevermind…) and pour drinks.


Now it wasn’t told to me, but one of the other volunteers had a young boy come up to them at Mini Methodists and ask, “Where’s that guy?”


“What guy?” the volunteer asked.


“You know, that guy. That guy that is always here.”


“Oh, you mean Mr. George? The man that pours drinks?”


The little boy got excited. “Yeah! That’s him. Mr. George. Where is he today?”


The volunteer explained that George was sick and wasn’t able to make it. The little boy got a disappointed look on his face and said something like “Oh. I hope he gets better soon,” and then ran away to play.


Now I tell this because I find great beauty in what happened. What George does on Wednesdays is not very glamorous. It’s not very peaceful. The kids are talking and laughing like kids do and it’s loud. And they are moving back and forth between the window where the food is served and the tables. It is semi-organized chaos.


And yet George offers his simple gift, pouring drinks for children, and offers it for God’s kingdom every Wednesday. You wouldn’t even think the kids would even notice him.


But they do. At least one young boy does. George’s simple gift planted seeds of grace in that young boy, even though there is an 80-plus year age difference. And it made a difference in that boy’s life, enough so that he noticed on the one day that George wasn’t able to be there.


That’s just one small example.


Here’s another.


Every Sunday after Praise and Prayer, young Tilden McKnight comes up to the front and helps the Out of the Boat members put up sound equipment to get the sanctuary ready for the 10:30 service. Tilden has a gift for winding up cords and putting away microphones. And he does it every Sunday.


There are so many others I could tell you about.


I could tell you about Ben Hamilton who uses his gifts of understanding electronic things to bring out the lift and change the light bulbs in this sanctuary (and folks, that’s a long way up there), or to run our video board every Sunday so that those at home and at nursing homes can view our worship services.


I could tell you about Godbey Acker and Todd Travis, who give their gifts of understanding computers and software to create and display the visuals on our screens.


The list could go on and on.


We pledge, we make a covenant, to support the church with our gifts when we become members. So, how are you supporting the church with your gifts? How are you using the gifts God gave you? Are you fulfilling the vow you made when you joined the church to support it with your gifts?


The best reason to support the church with our gifts is because we are the recipients of the greatest gift ever given: Jesus Christ. God sent his son into our world to do what we cannot do for ourselves. We don’t earn it. We can’t buy it. We don’t even deserve it. And yet this gift, this gift of grace, is extended to us by God himself because he loves us. Love is the reason.


I subscribe to a weekly posting of quotes from the late Christian singer and songwriter Rich Mullins. I received this one yesterday that talks about gifts.


“You know, sometimes we think that everything is changing, but I’ll [tell] you what – the same moon is up there tonight, the same stars that Abraham saw. They’re all up there. And the same God that put them there and made them shine, He’s still there too. And I don’t know what life has for you. I don’t know what life has for me, but I know this. I know that God is good. And I know that God does not lie. And I know that God has given us the gift of our lives. Sometimes we wish He would have given us someone else’s life, but He chose to give you your life. Don’t despair of it.” — R. Mullins [LeSEA Seminar Feb 11/12, 1994]


So my challenge to you this week is to support the church with your gifts. Prayerfully reflect on how you can use the gifts God gave you to further his kingdom here on earth. Use your gifts to be the Body of Christ. How can you make a difference that can have eternal consequences? It doesn’t have to be much. It can be pouring drinks like George Griffin. But use those gifts.


That’s a lot better gift than a book titled, The Meaning of Dreams.


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


Methodist Vows: Prayers

Methodist Vows: “Prayers”
A Message on Ephesians 6:18-20

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

January 6, 2019

By Doug Wintermute



Ephesians 6:18-20  (NRSV)


Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.


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Today we begin a 5-week sermon series on the membership vows we take as United Methodists, pledging to support the church with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.”


This is something we ask of people when they join the United Methodist Church, and when someone joins everyone responds by renewing our own vow to support the church in these five ways. “Will you faithfully participate in its ministries with your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness?”


Today, on this Epiphany Sunday, we will begin the series–and the new year–by exploring the first of those five things we say in our vows: prayers.


When we join the church we vow before God and the congregation to support the church with our prayers. But what exactly is prayer?


Prayer is simply a conversation with God.


I remember as a kid I thought prayer was somehow this fancy, complicated thing that I didn’t understand. I didn’t think I could pray because I didn’t know the big words that preachers used like firmament or cherubim and seraphim. I thought it was like a special language filled with religious words and that if I didn’t use those fancy words then not only would God not hear your prayers, but he would be angry with me and might “smite” me. And while I wasn’t for sure what it meant to be “smited” (or is it “smote”?) I was pretty confident I didn’t want any part of it.


Now I don’t know where I got that idea from but I later found out that it was wrong. Prayer is simply communicating the God.


Now if you have ever had a communication or maybe a speech class you are probably familiar with a diagram like this. Communication needs someone to send a message, whether it’s verbal or not, and someone to receive the message. In between there can be some noise or interference that can affect how the message is received, but still the message is sent and received. And then there is feedback. Often the person receiving the message communicates back to the sender, and the cycle repeats itself.


I think this applies to our prayer life as well, with some differences. We are the sender of the message, the person praying, and God receives the message and sends us feedback. He responds to our prayers. Now there can be interference with our prayers, but they all come from us or our world, not from God. We can let things like busy-ness, pride, or even a feeling of unworthiness interfere with us praying to God. But these things differ from the communication model in that the interference often comes before we pray and prevents us from praying.


The cool thing about prayer is that God always hears them. There really is no interference between your prayers and God receiving them. It’s a straight shot and the network is never down. It is always available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Now all that being said, God responds in his own time and way, not necessarily the way we want him to. And not necessarily with the answer we are wanting.


God generally responds in one of several ways: 1. Yes, 2. No, 3. Not yet, or 4. I have something better in mind…


Say we are experiencing difficulty in our life and we pray to God to give us patience. We may even pray something like, “Dear Lord, give me patience, and give it to me NOW!” More often than not God will not necessarily give you patience, but will provide opportunities for you to experience practicing patience.


And sometimes we pray for the wrong things. God is not a spiritual Amazon.com where your prayers to God are things you want. Jesus half-brother James writes about this in the fourth chapter of his book: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:3)


It is very easy for us as humans to focus our prayers on ourselves. Let me ask you a question: how many times are your prayers focused on yourself and how many times are they focused on others? Yes, it’s okay for us to pray to God for ourselves, but I think we have a responsibility as Christians to pray for others as much as we pray for ourselves.


And while it’s great to have prayer before meals and at bedtime we should work on developing the habit of praying continually.


Now this is not going to be easy, but I think it is something each one of us should strive for. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”


He says something similar in the scripture we read today from Ephesians 6: “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” (Ephesians 6:18-20)


We have to remember that Paul wrote this epistle (letter) while in a prison. Most scholars think he wrote this and the epistle to the Colossians while sitting in a prison in Rome, which was the very center of the Roman Empire. So times were not good for Paul when he wrote these scriptures, and yet, in spite of being in prison and his life hanging in the balance, he still proclaims “…I must speak.”


He asks for prayers, not just for himself, but for “all the saints.” And he asks the Ephesians to pray “in the Spirit.”


We understand that phrase to pray “in the Spirit” more if we look at Paul’s writings in my favorite chapter of the Bible, Romans 8:26-27. “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. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”


So in Paul’s terms the “saints” aren’t those who have believed in Christ and died, it is for those who are believers and still alive.


So praying “in the Spirit” means having faith that the Holy Spirit will intercede for us if we can’t come up with the right words to say. Have the prayer in your heart, and the Spirit will take care of the rest.


I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrased Ephesians 6 in his The Message paraphrase: “Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.”


And last but certainly not least, we should remember that Jesus did a lot of praying. And we should be more like Jesus, right? So we also should do a lot of praying.


So my challenge for you on this first Sunday of the new year is to remember your vow to pray for the church. Pray for us as a church to focus on reaching the lost. Pray for me as your pastor. Pray for the staff. Pray for the volunteers. Pray for those who are ill and frail.


And pray for each one of us to be like Paul and have the boldness to speak the redeeming message of Jesus Christ not only with our words, but also with our actions. Having received the elements of the Lord’s Supper today and remembering the sacrifice Jesus made for each one of us, let us be his hands in feet in our world.


And let us pray long and hard.


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

He Is Born!

“He Is Born!”
A Message on Luke 2:8-20

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2018

By Doug Wintermute



Luke 2:8-20  (NRSV)


In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,


14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,

   and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”


15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


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Babies are great, aren’t they? And if you ask me, miraculous, too.


It still boggles my mind to think that Pam and I created life. Two lives! Yes, I know the biology and the science behind it (of which I will not go into detail here, if that’s what you are wondering), but it still boggles my mind to come to the realization that new life was created, living, breathing, sentient, new human beings with souls. Wow!


And to be present at the birth of a baby I think is a holy thing.


The birth of our daughters was a holy thing. I remember someone telling me before the birth of our first daughter, Sarah, about the incredible love that parents feel when they hold their baby for the very first time.


It’s not that I didn’t believe them, but when it finally happened I had not anticipated just how powerful–and–holy it would be.


Babies are celebrated. People come to the hospital bringing gifts and balloons and flowers, and they all line up outside the widows of the nursery to see the newborn babies, searching the nameplates for “their” baby.


Having a baby really is a big deal. A really, really big deal. It is a life changing event. Nothing is ever the same afterwards.


It was a big deal back in the first century as well.


As you can imagine the infant mortality rate at the time was much higher than it is now. According to some scholarly estimates, about 1 in 3 babies died before their first birthday. That is a startling statistic but that was reality of life in the first century.


Children were important for several reasons: security (especially if the children were male), labor (there were no child labor laws), and to take care of their parents in old age.


So when a child was born it was a big deal. It was great event. It was a celebration.


Mary and Joseph were in a peculiar situation, however, with the birth of Jesus. As we talked about last week, they had gone back to Bethlehem so that Joseph could be counted in the census and pay the census tax. He had to go to Bethlehem because he descended from the House of David, who was from Bethlehem.


It also fulfilled scripture. We don’t know if Mary and Joseph were aware at the time of what was written in the 5th chapter of the book of the prophet Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”


So Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem and as they get there Jesus is born. Not in a nice house, not in a palace, not even in a house at all, but a stable, a place where livestock is housed.


We are not told in the scriptures but Mary probably did not have anyone to help her during her labor and childbirth of Jesus. Joseph may have been the only one present, with little to no training with regards to childbirth.


There were no relatives showing up with balloons or flowers. No friends visiting and bringing casseroles. It couldn’t have seemed like much of a celebration.


But then we read the scripture we read from Luke. Shepherds were outside Bethlehem, taking care of their sheep as they always did. Night time was a dangerous time for sheep. Sheep really don’t have any defense mechanisms to fight back against predators. As my grandfather, who used to raise sheep, used to say, “Sheep don’t need a reason to die.” They were easy pickins’ for coyotes, wolves, bears, and especially lions. As a result the shepherd had to keep a lookout all through the night for nocturnal carnivores looking for something to eat.


Because they spent their time outdoors with their animals the shepherds couldn’t have been very clean. They probably didn’t smell very good, either. They weren’t high in the social order, either. It was an honorable occupation, but certainly not a prestigious one. And not an easy one, either.


And yet… And yet…


These are the very people that God chooses as the first ones (besides Mary and Joseph, of course) to hear the news that the Messiah had come. It wasn’t the rich and mighty people of the time, it wasn’t the Jewish religious leaders, it wasn’t the Roman rulers. Nope. It was shepherds. Just plain, dirty, stinky, Shepherds. Proof once again that God doesn’t call the equipped, but he equips the called.


But let’s take a closer look at what the Shepherds do after they visit the baby Jesus. The scripture from Luke tells us “they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”


They didn’t keep it to themselves. They shared the good news of the birth of Jesus. They “made known.” The NIV translation says they “spread the word.” The King James version says they “made known abroad.” The Message says they “told everyone they met.”


The baby Jesus was–and still is–big news. It was a life changing event. Things will never be the same. That is why we celebrate it today.


You see the baby Jesus born in a manger in Bethlehem is a big deal because it needs to be viewed through the cross of Calvary.


This is a cross that my wife, Pam, bought several years ago. She doesn’t even remember where she bought it, but we bring it out with all our other Christmas decorations every year.


I like the theology of it. It illustrates the story of Jesus birth but does so in the shape of a cross. For the baby born in Bethlehem goes on to die on the cross of Calvary. And he does so in order that we may be offered salvation. THAT is a big deal, a story worth telling.


But who are we telling? Or are we telling at all? Are we like the shepherds, telling everyone we meet?


Is Christmas more about what we get, or is it more about what we give?


So my challenge to you this Christmas Eve is to, to quote the old hymn, “go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”


Remember that Christmas is the celebration of when God comes to earth. This baby is a big thing. This baby changes everything. Things will never be the same, because this baby is the salvation of the world, the one who gives his life for every human being. This baby is God’s grace given to us, not because we deserve it or earn it, but because he loves us.


So let’s go, and tell it on the mountain.


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