Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Music went well today.  Took trumpet and cornet in, demonstrated how they work, similarities and differences.   Also borrowed the church's hand chimes.  The kids love those!  Some of them have never touched a musical instrument, including 2 classes of first graders, with after about 15 minutes of instruction, they are playing The Star Spangled Banner, Twinkle Little Star, Mary Had a Lamb, and even Happy Birthday.  Once, I had a 6th grade class try out The Mexican Hat Dance...... not so recognizable on hand chimes. Thanks for following.  Gotta get some class work done before orchestra.
I have edited all of those posts that I can.  Note to self - do all reformatting in some other program.

I was almost run off the road by some idiot on a cell phone who was changing lanes while we were both going through an intersection.  I hate those people. Someone once corrected me when I said that.  They said, "You don't hate the people, you just hate what they are doing." Let me be clear.  I hate those people.  Those people who don't think enough about someone else's life.  Those people who think their need to be somewhere quicker is more important than my life, or the lives of my friends and family, I hate them.

Teaching music tomorrow.  Bringing my trumpet and cornet, as well as the church's hand chime set. That is always fun!

It's late again, but look, two posts in two days!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Whew!  I just posted all the sermons I have, that I could find.  I believe there are some others.  Some of them are kinda good, I think.  They have a decent message, anyway.  Enjoy these, leave a comment if you are moved to do so. Look at the time!  Off to bed.
This one didn't get a title.....
Sermon by Jonathan Firme

Whenever I come up here, I wonder, “Am I in the right place? Do I belong up here?” There are people, luckily not in this congregation – that I know of, who think not. Some believe that you have to have training, or the right this or that to do this job, or to do other things in life as well. When I have these feelings of doubt, I remember that Jesus did not recruit the best and brightest to do his work on earth. The disciples were not trained, not looked up to, were not considered by many to be worthy of doing the work of God, but they were. So, I continue to practice, and I urge all of you to do the same. If you let God determine your worth, you will always be worthy.

Let's begin with the reading from the gospel. Another story from Mark. This time, Jesus has healed a leper. I think, by now, we all understand the role lepers played in society in biblical times. The leper was the least important, most cast out person. Barely a person at all, the absolutely least worthy. The lepers all lived together, on the very outskirtiest part of town. They were unclean, and simply by being around them, you too would become unclean. There were no two ways about it. If you spent time around the lepers, you contracted leprosy, became ill, your parts began to come off, and you died.

That sounds like a lot of churches that are facing financial difficulties. Their membership drops, they disconnect from the community, they start cutting programs, and they die. Some do, anyway.... not us!

Then we have Jesus. Jesus, who can heal people without even touching them, decides to touch this leper. Not just touch him, but heal him. This goes against everything. It breaks every rule in the book! Remember? You spend time around them, you become unclean, you die. It does not work the other way around.

If I take my Jeep out into the desert and drive through some fantastic mud holes, my Jeep gets dirty. When I come back to town, my Jeep does not get clean because I drive on clean streets. The clean streets get dirty. The Jeep sits in the driveway, and chunks of mud fall from it, and Jean's shoes do not clean it up – they get dirty.

But Jesus – clean Jesus, touches this man and Jesus' clean rubs off onto the leper. Of course, we know that Jesus was the healing messiah, so we might expect it. It seems as though the leper expected it as well. After all, he told Jesus, “If you are willing, you can clean me.” It is almost like saying, if you are who I think you are, prove it. We know that Jesus was challenged in this way more than a few times in his ministry, but was this the first, and Jesus took the leper up on it? He did it under the condition that the leper would not tell anyone, but of course, he did. He told everyone. This changed everything in Jesus ministry, as crowds began to follow him everywhere.

Well, that is the breakdown of the story. Not being a theologian or a historian, I can't get into it much more than that. I can share what I think it might mean for us, here in Rock Springs. I don't feel too bad sharing this story, because I do believe there are a few in the audience who have not heard it. I think I once promised not to use it in a sermon again, but I figured you have heard this leper story more than me recounting our troubled recent past, so maybe I would be let off the hook. It really is a great story, and it just keeps getting better and better. So, two weeks before we, hopefully, hire a new full time pastor, on Healing Sunday, get out your rulers, because we are going to draw some parallels.

We, here in this church, this church itself, had leprosy. If you are visiting today, please do not leave, because I think we are better. We HAD leprosy. We were shedding out connections to the community. Being up here on this hill never seemed further from town. Even our own faith community, the UCC, seemed to be waiting for our obituary to show up in the Rocket Miner. The disease threatened to force us into cutting off parts of our self like music, Sunday school, various services, a pastor, a secretary. Luckily, we had the collective common sense, and strong enough faith to say to God, “If you are willing, you can heal us.” And he has.

You see, Jesus did not heal that leper because he was bored. He did not do it just to prove he could, because he told the guy to keep in under the table. He healed that leper simply because the leper had faith enough to recognize Jesus could do it, if he was willing to. Jesus could sense that , “The force was strong in that one, “ and basically rewarded him for it. Before you can receive healing, you have to have faith that you can be healed, then you need to ask for it. If we did not think it would help, we would not raise people up for prayers. We wouldn't spend 2 minutes on joys and concerns. And, if we don't have the faith that God can heal, it wouldn't matter if we spent 2 days on joys and concerns. It is a two way street. Even George Michael once proclaimed, “You gotta have faith.”

It is because we are truly a community of faith, an assembly of believers, because we suffered through not having a pastor at all, suffered through a couple of my sermons a month, that God sent Steven to be with us. Even though many others lost faith, we knew that, if God was willing, we could heal us. Once Steven arrived, there again, we had to have faith that that Steven, with his video clips and stage production services, could help heal this congregation. And he did.

So, here we stand, and sit, and stand again, on Healing Sunday, two weeks before the rest of us meet Kay Grice, the person who, the search committee believes, will lead us into the next chapter in our wonderful history. Personally, I believe too. How could I not? In the last 5 years, my faith has been on such a ride. It started growing exponentially when I first got here and met all of you. Like a tiny sunflower seed developing into a huge flower and stalk. My faith has withered and fallen, like the kernels on that flower that dry up in the sun, and fall to the ground. My faith has been growing again, using the very stalk it came from to feed off of, growing twice as mighty as it was before. I have believe that the prayerful considerations, and the difficult deliberations, the meetings, emails, phone calls and, literally, hundreds of pages of profiles and recommendations that our Search Committee has gone through will result in our further healing. We said to Wanda, Sharon, Jean, Annie, Mark and Rob, “If you are willing, you can heal us.” Thank goodness, that perfect blend of personalities said they were willing. Now, their hard work has brought them to someone to whom they felt they could extend that invitation; “If you are willing”

We don't know how many people that leper talked to, but I don't imagine he asked many people to heal him. If he saw people at all, he probably was reduced to begging for some food. However, when he saw Jesus, he asked to be healed. Though it really wasn't a question. It was more of a statement of fact. “You could heal me if you are willing.” Jesus could have said, “Yep”, and kept moving. Reverend Grice is willing,and I have faith.

There is one little catch to our gospel story. The leper disobeyed Jesus. He was specifically told not to speak of this healing , but to show himself to the priests. We don;t know if he showed his healed self to the priests, but we do know that he sang like a bird. He shouted it in the streets, telling anyone who would listen, and probably some who wouldn't. Did Jesus misjudge this man? Did Jesus make a mistake in healing him? By retelling the story of his healing, he certainly made it more difficult for Jesus to do his job. Jesus became a rock star. He couldn't go anywhere without a crowd after this, and everyone wanted healing. Just exactly what he wanted to avoid. I don't have an answer, but it deserves some thought. Jesus was fully human. This was right at the start of his ministry. I know it would be hard, impossible for me to keep quiet about it. I can't even stop talking about how proud I am of this congregation for pulling together over the last few years. A lot of you have made some very significant changes that have helped us tremendously, and I am proud to be part of your family. Jesus lit a fire in this leper's soul, just as he has in my life, and I can't keep quite about it. Nor should any of you. This is a great congregation to be a part of, and we should go out and share our story with everyone. Go, tell it on the mountain! Hark! The herald angels sing! I love to tell the story.

And I truly do. I love to tell the story of a little group of believers. A remarkable group of people who have made a terrible, and terrific journey together. They picked up some more people along the way, quite often, people who felt they did not belong anywhere. Forced into some difficult changes, their faith tested in the likes of Job. It is the story of The First Congregational Church of Rock Springs. They put all of their eggs into one basket and lifted it up to God saying, “If you are willing, you can heal us.” And he did.

I love to tell this story.

And when we are in glory,

We will tell this old, old story,

of Jesus endless love.

Fight The Good Fight

Sermon by Jonathan Firme

Some clever person has written a fictitious letter from a pastor to a church search committee. The letter reads as follows:

"I understand your church is looking for a pastor. I should like to submit my application. I am generally considered to be a good preacher. I have been a leader in most of the places I have served. I have also found time to do some writing on the side. I am over fifty years of age, and while my health is not the best, I still manage to get enough work done to please my congregation. As for a reference, I am somewhat handicapped. I have never served in any place more than three years, and the churches where I have preached have generally been pretty small, even though they were located in rather large cities. Some places I had to leave because my ministry caused riots and disturbances. When I stayed, I did not get along too well with other religious leaders in town which may influence the kind of references these places will send you. I have also been threatened several times and been physically attacked. Three or four times I have gone to jail for expressing my thoughts. You will need to know that there are some men who follow me around undermining my work. Still, I feel sure I can bring vitality to your church. If you can use me, I should be pleased to be considered." The letter is simply signed, 'Paul'.

Most leadership of the early church wouldn't make it through the church interview process today. Theirs was a rough and dangerous world. Turmoil on every side, both in the Jewish nation and the Roman. Think of the pictures we have seen from Iraq and Afghanistan these past few years and you get an idea of hardships the Apostle Paul faced as he traveled for 20 years and thousands of miles all over the Roman world.

Our reading this morning comes from 2 Timothy. Writing this letter, his second letter to Timothy, most likely the last thing he wrote, Paul is in prison, awaiting his execution. Still, he writes, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. All that's left now is the shouting – God's applause.” Paul is certain that all the hardships he has endured to spread the message of Jesus were worth it. For him, and for anyone who has worked for God as he has. I thought it would benefit us to take a look at how this extraordinary man dedicated his life to God, by keeping the faith, finishing the race, and fighting the good fight.

Paul writes about keeping the faith. Well, Paul certainly kept his faith through all of his struggles. He was rarely encouraged in the towns he visited. More often he was assaulted, arrested, imprisoned, or otherwise driven out of town. He was mocked, and his message disrespected. Yet, he pressed on, and he did establish churches in these hostile places. He kept the faith.Notice, Paul did not call it his faith. We often hear people say, “I lost my faith.” Paul talks about keeping The Faith, as though it were in capital letters. Not having it, but keeping it. Paul is a keeper of The Faith. He guards The Faith – the message of Jesus Christ, with his every word and action.

I played soccer and coached youth teams for years. Now, people who are not familiar with the game can usually name one position – the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper has one job. Protect the goal from any and all attackers. No matter where the attack comes from, no matter how many attackers there are, his job is to protect that goal. Even if it means getting stepped on, kicked or elbowed, he will defend that goal. In that same sense, Paul was a faith keeper. Everywhere he went, people were out to undermine his efforts, attacking the message he was carrying. Paul never stopped keeping the faith, and that is one of his messages to us. Against all who would use the the message of Jesus to keep some people down, deny rights to others, and pad their own bottom line, we must keep The Faith.

Keeping the Faith, and then finishing the race. Paul tells Timothy that he has finished the race, and it is time for Timothy to take the baton. It is time for us as well. I've been around long enough to know some men and women whose lives were completely dedicated to God, and within a few years, they had given up the race, and walked off the track. They had given up. They had lost their longing for God and all that he is. They felt God had nothing to offer. Too many times, these conversions happen in people who, for one reason or another, become dissatisfied with the teachings or practices of a particular religion. Paul warned us that there will be people who offer alternative messages, false religions. He also told us not to be surprised when people give up The Faith – capital letters again – to follow. Running the race, for us, means to be there when those runners decide to join us again. Not too long ago, I shared with you my own crisis, when I was ready to drop out of the race. It frightened me, but it strengthened me as well. It should frighten all of us. The possibility of quitting the race is real for all of us unless we allow our hearts to be completely gripped by God . . . today...now.

I never want to lose the grip God's greatness has on my life. It can be difficult though. Often times, there are many tasks demanding my attention on the third Thursday of the month, when I am supposed to meet with the admin team – or board of trustees, depending on which language you speak. I often have some other thing threatening to take the place of the council meeting on the last Thursday. Sunday evenings it can be difficult to get motivated for a book study, and don't even mention Sunday morning activities before church. It is all too easy to take some time off for me. To drop out of the race, just until the next checkpoint. However, the last thing I want to do is crawl across the finish line a defeated, derailed Christian or worse-give up the race before my life is over. I want to break that tape with arms high and my face to the sun and say with the apostle Paul, "I have finished the course; I have kept the faith"

The more I study Paul, the more I admire the man. Paul did fight the good fight. I want to share his own words on this subject, as he wrote in 2 Timothy, from The Message :

Don't be naive. There are difficult times ahead. As the end approaches, people are going to be self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane, contemptuous of parents, crude, coarse, dog-eat-dog, unbending, slanderers, impulsively wild, savage, cynical, treacherous, ruthless, bloated windbags, addicted to lust, and allergic to God. They'll make a show of religion, but behind the scenes they're animals. Stay clear of these people.

These are the kind of people who smooth-talk themselves into the homes of unstable and needy women and take advantage of them; women who, depressed by their sinfulness, take up with every new religious fad that calls itself "truth." They get exploited every time and never really learn. These men are like those old Egyptian frauds Jannes and Jambres, who challenged Moses. They were rejects from the faith, twisted in their thinking, defying truth itself. But nothing will come of these latest impostors. Everyone will see through them, just as people saw through that Egyptian hoax.

You've been a good apprentice to me, a part of my teaching, my manner of life, direction, faith, steadiness, love, patience, troubles, sufferings—suffering along with me in all the grief I had to put up with in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. And you also well know that God rescued me! Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there's no getting around it. Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They're as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse.

But don't let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers—why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother's milk! There's nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God's way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.

I can't impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder. Christ himself is the Judge, with the final say on everyone, living and dead. He is about to break into the open with his rule, so proclaim the Message with intensity; keep on your watch. Challenge, warn, and urge your people. Don't ever quit. Just keep it simple.

You're going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching, but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They'll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you—keep your eye on what you're doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God's servant.

You take over. I'm about to die, my life an offering on God's altar. This is the only race worth running. I've run hard right to the finish, believed all the way. All that's left now is the shouting—God's applause! Depend on it, he's an honest judge. He'll do right not only by me, but by everyone eager for his coming.

Fight the good fight. Some battles in life are fought and instantly won; passing tests, playing games, solving a puzzle in the newspaper, or winning at a sporting event. We preoccupy ourselves with these "battles" because they give us instantaneous gratification and bring us a measure of pleasure and self assurance.

Some battles are fought for a while and won; graduating from high school or college, getting a promotion at work, achieving "retirement." We can see the need for fighting these kinds of battles because there is a significant achievement to be won at the end and once we have achieved that level, we can move on to other things, having won the battle.

There are other battles, however, that are ongoing and we will never, in this life, completely win until we conquer them in death. These battles are constant and daily efforts with which we must struggle on a regular basis. This is a hard thing for our society to accept as we are accustomed to complex crimes being solved in a one hour TV program, sporting events ending in less than two hours, and worship ending by 11:30. This kind of battle is only won in the continued fighting of it; it isn't a battle that is won, never to be fought again.

Paul's command to a young new minister is Paul's command to us, today. Keep The Faith, finish the race, and fight the good fight. So, what can we do now to ensure, as Paul put it, God's applause? That finish line victory? We can get back to basics: Honestly answer these five questions:

Do I hunger for God? Does God's Word govern my life? How quickly do I repent when I see my wrong? Am I sensitive to the Spirit's prompting me? Is my faith growing?

Well, is it?

Sermon by Jonathan Firme

Imagine, by John Lennon. This is one of my favorite songs. Granted it is not a song that is often played in church, but I hope to explain myself this morning. I have done a lot of growing up with Imagine, and though I may not be on track with the author's original motivation, this song carries a strong message for me. I would like to share it with you.

When I was in high school, Imagine was my own personal anthem. I was not a church goer. I did not grow up in church, but I had friends who did. I didn't really know where I stood, religiously, except that I did not need organized religion! Of course, I had no idea what organized religion was.

In that stage of my life, I was pretty sure that I believed in God. I didn't know what that really meant, but I knew that I didn't want to go to Hell, so I believed. I had my own personal relationship with God. That is, if I ever needed something, or got into a jam, I would apologize for never praying before, promise to try to do better, and ask for help. That was about it, my personal relationship, and this song made it all okay.

Imagine there is no Heaven, no Hell below us. Imagine all the people, living for today.
I didn't need someone threatening me with going to Hell, holding out Heaven as some reward tied to a stick. Say the right things and go to church on Sunday morning, and you get to go! I have things to do Sunday morning. God knows that I believe in him. He knows I was basically a good kid. It was between me and him, the whole world could stay out of my business. I didn't need organized religion. In fact, religion has been used to kill more people than any other anything, ever, so it couldn't be all that great... right?

Have you ever heard that one? I have a personal relationship with God. God knows what I do. I do these certain things, and God doesn't mind if I don't go to church. It's between me and him. This song is justification for all those thoughts. Or is it?

When I was marching to the beat of my own drum, I was a bit misled. I was more than a little confused. To such a confused, or searching, or arrogant person, this this was enormously comforting. Here is this great person telling me, “Hey, it's okay. Just live for today, be nice to people. That's all we have to do.”

Before people start getting up to leave, sure that I have popped all my seals, let me get to the heart of the matter.

The reading this morning comes to us from Thessalonians 1. Thessalonians was written in 51 AD, which is a long, long time ago. In fact, these are the oldest words in the New Testament. This book of The Bible was actually a letter to the church in Thessalonica, a Roman city. The reading today is just a small it of this letter, really not much more than the introduction. It is, however, enough for us to get the reason behind the letter.

Paul had been hearing good things about the church, and he is proud of them. He wants to encourage them. He praises them for doing many things right. They all behave the way Jesus taught. He thanks them for being so helpful while he was there preaching. Later in the letter, he reminds them about Jesus' return. That one day, no one knows when, Jesus will return. He speaks of this as a great event, not the left behind kind of thing that was pasted on billboards all around the country last year. He praises them for acting together as one body, the church, and lets them know that others are talking about what great role models they are, which is causing more people to become believers in Jesus, even in far away lands.

Paul also mentions that he is glad the people have given up their dead idols. They worship Jesus, and they aren't letting anything come between them. How many of us would receive this kind of praise from Paul. How many different things – work, school, the great outdoors, hunting fishing, Wyoming football, do we let get between us and worshiping Jesus?

In a nutshell, Paul is telling the people in Thessalonica that they are helping people all around the region get closer to God. Their actions are bringing about the kind of change that Jesus spoke about. Jesus taught about a world in which people would share, take care of one another. People would love in peace. Jesus taught about creating nations of believers. Jesus said this would be difficult to accomplish, but when it was all put in place, we would find ourselves in Heaven – not necessarily traveling to Heaven. Far away Heaven up in the sky was the old thing. Jesus talked about the great new thing, Heaven right here on earth, for everyone.

I have found myself moving away from the concept of Heaven as a place you have to go to. Rob Bell, author of “Love Wins”, the book we are studying on Sunday evenings, at 6:00, in the pilgrim room, writes about Heaven and Hell this way: “So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn't ultimately matter, as long as you've said or prayed or believed the right things? If you truly believed that, and you were surrounded by Christians who believed that, then you wouldn't have much , motivation to do anything about the present pain and suffering of the world, because you would believe that you were going to go somewhere else to be with Jesus.”

On the topic of Hell, Bell writes, “God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. The God will torture you forever in Hell. Huh?”

So, if Heaven can possibly be a place that will actually replace what we have right here, right now. If Heaven will one day be here, look at that song with me again.

Imagine there's no Heaven
Heaven is not a far away place. It will happen here.

It's easy if you try
If you have faith that this will happen, if you believe it, it is easy to see.

No hell below us
Our God is a redeeming God. No one is lost. Why punish anyone forever?

Imagine all the people, Living for today
Heaven is right here, right now, today.

Imagine there's no countries
We are all in the kingdom of God. Nations of believers.

Nothing to kill or die for
All our needs are met. We love, we share. We experience social justice.

And no religion too
If we have nations of believers, there is no religion, just believers in the message of Jesus Christ.
Imagine all the people, Living life in peace

All the people, not just Christians, or Jews, or Muslims at peace with themselves.
Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood of man

Call it Socialism, call it Redistribution of Wealth, I don't care. Without greed, there would be no hunger. All mankind working together, a brotherhood.

Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world
sharing, caring for one another, across the globe

You may say that I'm a dreamer, But I'm not the only one.
I hope someday you'll join us. And the world will be as one.
There are lots of believers, and we need your help to bring Heaven to earth.

Maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe Lennon is rolling in his grave. However, this is what I think about when I hear this song. I think of Heaven, here on earth. I think of how easy it should be for us to achieve this goal. To help do their part, the UCC is launching a mission called Mission 1: The First 11 days of November. It starts on 1-11-11 and ends on 11-11-11. That's a lot of ones. The goal is to get the UCC churches to all act as one, like the Thessalonians did, to feed the hungry and combat food related injustices. During the first 11 days of November, we are encouraged to help send 11,111 letters to Congress, collect 1 million items of healthy food, collect $111, 111 for Neighbors in Need, and bring one friend to church. In order for this to happen, the UCC will have to be as one, share the good news about what God is doing in the world today. Share the message that Jesus will come and make heaven on earth, that church isn't the car we use to get to Heaven, rather it is the moving van we need to get Heaven here, and w e need movers! Jesus encourages us not just to do good. Jesus very definitely wanted us to go to church. Belonging to a church by means of financial support is not enough. That same financial support combined with good deeds, it is not enough. Jesus wants you to go to church, and do those other things. It is not a menu to pick and choose toppings for your Christianity pizza. Jesus makes no mention of a personal relationship with God. Jesus makes it very clear. You need to be here. I hope someday you will join us, and the world will be as one.

Following The Leader
Sermon by Jonathan Firme

One of my favorite movies of all time is Peter Pan. Those of you who know me will not be surprised by this, as you know that I resist growing up as much as I can. I especially enjoy the scene where the lost boys meet up with the Injuns. When Pan leads Wendy off to meet the mermaids, John Darling, the oldest of the 2 boys, leads the lost buys off to find the Injuns. Along the way they sing:

Following the leader, the leader, the leader
We're following the leader wherever he may go
We won't be home till morning, till morning, till morning
We won't be home till morning
Because he told us so.

They continue, and John leads them right to the Injuns. Well, right into their trap. It seems the lost buys are truly lost, and they have chosen the wrong leader. Of course, their true leader is Peter Pan, and we find that might have been a mistake as well.

I bring this movie up today, because of the powerful words that Jesus speaks in the reading this morning. Follow me.

Jesus spoke these words many times: to Levi, son of Alphaeus at his tax booth, “Follow me.” In Matthew 8, Jesus words are , "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." To the rich young ruler, “Sell what you have, give to the poor and come, follow me.” And, to all in his time and for all time to follow, “If any want to come be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Now, when someone tells me to follow them, I am usually pretty cautious about just where that person is going. I was not surprised to see so many kids remain seated when I told them to follow me this morning. They wondered, “Why?”,and probably, “What is he up to.?” I know a few of them were just waiting to see if anyone else would follow. Maybe we are just more skeptical or people these days? I think that people could just feel the spirit in Jesus, from Jesus, and that compelled them to follow.

However, when Jesus invites his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, to follow, they do not wonder like our kids did. They follow. They immediately left their boat, and their father. Jesus is able to separate ordinary , working people from their daily duties. Separate them from their comfortable, familiar way of life, from their families with these two simple words.

Jesus threw a monkey wrench into these people's lives. They were given no promise of safety, food and shelter – things they would certainly be giving up – but they recognized the promise to connect with this man, a promise of something greater than they had previously imagined. The Bible has Jesus inviting people to follow him 23 times. I do not know, nor does anyone, I suppose, how many others he invited.

Jesus has invited us as well. God calls us to to turn in a new direction, to rearrange the patterns of our lives, to follow, by inviting us to serve on a church board or committee. By asking us to prayerfully consider each and every vote and decision we make by asking ourselves, “What direction is God telling me to guide the church?” He calls us to re-orient our lives by placing us in the role of confirmation mentor; a role that suddenly demands that we read the Bible at least every week. That we make time for an inquiring young person weekly, and to share our personal journey with God. By asking us to ring hand chimes, sing in the choir, be worship leader, or host coffee hour.. God asks us to step out of what is regular and ordinary to follow him.

God calls us to consider our pledges to his mission here on earth, and place the support of that mission above Thursday night at Pizza Hut, or extravagant Christmas gifts. God calls us to place greater importance on Sunday worship, than on enjoying the sun in the summer, or perhaps a football team in Laramie in the fall. God calls us to help carry a congregation through a difficult time, even if we know it will be a challenge.

I do not believe that God calls us to settle into a comfortable regime of Sunday morning in the pews without any additional effort to experience his word, to grow in our faith. We should never come to a point where we have heard all the stories, listened to all the explanations, and feel like we know it all. Every time we hear the story, it should speak to us differently. It is our job to make sure we do not fall into that comfortable space the God called us from in the first place.

Jesus convinced many to readjust their lives, to give up a comfortable living space, a secure future with the simple words, follow me. What are you willing to give up? What are you placing before Jesus call to follow?

Anyone who says, “Follow me. “ is obviously more interested in the future than in the past. Here at First Congregational, I think our eyes need to be focused on the future, not on the past. Worrying about what has been, what happened, can consume us. With Jesus, it is not where you have been that matters, it is where you are going. It is not whether you have fallen down, but if you are going to get up. It is not about whom you have hurt, or been hurt by, in the past, but who you will help in the future. Fan through the pages of the gospel, and you might be surprised how little time Jesus spent allowing people to dwell on a burdened past. When the woman who was taken in adultery was thrust into his presence, he did not try to explore the circumstances that led her to fail. He simply took her by the hand and said, “Go your way and sin no more.”

As Rob just told us, the Search Committee is about ready to present us with the first draft of our church profile. This is the document that will be put out there for the world to see, describing our congregation to potential pastoral candidates. I have not read the report yet, but I as sure that it reflects a vision of the future. I hope is reflects the change we have experienced here at First Congregational Church. I hope that, if you compared our previous profiles to this one, you would see that we have grown spiritually over the years. I hope that we will find a lot of words describing how we intend to keep following Jesus, and how that makes us receptive to change. I hope it reflects a church that is asking, “How can we better serve God?” I hope it reflects the epiphany that this church has experienced in the last 2 years. I compare this church to the people that Isaiah 9, another of our readings this morning, talks about:

The people who have walked in darkness
have seen a great light
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness -
On them a light has shined.

God is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
God is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in God's tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to God.

This passage reminds me of the transformation we have experienced here at First Congregational Church. Think of the radical changes that God has required of you, personally, since we have begun to put church back together. I know that a lot of us have made some very deep, difficult changes. Many of us have made changes that we did not think we could make. Even if you are not aware that you have made a change at all, rest assured, you have. I can feel it in this place, and others can as well. It is exactly the kind of change that happens when you decide to follow Jesus. As the old hymn says, “There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know it is the spirit of the Lord.”

When you follow Jesus, you will end up in a better place than the one you left. I suppose I keep bringing this up because, while we have come miles and miles over the last 2 years, we cannot stop. We have work to do if we are going to follow Jesus, wherever he may go.

In a couple days, Barack Obama will deliver his State of The Union address to Congress. By tradition, the President makes this report annually, even though the clause "from time to time" leaves the matter open to interpretation:

It says, “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

The Constitution does not require that the report take the form of a speech, although virtually every president since Woodrow Wilson has made the State of the Union report in the form of a speech delivered personally before a joint session of Congress. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice of delivering the address in person, regarding it as too monarchical (similar to the Speech from the Throne.) Instead, the address was written and then sent to Congress to be read by a clerk, until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice.

I think it is a great coincidence that these themes, following Jesus, and the State of The Union – or the State of First Congregational, should come together this week, with these pieces from the scripture. Though someone once said, “Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.” During the annual meeting, Pastor Steve will deliver a report, similar to the State of The Union. Since he is not here, I am going to spoil it for him – just a little.

What is the state of First Congregational Church? Well, I would have to say things are pretty good. Would you agree? Think of all the things we have accomplished this past year. Sunday school is going and growing, attendance is up, we have had a few people join the church. I understand that pledges so far are pretty close to what they were at the end of the pledge drive last year. Also, giving was up considerably over the summer. We are doing very well. We should give ourselves a hand.

The State of the Union address is also about the President's plans for the future, and our annual meeting will deal with that as well. Recently, we were given a Mission Report, which serves as our guide to the future, and I received my copy of the budget yesterday, outlining how we propose to follow that plan. Again, the coincidence of these things coming together as we contemplate today’s readings is pretty amazing. Our Mission Plan speaks to us those same two words that Jesus spoke so many times. “Follow me.”

These words of invitation, of command, are plain and personal. They cut cleanly through countless volumes of theological discussion and explanation. They ignore all denominational differences, nor do they respect class, privilege or social standing. Follow me. Those two words can guide a church through a near fatal split in the congregation. Follow me. I have seen what a great affect these two words can have.

What Christian living is all about, individually or as a congregation, is following Christ. This is an important thing for us to keep in mind at this time in the life of our church. We are being invited by the still speaking Lord, to follow him. “Follow me” - these words should be used to monitor everything we do and think and say as deacons, committee members, ministers, and members of this congregation. Some may feel we are moving too fast, taking too many risks. Maybe we are moving to slow, being to conventional, playing it safe. We must always ask, “Is this action, this policy, this decision, this attitude moving this congregation in the direction Jesus is going?” Of course, there will be times when we disagree. When we do, we must remain focused on following our leader, Jesus.

Every time Jesus crosses our path and bids us to follow, he creates a crisis. We can never be the same again. To follow Jesus is to have a plan. To follow Jesus is to face and embrace the future. To follow Jesus is to have a star guide your way. Following Christ is a spiritual adventure. It is a day by day journey which requires having the courage to rely on God to lead the way. Do we have the courage to follow Jesus? I believe we do, wherever he may go.
Inscription of Hope
Sermon by Jonathan Firme

     In today's gospel, we are presented with a simple story, in which before he even leaves the synagogue, Jesus is already a sensation because he's backed up his powerful preaching with an equally powerful act, expelling the demon from a man in the crowd. People are talking about Jesus, spreading the word, while he quietly slips into a private home, Simon's home, next to the synagogue. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. To me, our gospel story illustrates the greatest, most wondrous thing about the bible.
     That is how this story finally struck me. There are many ways to interpret most of the stories and parables in the bible. The same selection can mean many different things at different times in our lives. That is a miraculous thing. And as I wrestled with all the things going on in the church right now, as I read the story over again, there it was. The little piece that dealt directly with our situation here today. Funny how often that is the case. How often there is something in the gospel that seems to be directed right at you, perfect for that particular moment in your life?
     This is a simple story in the same way that a small diamond in a plain setting is a simple ring. Simple, unless you hold it up to the light and notice it's many facets. The way light reflects off it as you turn and examine it. Yet, another person might see it entirely differently. They might notice a different facet, a different reflection, a different meaning hidden in the words.
     Let's forget for a moment all the people outside, waiting, perhaps calling for Jesus to come out. Let's look at Simon's mother in law. We are not told how sick this woman was. She doesn't even play much of a part in the story. What does she do? Jesus raises her up. Jesus heals her illness, which could have been anything from a cold to, well, God knows what. As soon as Jesus touches her life, she takes action! She doesn't call out to the people, “He healed me!”, “Look at me, Jesus is in my house!”, it says the fever left her and she began to serve them. Wow.
     She began to serve Jesus, in this case quite literally, but she sprang into action doing that which she was most able to do at that moment. It was what she was moved to do. What she felt called to do.
It is no secret now that our brothers and sisters, our fellow servants to the Lord, have come to the very difficult decision that it is time for them to step down. Sometimes we feel called to step up, sometimes to step down. I can tell you that this has not been an easy decision for anyone. I can also assure you that this is in no way a dissolution of this church. No one is locking the doors. No one wants that. These people are not quitting the church, they are helping prepare the way for something new. This is a breather, a break. Even Jesus took some time out for a quiet moment with God, to sort things out, to better understand what his role was to be. Jesus could have stayed put, and made a ton of money healing people. That is not what God sent him out to do.
     Just as Jesus, in our gospel story, slipped out at dawn to be alone, collect himself and pray, those who have lead us for the past few years need to find a quiet space. They need time to be alone with Jesus and hear what he wants them to do next. We have to give them that space – we owe them that much, probably more. This has not been an easy 4 months for anyone, and our leadership teams have put in some long hard hours. Be ready, though, because when they hear that still small voice, I am sure that they will spring back into action, taking on mission work, perhaps back into some leadership roles.
     No one likes change. Change is terribly difficult to deal with, everyone in this room knows that. We have been dealing with change of one sort or another for a number of years here. But, change can be good. Change can be refreshing. This change will allow people who have been hearing that voice, to take action. It is no secret that some people have been unhappy with the team concept of church governing. Although, I personally do not feel that simply changing our governing philosophy will rescue our church, some people feel that is a place to start, and this is the chance to do it. Again, to take action. This is the opportunity for someone, anyone and everyone to act. To come to our meeting next month with a plan. A plan that you have been inspired to suggest, implement , take part in. Maybe a tried and true method, maybe something that came to you in a dream. Throughout the bible, God loves and rewards dreamers! A plan or some plans will be offered up that will bring us together and make us stronger and better than before.
     Many of those who are stepping out of leadership roles are admittedly, and proudly believers in Harvey Joyner's message of taking the church out there to the people. And you can bet that, after a pause to catch their breath, we will have church members out there in force, following their own heart bursts, perhaps filling in leadership positions, perhaps doing other, new mission work. They will be the ones we look to to spread the message about the new and improved First Congregational Church of Rock Springs, Wyoming that a new leadership will help create. And that too, will make us a stronger, better church. This is the great thing that we all are doing in Gods name! This is the Good News.
     However, in order for any of that to happen. In order for us to put this together, regain the family that is this church, we need two things. Two things will greatly help us in this difficult task. We cannot go on without trust, and faith. We have to trust each other. We cannot doubt each other's abilities or motives. There can be no more hidden agendas here. We have got to put our faith in each other, and lay it on the table We cannot be Us or Them, Them and Us, we have got to be We. We have to have faith that this role reversal is a great opportunity. Faith that those stepping down will take up other roles, and faith that some new leadership will step up to the plate. I think that being people of faith, having faith should be easy.
     We can rise to this occasion. I believe in Us! We will act when we hear that the still voice, or that kick in the seat of the pants that God is not above dishing out, and know that we will have the support of each other. We will be together as one. Like Simon's mother in law, we will act upon our heart bursts. This will be an orderly transition to something new. It is a fresh start. This is something that we should all be rejoicing. This is going to be good for the church. We will study our bibles in groups and alone, and pray, and we will find ourselves in a better place tomorrow.
     In closing today, I want to read to you a song. I would sing it, but it gets me a little teary eyed sometimes, and I don't sing too well then. Perhaps you have heard it before. This song was written by Z. Randall Stroope, who found a poem written on a basement wall in a house. The house was in Cologne, Germany. The author was a 10 year old jewish boy whose family had been murdered by the nazis. He had been hiding in the basement to avoid the same fate, and wrote this poem. Z. Randall Stroope wrote down the words and composed this song. The song is titled, “An Inscription of Hope.”
     I put it to you that if a little boy, facing what any of us would call a hopeless situation, could find the courage, the faith and strength to etch these words into his former families home, we should certainly be able to find a way through our considerably less difficult situation. Yes?

I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
and I believe in love
even when there's no one there

and I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial
there is always a way

but sometimes in this suffering
and hopeless despair
my heart cries for shelter
to know someone's there

but a voice rises within me
saying "hold on, my child
I'll give you strength, I'll give you hope
just stay a little while"

I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
and I believe in love
even when there's no one there

and I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial
there is always a way

may there someday be sunshine
may there someday be happiness
may there someday be love
may there someday be peace.

     May we all love and bless each other, setting aside small differences that tend to get in the way of the big picture that you, Dear Lord are using us to paint. That is our prayer here today, tomorrow, and every day we are blessed enough to have The First Congregational Church of Rock Springs, Wyoming as a base for your operations here on earth.

Spiritual Stimulus Plan

Sermon by Jonathan Firme

Good morning. I have to share that I would not be here in front of you today were it not for the love and support of Jean , Harvey, and all of my family and friends who have helped and guided me along my walk with God. I am honored to have the opportunity to share this part of my journey with you. Let us pray.

Dear God, we thank you for all the journeys you send us on. Some sweet, some sour,

all of them worthwhile. We thank you for those who travel with us – family, friends,

strangers and most of all you. For we remember that you are always with us,

helping us, guiding us along the path. Amen.

I was never good at tests. Early in my school career, I can vividly remember frequent bouts of Test Anxiety. It usually started the night before a test, right about the time I remembered there was going to be one. I would crack open the books, trying to absorb the material. I would fake an illness, hoping to trick my mother into letting me stay home the next day. That never worked – she was a nurse.

Of course, studying is just one part a long process called learning. A process that involves several steps. Think of learning to tie your shoes. There is Confusion, in which we ask questions about the new thing we have encountered. Frustration sinks in when we try and try and come to the realization that we don't know how to do it, so we practice . Then, we usually develop a Confidence, when we consciously understand how to tie our shoes. And, finally, when we really master it, we are no longer conscious that we know how, we just do.

My problem was that I was trying to jump in right there near the top. Skipping the first few steps. It didn't seem to matter that I was in class every day, that I took notes, or how much I studied that night before. My test grades were usually pretty poor, so I began to really fear taking a test.

I am not alone, am I?

Many people fear and even avoid tests. Just like the servant in the parable of the talents. He feared the test, the responsibility of being in charge of this sum of money. So, as was common practice at that time, he buried it. People would often bury something in order to absolve themselves of any responsibility to it. This has turned out to be a great thing for archaeologists digging up rare artifacts, but it did little to help the poor servant. The time came, and he had to own up to his actions.

The three parables we have discussed the past few weeks – the parable of the bridesmaids, the talents and todays reading, the sorting of the sheep and goats, are use in Matthew to teach about the very thing that keeps some people away from church. The one thing a lot churches really don't want to talk about. It can be a great way to scare people into attending church, but it is often tip toed around, passed over, or flat out ignored.

Judgment, anyone?

Let's face it the prospect of a final judgment can be rather intimidating. A whole series of books and dvd's feast off that fear. Not helping to minimize it, rather using it to have power over others. And, of course, to make a whole lot of money. We cannot bury it and make it go away. Eventually we are all called to account. You have to take the final exam. We certainly do not need to fear judgment. We just need to prepare ourselves for it.

I had friends in school who always seemed to get the “good teacher.” That great guy who would provide you with the questions that were going to be on the test. Sometimes even the answers to those questions! Oh how I longed to be in one of those classes. Then, in my freshman year of high school, it happened. I got Mr. Hrvyniak for U.S. Civics. Hryvniak gave study sheets to the tests! They had all the questions right there. There was a space below each question for you to fill in the answer and supposedly study it for some period of time prior to the test. The night before my first Civics test, I sat there frantically trying to fill out my study guide so that I could study it before the test. I didn't have a lot of success with study guides. I wondered what all the fuss had been about. I was like the bridesmaid in the first of our parables. I thought having this study guide would make me prepared, but when it came time for the exam, I was out of oil.

God, it seems, is a lot like that good teacher with the study guide. He gives us the answers, the questions, all of it. Everything we need to pass the exam is right here. Yet, many of us are so afraid of the judgment we cannot bring ourselves to discuss it. And, if asked about it by someone who is now called unchurched, who we would all love to see join us, we are left unable to explain, unable to ease their fears or answer their questions.

The third parable strikes right at the heart of the matter. As we heard today,

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Many ask, “How can God do this?”, “How can God be so cruel?”, “I thought we were all God's children.” , “I thought God loved us all, forgives us!”, “Jesus tells us that judging others is not right!”

Rest assured that God does indeed love every one of us, but this isn't a walk through a field of marshmallow fluff and candy canes. God forgives us, if we ask. If we realize our wrongs and ask for his forgiveness. We are God's children. And just as our children have the ability to disappoint us, sadden us, make us angry, and suffer punishment from us, and never fall away from our love, we too can disappoint, sadden and anger our Father. If we do, when we do, there is a consequence, and God still loves us, even though we may have broken his heart, God still loves us. Jesus teaches that God will judge us, that is why we shall not judge others. We just need to use the study guide to be prepared for that day. It is really quite simple folks.

There are many people who believe they know when the Judgment will occur. There are still others who spend every waking moment trying to figure out when it be. I know, from my own experiences, it does you absolutely no good to know when that test is going to happen. I could write down that there was going to be a physics exam on Tuesday morning. That it would begin at 9:27 and that I would have 47 minutes to take it, and I could still fail it. I had pretty good attendance, took notes, knew what was probably going to be on the test , and I could still fail it. All that simply wasn't enough. It's not enough to go to class, take notes, and have a study guide.



So, we know there is a test, we don't know when. How are we going to prepare? How do we join up with,or stay with, the sheep? How can we help others join God's flock? We have got to apply the principles in order to understand them. It simply isn't enough to go to church every Sunday of your life, memorize the bible and carry it with you. We all need to read this book, study it, and live it! Find out how Jesus lived his life and live like Jesus. Take it seriously, every day, as though the world depended upon it. Because it does.

When we live in times of working parents, working children, Sunday morning hockey, Friday night Girl Scouts, violin, choir, football, band, hunting, fishing... and Reality Television, how can we begin to prepare ourselves for God. Do these stories mean anything anymore? Does the idea of 10 talents, 750 pounds of silver, 10 lifetimes of wages, mean anything to us when our lawmakers are discussing a 25 billion dollar band aid for the auto industry, after applying a 750 billion dollar tourniquet to our financial system?

The miracle of the bible is that, yes, even though the story of the talents had nothing to do with a persons abilities; the word talent did not refer to abilities until the middle ages, it is still relevant to us today. Even though oil lamps are more of a collectors item than an everyday necessity, we still study and learn from the story. But we have to study it, learn it, practice it, and teach it.

We need nothing less than a Spiritual Stimulus Plan. A Spiritual Bailout, if you will. This plan involves people talking with each other, friends and strangers, about the good thing God is doing in our lives. In small ways and in big ways. Sharing those stories. It will require those who attend church every Sunday to go a little further into their faith by joining or creating a bible study or faith formation group, to never be finished growing your faith. Those who cannot attend every Sunday will need to suggest, or even create a service that they can attend on a regular basis. All of us will need to meet our pledged offerings before we pay $50 for dinner and a movie.

The Spiritual Stimulus Plan requires all of us, all of God's children helping each other with the study guide, bringing friends to school, helping shed light on the tough questions. We do not need to fear the judgment. We do not need to be afraid of being left behind. God tells us, that just by practicing what he has laid down in the bible. By living our lives as Jesus lived his, we are preparing for the final exam, and better yet, we can live out our lives knowing that whenever it may come, we will pass it with flying colors.
Jesus' New Thing is the Same Old Thing
Sermon by Jonathan Firme

I have not often been invited up here and spoken about The Old Testament. In fact, looking back, I never have. I am not an Old Testament scholar. I was not an Old Testament fan. I have always felt that The Old Testament is, well, old. If I were playing that word association game, and the topic was The Old Testament, I would say words like, old, vengeance, angry, punishment, and rules. I have always percieved the God of The Old Testament and the angry one, that Jesus brought us word of the kinder, gentler God, along with this new covenant he spoke of. Jesus tells us that God loves us all. Jesus tells us about the forgiveness of God. Jesus tells us about peace, love, and joy. In The Old Testament, God was angry at his people, at the end of his rope, right? The Old Testament, once Jesus came around, pretty much lost it's punch – or so I thought.
While working on this week's sermon, I pretty much ignored the reading from The Old Testament, as I usually do. For some reason, I stopped to read Jeremiah. Jeremiah, apparently, was a profit, like Jonah. Like Jonah, he was relaying a message from God, to the people, this time, the people of Judah. But wait, Jeremiah says he is carrying a new message. Am I in the right book here?Jeremiah tells his people that his message is of good news, and that it is a message of comfort and hope. Hold the phone! That sounds a lot like the message Jesus carried. Rather, Jesus message sounds a lot lit the message Jeremiah carried.
Jeremiah says that God has compassion for the people of Judah. Compassion, isn't that one of Jesus new ideas? Jeremiah goes further, telling the people that God's heart has been touched, softened, by the suffering that the people of Judah have been going through, and that, are you ready for this..... God forgives them!
God forgives them.
Hold on a minute! That doesn't sound very angry, judgmental, punishing or scary. That sounds like the message Jesus brought. Either the ideas in The Old Testament aren't all that old, or the ones in The New Testament aren't all that new. Jesus tells us of God's new covenant with his people, and Jeremiah says, “That's right. The time is coming when I will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. It won't be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant even though I did my part as their Master. They'll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. I'll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I'll forget they ever sinned!"
I realize that Jeremiah is speaking of a day in the future. But I was really moved that here, in this Old Testament, was this new word of hope. It gives me hope. It destroys my false understanding of The Old Testament. There are words of hope in there. Angry, vengeful God, who only really gets any attention during Lent, when we are all sorry for everything we should have been sorry for all along, is gone. It is as if God is the parent of a disobedient child. Punishment must be dealt, and that does not mean God is pleased to do it. One reaches a point, however, when harsh punishments cease to work, and a new approach is warranted. One might call that a New Covenant.
It is interesting that I have come to this revelation the same week that Jesus tells us, in the reading from John, that the old must die to make new things. The seed must die before it can produce many grains. People fear this means we all have to die, as Jesus did, on the cross, in order to be his followers. That is quite silly. Jesus wants us to live, but we have to change. Oh, that word, change. What must die is that part of us that is hurtful towards others, the part that seeks vengeance on others who wrong you. The part that curses other drivers, that makes judgments about other people's beliefs, abilities, and level of faith. The part that ridicules social responsibility. Those parts of use must die, and I invite you to bury them this morning. Bury them with me, while I bury my ill conceived notions about The Old Testament. If we can all bury those things, to borrow a line from Dr. Seuss, “Oh, The Places You'll Go!” I plan on diving into the Old Testament, and swim with God's word. God loves us always, and he always has. I feel invigorated, as my fear and loathing of the Old Testament is dead. Perhaps we should call them “The First Testament”, and “The Second Testament”, and, perhaps, “The Third Testament” will be written by someone who grows from the seeds we here at First Congregational are so good at sowing.

Faith From God
Sermon by Jonathan Firme

I am here this morning, again, to talk with you about faith. It seems this is a popular theme for me to get when I speak to you. I have talked about the faith we needed to get us through our hard time, commended you on the faith it took to pass an aggressive budget. I even discussed my faith in a football team winning the super bowl! I really feel like standing up here, trying to convince you all to have faith would be like, well, preaching to the choir. I want to talk about a slightly different kind of faith.
We have to have some understanding of what faith even is. If we look at the reading from Hebrews, and I am using The Message here, it says:
   The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.
     So, according to a very reliable source, faith is a trust in God .
I often consult the dictionary when tackling questions like this, and Merriam-Webster states that faith is firm belief in something for which there is no proof”. Hmmm, that is interesting.
    Perhaps my favorite is from Kahlil Gibran, who said , “Faith is a knowledge of the heart, beyond the reach of proof.”
     If we weave all these ideas together, we have a better understanding of what faith might be. Having faith in something, in our case, God, is a fundamental belief, is independent of proof, or, for that matter disproof, that we know to be true in our very soul. There is nothing you could show me that would cause me to stop having faith in God.
Just in case you are missing Steven this morning, I want to share a movie I recently watched.
     There is a scene where Chris is in a homeless shelter, at a worship service. He is in tears, holding his son close to him. This one scene made me think. He is able to get through all this because he has faith that he will succeed in order to provide for his son. That thought made me think again.
Does God share in this faith? Did God have faith that Chris Gardner would prevail? I think so. I started thinking, is faith one of those 2 way streets.
      Let me share a prayer by Thomas Merton, "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone"
      Merton says that his desire to please God, pleases God. Just like Chris Gardner in the movie Pursuit of Happyness, he takes comfort, knowing that what he is trying to do is right. And though there may be times when we don't quite know which way to go, we know that God will lead us along the right path. More importantly, if we have a desire to please God, God will help point us in the right direction. Sometimes this may require a kick in the seat of the pants, as it did with me, but God is not above doing that.
       Of course, for this to happen, you have to be open to the idea of God, and trust in him completely.
     Mother Teresa famously said, “I know that God will never give me more than I can handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much.”
     I know that God asks a lot of us. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming. But, doesn't the fact that we are asked in the first place indicate that God, indeed, has faith in us to get through?
     Didn't God have faith in Job?
     Don't we all have faith that our children will be able to use what we taught them to get through life and be successful? Doesn't God have faith in us, his children?
     I ran it past one of my summer coworkers, and she said, “No.” No, it was not faith. God cannot have faith in us, because we are not worthy of his love. We flawed, somehow, in our very creation, and therefore, we do not deserve to be loved by God, perhaps not anyone. Take comfort in the fact that God loves you anyway.
     We even had a guest speaker come in here one Sunday and tell us that we are all sinners, not worthy of God's love.
     That doesn't comfort me! That belief is not what got Chris Gardner out of a homeless shelter and into a better life for his son! I don't believe that. I cannot believe that. I cannot believe that God would create us, love us no matter what, give up his very own son for us, offer us eternal life if we have faith in him and love him, if we were not worthy of it! If we didn't deserve it! I do not think that is a healthy way to start out your belief system.
     God created man, human, kind. God gave us all free will. Why did he do that? We could all be hard wired to be exactly the same religion, the same beliefs. That would make is a lot easier for God, wouldn't it? There would be no sinners, no sin. Instead, we have free will. He gave us the ability to stray from his pasture, because he believes in us! He loves us, and he has faith that we will return to him. God believes, beyond the reach of proof, that we will serve him, as we were created to do. God has faith in us! I thought that was a very empowering idea!
     I wasn't sure about helping with Sunday school when I first moved to Wyoming, but God believed I could do it. I wasn't sure about presenting talk about it time, but God was. I certainly never thought I could get up here and speak to a congregation. God, however, believed in me, and that gave me the strength to do it. I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. God, who has faith in me!
     There are people in here who work with children, and you know that you cannot tell a child they are worthless, and expect anything good from them. There are people here who work with adults, and the same thing applies. We all absolutely deserve to be loved by God, otherwise, he wouldn't love us and take care of us.
     John Shelby Spong, during a seminar in Chicago, said, “Self denigration is a regular, and a major part of human worship, and it is never healthy.”
Wow! I like that! A God who allows us to be human beings without fear. A God who knows that we have to travel along the path of our life to be completed, to be rounded out, to put the finishing touches on what he created us to be. A God who empowers us to go out and experience the world, because he has faith in his creation. God has faith that we will have faith in him!
     I told you about Dr. Suess writing Cat in the Cat because he wasn't afraid to fail. Imagine what you could do! Think of yourself simply as an incomplete body of work, and set about the business of completing yourself, in the image of God, with the assistance of God himself every step of the way.
     When starting 7th grade, kindergarten, college, a new job, retirement, buying a house, moving, running a church without a pastor, all these things that life brings to our feet, knowing that God has faith in us to do it right, and that he will be there if we don't, is an awesome feeling!
     Spong continues, “We need a religion of wholeness that empowers us to be deeply and fully human, that calls us beyond the limits of our fears, beyond the limits of our survival mentality. To stop thinking of ourselves as fallen sinners who need to be saved and to begin to see ourselves as incomplete human beings who need to be called more deeply and fully into life.”
       God is calling us to be more deeply human. Remember Thomas Merton's prayer? Nor do I really know myself,” he not a complete human being, not a finished piece of work. “and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.” though he tries to please God, he may not succeed entirely “But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” God is pleased because we are trying, not punishing us for failing! God knows that we will fail on occasion, because we are incomplete. He accepts that in us, and has faith that we can become more complete.
     God wants you to test the limits of what being human means to us.
     Jesus Christ was fully human. Are you?
     Move beyond fears and self imposed limits. God has faith in our ability to do this. God has faith in you, believe it or not, like it or not. And if you have faith in God, you will begin to believe that you can do anything you set your mind to, because Christ strengthens you.

Sunshine  and  Rainbows
First Congregational Church, Rock Springs
May 29, 2011

     I want to open today's sermon with a movie quote, just in case anyone is missing Pastor Steve. “You ain’t gonna believe this...but you use to fit right here. (Rocky holds up his right hand) I’d hold you up and say to your mother, this kid is gonna be the best kid in the world. This kid is gonna be better than anybody I ever knew...and you grew up good and wonderful it was great just watching you everyday it was like a privilege. Then the time come for you to be your own man and take on the world and you did... But somewhere along the line you changed...you stopped being you...you let people stick a finger in your face and tell you you're no good...and when things got hard you started looking for somethin' to blame...like a big shadow. Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows, it's a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, nobody is gonna hit as hard as life! But it ain't about how hard you can hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep movin' forward, how much you can take...and keep movin' forward. That's how winning is done! Now, if you know what you're worth then go out and get what you're worth! But you gotta be willing to take the hits and not pointin' fingers sayin' you ain’t where you wanna be because of him or her or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain't you! You're better than that!”
       That quote was from the movie “Rocky Balboa” the final installment on the Rocky series. This is widely recognized as Rocky's retirement speech. Though it was delivered on a wet street corner, not at a press conference, it was his farewell address. To illustrate that Gos is still speaking, and speaking through many different outlets, I included it this morning.
     Rocky gave this speech, this advice, to his son. I think he realized that we would not be able to be around for his son as much as he would have liked. The years of epic battles in the ring had taken a heavy toll on the champ, and he was facing his greatest fight yet. Rocky is taking this opportunity to say goodbye to his son, and the movie audience.
     Although The Rock was never considered to be the shiniest penny in the fountain, he does serve up some pretty stellar advice. He is telling us that the world is going to be a difficult place. Life is not easy for anyone. A lot of bad things can, and do, happen , and it is our job to get through it. “Life is not all sunshine and rainbows”, he says. We have to rely on what we have been taught during our lives and use that to rise up and persevere. That is a pretty good, pretty ancient message.
     In the gospel readings last week and today, Jesus has essentially given his own retirement speech to the disciples. Of course, Jesus had done this before. He was a little like Brett Favre in that respect. In the garden of Gethsemane, the last supper, when he met good ol' doubting Thomas. This, however is his final farewell.
     In a similar fashion to modern day retirements such as Lou Gehrig, and many departing Presidents, Jesus summarizes the work he has done. He reiterates his instructions to the disciples, reminding them of their duties after he has gone. They have to understand that he is really leaving this time. I imagine that a few people were thinking, “Yeah, he'll be back.”
     In a similarity to Rocky, Jesus is addressing his own children in this farewell. He is reassuring them that they are not being orphaned. Making sure they know that he has given them all the tools they are going to need to survive in the world. Jesus even tells them that the world is not going to be all sunshine and rainbows.
     "I've told you this ahead of time, before it happens, so that when it does happen, the confirmation will deepen your belief in me. I'll not be talking with you much more like this because the chief of this godless world is about to attack.
      The disciples are a lot like children. They were feeling a sense of loss as their beloved teacher departs. Many times children today feel that same way as the school year ends, as graduation sinks in. They are afraid of being left alone, and for good reason, “the chief of this godless world is about to attack.”
     The Romans were very good at killing people, …. publicly, …. as a way of sending a message. The disciples yearn to know that someone greater, smarter and stronger than them is going to be in charge. That there will be someone to fall back on. And, just like children, they need to know that greater someone, that greater power loves them.
     They must have been terrified. Hardly anyone likes change. Not many people enjoy uncertainty, and no one wants to be killed. The Romans were poised to seek out and destroy every last remnant of this Jesus Movement as soon as possible. Their goal, to get these people to renounce Jesus. The Romans failed in their mission. They failed because Jesus had given the disciples the final piece to the Holy Puzzle.
     "If you love me, show it by doing what I've told you. I will talk to the Father, and he'll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. The godless world can't take him in because it doesn't have eyes to see him, doesn't know what to look for. But you know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you!”
     Jesus lets the disciples know that there is something greater. Something ore powerful than them, more powerful than the Romans. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, will be with them always. Always, no matter what! With that kind of knowledge, with that friend in my corner, I could step up and fight Rocky Balboa himself. Even if Jesus retires, even if a church's beloved pastor leaves, we have the strength to get back up and keep moving forward.
     Jesus was really the first pastor of the church. Interestingly enough though, he was only an interim pastor. I shouldn't say that. I always get my feathers ruffled when people say, “Are you just a substitute teacher?” Jesus was our very first interim pastor. When he started his ministry, he always told people he was going to have to leave. He told them right from the start that he would not always be their teacher. He knew that the fully human thing was a temporary position. Yet, many of the disciples refused to believe it. Jesus told them that he was there to prepare them, get them ready to do this work themselves. They didn't believe him. I think there are still people hoping for another Rocky movie, but it isn't going to happen. There may be people who think our own search committee is wasting it's time....
     I have commented before how wonderful it is that so many gospel stories over the last few years seem to pertain specifically to our church. The entire Book of Acts is almost precisely what we went through when Harvey left. And now, consider this:
     After a period of suffering, a congregation finds itself a new leader. People quickly grow fond of him. His methods are sometimes a bit unorthodox. He does things in worship that people are not used to , and make some people uncomfortable. Still, more people come to church. There is a stronger feeling of The Spirit in the place. However, from the very first day he was in town, everyone knew he was an interim. He was not going to be the permanent pastor. Everyone knows this! Still, whenever he mentions it, people shrink back. They do not want to even think about it. They wonder, if he leaves, where will that leave us?
     Does that sound like any congregation you know? Now, I realize the monster that could be created by spending too much time comparing Steven to Jesus. His ego is pretty fragile, after all, right? But look at the two stories! Most of us are very pleased with Steven. He does things differently, and they work. There really is a stronger sense of The Spirit in this place, and, we all know that he was brought to us on a temporary basis. Many of us, myself included, do not want to think of, cannot imagine, him not being here. One day though, we may be hearing Steven's farewell address. It would do us well to remember Jesus words to us today, if? That occasion presents itself.
     “The person who trusts me will not only do what I'm doing but even greater things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I've been doing.....The person who knows my commandments and keeps them, that's who loves me. And the person who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and make myself plain to him."
     “The person who knows my commandments and keeps them, that's who loves me.” These are not words laying down a challenge. These are words used just state a fact. You will know who loves me, because they will be following my commandments. They will be following my commandments because it is the natural thing for them to do. They are going to building upon what Jesus started. They are going to be out there making sunshine and rainbows.
     The disciples meant as much to the future of Christianity as we do to the future of First Congregational Church of Rock Springs. Sooner than I care to think about, we may very well - I originally wrote we will be, but I couldn't add that finality to it – we may very well be faced with the departure of our beloved teacher. And like those first disciples, we have to put our faith in the teachings and press on, keep moving forward, no matter how beaten we may feel. We know the power that Jesus gave us in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.
     A few weeks ago, Steven gave a sermon in which he tossed out a challenge to us. He said there were three things we could do, and if we did these three things, we would see our membership rise.
     I would like to respond to that challenge this morning. And I will do it with another movie quote. Wouldn't Steve be proud of me? In Rocky III, Rocky suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Clubber Lang. Rocky challenges Clubber Lang to a rematch. A reporter asks Clubber if he accepts this challenge, and Lang replies, “I reject the challenge, because Balboa is no challenge.”
     Well, Steven, I reject your challenge, because it is no challenge. If the members of this church love Jesus, we will naturally go out and do greater things than he did. If we love Jesus we will pray and have fellowship with each other. These things are not difficult for followers of Jesus. Followers of Jesus make Sunshine and Rainbows.
     At the end of Rocky's speech, he dishes out some great advice, words that could have been spoken by Jesus. Rocky tells us, “I'm always gonna love you no matter what...no matter what happens...you're my son, you're my blood...you're the best thing in my life.”
     Jesus loves us, no matter what, no matter what happens. We are his children, we are his blood. Let's try to be the best thing in his life.