Sunday, July 29, 2018

When a little goes a long way (John 6:1-15)

The late Dr. Fred Craddock tells about being called back to Oklahoma for a funeral while he was in Atlanta. The man who died had been a good friend in the little church he served there. It had been years but they were good friends. The voice on the phone said, ‘Ray wanted you to come and have his funeral, if you could?” Fred said, “I’ll come.” So Fred went, and after the funeral and the meal, it was just the family. Kathryn was there. She was the oldest daughter. When Fred served that church, she was thirteen years old. Fred said, “I remembered her when I left, and she was the worst thirteen year old I had ever seen—noisy, in and out, pushing, shoving, breaking things, never stayed in the room, never paid attention. When I left there, I could have said, ‘If there is one person that doesn’t know a thing I’ve said in the time I was here, it would be Kathryn.’” Kathryn was now an executive with the Telephone Company. She and her dad were real close. Fred said to Kathryn, “I’m sorry, it’s such a tough time.” She said, “It is tough. When Mother called and said Dad had died of a heart attack, I was just scrambling for something.  Then I remembered a sermon you preached on the meaning of the Lord’s supper.” Fred said, “Kathryn, you’re kidding.” And she went on to tell him something he had said in the sermon that helped her when she needed it most. Who knows? Who knows when an encouraging word, an act of kindness, a gift of time or personal attention will have an impact? Who knows when some word or deed or service on behalf of another will make a difference in their lives?

In our story a large crowd has been following Jesus and apparently they haven’t eaten in some time. Jesus points this out to his disciples and raises the question about how they might feed this great multitude. Philip seems overwhelmed by the need – and the need is great: “Six months wages could not buy enough food for each one just to get a little,” he says. But Philip doesn’t yet realize what God can do with just a little.   

Andrew chimes in next: “There is a boy here who has five barely loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Now, Andrew can be understood in a couple of ways. We could read Andrew’s question the same way we read Philip’s answer. The need seems too overwhelming to even consider. There is a boy here who has five loaves and two fish, but what is that in light of our enormous need. That’s one way to hear Andrew. Another way, though, is to read in Andrew’s response a more hopeful, positive possibility. Maybe he is saying: Well, the need is great. It’s huge. But we do have something. We have a little. Can we imagine Andrew looking at Jesus as he says this with a faint sense of hope and possible expectation of what Jesus might be able to with the little boy’s little bit of bread and fish? Maybe that’s stretching it. I suspect Andrew is just as overwhelmed at the need before them as Philip.   

Jesus has the crowd of people, whom John says numbers about five thousand, sit in groups on the grass. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks to God for it, and then distributes it to the multitude. He does the same with the fish. When all is said and done, the people eat their fill, and the disciples gather up twelve baskets full of leftovers. Perhaps a basket for each of the twelve disciples to press home the point of what God is able to do with our little.

The writer of this story wants us, the readers, to clearly understand that this story is a “sign.” All the works of healing and the unusual feats of Jesus, which we call “miracles” such as Jesus walking on the water and here in the multiplying of the bread and fish – all of these things this Gospel writer calls “signs.” They are signs because they point beyond themselves to something else. The whole point of a sign story is to teach us something about what God wills and wants for our world and for our lives. Whether a story actually occurred historically is for all practical purposes irrelevant. The pressing question is. What is this a “sign” of?

My take on it, is that the point here is that God, the cosmic Christ, the Holy Spirit, our heavenly Father and Mother (use whatever image for God you like), the living Christ is able to take what little we give away to others and bless it to the good of others beyond our expectations. God is able to take that merciful deed of caring, that kind, encouraging word, that gift of money or personal time and attention, and put it to great use in making a difference in people’s lives.

John makes it clear that this is a sign of the kingdom of God, a sign of God’s will and way in the world. John says, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This indeed is the prophet who is come into the world.’” From the perspective of John’s Gospel this is a sign of what God wants to do and can do with our little.

Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that, among other things, is committed to building a moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. At one time he pastored in the Texas Panhandle community of Tulia, Texas.

On the morning of July 23, 1999, 47 alleged drug kingpins were arrested on the poor side of Tulia and charged with selling little baggies of powdered cocaine to a single undercover agent by the name of Tom Coleman. Coleman had no evidence to corroborate his stories, but on the basis of his testimony alone local juries handed down the stiffest sentences allowed by law. One young man received six 99-year sentences, to be served consecutively.

Then they learned that Tom Coleman had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of this 18 month undercover operation. And before taking the Tulia job, he had worked as a deputy in another West Texas town, leaving in the dead of the night owing local merchants $10,000. Bean called another West Texas sheriff who hired Coleman even further back. He said, “If I had people in jail on that man’s uncorroborated word, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

Well, Alan and his wife Nancy were at a crossroads. They could pretend nothing happened and get on with their lives. They could say to themselves, “What little we can do can’t possible make a difference.” Or they could offer up what they could. They decided to do what they could do.

They started holding Sunday night meetings in their living room where the children, parents, and loved ones of the sting defendants gathered to sing gospel songs, dance, read letters from prison, and plot strategy. They packaged the story for journalists. They reached out to advocacy groups across the nation. They got in touch with the governor’s office and made repeated trips to Austin to visit with legislators, handing out brochures that read: Moses, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus agree: no one should be convicted on the word of a single witness.

Gradually their efforts were rewarded. Two sisters in New York published a documentary on the story. Two international law firms saw the documentary and signed on to represent the defendants on a pro bono basis. ABC’s 20-20 sent a team to investigate. Even Bill O’Reilly covered the story on Fox.

Then came the backlash. Nancy, Alan’s wife, was shunned at work by her fellow teachers. The brake lines were cut on their automobile. Their phones were tapped. Denominational officials told Alan that he was too radical to recommend to their churches. They were betrayed by friends. You see, sisters and brothers, sometimes even the little that we can offer up to God’s kingdom on earth and give to others can be extremely costly and risky.

After four years of struggle, a judge ruled that Tom Coleman lacked credibility under oath. All charges were dropped, prisoners were released from prison and eventually pardoned by the Governor. Tom Coleman was found guilty on aggravated perjury and the defendants and their lawyers received millions of dollars in reparation payments. A law was passed by the Texas Legislature demanding corroboration for single-witness testimony. The Department of Public Safety replaced unaccountable, and often corrupt, narcotics task forces. God used the little that Alan and Nancy Bean had given when they decided to speak out for truth and defend those charged unjustly. God multiplied it beyond, I suspect, what they ever dreamed. And yet even so, Alan says he and his wife had been so beat up, they found it hard to celebrate. Sometimes, sisters and brothers, we can take a beating for doing what we can do, for giving what we can give, for saying what we can say. Maybe that’s why Jesus sometimes told would-be disciples to count the cost. Because there is a cost. I suppose Jesus was preparing us for that when he pronounced special blessing on those persecuted for justice’s sake.

To be honest with you sisters and brothers, I sometimes wonder if it is worth it? I do. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at the injustice in our world and in our country, and even in my own complicity in it. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at the problems I see all around me. People who lack the resources to live a thriving life. People who are sick without adequate medical care. People who face great suffering due to illness or injustice or circumstances beyond their control. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at my own lack of will and want to do more or be more compassionate. And to be honest, I am just like Philip and Andrew. What are five loaves and two fishes in view of such massive need? It’s discouraging. And it would be easy to go the next step and give in to despair. It takes stories like this one in our Gospel text to remind me that God hasn’t abandoned any of us. That God is present and deeply and intimately active in a world which God loves and cares about. It takes stories like this to remind me that even though we might not be able to see it, God takes the little we bring – of our resources, of our time, of our abilities – and uses it in ways that we can hardly imagine. God can take our service to others, our kindness to others, our helpfulness to others and make it a “sign” of what God wills and wants for our world. And surprisingly God can use it to make a difference in people’s lives.

Sometimes we preachers like to remind our congregations that we are the body of Christ. That we are the arms, the hands, the feet, the voice of Christ in the world. That God uses people like you and me to do God’s will for mercy and justice. And if we don’t do it, God has no other way of getting it done. But we sometimes forget to emphasize that we just never know when and where and how God is going to do something in someone’s life or in some community that seems miraculous. It is, as Paul said, God who is at work in all of us both to will and to do according to God’s plan to bring everything together in Christ. God wants to reconcile all things together in love, and God is at work in each of our lives to that end – to change us and grow us into loving, gracious, more giving and caring persons and communities.

Our text concludes today with some who witnessed this “sign” trying to force Jesus to be king. Perhaps they thought with Jesus in control there would be no more need, no more hunger, no more want. Of course, we can’t force God to do anything and God cannot force us. Our journey with God is always a cooperative venture. It’s about working together. It’s about being in partnership. That is the way it is and always been from the first time life emerged on this planet millions of years ago. God has always worked in cooperation with the creation. And that sisters and brothers, is the only way any problem, from poverty to cancer to corruption in government is going to be solved. Working together with God and with each other is the only way any need will ever be met, whether it’s our personal need for courage and moral strength, or society’s need for a more equitable distribution of resources. Can we give our little and trust that God will bless it to bless others?

Great God in heaven and on earth, give us the will, and help us find a way to partner with you in bringing everyone together in your love. Give us the want and will to give to others and to your cause for their good and your good in the world. If enough of us gave what little we have and are, perhaps this world would look more like what you envision this world to be. Stir our hearts to offer our little so all your “little ones” will be cared for. Compel us, O God, to give away our five loaves and two fishes that the hungry might be fed, that the downtrodden might be lifted up, that the oppressed might be liberated, and that we might all come together in your love. Amen.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Breaking Down Walls (A sermon from Ephesians 2:11-23)

New Testament scholars are about evenly divided on whether Paul or one of Paul’s followers, who perhaps knew Paul and worked with Paul wrote this letter. Clearly there is some development in Paul’s thought from his earlier letters. In this letter Paul, or someone writing within the Pauline tradition, is writing not to address some local church concerns or issues, but rather, the writer offers a universal vision of God’s plan for humanity and the church.  In the first couple of paragraphs of this letter the writer lays out God’s universal hope for humanity, and for all creation. This writer claims that from the beginning God’s plan that will be realized in the fullness of time is (and I am quoting from the NRSV) “to gather up (that is, unify, or reconcile, or bring together) all things (not some somethings, not just what some would regard as holy things or holy people, but all things) in Christ, things in heaven and things on the earth.” This writer envisions all reality coming together in Christ.

The great challenge and obstacle faced by Christ followers in that day and time was the hostility and divisiveness between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). This wasn’t just one local church issue. It was the issue that all churches faced in that day and time. The description of Gentiles or non-Jews in v. 11 of our text is how, unfortunately, many Jews of that time regarded non-Jews. And this is what makes for division and hostility. When one group of people looks upon another group of people as “aliens” and “strangers,” “without God,” and “without hope,” – when one group sees another group as unworthy and unwelcome and unacceptable, and regards them of lesser value and worth, that, of course, creates division marked by hostility. This is a major issue we face today, and is one reason some people support a zero tolerance immigration policy. By labeling and deeming people and groups in exclusionary ways, they feel justified in their rejection and condemnation of that people and group.

We see this played out in many formats today and on many levels. When one person deems unworthy or unwelcome another person of a different social status, or nationality, or sexual orientation, or religious faith, or political affiliation, such disdaining and denouncing creates walls of hostility. According to Paul, or whoever wrote this letter, the solution to such division begins with the recognition that we are all one people in Christ. Christ here is the cosmic Christ, the Holy Spirit, who resides in every human being and connects every human being to every other human being.

These dividing walls of hostility can begin to come down when we accept and trust that in Christ we are all one people, that we all belong, we are all connected, that in the biblical writers words, we are “one body” and “one new humanity” and that all of us “have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

It’s important to understand that division is not the same thing as diversity. We can form one new humanity, one body, one beloved community and be extremely diverse. Unity does not mean uniformity, nor does it mean agreement in all things. To be at peace, to be in a constructive, healthy relationship with others, does not mean that we have to see through the same set of eyes or adopt the same perspectives. We do have to be committed to mercy and justice. That’s fundamental.

The biblical writer argues that the Mosaic law with its commands and regulations has been set aside. The real problem, however, is not the law itself; it’s the way the law was used, and the way religion in general is used today to manage holiness and to establish degrees or levels of worthiness. The real problem is the hostility and enmity behind the application of the law that excludes and marginalizes and condemns others, and deems others “strangers” and “aliens” who are “without God” and “without hope.” That’s the problem.

The real barrier, the real dividing wall that polarizes and condemns others is the dividing wall of hostility. It’s not our beliefs that divides us. It’s the prejudice and hostility behind them. It’s the hostility that is the problem, that is both the cause of exclusion and the consequence of exclusion The problem is not that we don’t see things the same way, that we have different views and understandings and perspectives on God, on life, on ways to solve problems in society. The problem is the hostility that demonizes the other and exalts our group as superior.

Some of the most deadly kind of prejudice and violence, and the most difficult to overcome is religious prejudice and violence. Religious violence, violence that people think is justified and condoned by the God they worship, can be the most lethal kind of violence and the most difficult kind to defuse. People convince themselves that by excluding and denouncing and destroying others they are doing God’s will. According to Paul’s own testimony, when he tracked down and persecuted Christians and consented to their murders, he felt no guilt whatsoever. He had convinced himself that he was doing God’s will. That kind of religiously motivated hostility that is rooted in one’s personal or group sense of chosenness and self-righteousness is really evil and extremely difficult to overcome. When our Attorney General and our Vice-President used scripture and used their religious faith to legitimize and justify the mistreatment and condemnation of migrants coming to our country seeking asylum and refuge, that’s really bad stuff and extremely difficult to diffuse because they convince themselves, just like Paul did before his encounter with Christ, that they are doing the will of God. They divinely sanction and justify their prejudice and hate. They think God is on their side. Jesus always took the side of the downtrodden.

How do we deal with such hostility? How do we counter it in a positive way? How do we diffuse it to give peace a chance? We begin that process  when we claim and trust that we are all one people, one body, one humanity – that we all are sisters and brothers in the household of God regardless of all our diversity. That’s difficult for people to do, because if you believe that truly, and are committed to that, then you cannot be silent when the marginalized of society are mistreated. You have to speak out. So that’s where we begin, and then we can learn from the way Jesus responded to such hostility how we, his followers, should respond to hostility.

Twice in our biblical text the writer references Christ’s death as somehow being instrumental in this process of tearing down walls of hostility and bringing people together. The writer, however, doesn’t tell us how this works. What did Jesus do on the cross to remove these walls of hostility and to bring about peace? For one thing, Jesus became a scapegoat to put an end to all scapegoating. He became a sacrifice to put an end to the sacrificial system, that whole system of offering up the innocent victim. Spiritually, socially, and psychologically humans have always needed to find some way to deal with their guilt. Historically, sacrificial systems were employed to that end. In ancient systems of religion, human sacrifices were offered to turn away the wrath of the deity (so the virgin, or the first born, or the only child was sacrificed, but never the adult man, because these were patriarchal cultures). Then, in the progression and evolution of religious consciousness, animals eventually took the place of humans. We see this in the beginnings of the Hebrew faith. I believe a great turning point in the history of Christianity that greatly diminished the Christian message of peace occurred when Christianity incorporated this scapegoat mechanism within its tradition. Think about it. When Christians adopted a theory of the atonement that made Jesus the victim necessary (required and demanded) to satisfy God (in the sense of paying off a penalty, or satisfying diving justice, or upholding God’s honor, etc.) then Christianity began to look and feel very similar to those ancient religions that required a sacrificial victim. And as a consequence it made the Christian God look awfully petty and punitive.  

Jesus, in his death, is not a scapegoat because God required a scapegoat. Rather, the killers of Jesus are the ones who required a scapegoat. God doesn’t require a scapegoat. We are the ones who want a scapegoat. What Jesus does on the cross is that he exposes the whole fallacy of scapegoat religion, and the evil of scapegoating in general. In bearing the evil, in bearing the sin, in bearing the hate of his killers Jesus exposed the evil and the hate of his killers, and in a larger sense the evil and hate present in humanity, because the evil and hate of Jesus’s killers represent the evil and hate in all of us. In his death Jesus unmasks the hostility behind the evil, much the same way the civil rights marchers who crossed the bridge in Selma, Alabama, unmasked and exposed the illusion of white supremacy and the sin of racism. The unmasked the hostility behind the laws of segregation. . Jesus’ death, for those who have eyes to see, exposes the sin and evil of scapegoating others. It’s evil to scapegoat anyone. It’s the very same evil that scapegoats migrants today.

A second way Jesus’ death functions to break down walls of hostility, and make peace between persons and people groups possible, is in the way he forgives his killers. Luke’s Gospel makes this explicit by having Jesus on the cross say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” He bears the enmity and animosity that is being poured out on him, without lashing out and without returning it. He absorbs the hate and evil without projecting the hate and evil back on his killers.

Only forgiveness can break cycles of hate and vengeance, making peace possible. In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in. As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare came to the conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and pledged on his honor to end the conflict.  

Afraid of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his weapon, punched a hole in the door, and in a daring act of peacemaking thrust his hand through the opening. It was a bold, daring, risky gesture. He could have easily lost his hand or his arm. But instead it was grasped by another hand inside. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture of peacemaking came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” Forgiveness can be as daring as “chancing one’s arm.” It is a bold, difficult, risky process. But it is the only way many of the walls of hostility we have built between ourselves and others, as individuals and groups, will ever come down. Who do you need to forgive today in order for the walls to come down? And from whom might you need to seek forgiveness in order for the walls to come down. I suspect that all of have built some walls that need to come down.

Forgiveness is the only path to any lasting personal healing and peace as well.  Jean Vanier tells about a friend who wrote to him about her grandfather, an Australian who had served in the First World War. He had been gassed by the German army and was left permanently impaired. He remained terribly bitter toward all Germans for the rest of his life. As is often the case, his bitterness poisoned his whole family and was passed down to the third generation, to Vanier’s friend who wrote to him about the ways she had absorbed her grandfather’s attitudes and been influenced by his hate. “All my life,” she wrote, “I’ve tried to get rid of the prejudice against German people that has been programmed into me.” It took this woman a long time to break free from all the hate and prejudice that she absorbed over the years in her family. She would have continued to poison her own soul, as well as the souls of her loved ones and friends, had she not chosen a course of forgiveness. It was a difficult process, and there were setbacks and failures. It didn’t always go smoothly. But eventually her struggle with forgiveness led to her own personal liberation, healing, and peace.  

Forgiveness is the way forward. Of course, forgiveness does not always lead to reconciliation. It does not always work in breaking down walls of hostility. We cannot change the heart of another person or group. But we can allow God to change our own heart. We can do what we can do. We can let go of our hostility. We can pray and work toward healing and peace. We don’t have to carry around a burden of resentment and bitterness. And if you have ever carried that around you know it is a burden isn’t it?

In all our differences and diversity we are one people. We are all connected. We all belong. All of us in this church and outside this church, all of us in this country and outside this country constitute one body, one humanity, one family, one dwelling place for God. We all need to let that reality impact us and let God show us the walls that need to come down.

Gracious God, help us to see that regardless how different we may be from others, we are one people. Help us see that the hurting people who travel here at great risk to find safety for their family and some hope for a better life are members of your family, and hence, our sisters and brothers. May we not be blinded by our biases and prejudices, or our own personal longings for safety and security. Help us to forgive those who have hurt us, as difficult as that may be. And give us the courage to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. Give us a desire for peace and healing that is greater than our desire for revenge or condemnation. Help us to be a light in dark places that points the way to your grace and love. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The God of the Ark and the God of the Earth (A sermon from 2 Sam. 6:1-15 and Psalm 24)

In 2 Samuel 6 David is now king over Israel. David has successfully brought the northern tribes and the tribe of Judah together, and he has established Jerusalem as the new capital and wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant there. The Ark was Israel’s most ancient symbol of the presence of God among the people. It was a chest made of wood and plated with gold. Its lid of solid gold was called the mercy seat. Two cherubim, which were angel like figures stood at opposite ends of the mercy seat. The Ark had been shelved for a long time in the house of Abinadab and now David wants to bring it to Jerusalem.

The story in 2 Samuel 6 begins with dancing and ends with dancing, but in the middle there is mourning. God rains death on the parade when Uzzah is struck down trying to steady the ark when it wobbles on the cart it is being transported on. That, of course, brings a sudden halt to the celebrative procession. David is both angry and afraid. David tells everyone to go home and the Ark is stored in the house of Obed-edom. I bet brother Obed thought, “How did I get so lucky?” But the storywriter says, “The Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.” The ark brings cursing and blessing, death and life.

If we read this story as a historical memoir it would present some real problems. The same could be said about the creation stories, or the flood story, and many other biblical stories like the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts who fall down dead suddenly by the hand of God. If I were God I would have no problem, I think, zapping a few people here and there, but thankfully, God is much more longsuffering, patient, gracious, and slow to anger than I am.

This story is not a lesson on how God works in the world. So why was it written? What did the storywriter want to teach by telling this story? According to OT scholar Walter Brueggemann, David’s act of bringing the ark to Jerusalem hints at political calculation and manipulation. Brueggeman observes that by making Jerusalem the center of power, David is breaking from the old order. As such, this action of David stands in “urgent need of legitimation.” Most likely, suggests Brueggemann, this is a calculated political move which David promotes as divinely sanctioned.  

Interpreters have also pointed out that in transporting the ark Mosaic regulations were disregarded. It was supposed to be carried by Levites using poles inserted through rings attached to the Ark. Here David and Abinadab employ the latest Philistine innovation – an ox cart to transport the Ark. Now, what all of this seems to suggest is that the spiritual significance of the Ark is being trivialized in the interests of legitimizing political and religious power. We know how this works right? We see it played out all the time. There are many Christians today who would sacrifice the souls of whoever else it takes to get conservative judges on the Supreme Court. Right? I’m sure there are liberals who do the same.    

It would seem that the storywriter tells this story to warn us, his readers, about the danger of trying to manage and manipulate God for our own religious or political purposes – whether that be for ourselves as individuals or for our particular religious or political group. We are tempted to do this in any number of ways are we not?

We can use God, the scriptures, and our religious tradition to legitimize a life of luxury while we do relatively little to address the poverty all around us. We read rather frequently about popular religious leaders and mega-church pastors who use religion to amass great fortunes and wield great power.  

We can use God, the scriptures, and our religious tradition as a way to exercise authority and control over others, so they will do our bidding. We can preach and teach the scriptures in such a way to get people to believe what we believe, vote the way we vote, and support what we support. I don’t know of a religious leader who does not do that to some degree, and I am including myself in that indictment.

Some use God, the scriptures, and their religious tradition to legitimize all sorts of death-dealing “isms” in our culture, like militarism, nationalism, sexism, racism, consumerism, materialism, and exceptionalism. Scriptures have been used to support slavery, the subjugation of women in society and in church, and to mistreat and condemn our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Within the last few weeks our Attorney General appealed to scripture to defend this administration’s horrific zero tolerance immigration policy.        

In the very first church I pastored out of seminary I had a deacon tell me that at the wedding supper of the Lamb when Christ returns to claim his bride, the bride he will be claiming are Baptist Christians. The guests at the banquet, he said, would be other Christians who just happen to get in by the skin of their teeth. I know this sounds like a fictitious character out of one of Flanner O’Conner’s short stories, but this was a real, live, flesh-and-blood, Baptist deacon who said these things and really did believe what he said. He is dead now and I suspect has come to see by means of a greater Light that God is not the projection of his own biases. I suspect we will all have to be awakened to that truth to one degree or another. 

I have no claim on God, nor do you, that is any different than anyone else’s claim on God. Our God has no intention of only blessing Americans or Christians to the exclusion of other nations or religious groups. If you happen to be in to bumper sticker theology, why not post one on your car that says, “God bless us every one.” Isn’t that what Charles Dickens has Tiny Tim say at the end of the story: “God bless us everyone.” That’s a true Christian prayer.

How do we guard against this? How do we safeguard from using our scriptures and Christian faith to advance our own interests and self-serving purposes or that of our Christian group or political group. All of us are tempted to do this, and in varying degrees do it – we employ our faith for personal ends, and not even realize what we are doing. I include myself. I know I’m guilty too. Most of the time we are blind to the ways we use God and manipulate the Bible to support our bias or position on some issue. Maybe one way we can move in the right direction and come to a greater awareness is by taking very seriously what the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 24 that the God of the Ark is the God of all the earth and all that inhabits this earth. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it,” says the Psalmist.

As I have been sharing over the last several Sundays, through the writings of John Phillip Newell I have discovered a little bit about the wonderful world of Celtic Christianity that emphasizes God’s pervasive presence in the world and in creation. Celtic Christian spirituality understands that the land cannot be owned and the Spirit cannot be divided, that the earth and all its inhabitants belong to God. Celtic Christianity emphasizes that we are called to live in harmony and at peace with all that is.

One implication of that truth is that borders and countries are all man-made, not God made. I hope you realize that it is not unpatriotic to acknowledge that America is man-made, not God made. Europeans had no divine mandate from God when they came to this new world and took this land from the native Americans. In fact, the way Christians legitimized killing native Americans and possessing their land is another tragic example of how we have used religious faith for our self-serving or group-serving or nation-serving purpose. We shouldn’t be proud about that history. We should be humbled and repentant, learning from the sins of our past.

Celtic Christianity emphasizes humankind’s original goodness and the goodness of creation, as the Psalms often do. Neither Celtic Christians, nor do the Psalms, deny sin or underestimate the power of evil and injustice to deceive, enslave, and destroy. Celtic Christians, however, would say that our sin and evil is not the deepest thing about us. They would say that at the heart of humanity is the image and goodness of God. We are all born with an inherent goodness – and yes, in our development as human beings this original goodness is quickly and easily marred, obscured, and distorted. Yet, nevertheless, our inherent goodness and value as human beings is deeper and truer than anything else about us. I believe the great challenge and task before humanity today is to reclaim this inherent goodness and let it shine through our lives and relationships. The great challenge and opportunity for all of us, is to allow our inherent goodness, our true self, to radiate from all that we say and do.

The Divine Spirit who is in each of us gets pushed aside and God’s love quenched by our negativity and self-serving patterns of sin. As Paul says, we grieve the Holy Spirit by our sin and involvement in injustice. God is grieved when God’s children take advantage of one another and hurt one another. But the Spirit of God doesn’t leave and go somewhere else. Our very existence is sustaind by the Divine Spirit. As Paul said to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, we are all God’s offspring and in God we live, move, and have our being. If we can learn to tune in to the Spirit’s voice we can know God’s will and consciously participate in the original goodness and harmony of creation.

John Philip Newell says that during his days at Iona Abby in the Western Isles of Scotland his family had a Border Collie named Jo. Jo was true to his deepest instincts the whole of his life. Jo lived and breathed to round up, and if he was not rounding up sheep, he would try to round up children or tractors or even birds in the yard.

Jo’s favorite day of the week on Iona was Wednesday, which was pilgrimage day. Some Wednesdays upwards of a hundred people would walk the seven-mile route around the island reflecting on their lives and their place in the world while praying for peace. Joe was excited from the beginning of the day. He knew it was Wednesday long before Dr. Newell would take his shepherd’s crook to lead the walk. Jo was delirious with joy all day as he rounded up pilgrims and circled endlessly in the heather.

Dr. Newell says, “But it was not frenetic running. His instinct was fine-tuned. It had a purpose, a goal that he was sensitive to. It was to hold us together. So as we approached in silence the hermit’s cell (a circular stone ruin) at the heart of the island . . . Jo quieted down, still attentive to anyone who might be straying or falling behind but intently quiet in his work.” Newell says that when they finally would all gather in the circle of the hermit’s cell for prayer, Jo would enter the cell, lie down in the center, and go to sleep. Someone suggested to Dr. Newell, “Of course he lay down. His work was finished. He had brought you together in a circle.” Joe’s deepest instinct was to bring them together. It’s an instinct that has been particularly bred into Border Collies. But it’s also an instinct that originates from the Source of all life. It’s an instinct that comes from our Creator, who said of human beings created in the Creator’s image, “This is very good.”

This longing for unity, for oneness, for reconciliation is deep within us all. Some of us may have to dig deep to uncover it. It may be buried underneath what the writer of 1 John calls the “the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.” This longing may have been quenched and smothered by our selfish interests, and all the ways we have tried to manipulate faith, people, and circumstances for our own ends. But it’s in our hearts somewhere. It’s part of our true self. It’s the longing of the living Christ; it’s the longing of the Holy Spirit who dwells within. There are many things that we allow into our lives that quench this longing and stifle the Spirit’s whisper. But if we listen carefully we can hear the Divine Voice. This sacred longing that is innate to our original goodness can be reawakened no matter how long it has been dormant.

The psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” Psalm 24 is a psalm of ascent and the temple, of course, is being referenced here. But as the Psalmist has already made clear – the whole earth is God’s temple. We may set aside a certain place for worship and call it a holy place, but every place is potentially a holy place, because God is in that place. Even in the darkest, dreariest, deadliest places God is there.  
I love the words attributed to Jesus by John in John 4. As part of a conversation Jesus is having with a woman of Samaria, she asks Jesus about holy places, whether one should worship at the holy place on mount Gerizim or the holy place on mount Jerusalem. Jesus says that it does not matter. Jesus says that God is Spirit, so all that matters is the kind of spirit that permeates and pervades our lives. Those who truly worship God, says Jesus, are those who worship God in spirit and in truth. Now, regarding that last line, those who worship God must do so in spirit and truth, there is the question among interpreters whether spirit should be understood as the human spirit (little s) or the Divine Spirit (capital S). I think the answer is both. Here’s the great Mystery. Our human spirit is one with God’s Spirit. If we will, we can uncover and nurture this divine longing for oneness.

This is what the Psalmist says: Who shall stand, live, dwell in union with God? The answer: “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, and who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” That’s not complicated. God is accessible to anyone whose actions and attitudes, whose works and motives are not laced with deceit or falsehood, but rather are sincere, authentic, true, honest, and centered on the good. That which is happening in our country today is evidence of how few Christians are living in the love and power of the divine Spirit. When we live in the power of the Holy Spirit we long for unity and peace rooted in mercy and justice. We walk in humility and integrity. Our lives abound in mercy and kindness. We work for justice and equality. We long for the redemption and reconciliation of all people and creation.

One of the first theologians representing the Celtic tradition was Palagius, who lived during the time of Augustine. Because the theology of Augustine won the day, Palagius has too often been misrepresented by traditional church historians. Palagius put the emphasis on original goodness, not original sin. He believed that when you looked into the face of a newborn child you were looking into the face of God. In a letter to a new Christian, he said, “You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. . . . It is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him.” That’s what matters. That’s what God wants for all of us.

Gracious God, we celebrate your goodness, a goodness that is part of us, basic to who we are as humans. Whenever we hurt someone, or say something mean, or do something that is offensive help us to realize that that is not who we are. And whenever we as a country inflict suffering on the oppressed and turn aside those seeking refuge and asylum, help us to stand up and say, “That’s not who we are.” Help us all to uncover our original goodness and live out of that goodness as we grow into your likeness. For you are not a God who lives in a box, even when that box is the Ark of the Covenant.  You are not a God who can be confined to one temple or one place, one tradition or faith. You are a God who inhabits this whole world. Amen.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Finding God in the Ordinary (A sermon from Mark 6:1-13)

Jesus is limited in what he can do in his hometown of Nazareth. The healing and liberating power of God is not irresistible. We can resist and reject what is good for us. Because of the resistance Jesus encountered in his hometown he could not do many good works there. While many were astounded by the wisdom with which he taught and the good works they had heard Jesus had been doing, Mark says that Jesus could do no more than heal a few people. They say, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And then Mark says, “And they took offense at him.”
Why are they offended? The implication in the text is that Jesus was just too common and ordinary. He had not been to theological school. He had not been trained by a prominent rabbi. He was a carpenter, a common craftsman like many of them. He was one of them. They knew his family – his brothers and sisters were among them. So how could the great “Other,” the transcendent one, the Holy One of Israel choose and call someone so common and ordinary to do his work? And they took offense.
Mark says that Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief,” that is, their inability to see and trust that the works he was doing were of God. These were religious people. Nevertheless, their bias, their preconceived notion of what God could and could not do, their predetermined notions of who God chooses to do his work blinded them to what anyone trusting common sense and a sincere intuitive sense of the Divine would have seen quite clearly. A second-hand faith that never reaches the level of personal experience of Divine love and mercy can blind us to what is.
I have been reading and re-reading some of the writings of Dr.John Philip Newell, who has spent considerable time studying and writing about Celtic Christianity. He recalls preaching at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh a number of years ago. Standing in the pulpit that hugs one of the thousand-year-old central massive pillars, he began his sermon by saying that there would be a time when that building would be no more. There would be a time when our Scriptures would be no more. And there would be a time when Christianity would be no more. At which point a woman in the congregation shouted out, “Heresy!”
This is when the rest of the congregation woke up. Newell could see them whispering to one another, “What did he say?” The woman had been sitting in one of the cathedral’s box pews. (Special seating I guess?) She decided to leave in protest. She opened, then slammed shut, the little door at the end of her pew as she headed off, stomping down the central aisle with her hard-heeled shoes, and shouting one more time, “Heresy!”
Labeling a teaching as “heresy” and the propagator of the teaching as a “heretic” is just another form of exclusion and projection of one’s own fears and insecurities onto the other person or group that challenges one’s beliefs and perspectives. Instead of viewing our religious faith as a road sign that points beyond itself, in our limited view we too often see it as a stop sign. When we do that we confuse our capacity to see, our limited understanding and vision of God with the actual reality of God, the Ultimate Reality, who is so much bigger and larger than what we can see with our flawed, limited, and biased vision.
Last week I shared a story that Dr. Newell told about his father who suffered from dementia in his final days. During that time the people who visited his father most frequently were a Muslim couple, Sylvia and Boshe. His father’s vocation involved working to provide relief for refugees. Years earlier when this couple had escaped from war-torn Bosnia, his father helped them find sanctuary in Canada. They referred to him as “father” because he had been so central to their birth into freedom and safety. Dr. Newell says that his father had always been a deeply compassionate man, but he had also been a very conservative man in his religious beliefs. So, while he worked with refugees the world over, at the end of the day, he thought they would be much better off if they adopted his Christian beliefs.
Dr. Newell says that even when his father was in the latter stages of dementia, he loved to pray with the people visiting him. Somehow, his words would flow when he prayed, even though in ordinary speech he would struggle for words. One sunny afternoon, Dr. Newell, joined this Muslim couple in a visit with his father. Dr. Newell asked his father to pray. They were seated in a circle and joined hands. His father prayed, “Without You, O God, we would not be. And because of you we are one family.” Dr. Newell looked up and saw tears streaming down the faces of Boshe and Sylvia. Dr. Newell says, “They knew they were one family with us, but they had never heard my father say it. His religious ego had now collapsed. The barriers had broken down.”
I like how Dr. Newell describes what happened in his father’s life. He says his father’s religious ego collapsed. It is mostly our ego and the ego of our particular faith group that keeps us from seeing the larger world where God is at work in diverse ways through diverse means.
As you well know I often say that religion can be the best thing in the world or the worst thing in the world. When our religious faith limits what God can do and the persons and communities through whom God can work, our faith can easily become detrimental and harmful to what God is doing in the world. An exclusionary Christian faith can quite easily lead to Christian exceptionalism and elitism. If God only works with people of our faith tradition and practice, then we have a basis for exclusion, for denouncing and condemning others who have a different faith and tradition, and who see God differently than we do. And when you meld  a sense of privilege and chosenness to desires for power, position, and prominence, which temptations we are all subject to, then religion (an in particular, Christianity) becomes the worst thing in the world rather than the best thing in the world. Then we, just like the people in Jesus’ hometown, may well take offense when others of a different faith and tradition claim to know God and do the works of God. I have little doubt that Christian exclusivism is helping to feed the meanness and hatred toward immigrants and refugees that is coming down from the WH and supported by a considerable number of people. Christian exclusivism may not be the main cause of support for the merciless zero tolerance immigration policy being enforced by this WH, but it certainly feeds into it.
Jesus’ friends and relatives in his home town could not imagine how God could use him in such a remarkable way. Jesus was just too ordinary. Too common. Too human. But, you see, sisters and brothers, that’s where God is and how God works – through ordinary people like you and me.
When President Obama spoke to the nation after the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage he urged respect for the opponents of same-sex marriage. He recognized that there were people with different views. In his  comments, he took no credit for it, even though his support for same-sex marriage was a major factor in changing the tide of public opinion. In his comments he said that the Supreme Court decision was “the consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, talked to parents, parents who loved their children no matter what, folks who were willing to endure bullying and taunts, and stayed strong, and came to believe in themselves and who they were, and slowly made an entire country realize that love is love.” The President concluded by saying, “What an extraordinary achievement, but what a vindication of the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. But then, in another sense no one is just ordinary. We are all extraordinary. We all have the divine life pulsing through our soul and body. I love the way the little epistle of 1 John puts it, “See what love the Father (our Abba, our Compassionate Guardian) has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” The reason, the biblical writer goes on to say, that the domination system does not know us (that is, the reason it does not recognize how extraordinary we are) is because it did know him (the domination system did not recognize how extraordinary Jesus was either).” John goes on: “Beloved we are God’s children now; what we will fully be has not yet been revealed” (3:1-2a). The reason it has not been fully revealed what we will be is because we are still growing into what it means to be God’s sons and daughters. Our growth as God’s sons and daughters takes faith and effort on our part. But our sonship and daughtership is pure grace. We are God’s daughters and sons right now! There is nothing to earn, there are no hoops to jump through, no doctrines or religious creeds to believe, no rituals to perform. We are, right now, the very children of God in whom the divine nature, the Spirit of God dwells. That was true yesterday, it’s true today, and will be true tomorrow.
Now, as we claim and grow into this reality we will most certainly come to believe some things. We will most likely participate in some spiritual rituals and practices. We will certainly engage in acts of kindness and works of justice and peace. But, sisters and brothers, we do not in any way merit or earn our identity as the children of God through our beliefs or through our works. That’s simply who we are. We belong to God and one another by pure grace. And by virtue of that identity we are of infinite worth and value. So no matter how ordinary we may seem, we are each one extraordinary.
So ordinary people, who are extraordinary, can do extraordinary things. We see this in the next unit in our biblical text. Jesus sends out the twelve to do the very works he had been doing – these common, ordinary folks – fishermen, a tax collector, a former insurrectionist – unschooled, average persons – healing the sick, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the kingdom of God. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Once upon a time a small Jewish boy went to his rabbi and said that he didn’t know how to love God. “How can I love God when I have never seen God,” asked the boy. The rabbi said to the boy, “Start with a stone. Try to love a stone. Try to be present to this most simple and basic thing so that you can see its beauty and goodness. Start with a stone.” “Then,” said the rabbi, “try to love a flower, be present to a flower and let its beauty come into you. You don’t need to pluck it or possess it. Don’t destroy it. Just love it there in the garden.”
Next the rabbi singled out the boy’s pet dog and told him to love his dog. Then he said, “Try to love the mountains and the sky and the beauty of creation. Be present to the creation in its many forms. Let creation speak to you and come into you.” Then said the rabbi, “After you have loved the creation try to love a woman. Try to be faithful and give yourself sacrificially to another.” Then said the rabbi, “After you have loved a stone, a flower, your little dog, the mountains and sky and creation, and a woman, then you will be ready to love God.”
What do you think the Rabbi was trying to teach the boy? I think what the rabbi was trying to teach is that the way we consciously enter into the experience of God and communion with God is through all that is. We learn how to love God by loving the world in all its variety and beauty and messiness. Paul says that a vital part of what it means to reach maturity is coming to trust that God is “all in all.” If we can trust that, we can find the Christ everywhere. If we trust that God is “all in all” then we can encounter God in all reality. We can be led by the Spirit anytime all the time.  
In our celebration of the Lord’s table may we be reminded that Jesus didn’t just teach truth, confront injustice, heal the sick, and free the oppressed for one particular group of people. Yes, he was a Hebrew and he was a Jewish prophet and teacher and reformer. But he is the world’s Messiah. His life and death was for the world. As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the cross.”
Oh God, as we eat this bread and drink this cup, may we know that our communion is not only with our sisters and brothers here in this place on this Lord’s day, but with all creation, and all our sisters and brothers the world over.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

God’s Healing Touch (A sermon from Mark 5:21-42)

In our text today Mark begins a story, then that story is interrupted by another story, a second story, after which Mark returns to complete the first story. This sandwiching technique in telling stories is common in Mark. Mark wants us, his readers, to find common features and themes in the two stories. So as I read the text perhaps you can look for features that are common to both stories.

Fred Craddock tells a wonderful story about arriving at a hospital to make a pastoral visit, but in the corridor he sees a woman.  Her head is against the door, and both fists are beside her face, and she is banging on the door: “Let me in, let me in, let me in.”  When he gets over to where she is he could see that it was the chapel door. Fred stops a worker, “This chapel is locked.” The worker says, “We have to keep it locked. There were some kids that trashed it and we had to get all new furniture. We can’t afford to keep doing that, so we have to keep it locked." Fred says, “Well, find someone with a key?” She comes back with a woman who opens the chapel, so Fred and the woman who was banging on the door go in. 

Fred notices that the woman had come to the hospital suddenly; she has no make up, her hair had not been combed, it was obvious that she just got there quick.  She has a look of desperation on her face. Her voice is the voice of desperation. She says, "I know he’s going to die, I know he’s going to die.” “Who?” asks Fred. “My husband.”“What’s the matter?”“He’s had a heart attack.”

Fred tells her who he is and asks if he could pray. She says, “Please.” Fred starts to pray for her and her husband, but she interrupts; in fact she takes over. She starts praying herself. Fred must have been too quiet or slow or saying the wrong thing or something, because she takes over. She says, “Lord, this is not the time to take my husband. You know that better than I do, he’s not ready. Never prays, never goes to church or anything. He’s not ready.   And what about me?  If I have to raise these kids, what am I going to do?  I don’t have any skills, can’t find any work. I quit school to marry him. If I’d known you were going to take him I’d have stayed in school!  And what about the kids?  They don’t mind now with him around. If he’s gone, they’ll be wild as bucks. What about the kids? This is not the time to take my husband!” She was desperate.

Fred stayed for a while; as long as he felt useful. Then, he went back the next morning. She had on a dress and make up and looked real nice says Fred.  She was in the hallway outside intensive care. Before Fred had time to even ask she says, “He’s better.” She smiles, “I’m sorry about that crazy woman yesterday.”Fred says, “Well, you weren’t crazy.” She says, “I guess the Lord heard one of us.” Fred says, “He heard you.” Fred makes this observation: “She had God by the shirt collar with both hands, and was screaming in God’s face.”  That’s desperation.”

Faith is sometimes born in a time of desperation. One of the shared characteristics in these two stories is that both Jairus and the woman who touches Jesus are desperate for help. When one is desperate one may turn to God and cry out for grace, for healing, for help. Sometimes healing comes and sometimes it doesn’t. 

I do not think that these stories were intended to teach that all cries of desperation to God are met with intervention and healing. Because quite certainly, God does not work that way in the world. God cannot work that way for reasons we do not know, and may never know. But I do believe God honors faith born in desperation. Sometimes faith born in desperation doesn’t last. But then, sometimes it does. Sometimes it develops into a more complete and mature faith. Sometimes in our desperation we realize that the faith we thought we had just doesn’t work in light of the contradictions and difficulties of life. And if we are willing to follow it through, the Spirit may just be able to shine through the cracks and enlighten us to truth that we were blind to, and fill us with a love and compassion that we did not formerly know and possess. If we stay with it and keep on the journey, our desperate faith may develop into a more mature, healthy, liberating, and transforming faith. 

The Quaker educator, writer and activist Parker Palmer in his book, “Let Your Life Speak” tells about his descent into the dark woods called clinical depression. He describes it as the ultimate state of disconnection, between people, between mind and heart, and between one’s self image and public mask. Parker says that after many days and hours of listening, his therapist offered him an image that eventually helped him to reclaim his life. He said to Parker, “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?” What if we looked upon our fears, our insecurities, our moral failures, and our addictions the same way.

Parker also shares an experience he had while engaged in a course called Outward Bound at Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine. One of his tasks, a task that he feared the most, was to rappel down a 110-foot cliff. As he slowly made his way down the cliff face he came to a deep hole in the face of the rock. Realizing he couldn’t go around it he became suddenly paralyzed by fear. He hung there in silence for what seemed to be a very long time. Finally an instructor shouted, “Parker, is anything wrong?” In a high squeaky voice he replied, “I don’t want to talk about it.” That’s typical isn’t it? We don’t want to face our fears, sins, insecurities, and so forth.

At that moment the second instructor jumped in and said to Parker, “It’s time that you learned the Outward Bound motto.” Parter thought, “I’m about to die, and she’s going to give me a motto.” But then she shouted ten words that have had a lasting impact on his life. She said, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” If you can’t change your situation, if you can’t get rid of your fears and failures and insecurities, then dive into them. Don’t give up. Press through the crowd that is pressing you to deny or ignore or hide your fears and your worries. The woman who had suffered for twelve years and found no relief didn’t give up. Mark says that when Jesus asked who touched him, because he felt healing power go forth, the woman “came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” And then Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole, your faith has made you complete.” When our desperation leads us to a place of confession, a place of honesty and forthrightness – with God, with ourselves, with others – then  we are on our way toward healing and wholeness.  

Sometimes the healing grace of God comes to us as we persist in hope and trust in spite of all the setbacks and obstacles as in the example of this woman who refused to give up. But then again, sometimes it comes to us through others.

Clearly one theme that is common to both stories is the power of touch. When Jairus presses Jesus to come with him to his home he says, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” The woman who presses through the crowd is healed when she touches the cloak of Jesus. Jesus then says, “Who touched my clothes?” When Jesus heals Jairus’s daughter he takes her by the hand and says, “Little girl, get up!” This emphasis on touch is symbolic of all personal engagement with another. We should ask, “In what ways do I need the personal touch and engagement of others in order to connect with the healing, liberating, and transforming power of Christ?” And then, we must also ask, “In what ways do I need to personally touch and engage others in compassionate, redemptive, and liberating ways?” I need the touch of others, and others need my touch as well.

There are times when our healing depends on the faith and personal touch of others. I’m sure you have heard faith stories, we use to call them testimonies, of people who have said, “I’m glad so and so didn’t give up on me.” It could be a parent, or a brother, or sister, or a good friend, or perhaps even an ex-husband or ex-wife. Like the ex-wife who had remarried, but said to her former husband, “Your daughter needs a father, so get your blankity life together. I’ll help you.” And she did and he did. And he is now a good father and a better person. Sometimes we need someone to say, “Get up and walk, and then take us by the hand and help us to walk.”   

Sometimes we must press through the challenges and obstacles blocking our path like the woman who pressed through the crowd to touch Jesus. But other times, when we have no energy or ability or will to press through on our own, we are like the little girl who is dependent on the persistence and faith of others. Sometimes we are just too sick, too depressed, too fearful, too insecure, too this or that, and we need someone who embodies God’s presence to touch us and help us get up.

John Philip Newell in his book The Rebirthing of God says that in the last months of his father’s life, as dementia was consuming his mind and memory, he witnessed a river of feeling flowing strong in his father. Throughout his father’s life, his father loved to extend what is sometimes called the Priestly Blessing, part of which I like to use in my parting words. As the current of feeling began to well up in his father, his father wanted to extend that blessing to everyone, everywhere, repeatedly.

During John’s last visit to his father in Canada before his father entered a nursing home, his sister asked him if he would help sell the family car, which his father was still trying to drive, illegally. So John called the local car salesman and set up an appointment for the next day. He made a point of saying to the car salesman, “When you meet my father tomorrow you will notice that he seems confused about all sorts of things. But please honor him by speaking to him, not me. This is his car. And I’ll be there with him.”

The young salesman totally got the point. There was a playful banter between them. Even in his dementia John’s father had not lost his sense of humor. There were, of course, absurd moments in the conversation. John’s father said to him one time, “Now, how much money do I owe you for this car?” The salesman responded, “No, no Dr. Newell. We want to give you money for the car.” John’s father looked at John and said, “This is very generous of them.” (And those of you with parents or other loved ones suffering from dementia you know how that can be).

At the end of the transaction, as the check was being handed over to John’s father, John said to the young salesman, “Whenever I part from my father or whenever we finish a telephone conversation, he gives me a blessing. And I think he would like to bless you now.” So, with the three of them standing in the middle of the car showroom, John’s father took the salesman’s hand, looked straight into his eyes and said, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” When John looked up at the young salesman there were tears streaming down his face. He would never forget that moment.

You know, sisters and brothers, everyone of us carries with us every day the potential to be such a blessing to one another. There is a well-spring of potential grace and blessing and healing within each of us just as there was in Jesus that can flow out to others at any moment if we are ready and willing to carry that blessing.  Sometimes we need to receive that blessing from others. Sometimes we need to extend that blessing to others?

One final note about these two stories. Both stories emphasize the need for persistence – to not give up. The woman exhausted her finances seeking a cure. Twelve years she suffered from her condition, but she never gave up the struggle. And when she thought there might be some hope, she plunged through the obstacles and found her source of healing. Jairus was told that his daughter had died and not to trouble Jesus any more. But Jesus gave him hope and against all odds, Jairus trusted and persisted. There were those who scoffed and laughed at the possibility, but Jairus kept on.

Can we continue the struggle of faith against all odds and obstacles? The challenges we face may stem from our own doubts, fears, and worries. They may be physical or emotional or spiritual in nature. They may emerge out of our cultural context. We may have to leave the scoffers behind, as Jesus did when he sent them outside and would not permit them to experience the healing and raising up of Jairus’ daughter. We may have to swim against the current of our family or community. We may have to contend with a corrupt, unjust system. Can we stay the course? Can we let go of the old to embrace the new? And when it comes time for the ultimate letting go, can we offer up our life to God in peace, in faith, and in hope of God’s ultimate healing?

And can we extend our hand to others who desperately need someone to help them. Can you think of someone today who may just need someone like you to say to them, “I understand how you feel. If I were in your situation, I probably would want to give up too. I’m not sure I would make it. But, I’m here and if you want to live, if you choose to live, I will help you live.

Oh God, may we not give up. Give us the will to forge on. We may need to press through many obstacles to be touched or to touch others with your grace and peace. We may encounter scoffers and those who would question or even laugh at our persistence. But there are those who need our touch, and we certainly need your touch that comes to us through many different persons and in many different ways. Give us strength for the struggle and guidance in our journey. Amen.