Sermon: October 30, 2016 – “To Save A Life”

“To Save A Life”

Text: Mark 3:1-6

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

I want to tell you a story. It is my story. I am that man that Jesus healed that day in the synagogue…

I was born with this stump of a hand. For a long time, I didn’t think anything about it, it seemed normal to me. I played with the other kids and we would run around in the streets and hide and wrestle and do all sorts of things. As I grew a little older I began to notice some of the kids would tease me and mock me. They would ball their hand up into a tight fist and then pretend to try to pick up a ball or a stick of wood. Some would even pretend to try to scratch their head or to shake hands like the grown-ups do-I guess it bothered me a little, but that was a long time ago. Kids can be cruel you know.

I grew up in my father’s workshop. He was a carpenter most of the time when there was work. He would build tables and chairs, bed frames and cabinets – he could build just about anything anyone needed. From the time I was 10 or 12 I pretty much hung out in my dad’s woodshop. I began to learn the trade, although I wasn’t much help.

They tell me I had an older sister who died when I was very young. I also have a brother, but somehow he ended up in Damascus and has a family over there. So for many years it was just me and my parents in the family woodshop. Then the flu came; it was about 3 or 4 years ago now. First my mother caught the fever. She laid in bed for about a week, she couldn’t cook or clean or do much of anything. At night I could hear her moan, I think from the fever. Then one night it was quiet and by morning she was gone. My dad caught it too; but he didn’t think it was a bad case. He kept working and tried to keep the house together even after mom died. I think he wore himself out and being weaker, the fever got him as well. That left me alone in the house and alone in my father’s shop.

After things settled down I tried to continue my father’s business. People would stop by and ask if I could build them this or that. I tried to please the customers, but everything took twice as long with only one hand. Keeping the right pressure on a plane, or holding a board secure while I sawed all became almost impossible. For years my father would clamp something down so I could work on it, we worked together, as a team. I could help him unload wood or deliver the finished pieces, but doing it myself was slow or impossible. After a while, the customers came around less and less. Even the long-time friends of the family and the reliable jobs we once had all slowly went away.

Eventually I closed the shop and sold the tools. I just couldn’t make it work with one hand. Then I sold the house and that money didn’t last very long. That’s how I ended up in the temple that day. I would sleep wherever I could find a place out of the wind and then during the day go to the temple in hopes of collecting a few donations. Most people walked right by; like I was invisible to them. They would turn their eyes so we wouldn’t make eye contact. Some would walk on the other side of the courtyard so they didn’t have to pass by me. No one ever spoke to me. Even those that would throw a mite or two into my cup did so without uttering a word. It was a lonely, meager existence. There was more than one day that I wished the flu had taken me as well.

Each week I looked forward to Sabbath. I hate to admit it, but I looked forward to Sabbath for all the wrong reasons. I never was allowed into the actual temple where I could hear the scriptures being read or watch any of the ceremony, but I looked forward to Sabbath because there were lots of people. Sabbath was always my best day. I usually tried to make the donations last for a couple of days after, and some would bring a piece of bread or fruit for me. I would eat the food first and save the money for later.

Then there was the Sabbath that Jesus came to the temple. It was early in the morning and preparations were still being made for the services that would be held later in the day. The priests were arranging things in the courtyard, and there were other robed men walking briskly back and forth. When Jesus entered the synagogue, all that activity stopped. Jesus seemed like a quiet man, but he walked with confidence and authority. He looked around the courtyard at all the priests and scribes and without anyone saying a word, they began to crowd around him. It was like he knew what they were thinking and he sought to answer their questions.

I was watching all this take place from the corner of the courtyard where I had made my plea for donations for the last several years. You can imagine how shocked I was when Jesus turned to me, he made eye contact, which never happened, and then he spoke. Jesus said to me; “come forward”.

I wasn’t certain I was understanding what Jesus intended so I hesitated. I pointed to myself and questioned whether or not Jesus meant me. Jesus nodded and then motioned for me to join him in the center of the courtyard. As I came forward the crowd that had started to form parted like the story of Moses and the Red Sea. Even though technically I wasn’t unclean by Jewish tradition, I still muttered a low “unclean, unclean” under my breath as I moved to the center of the area. There I stood with Jesus and the eyes of 20 or 30 holy men fixed upon us.

The sun was now high enough that the rays of light could clear the outside wall and the courtyard area began to be bathed in the morning light. The golden light formed into great streaks of light as the dust from the morning’s activity was still in the air. I could feel the warmth of the sunlight on my back as I made my way through the crowd, but as I turned to face them, I had to squint. I held my good hand up to shield my eyes from the glaring blast of light.

Then Jesus spoke again. Without explanation or introduction he simply asked the question; “is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” The voice of Jesus was clear and confident; it echoed a little bit among the walls and stones of the courtyard. The echo subsided and was replaced with silence. I have never witnessed such stillness. No one spoke, I’m not even sure anyone was even breathing. No one moved, no one spoke, everyone watched to see what Jesus would do next.

As the silence continued, it was clear that Jesus had expected some sort of response. His facial expression began to change from neutral to more solemn, and then from solemn to frustration and then to despair. He was obviously grieved at the lack of response; the unwillingness to engage or offer any hint of compassion.

Jesus turned to me and instructed me to stretch out my hand. I wasn’t sure what was happening or what was expected of me, so I reached forward with both hands. As I did, my withered hand began to tingle and move, the stumps of fingers that had been locked into a ball since birth began to open up like a flower in the sun. Soon I could open my hand all the way and I could see four full fingers and a thumb that had been tucked away and frozen in a knurled ball my entire life. There in the streaming morning light I stood with Jesus, for the first time in my life, with two hands, palms up, outstretched to receive the gifts of healing and compassion.

It was then I remembered what Jesus had actually said. He had asked was it lawful to save a life or to kill on the Sabbath. Yes, he healed my withered hand, but he also saved my life. To restore a man’s dignity to where he can work again is to save his life. To make a person whole again, to where he might provide for a wife or a family someday is to save a life. To erase the years of teasing from other children while growing up, to erase the shame and guilt from sitting in a corner and living off scraps is to save a life. Yes, it was just a hand. Yes, the frozen disfigured fingers were loosed and straightened, yes, the motor control returned and the hand became stronger over time. Yes, it was all those things, but so much more. It was more because Jesus gave me my life back. It was a new start, a fresh beginning; it was a second chance.

I left the temple that day restored. It was just a hand, but my entire life had been changed in an instant on that day. I will never be the same and I will never go back to who I was before. And all he said was stretch out your hand…

Amen.

Sermon: October 23, 2016 – “Who Is The Miracle Worker?”

“Who Is The Miracle Worker?”

Text: Luke 8: 42-48

As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. 43 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians,[a] no one could cure her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45 Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter[b] said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47 When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

 

There are a couple of observations I want to make about this text to get us started as we look closely at this story. The first of those observations is that this story appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels. That is it can be found in Mark, and Matthew as well as the text which I read from Luke. If you go and look up those stories, you will find the same basic thread and details of the story to be pretty much the same, with just a couple of exceptions. It is those exceptions that I find of particular interest.

Both stories in Mark and Matthew state that the woman had told herself that if she could just touch the hem of the garment that Jesus wore, she could be healed. Luke leaves that little bit of detail out of his story; as we move through our study of this text, we may make some guesses as to why that might be the case. But all we can do is guess. Another detail that has been omitted by Luke is the detail that even though the woman had been seen for the past 12 years by physicians, not only had she not gotten any better, but in fact had gotten worse. In Mark the text actually says that she had endured much under many physicians, she had spent all she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

In Matthew, we find similar language about most of the details, but the part about physicians and spending lots of money on them even as she grew worse is not there.

I know we have covered some of this ground before, but just as a reminder, Mark was the first Gospel written. Bible scholars believe that the authors of both Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark that they worked from as they were writing their gospels. So the omissions in Luke are all present in Mark, so we can assume that Luke made some sort of a specific decision about leaving them out.

Just to review, in Mark, the story tells us that the woman had thought to herself she could be healed if only she could just touch the garment of Jesus. This detail is absent in Luke.

In Mark, we can also find details that the woman had seen many physicians, had endured much under those physicians, had spent all of her money on the physicians, but was not any better, but rather grew worse. Luke mentions she had spent all she had on physicians, but none could cure her.

If you read the two accounts, that is the Mark version and the Luke version, it becomes immediately obvious that Luke takes a little softer position with regard to the physicians. He almost downplays it a little bit. I think this could be because Luke himself was a physician and he was casting the best light possible upon his profession in this particular case. In politics, they call that spin.

Not only was Luke a physician, but he was also a bit of a scientist and that could be part of the reason that the woman’s self-talk about just touching the garment of Jesus is left out. Perhaps Luke has no confidence in the power of self-talk. The self-talk can be found in both the Mark and Matthew versions of this story.

This is where I think things begin to get really interesting. It is clear from all three of these stories that Jesus was in the midst of a huge crowd and there were people crowding around him all the time. As a matter of fact, when Jesus asked the question; “who touched me?” the disciples were a little surprised, because he had been touched and bumped into and jostled around by the crowd. The disciples responded by pointing that out to Jesus, how can you even ask that question, the crowd has been pressing around you all day. Probably hundreds of people have touched you. They thought the question was a little crazy. But Jesus insisted that someone had touched him and he felt the power of the spirit, the actual healing energy, leave his body.  At that point, the woman comes forward and says it was her who had touched him.

What I think is so interesting is that it is the self-talk of the woman that makes her unique among the crowd. Think about this. A crowd of thousands, hundreds of people crowding around Jesus as he walks through the crowd. Hundreds of people touching him in a variety of ways. Everybody who turned out to see Jesus on that day probably had something on their mind. It could have been a physical infirmity of some kind, it could have been mental anxiety or stress about a situation or circumstance, others were just curious about who this Jesus was, but everyone there had a reason to be there. Of the hundreds that potentially touched Jesus that day, only one was healed?

If the power to heal actually resided in Jesus, and all that was required was a touch, should not hundreds have been healed by the touch and not just the one?

What made this one different and unique? What made this one eligible to be healed when others were not? Was this a decision that Jesus made? I don’t think so, I think it was a decision the woman made. I believe the woman had the power of intention working on her behalf, and in short, she was able to receive what she expected. Of course this isn’t very scientific, nor does it give all the credit to Jesus, but I think that is what happened. I also think that may be part of the reason that Luke left it out. For a physician it is often difficult for them to accept the power of the mind or the power of the spirit to overcome disease and infirmity.

I was asked recently about how I would define God. As I constructed an answer to this question, I realized that my answer sounded very familiar to what I remembered reading in a book several years earlier by Dr. Wayne Dyer. That book is actually titled “The Power of Intention” and in it Wayne Dyer explains how he believes there is a field of energy which he calls intention. I might call that field of energy God.

I think it is very possible that the woman in our story found Jesus to be the access point to this field of Divine energy. Once accessed, the healing was automatic. But how was the field of energy actually accessed and utilized? Was it Jesus, or was it the intention of the woman? This, of course, brings us full circle to the title of my sermon, “Who is the miracle worker?”

We of course will never know that answers to these questions as an absolute certainty. I believe that Jesus could be considered a super-conductor of sorts of this field of Divine energy. If one would approach Jesus knowing this to be the case, and come into contact with that energy, naturally, Divine healing could be the result. It is possible, even likely, that those who were touching Jesus on that day were unaware of his super-conductor status, and so they did not find what they were not looking for.

I believe we have much more control over our situations and circumstances than we would like to admit. When we admit it and recognize it, we no longer have handy scapegoats on which to lay the responsibility for our situation. I think this story gives us just a glimpse of the true power of intention, the power of self-talk and the power of connecting with that Divine energy.

It was the woman’s intention to touch the garment of Jesus that made her unique in the crowd that day, and it was her intention that put her in the position of connecting with the healing energy that is available to us all.

What is your intention? What is your self-talk? What are your connecting points to the Divine energy that flows through all of creation? If you are not connected in all the ways you desire, where does the responsibility for that rest?

This is of course food for thought. Go in peace and go with intention. Amen.

Sermon: October 16, 2016 – Untied Methodist

“Untied Methodist”

Text: Mark 11: 1-10

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

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

 

I know what some of you are thinking…”I know it’s been awhile since I’ve been in church, but how did it get to be Palm Sunday?” You can relax, it is not Palm Sunday, even though the text I just read is a traditional one for that particular Sunday, I’m going in a little different direction with it today.

I think most of you would know what I’m talking about if I were to tell you that I take the Bible seriously, but not literally. I’ve said that before and I don’t believe it comes as any great surprise to any of you. As aa matter of fact, I would think that most of you also fall into that category; that is you also take the Bible seriously, but not literally. What I may not have told you is one of the major reasons why I prefer that approach to the Bible. You see, I believe this approach not only keeps you from painting yourself into a corner that you don’t want to be in – like having to support the idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old for example. But this approach is also a lot more creative and a lot more fun when you begin to study scripture in depth. I think the text I just read is a good example of this.

By taking the Bible seriously, but not literally it opens up for you the chance to ask the question why a certain scripture might be written the way it is. In the text that I just read, the colt that Jesus requested is tied up. If you check the other synoptic Gospels, that is the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, you will find that they too have the colt tied up. This is likely because both Matthew and Luke were using Mark as a source for their Gospels and they didn’t see any real reason to change it. But why would Mark have the colt tied up?

Of course, if you are a literalist, the colt was actually tied up, and this is the way it was and the Bible is just reporting what was. How boring! I actually think Mark made a decision to have the colt tied up in his story. But the question becomes why? Without this flexibility of understanding, you never get to ask the question why; and asking why is critical, I believe, to good basic Bible study.

So here’s the deal; in Zechariah 9:9 there is a prophecy that the Gospel writers wanted Jesus to fulfill. In that scripture, it says that the king will come riding on the foal of a donkey. Here is the actual text, so we can take a look at it:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

OK, our Gospel writers wanted Jesus to fulfill this portion of scripture, I get that. But the scripture doesn’t say anything about the donkey being tied up, it doesn’t say anything about how Jesus was to come into possession of that particular donkey it doesn’t really even say that Jesus was going to ride it into Jerusalem. So you can see that our Gospel writers had to fill in a few blanks. There may have been some oral tradition around this story; there may have been information in Q that we don’t know about; but what is most likely is that most of this story came out of the imagination of the author of Mark. I think that is exciting, because it allows us to ask questions and draw meaning and metaphor from the text that otherwise would not be there.

So I have given you a little background information with regard to this text, but we have not yet talked about why Mark may have had the colt tied up and the disciples were instructed to untie it.

This is a great metaphor; the very act of untying something is metaphorically very powerful. If you were going to begin a great journey at sea, just about the very last thing to happen before you cast off is that you would be untied. Even a huge cruise ship when it docks, gets tied up. The ship cannot leave the harbor until it is untied.

There are a lot of people who own small aircraft, private airplanes that seat maybe 2 or 4 sometimes as many as 6 people. Not everyone who owns a plane has indoor storage available for their plane. So they have to park their airplane outside on the tarmac somewhere. When an airplane is parked for any length of time, it is tied down. A strong wind can easily get under the wings and simply tip it over causing a great deal of damage to the plane; so they tie it down. Once again, if you are going to leave in your airplane, you would need to untie it first.

You get the point; or at least I hope you do. The act of untying is a metaphorical act of freeing Jesus to begin a new journey, to set sail, to soar the heavens-no longer held back by being tied to ancient Judaism. The adherence to the law, the ancient rituals, the overbearing tradition; all the things that Jesus sought to reform about ancient Judaism, the act of untying the colt could be considered metaphor as the actual release from those things.

I think it is possible that the authors of Matthew and Luke, when they read Mark’s version of this story, they may have made the decision to change a detail here and there, but they left the untying in. They left it in for a reason and I think the symbolism of being untied is a strong enough metaphor that it may be the reason they left it in. Of course we will never know.

But if you are a literalist, the colt was simply tied up, they untied him and that is the end of the story and the end of the interpretation. What fun is that?

I want to make one more quick point. How many of you when you first saw the title of this sermon actually thought that “untied” was a typo and it really should read A United Methodist? I kind of did that on purpose just to keep you on your toes. After considering all the things that being untied might have meant for Jesus in a metaphorical sense, I think it may be just as appropriate for us to think about the advantages of being untied Methodists as well.

What would it mean if we became untied Methodists? And that of course is food for thought.

Amen.

Sermon: October 9, 2016

Texts: Psalm 51: 10

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Acts 17: 16, 22-25, 28-29

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

If my math is right, I have just been through my fifth rummage sale here at the church. For many of you that is small potatoes, but five rummage sales is enough to be amazed at what happens each and every time. I am always amazed at the stuff that shows up; I’m even more amazed that each time the opportunity comes up we manage to find more stuff around our own house. One would think that eventually you would reach the bottom of the rummage pile, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. I guess we constantly add to it without fully realizing what we are doing. It could be that some of the stuff that was eligible this year wasn’t eligible a few years back. Sometimes we need to get used to the idea of letting something go before we actually let walk out the door.

You may have noticed that I used two different texts this morning. At first glance they may not seem to be related to each other, but I hope to be able to tie this together for you. The first text from the Psalms reminds us that we need to seek a clean heart before God. Most people would equate a clean heart to pure thoughts and actions, being a moral person and so forth. But what if a clean heart also means that we consciously clear out the stuff that is no longer relevant or useable or appealing. A little like we do with our garages and basements and storage sheds when it is rummage sale time again.

When we clean out the garage or the downstairs closet for the rummage sale, we don’t clear out the clutter because it is evil or bad or impure or immoral; we simply have no need for the items any longer. What we donate to the rummage sale generally has served its purpose for us and while it may still have some useful life left in it, and there isn’t anything really wrong with it, we just don’t use or need it any longer. What if we viewed the scripture about creating a clean heart in that context, that we create a clean heart by taking stock of what is no longer useful or relevant and making a concentrated effort to actual clean that stuff out? What would that look like? Do you think there might be anything in there that would qualify?

While you think about what it might look like to actually clean out your hearts, like we clean out a closet for a rummage sale, I wanted to give you just a little background history of the church and Christianity.

After the execution of Jesus, it took a couple hundred years for Christianity to get really organized. The Bible, as we know it, didn’t really come into existence until around the year 300. About 700-800 years after that, in round numbers, around the year 1054, there was a great schism. This divided Christianity into two different camps which some scholars identify simply as east and west. Our form of Christianity derives from the west camp.

The two camps went along for another 500 years until the year 1517, when most scholars date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This is probably familiar history to some of you, at least to a small degree, because it was in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the wooden door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. In essence, Martin Luther was telling the Catholic Church at the time they needed to clean out their closets. He listed 95 items that needed to be updated, eliminated, reformed or simply gotten rid of. In a way, Martin Luther suggested to the Catholic Church they needed to have a rummage sale and clean out all of that stuff and begin again with a clean heart.

Now pay attention very closely. The first rummage sale was about 700 years in the making, which was the great schism. The second rummage sale took place about 500 years after that, which was the Protestant Reformation. Since that rummage sale, it has been 499 years. I’m wondering when the next rummage sale will take place and what we will seek to clean out of our closets and our hearts.

One of the items currently in the closet of Christianity which we will need to deal with somehow in the years to come is the inherent exclusive nature of the orthodox tradition. I think most of us have come to terms with some of this exclusivity, but the official Christian teaching is still very narrow and very exclusive. We don’t play well with others is another way of stating the obvious. In a world that grows smaller every day, Christianity simply cannot maintain a belief structure that it is the only true religion and the Christian God is the only true God.

I think it is safe to say that as Christians most of us believe that the earth and the universe and the people of the earth were all created by God. That means that the people of other faith traditions, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and all the others were also created by God. Who else would have created them? And if they are created by God, are they not perfect in the eyes of God, just as we are?

Do we currently have room in our closets for other faith traditions or do we need to clean them out a little first?

I happen to believe that it is inevitable that at some point in the future we will discover life on other planets. Mathematically, it is almost a certainty that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Actually the mathematical probabilities indicate that there are millions of planets that would have other forms of life on them. How will we handle that information when it comes along? Did God create that planet as well? What will that faith tradition look like? Will we have room in our closets for that new information?

I want to return now to the second text that I read at the beginning of this sermon. The Apostle Paul was visiting Athens and he noticed a lot of different idols around the city. When Paul addressed the Athenians about this, I think he was suggesting to them it was time for a rummage sale. There were a lot of things around the city, which to Paul, no longer had any relevance to a more recent and modern image of the Divine. Paul explained that this new Divine image was possibly what one altar had declared was the unknown God. But Paul went on; he said that we are all offspring of God, all of us, not just some of us and that God is the creator of all that is, the world, the universe and all the dwells in it. Paul goes on to explain that it is God that gives us life and breath; Paul poetically states that it is God in whom we live and move and have our being. Paul defines God as not being defined by objects of gold or silver, or an image formed by artists, but rather the very breath of life in all beings and all things.

Paul was saying to the Athenians, it is time to create a clean heart, it is time to make room for some new thoughts and new ideas about God, it is time to hold a rummage sale!

It’s been 2,000 years since Paul suggested that to the Athenians, and it has been 499 years since Martin Luther suggested that to the Roman Catholic Church. How much stuff can we collect in 500 years? I’m wondering if it is time again. And that is food for thought, Amen.