Jesus the Rule Breaker: Sermon for August 21, 2016

Luke 13:10-17
13:10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.

13:11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

13:12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

13:13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

13:14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

13:15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?

13:16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

13:17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

As a child I was a huge rules follower. I liked having them all laid out for me. I knew exactly what I could do, and exactly what I couldn’t. This made life very simple. Don’t run in the hallways of school. Don’t cut in line. Don’t take what isn’t yours.

Following rules, especially rules made for our own protection, is generally a good idea. These were the kind of rules I encountered as a kid, and so I thought all rules were like that. You didn’t run down the hall, because you didn’t want to get hurt. You didn’t cut in line or take what wasn’t yours because it wasn’t fair.

But one day I started to realize that sometimes rules could be wrong. And that was a problem.

One day in sixth grade I came to school and started hearing that our social studies teacher had instituted new rules. If you had blue eyes, you got to sit at the front of the classroom. If you had brown eyes you had to sit at the back. If you had blue eyes you didn’t have to do all the homework. If you had brown you had to do extra.

All day I kept hearing about these rules and by the time I went to social studies class at the end of the day, I was ready. Before the bell even rang I cornered the teacher. I was a shy kid, so this was unusual for me. “This isn’t right,” I said to her. “You can’t do that.” The Supreme Court may have been mentioned.

“Oh yes I can do that,” she said. “Because I’m the teacher and I make the rules.” She sent me to the back of the class where for the next hour I fumed.

Now, you may have figured out by now that the teacher was recreating a classic experiment, one that divided children on eye color, as a way to talk about discrimination. She was trying to show us, in a less-than-perfect way, what it felt like to live under an unfair system of rules.

I’ve never forgotten that day, and the frustration that I felt. And since then, I’ve known in a real way that rules aren’t always perfect, or even good.

Today’s story reflects that well. Jesus is approached by a woman who was bent over, and unable to stand. She’d been that way for 18 years. And Jesus sees her and he calls out to her and says, “you are healed!” And right away she stands up straight, and praises God.

jesus-healing-the-woman-with-a-disabling-spiritSo, amazing, right? Except here’s the problem. Jesus did it on the Sabbath. And so the leader of the synagogue, the guy who was in charge, yells at Jesus and he says “look, there are six days a week you could have healed her, but you know the rules…no healing on the Sabbath”.

To be fair, those were indeed the rules. They were right there in the Ten Commandments. Everyone knew them. No one questioned them. Jesus broke the rules, no argument.

But Jesus shoots back at him, “You’re a hypocrite. You’ll give your donkey water on the Sabbath, but I can’t heal this woman? It’s been 18 years…she’s a child of God…shouldn’t she be healed?”

Jesus’ disciples rejoiced but the others, the Bible says, were “put to shame”. That fact didn’t help Jesus later on. They didn’t forget that he had violated one of the most fundamental of laws and humiliated the religious authorities in the process.

I still like rules a lot. Especially when things are confusing. They often set good boundaries and are good guides. But rules are not the same as God’s will for us. I learned that in 6th grade. And from that day forward I decided that there were times when rules had to be broken.

Growing up in the South I learned that many others had discovered the same thing. Breaking rules, rules that were codified in law, became the catalyst for change as people sat at lunch counters, or refused to sit at the back of the bus, or resisted any of Jim Crow’s other rules.

Because they broke those rules, the school where I learned that lesson, one that for decades had educated only white children, became integrated.

But something else bothered me that day. And it had to do with the fact I had brown eyes, and not blue ones.

You see, it was easy for me to call that system unfair. It directly impacted me. It meant I had to sit at the back of the class and do what the blue eyed didn’t. And so, in a real way, I was fighting for myself.

But afterwards I wondered…what would have happened had I had blue eyes?

I thought about that a lot. Would I have done the same thing? I hope so. But I don’t know.

I thought about that a lot in years to come whenever I read history. Would I have been a part of the resistance that hid Jewish neighbors in Germany in the late 30’s, or would I have kept myself safe and looked the other way?

Had I lived in the antebellum South would I have worked on the Underground Railroad or stood against slavery, or would I have signed up for the Confederacy like my great-great grandfathers had? After all, slavery was a law they’d known their whole lives, one that was even preached from Southern pulpits as God’s will.

I hope I would have done the right thing. But I can’t be sure. None of us can.

But we can remember this: sometimes the rules need to be changed. Not because we rule this world, but because God does. God’s rules come from a place of justice and love, and so they will always trump our own.

This isn’t the only time in the Gospels where Jesus breaks the law. It turns out that Jesus is kind of a rule breaker. In this case he’s doing it to save a life, even though in the end his rule breaking cost him his own. Jesus was a threat because he challenged the way things had always been done. More than anything, this is what got Jesus killed in the end.

Jesus reminds us that sometimes the way we have always done things, the way we are doing things now, might no longer work. At best it can put up obstacles. At worst, it can keep others from living full lives. Had Jesus not healed that woman that day, she would not have had the life God intended for her. He had to break a law in order to fulfill God’s higher law.

Now, don’t hear me saying that you should leave the sanctuary today and go break the law.

But, I am saying to look around and see the ways that the unwritten laws of our world might be keeping God’s love for us from breaking in more fully.

How are we walling ourselves off to God’s grace? How are we keeping God’s healing from others? How are we so tied to the way we’ve always done things that we are afraid to see a new path.

Those are the places to push a little. But beware. That kind of pushing will always cause backlash.

You may know that. Maybe you’ve tried to do something new before, and you’ve run into opinions that may as well have been the law. You’ve tried something new at work. Done things a different way. Or maybe you have just started to think about what you believed in a new way. And maybe that backlash came not just from the outside, but from within yourself?

I get that. We often have clear ideas of what is right and wrong. But then we find our old framework doesn’t work as well anymore. We meet new people. We are forced to reexamine. It’s hard and yet, like Jesus breaking the Sabbath, we find that sometimes it’s right. And so we take a risk, and we step out in faith, and we find God is there waiting.

That is what courage looks like. And that’s the kind of courage that our faith can give to us.

When I look at the people I respect the most, whose spiritual journeys are the most remarkable, I find that at some point or another this happened. They broke laws, many self-imposed, in order to live into a higher law.

Look only at relatively recent history. Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the list goes on.

They must have been terrified, and yet, some sort of faith compelled them to break the rules that they had always known. Faith doesn’t mean being not being afraid. Faith doesn’t mean being comfortable. But faith means trusting just enough that God is with you, and God is leading you to new things and new understandings.

If Jesus is God-with-us, and if Jesus is the best example of the life we are called to live, then by our very faith we all have permission to break a few rules, and maybe in the process we can also break the chains that have bound us for too long. Amen?

Journey Through Lent: Day 17

Icon-Laying-HandsWhen I hear the words “healing service” my first thoughts are not very positive ones. I think about the services that televangelists in the 80’s sometimes had where someone would come onstage and they would reach out their hands and cry “be healed!” and then suddenly the person would be knocked to the floor and rise again without their crutches, or suddenly be able to see again, or hear again. I thought it was hokey and fake back them, and I’d still run the other way today from any preacher who told me they could do that. Because healing doesn’t work that way.

There’s a difference between being healed, and everything being changed back to how it was before. When we are healed, the bones don’t unbreak, the depression doesn’t immediately lift, the cancer doesn’t suddenly reverse course and leave our bodies the way we were before. The ones we love don’t come back.

Healing is different than that. And at first glance that might make it a little disappointing. It’s not a quick fix. What it is is a way to ask for God’s love to be with us especially during a difficult time. It’s a way of acknowledging that we need something more than ourselves when things get really bad. And it’s a way of being open to what the Holy Spirit is able to do to transform those places where the pain and the brokenness are happening.

Many who go to church on Sunday go the rest of the week, maybe quietly, without anyone else knowing they are fighting a hard battle. But that means that on Sunday, you are in a place with a lot of other people who might not know exactly what you are going through, but who have some idea, and want to travel this path with you. When the hardest times in our life come, we have a community that surrounds us. More than that, the body of Christ surrounds us, and it pays attention, and journeys with us.
I sometimes get called by hospitals or by funeral homes when someone is sick or someone has passed away and the family has no faith community. And I’m always glad to go and pray or say a service or help out. But I always feel bad. Because I see the way that this whole community, and not just me, surrounds a person who is going through something hard and stays with them. The best part of the church is not the clergy; it’s all of the people. That’s the ministry of the church and what it means to be Christ’s body together. And I wish that everyone could have that, because I think that they would find that Christ’s healing, more often than not, comes in community, and not in isolation, because Christ often chooses to work through others.

In this Lenten season, that healing takes on a particular importance. This is a time when we are called to heal our own relationships with God, and to draw closer to Christ. We accompany Christ symbolically through his times of greatest challenge, and greatest pain. And we learn what it is both to be healed, and to be healers.

Called to Healing: Sermon for March 3, 2013 (Third Sunday in Lent)

535654_10151272282211787_2021364405_nI believe you can find God everywhere. You can experience God’s love up in your relationships with others. You can see the wonder of God’s creation up on the top of Mt. Snow. You can hear words of comfort from God in books or music. And you can find God’s hope in the most unexpected places.

I don’t believe that church is the only place where you can find God. We don’t have a monopoly on God, and God doesn’t live here and here alone. And so, sometimes when people tell me that they can find God without walking into church I tell them that I agree, and they grow confused and asked, “Well, what’s the point of church then?”

I think there are a lot of reasons to go to church, personally, but today I want to talk about one. And this reason has to do with what it means to be in community when time are hard. It has to do with where we turn when our pain, or grief, or sadness are too much. And it has to do with being a part of Christ’s body together, even when that body is going through some tough times.

But first, let’s look at the passage I just read. It’s from the Old Testament, and it comes from a prophet named Isaiah. Isaiah was probably actually several different prophets who writing to the people of Israel during a particularly difficult time. The part we read today takes place during the Babylonian Captivity, a time when the Jewish people were under the rule of the Babylonians, and taken from their land. And this part is meant to comfort them, and promise that something new is about to happen.

The chapter we read today is towards the end of that middle passage of the book, the one that promises something better. And in it, the prophet is telling the people that it’s going to get better. He tells them, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. If you are hungry, come and eat, even if you don’t have anything to give. God is going to make a covenant with you. God is going to bring you mercy.

Isaiah talks about the snow and the rain and he says that even though they fall, they also nourish the earth, and create new life. He talks about the mountains and hills bursting into song, and the trees clapping their hands, and the people going out with joy. And he talks about thorns and briers giving way to flowers. He’s talking about the pain being transformed into new life.

So what does this have to do with us today? This is where that first thing I was talking about comes into play. This is where being the body of Christ when times get tough matters. This is where we claim God’s promise of transforming the broken and painful and difficult places into places of joy, and we do it together.

I’ve been your pastor for almost three years now. And in that time, I can’t remember another time when we have had so many people in pain, or in grief, or in a time of hard transition. I can’t think of another time when we’ve had so many people in need of such healing.

I can’t name all the ways this is happening right now, both for confidentiality sake and for time sake, but so many we love are fighting a hard battle right now, in some way or another. There are new diagnoses and surgery. The loss of a loved one, and grief. Struggles with depression, or recovery, or anxiety. Changing relationships, changing job situations, changing abilities, and changing lives.  There is a lot going on, and some of it, probably only the person going through it knows about.

And that’s why today I want to do something a little different in worship. I want to talk about healing, and I want for us to pray for healing for everyone who needs it.

Now, when I hear the words “healing service” my first thoughts are not very positive ones. I think about the services that televangelists in the 80’s sometimes had where someone would come onstage and they would reach out their hands and cry “be healed!” and then suddenly the person would be knocked to the floor and rise again without their crutches, or suddenly be able to see again, or hear again. I thought it was hokey and fake back them, and I’d still run the other way today from any preacher who told me they could do that. Because healing doesn’t work that way.

There’s a difference between being healed, and everything being changed back to how it was before. When we are healed, the bones don’t unbreak, the depression doesn’t immediately lift, the cancer doesn’t suddenly reverse course and leave our bodies the way we were before. The ones we love don’t come back.

Healing is different than that. And at first glance that might make it a little disappointing. It’s not a quick fix. What it is is a way to ask for God’s love to be with us especially during a difficult time. It’s a way of acknowledging that we need something more than ourselves when things get really bad. And it’s a way of being open to what the Holy Spirit is able to do to transform those places where the pain and the brokenness are happening.

In the passage that we read, the prophet doesn’t try to turn back time and say “it’s going to be like this whole Babylonian Captivity thing never happened.” Instead, Isaiah says, God is going to transform this. God is going to take the places of pain and make them places of beauty. God is going to make the mountains sing out and trees clap their hands, and you are maybe even going to be filled with joy.

And for those of you who are here today, who throughout the week, maybe quietly, without anyone else knowing are fighting a hard battle, that means you. And that means that today, you are in a place with a lot of other people who might not know exactly what you are going through, but who have some idea, and want to travel this path with you.

That’s the beauty of church. When the hardest times in our life come, we have a community that surrounds us. More than that, the body of Christ surrounds us, and it pays attention, and journeys with us.

I sometimes get called by hospitals or by funeral homes when someone is sick or someone has passed away and the family has no faith community. And I’m always glad to go and pray or say a service or help out. But I always feel bad. Because I see the way that this whole community, and not just me, surrounds a person who is going through something hard and stays with them. That’s the ministry of the church and what it means to be Christ’s body together. And I wish that everyone could have that, because I think that they would find that Christ’s healing, more often than not, comes in community, and not in isolation, because Christ often chooses to work through others.

In this Lenten season, that healing takes on a particular importance. This is a time when we are called to heal our own relationships with God, and to draw closer to Christ. We accompany Christ symbolically through his times of greatest challenge, and greatest pain. And we learn what it is both to be healed, and to be healers.

And at the end, we hear the message of the Scripture passage we read today: this pain does not last. I will not let it. You are going home.

This morning, I invite you to come forward and receive a physical symbol of that promise. We all, whether we admit it or not, probably have a place in our lives that needs healing. I do, and you may too. And so I invite you, as you feel moved, to come forward and let either Heidi or I anoint you with oil, the ancient Biblical practice of consecrating a person and marking them as ready for God’s healing. As we enter a time of holy prayer, I invite those who wish to come up as they feel ready. If you do not with, I invite you to pray for all those you know and love who need God’s healing now…

Beyond Thank You Notes – Sermon for October 28, 2012

“Jesus Healing the Blind”, by Nicolas Poussin, 1650

Mark 10:46-52
10:46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.

10:47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

10:50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

10:51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”

10:52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

My mom is a big fan of thank you notes. Growing up she made sure that for Christmas, birthday, graduations, whatever the event we sent thank you notes for the gifts we received. Sometimes she would even give us a gift of thank you notes as a present. I think she was trying to give a little hint.

My dad’s mother, my grandmother, was even more into them. And she kept track. I’m pretty sure she had a thank you note scoreboard hidden somewhere in the house. And she would even engage in a mild form of public shame if you didn’t send one. Nothing huge, but something like a deep sigh and then, “I never did get a thank you note from them. As a kid I wrote thank you notes because my parents told me to, and because my grandmother, who I loved, scared me just a little, tiny bit.

Most of us learn how to say “thank you” at an early age. And that’s a very good thing. The world is better when we say “please” and “thank you” and when we acknowledge gifts that we are given. We write thank you notes. Maybe even when we aren’t feeling so grateful, the way we did for that package of socks that we got when we were 8. We do it because we were taught it was good manners, and if we are lucky we carry that skill with us when we are adults.

But if we are really lucky, something happens along the way. Something that changes the process of writing thank you notes from just a perfunctory thing we do when we get a gift, to a way to live a grateful life.

I wonder if the man in today’s story had ever heard of thank you notes? I don’t know that they were necessarily a thing back in Jesus’ day, and since most people didn’t write, I doubt that he had a mother who made them do them, or a grandmother who kept tabs on whether they came of not. But maybe he did have people in his life who taught him about being thankful. And maybe that’s why today’s story goes the way it goes.

Jesus is leaving the town of Jericho, and a man named Bartimaeus, who is described as a “blind beggar” is sitting by the side of the road. He hears that Jesus is the one passing by and he yells out, “Jesus…have mercy on me!”

The people all around him hush him and say be quiet, but he calls out again, “Jesus have mercy on me.” And Jesus stops, and calls him to him. The man springs up and comes to Jesus, and he asks Bartimaeus “what do you want?” And Bartimaeus says, “to be able to see again”. Jesus tells him, “go, your faith has made you well”.

Bartimaeus got back his sight, but there’s something about this story other than the fact that Jesus healed him that makes it stand out. Jesus heals a lot of people in Scripture, and each time it is miraculous. But we don’t always get to hear how the person who was healed responded.

This time we do. When Bartimaeus regained his sight, Jesus said “go…your faith has made you well.” Essentially, Jesus was releasing him to go back and live his life with his new gift of sight. But instead, Scripture tells us that “he followed Jesus on the way”. The healed man became a disciple.

Now, have you ever gotten a gift with strings attached? One that you knew came with expectations from the gift giver? Have you ever felt like accepting it was accepting a new obligation or commitment? What’s interesting to me here is that Jesus gives the man a huge gift, a gift of healing, and yet he doesn’t say “now you have to follow me”. He doesn’t list his expectations. Instead he essentially releases him. “Go”, he tells him. Not even an address to send a thank you note to. It’s grace at its purest form. A gift that comes unearned, and that expects no response.

But what Bartimaeus does is the proper response to grace: he shows his gratitude. And it’s not with a thank you note. It’s not even with a spoken thank you. It’s with his life. He leave the side of the road, and all he’s known, and he follows the man who healed him to wherever he is going next.

Sometimes we get gifts that are so incredible that the words we can put down on a piece of paper fail us. Sometimes we get gifts that are so big that we can only respond by living our lives as a sort of thanksgiving.

Today is the third sermon in a series we are doing on giving. Each week we are exploring another theme that has to do with how we give. The first week we looked at giving away the things that keep of from God. Last week we looked at serving as giving. And today we are looking at giving as gratitude.

In seminary our theology professors beat into our heads the central idea of Reformed theology, the theology that the UCC and the Presbyterian church and others were formed by, which is that we all receive grace from God, and that the only proper response to grace is gratitude.

And when the grace, the gift, we have received is as big as the one’s that God gives us, that only gift we have that is big enough and fitting enough to give back is our own lives. The only way we can ever respond to that grace, note I did not say pay that grace back, is to say thank you. Our gratitude becomes the way we give, and our life becomes our thank you note to God.

I talked at the beginning about thank you notes and how they sometimes seemed like a necessary burden, a sort of social nicety, as a child. But as I’ve gotten older, they’ve felt less burdensome, less of a perfunctory social nicety, and more meaningful. Less something I have to do, and more something I want to do.

I’ve been writing a lot of them recently because of the upcoming wedding. Some of our close friends held a shower for us down in Massachusetts, and it was a wonderful time being with our friends. Afterwards we wrote thank you notes to them all, and what I found as I was writing the notes was that I was feeling genuine gratitude for the people in my life, not the salad tongs or whatever else we had been given. Though I like the salad tongs. But more importantly, I love the people who gave them to us, and I love that they thought about us and shared some time with us and are a part of our life. That is the true gift for which I am grateful.

Sometimes I wish that I could sit down and write a thank you note to God that really expressed my gratitude for what God has given me, and for what the ways God has given me real healing when I need it the most. I wish I could find the right words for that. But the reality is that part of me knows that’s the easy way out. If I could just say “thank you” and be done, it would be sort of like if Bartimeaus had just gone his own way after Jesus healed him. I would have received the gift, but I wouldn’t really have responded to it. It would have changed my life, but it wouldn’t really have changed me.

Instead, we have an opportunity to respond to that grace. And if it’s really grace, we will find that we can do none other than to respond to it. We have the chance to live our lives as that thank you note that we can never write.

Now, God is not the grandmother with a gigantic thank you note scorecard in the sky. God is not telling everyone that the note never came. God gives grace freely, the same way Jesus did on that road, healing with no strings attached.

But for us, if we have received that grace, we will never feel quite right until we respond to it, and until we offer a thank you that is more than a perfunctory prayer mumbled over dinner, or a quick prayer of thanks. We will never feel quite whole, until we find real ways to express our gratitude.

So, what do you get the God who has everything? Well, really nothing. Nothing except for your love.

But what do you do for God’s people? That’s the question to ask. What is it you have in your life that you can give to the ones who need it the most. What is it that you can do for them that will also say thank you to God?

One of the things that 12 Step programs focus on, which is relevant to those of us who are Christians as well, is gratitude. They teach that gratitude has the power to transform lives and to focus our lives on what matters the most. One of my favorite sayings is, “that grateful heart never drinks”. And that’s true. When you are aware of how much grace you have received, and how much you have to be thankful for, the last thing you want to do is ruin that by choosing to destroy yourself. Instead 12 step members show gratitude by doing service, by helping newcomers out, by taking care of their group and their program.

We can learn a lot from them, because the same should be true for Christians. When we look around, truly, and see what has been given to us by grace, we are compelled to live a life of gratitude. Not one of us has been passed over by God’s grace, whether we know it or not, whether we think we ever needed it or not. We did. And we received it. And not forgetting that, not going off our own way and forgetting that man we met on the road one day who healed us, is the start of being grateful. That man Jesus healed got what he wanted. He could have gone off his own way after that, content that he got his piece of the pie. But he didn’t. He changed his life, and he decided to follow Jesus.

So what’s the next step for you? For us? What would it look like for you to live your life as a thank you to God? What would it look like to dig down deep and give to God by giving to others in your life? What would it look like if you made gratitude the central theme of your life? For most of us, I think it would change everything. Because a grateful heart never looks around and says “there is too little”. A grateful heart looks around and says, “there’s enough for me…and there’s enough for others too.” It may sound naive, but I think that’s the sort of perspective that could change the world. And even if it doesn’t change the world, maybe, just maybe, it will change you. Amen.

Jesus, America, and the Bullies on the Bus – A sermon for July 1, 2012

Mark 5:21-43
5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.

5:22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet

5:23 and begged him repeatedly, “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.”

5:24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

5:25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.

5:26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

5:27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

5:28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

5:29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

5:30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

5:31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

5:32 He looked all around to see who had done it.

5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

5:34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

 

Like many of you I’ve been following the story of the New York state bus monitor who was bullied recently. Karen Klein was riding on a bus when a group of 7th graders, 12 and 13 years old, taunted her, grabbed at her, and made fun of the fact she’s a widow and had lost a child. Another student then posted it on youtube. Apparently this had happened before. As anyone who watched the video can tell you, these seventh grade kids are already breathtakingly cruel.

And today we read this story from the Gospel, about Jesus and a woman who was looking for healing. Jesus has been called to go to a house where a young girl is dying. He’s hurrying along and seemingly oblivious to this woman who approaches him. She has been suffering for a long time. Twelve years. And she has seen all the doctors and spent all her money trying to get well. But she’s heard about Jesus, and she says, “If I can just touch his clothes, maybe I’ll be healed…”

She does, and she is immediately made well. And Jesus knows something has happened and turns around and says, “Who touched me?” She admits, timidly, it was her. Jesus tells her, “your faith has made you well…go in peace and be healed.”

What do these two stories have to do with each other? And why am I putting the two together on the Sunday that we celebrate the 4th of July, and ask God’s blessing upon our country?

It’s because of this. As much as we might want to write those school bus bullies off as “kids today” or as much as we might want to talk about what the parents could have done differently, the fact is those kids on the bus were not born in a vacuum, nor were they raised in one. They didn’t wake up one morning after years of exposure to a society of civility and compassion and decide to bully the widow who road their bus. The same is true of the kids who are bullied around this country every day, for whatever reason. It’s not an issue of “kids will be kids”. They don’t come up with this on their own.

Instead, they get it from somewhere. And more often than not, they get it from us. Not us here specifically, but us as in the adults in their life. Not just the ones in their homes, but the ones in their neighborhoods and on their televisions and even in the places of power in this country.

Pundits bemoan the lack of civility in this country. They say we have lost basic manners and human compassion. And to a great extent, they’re right. We reward radio personalities who degrade women, we engage in name-calling when someone has a different political belief than ours, we curse out the umpire when he calls our kid out at home plate. Is it any surprise those kids on the bus may have thought what they were doing was acceptable?

In fact, in the aftermath of the video, some of the boys involved began to receive death threats from adults. And while nothing those boys did on the bus that day was okay, adults threatening 13 year olds with death isn’t either. The ones who made the threats are probably oblivious to the fact that they were replicating the very kind of un-compassionate behavior those kids were engaging in.

Now, it would be wonderful to be able to say that we who follow the way of Christ, who taught us compassion and who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, aren’t like that. But the truth is Christians are sometimes the worst offenders. The things that are said in the public arena by Christians of all stripes, sometimes even as they defend their views as being truly Christian, are sometimes staggeringly lacking in compassion, kindness, and respect. It’s little wonder that many under the age of forty in our country think that Christians is a religion where believers claim to believe one thing but act in a totally different way. For many Americans in my generation the hypocritical Christian is what they think of when they argue religion is useless.

So how do we change that? How do we change not so much so that we will be perceived differently, but so that our society will be different? How do we become a people who embodies Christ’s teaching in such a way that our culture changes?

I think about the woman on the road that day. Broken down. Losing her lifeblood. Looking for healing. Being willing to try anything. I think of her seeking out this man who was promising a different way. A way of compassion. A way of moving forward. And I think of her, unsure, tentative, reaching out and just touching his clothing. Reaching out to the one that she thought would heal her.

I think she has something to teach those of us who would follow Christ. In a time where the culture we live, the body made up of all of us in this country, sometimes feels like it is bleeding out, and losing its life, how do we reach out for that which would heal us? How do we reach out for the cloak of Jesus and dare to ask for healing?

We Americans often sing God bless America. It’s a prayer we are singing. But when we finish singing, do we think about our part in that? Or do we ask for that blessing from God without considering the things that God wants us to do? Do we finish singing and forget about it? Or do we finish singing and get to work on working with that blessing? Do we get to work trying to follow the path of love, and compassion, and kindness set out by Christ?

Now, I want to be clear here for a minute that I am not saying this should become a country of Christians. We live in a religiously diverse country and every citizen of every faith should be valued and respected. And every faith, in its best interpretation, encourages its members to lead lives of compassion and care for ones neighbor. But what I’m saying is that for those of us who are Christian, our faith adds an extra layer to our citizenship. It adds a mandate that we help to transform our culture from one where 13 year old kids think bullying an elderly woman is acceptable to one where they have grown up with the privileging of compassion and kindness and civility. One where the whole idea of loving your neighbor as yourself is not something that we just give lip service to on Sundays.

I believe that’s possible. I believe it’s possible to create a country where we may disagree widely on the issues, but we still act like Christians. I’ll give you an example. I know this congregation pretty well, and I know that last Thursday when the Supreme Court decision on health care came down, many of you had strong reactions. A segment of this congregation thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to this country. But I know another group of you thought it was the best thing ever.

And yet here you are, on Sunday morning. Sitting across the aisle from one another. Maybe even sharing the same pew. You’re not calling each other names. You’re not saying the other is unAmerican. You’re not yelling at each other with red faces. You may disagree, but you pray for each other’s families and bring casseroles over when one gets sick. And after the final hymn you’ll go into the back room and drink coffee and actually fellowship.

I’m not naive. I know that this country will never resemble a church fellowship hour. But I do know that if we who would follow Christ were to reach out to him, reach out and just try to touch him, try to be healed, we could help to spread that healing to the places we live and work and learn. If we did that, things might look a whole lot better than they did when we saw that video taken on the bus for the same time. They might look a whole lot more like the country we want to be, the country that we hope God will bless.

It’s not always an easy path, though. Deciding how you will live into your Christian calling as a citizen is different for each person, and deciding how you will ask for God’s blessing, and healing, for us all is a personal decision.

A seminarian I know, a good friend of Heidi’s, had to ask herself that question recently. She felt called by God to a different type of ministry, one in which she could share Christ’s compassion and love with those who needed it most. And so this summer, while her classmates have been safely ensconced in air conditioned offices, she’s been waking up at 4am and running, drilling, and otherwise getting through another day of training to be an Air Force chaplain.

She’s not someone who relishes the idea of war. Her political ideas are different from many she serves with. But she is someone who feels called by God to serve in that way, and to spread Christ’s love and light to those who don’t get to see a whole lot of it. She has decided that is the way to embody her faith in her citizenship.

That’s the path she took. But you don’t have to join the military to do that. You can do it right here at home in your own neighborhoods. In this election year, where the commercials bombard us every night on our TV screens, where the debates grow louder each round, where even jokes about candidates being killed are not considered out of bounds, how will you choose to let your faith inform your citizenship? How will you reach out for Christ asking that his healing be on us all? How will you ask God to bless America, and bless the whole world?

Will you let yourself be transformed by the meanest kids on the bus? Or will you become the one who steps in, and reaches out for Christ’s healing? The one who hears Christ say, “your faith has healed you…go in peace”?

May God bless us all that we would not be the one who sits ideally by when our country, and our world, need us the most. Amen.

Go Jump in the River – Sermon for February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14
5:1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.

5:2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.

5:3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

5:4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.

5:5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.

5:6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

5:7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

5:8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

5:9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.

5:10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

5:11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!

5:12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.

5:13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”

5:14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

There’s an old story about prayer and how God answers it. You may have heard it before. A woman was standing on a roof during a flood and praying to God to save her. Not soon after a rowboat came by and told her to climb in. They’d get her to safety. She told them, “No thanks. God will save me.”

A few minutes later a motorboat came along and they begged her to get in the boat. Again she said, “No thanks. God will save me.”

Finally the waters rose higher and a helicopter flew over and dropped down robe and told her, “We’ll pull you up.” Again she told them, “No thanks. God will save me.”

The inevitable happened and when the woman died and came face to face with God she was angry and said to God, “I prayed to you. I put my trust in you, and you didn’t save me.”

And God said, “But I sent you a row boat, a motor boat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t answer our prayers. We wonder what the point of faith is if God won’t do what we want God to do when we want God to do it. Maybe sometimes, we even get a little mad about it.

Today’s reading reminds me a bit of that. Naaman is a soldier who is very strong. But he also has leprosy. And he hears about this healer in another land, and his king even sends him along with money and a letter, asking for him to be healed. The healer was Elisha. And when he gets to him, ready to be healed, Elisha doesn’t even come out of the house. Instead he sends a messenger out who tells Naaman to go wash in the river Jordan seven times.

Naaman is furious. He came all that way for healing and he tells his servants, “He could have just waved his hand over me and cured me. If I wanted to jump in a river, I could have done it at home.

But one of his servants says, “You know…he’s not asking you to do something all that hard here. If the cure was difficult, you probably would have done it. But all he is saying is go wash in the river and be healed.”

Something in that rang true for Naaman. And so he goes to the river, and he washes. Once, twice, three times. All the way to seven. And they say when he came out, his skin was as clean and healthy as when he had been a boy.

To me this story isn’t about God healing us from physical sickness. Everyday people do all they are asked to get well again from illness. Neither the illness nor whether or not they are cured is their fault. This story isn’t about that.

And this story isn’t about the river. I don’t know why Elisha sent him down to the river. Or why he had to go in seven times. I’m not sure what’s so special about that, that it worked when nothing else would. But I don’t think the cure is the point of this story. I think what Naaman was willing to do to get it is.

This story is about our spiritual life, and what we are willing to do to have a great one. Are we willing to do the little things that can make a big difference? Or are we content to just let God come to us. After all, just like Elisha could have waved his hand and cured Naaman’s leprosy, God could certainly make us perfect spiritual beings.

But God doesn’t. God makes us human beings, with free will, and a choice about what sort of spiritual beings we are going to be. Are we going to actively respond to God’s grace? Or are we going to remain passive? Are we going to wonder why God hasn’t done more for us? Are we going to just chug along and hope that it all sort of works out in the end?

If you want to put it in the terms of this story, are we going to go down to the river and jump in seven times? Or are we going to just stand on the shore?

One of my seminary professors wrote once about being in spiritual direction, a process by which one works with a director to try to expand their spiritual life and connection to God. She had been having a hard time, and her spiritual director had told her to read through the Psalms, a few each day. And so she did. And nothing got better. And one day she slammed shut the Bible and got angry and said, “this is pointless. What good does all this do?”

But then something compelled her to go back, and try again. And slowly, bit by bit, she began to feel God’s presence like she never had before. And she felt peace.

A few Psalms a day may seem as inconsequential as jumping in the river seven times. And yet, it worked. And it worked in part because even when it made no sense she was willing to give it a try because she wanted to know God.

I’ve been thinking about the spiritual life a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about it as our church is at this new stage in our life together. I read this week that a recent study of UCC churches. Of the congregations that are considered not vital (which means healthy and hopeful) 46% said they were not willing to try new things to meet new challenges. Of the ones that are vital, only 7% said the same thing.

I think there’s a spiritual lesson for us there. Because congregations are spiritual systems. And we are in a time where what it means to be a church is changing. And there may be times when we are asked to do something unexpected and new. And it may make about as much sense to us as jumping in the river seven times. But we might just do it anyway. I hope we do, because experience shows us good things happen when you’re willing to do the things you truly believe God is calling you to do, no matter how different or unexpected they may seem.

Today at the congregational meeting, I’m going to be talking a little about our new visioning process which will be launching after Easter. This is a process where we will talk about what kind of a church we are. Are we the sort when asked to go jump in a river seven times gets angry and refuses to go? Or are we the sort who says, “Okay God”, and comes out healthier and stronger than ever. I think I know which one we are, and I think you do too. Because you probably wouldn’t be here if you didn’t believe that.

What happens in a few months is just one example of daring to walk the spiritual path that God has set before us. But it happens in a few months. And we have two even better illustrations of what it means to walk the spiritual path here with us today.

This morning we are welcoming several new members into our church. They are going to join us on our path, and walk with us. They’ve decided that this is the place God is calling them to. And they are going to help to shape who we are. If God has brought them here, then they have good news for us to hear, and I pray that we will listen to their voices.

But there’s one voice, that hasn’t even begun to form words yet. That’s because she was born two weeks ago. Kylie Hope is going to be baptized here this morning. Her family is here not just from West Dover, but also from South Africa. They’re here this morning to witness her becoming the newest member of the body of Christ as we baptize her.

Now, Kylie won’t remember this. She will hear about it later, but she won’t remember the water, and the blessings. But we will. Just like we remember every baby we baptize.

And Kylie will know us. She’ll grow up in this town, and she’ll meet us, and she’ll know that this is the place that made baptismal promises along with her family when she was brand new. And as she goes along her spiritual path in life, she will look to as an example.

I hope Kylie grows up to be the sort of person who is willing to go jump in a river for Christ. I hope she will take the small spiritual risks that yield incredible gains. I hope she grows up to be a person of faith, and grace, and goodness.

And I hope we are models for her of what that looks like. I hope she sees  how we live our lives, and how we live. I hope she never looks at us and sees people standing timidly on the shore. I hope she sees us trust Christ enough to go jump in the river knowing we will come out whole, and that will tell her all she needs to know about the life of faith.

May God bless Kylie and her family today. May God bless our new members. And may God bless this whole church with just enough willingness to step into the waters of our baptism again and again, with faith. Amen.