Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Sermon: Who Touched Me? (June 28, 2015)

 Who Touched Me?

Mark 5:21-43
June 28, 2015[1]

 “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30)
[Jesus] “said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34)
In the middle of responding to one crisis, and surrounded by the crowds, Jesus is confronted with another crisis.  A woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years touches the hem of Jesus' garment.  Healing energy flows, such that Jesus notices, stops, and asks, "Who touched my clothes?"
Let’s think for just a moment the obstacles that separated this woman from Jesus.
·      There was a large crowd following Jesus. 
·      Jesus was busy; He was occupied in a matter of life and death for a leader of the synagogue. 
·      There was the issue of gender diversity.  Jesus was a man; she was not.  In Jewish culture, that fact alone should have been enough to keep distance between them.
·      She was hemorrhaging.  That meant two things:
o   She was sick and tired.  We know today what they did not know about the role that blood plays in life.  To be hemorrhaging for twelve years is almost beyond comprehension.
o   Her bleeding made her ritually unclean under the law.  You can read in Leviticus 15 the strict codes that restricted the lives of women.  They could not be touched, their clothing could not be touched, the cushions on which they sat could not be touched—not until the eighth day after they had stopped bleeding and the women were required to deliver two turtle doves or two pigeons to the priest, who would “offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering …  to make atonement on her behalf before the Lord for her bodily discharge.”  (Leviticus 15:30).
There were lots of things separating her from Jesus and from His healing touch.
Hemorrhaging can be literal; but there are lots of ways to bleed to death.  The past couple of weeks have been tough.  We have seen tragedies—as local as a father and grandfather, who had survived military service overseas and had been recovering from PTSD, being snuffed out in an automobile accident.  As tragic as a Bible Study being invaded by a young man filled with hatred, and leaving nine bodies plus his own soul in the rubble.  And then we see values that we have cherished being called into question by Supreme Court decisions.  We get upset, and we look to sources outside ourselves as the problem.  We point fingers, whether literally, verbally, or just in our heads.  And we wonder, where is God in all this?
But the hemorrhaging in our world can be found not only in the front-page headlines that grab our attention.  Hemorrhaging can be found in a story on the inside pages of today’s New York Times, in a story about a 24 year-old girl named Alex, a baby sitter, Presbyterian Sunday School teacher, living with her grandparents in the middle of nowhere, still suffering from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, which has left her with trembling hands, a persistent lack of maturity and poor judgment.  All of which has left her lonely, and turning to on-line friends she had never known as a source of friendship.[2]  Alex suffers from bleeding of a more quiet sort.  I am discovering that people like Alex are all around us.
So the woman reaches out to touch Jesus.  To her amazement, something happens. 
In the Gospel story, the woman was part of a crowd.  Don’t you think that the crowd must have been filled with broken people?  People who suffered from countless illnesses—both physical and emotional? I don’t think their brokenness stopped there.  I suspect that the crowd was filled with people who were suffering from broken relationships--from guilt, from anxiety about decisions to be made, from worry about the direction their world, their government, their religious leaders, and their culture were heading.  Among all of these, one woman determined to reach out and touch Jesus, to seek His healing.
Maybe some of the others thought that their problems were too small for Jesus.  Perhaps they failed to recognize how seemingly little problems can quickly escalate into huge ones.
Quaker pastor and spiritual writer Philip Gulley wrote a book on Living the Quaker Way.  Gulley speaks about a creek near his home that swells with water each spring—sometimes so much that it sweeps away large sycamore trees that line the banks of the creek.  One day, Gulley travelled upstream to examine the source of the creek—situated on a farm five miles to the north.  What gives rise to that creek that undermines and topples sycamore trees?  A tiny, insignificant culvert.  It doesn’t look like much; but under certain conditions, it gives birth to a torrent that wreaks havoc.
Gulley writes that “every war ever fought, every tyrannical government ever to rule, every system of oppression ever devised, every clash between neighbors, every divorce, and every schism has had as its source the slightest trickle of a broken soul …  What must be healed is the hateful thought, the intolerant rhetoric, the laws that demean.”[3]
But the woman was healed.  Her hemorrhaging stopped.  We actually see a couple different words used here.  The NIV translation that we have in our pews says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.  Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”  There is cure from the physical condition, but there also is freedom.  Sometimes freedom comes as a result of a cure; sometimes we discover freedom in the midst of illness—freedom of spirit, enabling us to sing, despite our external circumstances, that “It is well with my soul.”[4]
Our Gospel Lesson affirms to us the truth that God’s healing power surrounds us and is always accessible and available to us.  Maybe not always in the way would like to receive it; but it is there nonetheless.
But God’s healing grace is not just some fuzzy idea that is “out there” like gravity or magnetic force.  God’s healing force is something that God experiences, just as we do.
In our Gospel Lesson, we read that when the woman touched Jesus, “at once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him.  He turned around in the crowd and asked, “who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30). When we reach out to touch Jesus, He notices.  Not just in a literal, seeing way; but the faith connection is something that both we and Jesus notice and experience.  What does it mean to you when you realize that Jesus experiences what is going on in our lives?  
This week, we have had a lot to talk about in the news.  There is a lot of distraction in our world.  In the middle of all the noise and clamor, I need to connect with Jesus!
Healing doesn’t always come in the way that I want it.  Healing doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus will change our exterior circumstances, although He might.  Jesus’ way of healing doesn’t necessarily mean that He will cure our physical illnesses, although He might.  His way of healing doesn’t necessarily mean that today or tomorrow or even next week, He will change everyone else who is causing our problems, although He might.  The healing that Jesus offers us this morning is a healing of the human heart, healing the fear and brokenness that we suffer inside because of the broken world around us and in us. 
We need that kind of healing today.  Is there anyone here who is suffering from a broken heart that needs healing?  I invite you to reach out to Jesus this morning to touch the hem of his garment.  How do we do this?  We touch Jesus by reaching out in prayer—connecting with Him by faith.  Not looking for magic; just looking to connect with His love and His grace, knowing that Jesus has promised us that He is even more anxious to reach out to us than we are to touch Him!
Some people find it helpful to reach out as part of the community.  We will give you an opportunity, if you desire, to come forward while we sing our Hymn of Response, receive anointing with oil and pray with me.  As we pray together, I ask that the entire congregation lift you up in prayer, as well.  You can continue your prayer at the altar rail and return to your seat as you are ready. 
The oil is not a magic potion; its power comes as a symbol of God’s healing grace, grace which is available to all. 
Jesus said to the woman, “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (v. 34).  He offers the same to each of us today.  Won’t you reach out in faith, touch him, and be healed?

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost.
[2] jSee Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS and the Lonely Young American,” viewed on the Internet on June 28, 2015 at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/world/americas/isis-online-recruiting-american.html?emc=edit_th_20150628&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=53645499&_r=0.
[3] Philip Gulley, Living the Quaker Way (New York: Random House, 2013), 85.
[4] Horatios Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 377.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Sermon: Who Are My Mother, My Brothers and My Sisters? (June 7, 2015)

Who Are My Mother, My Brothers and My Sisters?
Mark 3:20-35
June 7, 2015[1]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ.  (Philippians 1:2).

I know that I missed you for only one week.  But it seems like forever.  It was good to preach in Cleveland, but it is better to be back home!  I had the great privilege of having my youngest sister, Lori, present last Sunday.  That was the first time that she heard me preach.  And she was very gracious about her older brother!  Except for the time that my Dad visited here in October of 2010, this was the first time that any of my family has been present to hear me preach.  Don’t get me wrong—the five children of Alice and Ray Frost are closer in heart than I ever dreamed that five kids growing up in two bedrooms could be; but distance has scattered us as far north as Albany, New York, as far south as Palmyra, Virginia and Louisville, KY, as far west as Phoenix, Arizona, and leaving Lori right in the middle in Mt. Vernon, OH.  We don’t get together often.  As a result, this place called Cunningham has become home to Carol and me.  You have become family to me.  You have become my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jesus thought a lot about what makes a family.  His definition of family is probably a bit different than you might expect.  We read it in verses 33--35 of today’s Gospel Lesson:  “Who are my mother and my brothers? … Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  (Mark 3:33-35).

He said this in a surprising context.  Jesus’ mother and brothers had come to get Him and take Him home.  They had heard stories about what Jesus was doing—healing, casting out demons, breaking the rules of the Sabbath, and telling unusual, puzzling stories to make his points—and in the process he was drawing large crowds to witness the spectacle.  We think of these actions as wonderful, but they were scandalous to the family.  Did you hear the words from Mark?  The family “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:30).

The family came to get him.  The people surrounding Jesus told him that His mother and brothers were here for him.  (Mark 3:32).  It would be a bit like having Carol, my kids and all my brothers and sisters standing outside the door of this church, calling for me to come out because they thought I had finally slipped over the edge!

“Jesus, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  Jesus answers, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  Then, He looks at the people who are sitting next to him, and listening to Him, and He responds by saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  (Mark 3:33-35).  It’s as though he is saying that flesh and blood and DNA from a common source will only take you so far.  The definition of family that really matters has one criterion and one criterion alone:  doing the will of God.

Those words sound fairly innocuous—sort of a “duh” moment—until we start to think about them more closely.  Then, I am not sure how all-inclusive Jesus’ family really may be.

To begin with, I suspect that most people will begin by saying that they would be happy to do God’s will—but they don’t end their sentence there.  They tack on some words, such as—as long as it is convenient, or as long as I can still go fishing, or as long as I can keep my current lifestyle, or as long as it doesn’t cost me too much!  What a difference there is in the response from an aging nomad sheepherder named Abram who heard the message from God saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  (Genesis 12:1-2). Abram did not argue or debate.  “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” (Genesis 12:4).  Even though it meant leaving his earthly father, Terah, Abram had the promise of a new family, whose numbers would be greater than the stars. (Genesis 15:5).  Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  (Genesis 15: 6).

Would you respond as Abram did?  Would you be willing to pack your belongs, call the moving company and tell them that you were moving to a new place, not sure just where, but the Lord promised that He would let us know when we got there?

Perhaps a few of you would.  I won’t ask for a show of hands.  I suspect, though, that many of us—myself included—would ask a lot of questions.  Maybe beginning with “what did I have to eat last night?” or “am I losing my mind?” or “am I not simply personifying some deep underlying psychological urge?” or “how am I ever going to explain this to Carol?”

But despite those questions, I am willing to bet—as much as a Methodist may be permitted to bet—that the real question most of us would have to grapple with is, “how do I know the will of God.”  I remember so well the times when I was a kid, a very young kid in elementary school, and again in high school, and again in college, and again in law school, and even again in seminary” when I would say, “Lord, I will do what you want.  Just make clear to me what you want.”  I looked for certainty and clarity that would speak in ways familiar to a 20th and 21st century mind.  I failed to understand that usually, God speaks to us in a whisper instead of a shout.  It takes that process we call “discernment” to listen for the whisper.

This is such an important topic that I plan to spend a few weeks on the question of how we discern God’s will.  On other weeks, we will talk about other dimensions of our lives.  But for this morning, as we prepare for a congregational meeting to discuss an issue that is important to the life of our church, let me spend a few moments discussing some very basic Biblical principles on discerning the will of God, specifically as it relates to this building.

1.   Our decisions about this building should reflect our love for God and our desire to worship and serve Him.  That’s why we are here.  We were created to be in relationship with God.  God pours out His love upon us.  What we do with our lives, our material goods, and God’s creation reflects our response to God.  Whether our decision is to build or remain as we are, we need to see our decision as our loving response to God’s love, and not a decision based on what we want.   I may prefer a medieval style cathedral, or I may prefer a modern style crystal palace; but what I prefer doesn’t matter here.  What matters is that we glorify God, reflect God’s work in our lives, and be faithful in the ministry that God has called us to perform here in Fluvanna County.

2.   We can’t afford to permit the expansion of the building to detract from the ministry that God has called us to conduct.  Most importantly, we can’t afford to let the cost of a building program stop us from our giving to mission and outreach.  As I read the Bible, God emphasizes people over buildings and monuments.  Jesus looked at the Temple in Jerusalem and pointed out that the day would come when not one stone would be left standing upon another.  (Matthew 24:2). 

3.   Sometimes God’s will is a matter of timing.  Sometimes, God says, “Right idea; bad timing.  Wait.”  Sometimes, God even says that He is giving that job to somebody else.  When King David wanted to build a house for God, God sent the Prophet Nathan to instruct King, “You shall not build me a house to live in  …  “When your days are fulfilled to go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever.”  (1 Chronicles 17:4; 11-12).  But sometimes, God says, get busy.  After David died, Solomon became King, and it became his task to build the Temple.  It was time.

4.   Sometimes, God speaks to us through our own common sense.  He gave us minds to use for a reason.  God created the world but then placed it under the control and dominion of Adam and Eve.  He gave them His garden “to till it and keep it.”  (Genesis 1:28; 2:15).  God expects us to be and prudent in carrying out the trust He has given to us.  Do you remember the parable of the ten talents? To the lazy servant who buried his talent in the ground, the King said that he should have at least invested the talent with the bankers so that on his return, he would receive his money with interest.  (Matthew 25:27).  Yet, some times, God asks us to do things that make no sense at the time.  I am sure that it made no sense to Noah’s neighbors that Noah was building a great ark.  Yet Noah did what God instructed, for “Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.”  (Genesis 6:3).  At other times, God challenges to go beyond the limits that we have set for ourselves.  Discernment recognizes both possibilities and listens for direction.  It made sense for the disciples to send the crowd of 5,000 home to get food.  Jesus told them, “You feed them.” (Matthew 14:16).  Sometimes God tells us to use our heads and sometimes God says to act boldly.

5.   Sometimes these dimension seem to contradict each other—at least they are to be held in tension.  But if all of this gets more confusing rather than clearing up the issue, let remind you of a couple of verses that were my Mother’s favorite—I will quote from the King James English here—“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6).  The way of discernment is not a way of certainty; it is a way of faith, relying on the God we cannot see to give us His “peace which surpasses all understanding” and “guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7).

If any of this appears to give you the impression that I am feeling negative about the project we will be presenting you in this morning’s meeting, nothing could be further from the truth.  Your pastor and your “Building for Our Future Committee” have been praying and seeking to discern God’s will throughout this process.  The Committee has been working hard to discern a project that will give our church the tools that it needs to serve God here in Fluvanna County, but a building that always will keep God in the center.  But if this project is to go forward, it cannot be based on the pastor’s discernment or the Committee’s discernment.  As a church, we need to engage in this discernment process together, seeking God’s will for this church, and then join hands, hearts and checkbooks in making this project happen.

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  All of this may sound like foolishness, and like the people in our Gospel Lesson, you may wonder if I have “lost my mind.”  Or you may be skeptical and may ask me if I really believe it.  I have bet my life on it!  I invite you to join hands with us and do the same as part of the family of God.  May it be so!

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.