Sunday, March 11, 2018

3-11-18 Sermon   “Finding Your Power: Listening for Healing”

A Note to Readers or Listeners. Prior to the beginning of this message we viewed the Rob Bell NOOMA Video titled "Rhythm." It can easily be found on YouTube if you would like to see it before listening here.

   As followers of Jesus Christ, we must answer a couple of tough questions: “Who is Jesus?” and “Who is God?” And once we’ve done that, we have to consider what it means to have a relationship with either one of them. What does that look like? How do we do that? 
   Some will say we must first trust in God. But how do you trust someone you don’t know, that you don’t have a relationship with? Others will tell us that we must pray. But some don’t know how, and others have a rather warped sense of what prayer is, approaching prayer as though God were some wish-granting genie. Others use God to pass the buck, handing off to God, under the guise of prayer, those things they don’t want to do themselves.
    I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. At its most basic level, prayer works something like this: we pray to God to end hunger, then we go feed people. We ask God to provide for the poor and the homeless, then we roll up our sleeves and provide for the poor and the homeless. We pray for God to bless our friend or neighbor who is going through a tough time, then we go do something to blesses our friend or neighbor.
   Is that the only way prayer works? No, but I’d venture to say it’s the most common way. WE, the CHURCH, are the hands and feet of Christ. When someone prays for help, or blessing, that prayer comes first to us to answer. The answer to a prayer for peace is for us to become more peaceful people. 
God can’t bring peace to a world full of angry, unpeaceful people.  The answer to a prayer for a more loving world is to become more loving people. God’s can’t bring love to world that hates - that’s not how it works. We have free will. God won’t force us to do or be what we don’t want to do or be. So, when we pray for peace, or financial security, or a job, or a happy marriage, we had better be prepared to DO something to align ourselves with that goal if we want that prayer to be answered in the affirmative.

   So what is prayer, why pray, and what do we seek in prayer? Let me answer that by talking a little about the video we saw. I like how Rob Bell thinks about God here. But here’s a spoiler alert! God is not an old man with a long flowing beard. God is not a man, regardless of all the patriarchal language in the Bible, because God is not a human. Scripture tells us God is LIKE a lot of things - among them that God is Spirit and God is Love. But what does THAT look like?
   Honestly, I don’t know. But when Bell says he thinks of God as being like a song, I can relate to that, because a song is more than mere musical notes on a page or the sounds that we hear, just as God is more than mere words in a book or ideas in our minds. Interestingly, scientists tell us that our universe generates a tone or a hum that can be heard by radio telescopes - like a galactic soundtrack. So, while that hum might not pass for what we think of as music, this image or metaphor works for me.
   So, using the metaphor of God as being like a song, then prayer helps us, as Bell put it, get in “tune” with God. Because sometimes we find ourselves “out of tune” with God, right? While we are created in the image of God, sometimes we don’t come close to matching the likeness of God that we see in Jesus Christ. 
I know you’ll be shocked to hear this, but even as a pastor, sometimes my words or behavior don’t match Jesus’ model for us - when I’m out of tune with God’s song. I know you’re shocked by that! I try, but I fail regularly. Thank God for grace!
   Maybe you don’t have times like that, maybe you all have your stuff together, but I sure don’t. In our little bowl up here where we’re invited to write down something that gets in the way of our relationship with God, that we then burn and give it to God in the purifying fire, I wrote the word “Anger.” 
Maybe you don’t have issues like that, but I have some anger issues that I needed to give to God. Partisan politics, what’s happening in government, violence against women, children, and minorities, corporate greed, all make me angry - not just irritated but viscerally angry. Facebook, more often than not, makes me angry, so I spend very little time there, other than to post daily devotionals that make me think and really bad jokes that make me laugh. 
That anger changes me; it changes my mood, it warps my attitude, it even sometimes changes my language. It forces me out of tune with God, with who and how God wants me to be, and with how to be. So I pray. I pray in my car. I pray in bed. I pray here. I pray that I can get back into tune with God’s song, with God’s will. And you know what? Since I wrote it on that slip and burned it, it’s gotten better.  
   So, I think one way prayer works is by getting us back in tune with God, and then by our going out and DOING what God tells us needs to be done. I believe our prayers for other people work because when we pray for another, putting another’s needs ahead of our own, it simultaneously lifts that person before God while also bringing us closer to how God created us to be, to being in tune with God. For prayer to truly be effective in our lives, it must be an active spiritual discipline, not a passive one. Prayer is like a first step, it strengthens us, shapes us, and then emboldens us to be the hands and feet of God when and where we can.

   Today’s readings include three different healing events. And while none of them talk about prayer, you just know that prayer’s fingerprints are literally all over these stories. In the story from John’s gospel we have this powerful political leader, who begs for the life of his child. Jesus is his only hope. We don’t know what other steps he’s taken before this, but we can be certain that as Roman leader, Jesus was NOT his first option.
   And we find in this story that miracles aren’t always necessary for trust to be present. This father believes Jesus can heal his son, sight unseen. He goes to Jesus trusting that Jesus WILL heal his son. Even when Jesus refuses to go with the man, he still trusts Jesus’s word that the deed is done - that his son is healed. He trusted without seeing. 
   So this passage invites us to explore our own level of belief and trust in God through Jesus Christ. Many of us in the U.S. may not have this same degree of deep trust. Our level of material security is often strong enough that, even while we love God and believe in the Jesus story, as Sharon Watkins puts it, “we participate in the ‘circus of life’ with a safety net.” Many of us live life with such a security backup that we never completely get to the point of trusting our whole lives to Jesus. We've hedged our bets. 
   In many parts of the world, however, Christians place their trust in God without that same net of material security. And interestingly, these are the places where Christianity is growing fastest. For centuries the center of Christianity was in the Northern Hemisphere. Today, it’s in Africa. While Christianity declines in the Northern Hemisphere, it grows exuberantly in the Southern. In many communities where Christianity is growing, the people have no illusions about material security. Where Christianity is growing fastest is where people most fully trust in the power of God, not the power of the purse.

   Jesus says at one point in John’s Gospel, “I Am the resurrection and the life.” In this story from John he brings a boy back from the brink of death - restoring him to the fullness of life now. Life in Christ is not something for which we have to wait. Jesus brings eternal life, immediately, to those who are willing to trust their lives to him. And that is as true of communities, even church communities, as it is of individuals. Sometimes our security net, whether it’s money, material things, or a desire for certainty, continuity, or the good old days, keeps us from life-giving involvement with our neighbors. Do we, for our own security, stay quiet, stay home, or stay safe when we’re being called to be the answer to prayers, or to advocate in Christ’s name for the life-giving changes our neighbors and community so desperately need? In many important ways, this passage invites us, even challenges us, to deepen our own belief, to trust God as our safety net.

   Our second story takes a different approach. Jesus is called upon by a synagogue leader to come to his home and heal his daughter. Unlike in John, though, Jesus goes with the man. But on the way, there is an interruption to the plan. Except it’s not just an interruption, it’s a person. A woman who has suffered for twelve years with bleeding or hemorrhaging, likely her entire adulthood. This was no simple disorder, but one that had significant personal and social consequences as well, as it likely prevented her from bearing children, which likely isolated her from her community. She had seen physicians, Mark tells us, had endured their treatments and remedies, their poking and prodding, all to no avail. Twelve years of bleeding, of suffering, of disappointment. Not only that, but having spent all she had, she was destitute as well. All of which means that she, too, is desperate, as desperate as Jairus, certainly, and perhaps as desperate as any of us have ever been.
   And so, like Jairus, she comes filled with both hope and fear, hope kindled by word of this miracle-worker’s abilities, fear that nothing will change. 
But hope overrides her anxieties and she makes her way through the crowd toward Jesus.
   Mark shares that this woman has only one thought as she approaches Jesus: She won’t even need to ask him for healing. She won’t even need to disturb his progress toward the house of an important person like Jairus. 
If she’s lucky, these two men won’t even notice her. No, she need only touch Jesus, even just touch his clothes; she’s sure that will be enough. Like the father in John, this is a woman with a deep and trusting faith. 
   But it doesn’t go as planned. She’s right about what she needs – she touches him and is immediately healed. But she’s wrong about no one noticing. Jesus immediately senses the what and turns to see the who. But there are too many people crowded around them. So he asks, and his disciples – perhaps already bad-tempered by the crowds and this unexpected detour to Jairus’ home – react to the absurdity of the question: Tons of people are touching you, Jesus, what are you talking about?
   But the woman knows; she knows exactly what Jesus means. And so while she has no idea what will happen now that she has interrupted this powerful man’s journey to another powerful man’s home, nevertheless she comes forward, overcoming her fear, and kneels down in respect to confess.
   She told him, Mark says, “the whole truth.” The whole truth of what she has done maybe, or perhaps the whole truth of her twelve long years of suffering, disappointment, painful treatments, failed remedies, shame, and isolation - the whole truth. Not an easy task. She’s not a man, not a leader, like Jairus. 
All her actions up to this point have been planned to keep her invisible, under the radar. Yet now she comes forward and tells the truth, the whole truth, no matter the consequences.
   And in return she is not merely healed but noticed, affirmed, listened to, confirmed in her faith, and restored. “Daughter,” Jesus calls her. A term of endearment, affection, and restored status. Daughter. And then he bids her go in peace, healed, restored, renewed beyond even her wildest dreams.
   And this story puts that question to us. Can we tell Jesus the whole truth – not just the parts we’ve rehearsed or prepared, but everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly, the easy and difficult, the successes and failure, the hopes and the disappointments? Can we tell Jesus the whole truth? Doing so requires a vulnerability that many aren’t willing to consider. In fact, it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing: we won’t be vulnerable until there’s trust, but we can’t grow in trust until we’re willing to be vulnerable.

   Maybe we need to change how we think about vulnerability. We tend to avoid vulnerability -- to admitting that we don't have it all together -- because it can leave us feeling exposed or desperate. We see that in these stories. But we've also seen that only in admitting our vulnerability are we able to receive help, and only by owning our moments of desperation are we willing to try something out of the ordinary, discover the courage to be and act differently. So perhaps admitting need isn't the end of the world we think it may be, but just the end of the world we've constructed for ourselves. And as this world of self-imposed or culturally cultivated perfection crumbles around us, we're invited to enter a new world of mutual care, acceptance, and inter-dependence, a world where we don’t have to pretend we have it all together. Maybe we can become a community where we can just be who we are, a safe and caring community where we can come as we are rather than pretending to be the person we think others want us to be. The only way to trust God's great "I love you" is to first hear God's equally important "I know you." Because as long as we think we're fooling someone -- a loved one, a co-worker, a neighbor, or God -- 
we can never really trust that they accept us for who we really are.

   On any Sunday morning we bring a mix of experiences. And it’s into that mix that these stories speak. They fall on the ears of those who like Jairus have been able to celebrate life even after it appeared all was lost, and on the ears of those who like the hemorrhaging woman have cause to rejoice long after every conceivable medical option has been tried. And to be sure, these stories also fall on the ears of some who have prayed desperately, who have desperately reached out to 'touch the hem of Jesus’ robe,’ but for whom the much yearned for healing has not come. Who say in the wake of such stories, "Why not me?"
   And we must also remember, though we prefer not to think about it, that everyone whom Jesus healed, in these and all the healing stories, did one day finally die. Perhaps Jairus' daughter lived a full life as a mother and grandmother herself. Maybe the hemorrhaging woman, declared ‘clean' and made whole again, was able to return to the full life denied her for twelve years. No doubt both of them felt a deeper gratitude for God's gifts because of all they had experienced. But in the end, like all of us, they one day died as well. So, it’s not enough to hear these as simply miracle stories granting cures to earthly diseases. There’s more to them than that; we must dig deeper to more fully understand their gifts for God's people now.
   Perhaps this story could remind us that Jesus receives our deepest hurts and fears even IF he’s our 'last resort.’ Or maybe, as the story suggests, it’s a reminder that God's power is greater than what you and I can imagine. That in the face of the seemingly impossible, even in the face of our disbelief, God still works. Sometimes with results we can't even imagine. 
   In the story of the unnamed hemorrhaging woman we also hear of one so desperate she will go to any length to find wholeness.  I use the word 'wholeness' here because like any physical disease hers was one that isolated her in ways we can hardly imagine. Any one who has ever struggled with illness or disability has some idea of what her life must have been like. We can be certain that her illness had broken not just her body, but also her spirit. And yet even in her desperation, she lacks the courage to go to Jesus to ask for what she needs. Rather, she believes if she can just get close enough perhaps she can snatch some of the goodness Jesus offers. And sure enough, that was so.
   But the story doesn't end there. It ends with Jesus turning to her and acknowledging the connection they now share, with Jesus' promise that her healing was not only physical - but would extend to her whole life. 
And that larger promise of healing and wholeness is only spoken and received in the relationship formed between them. When they speak face to face. So perhaps a deeper healing or sense of wholeness is the point of these stories in the end.
   And maybe the story that sandwiches this one isn’t about the sick child at all, but is about the healing of Jairus. Maybe his healing was discovered in his loving his daughter so much he would do anything to save her life - his wholeness realized in his willingness to abandon much of what defined him and brought him security: his position and his sense of pride, to name two - and to turn without shame to Jesus who alone could answer his deepest need. 
   The no longer hemorrhaging woman realized healing or wholeness not only when the bleeding stopped, but when she finally looked into the face of Jesus. 
In that moment she was lifted up from being one who felt she had to sneak up behind Jesus and anonymously receive the gifts of God to one who was recognized by and acknowledged by Jesus himself. She who was not 'named,' is called ‘Daughter’ and is one in relationship with Jesus. It seems her healing wasn’t complete until then. So perhaps this is the gift of this story: that the healing we’re blessed to receive in our physical beings, whether by miracle or medicine, can be the very gift of God - but that it is only temporary. On the other hand, the healing that comes to us as our relationships with Jesus deepen and grow leads to a wholeness that permeates our entire beings and our relationships and lasts far beyond this single earthly life.

   Let me conclude by offering this simple prayer: Most merciful God, draw us to you in confidence that we might be vulnerable enough to tell you the whole truth of our lives and, in return, listen as you call us your beloved children that we might be made whole in faith and life. 

Through the Holy Spirit may all who listen more deeply experience God's healing and God's wholeness, both in the hearing of these stories and even more so, in our lives. Amen.

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