Monday, March 26, 2018

3-25-18 “Finding Your Purpose: Listening to Your Heart”

3-25-18  “Finding Your Purpose: Listening to Your Heart”

    ‘Hosanna’ is strange word with which to greet someone. How many of you, when you run into someone you know at the grocery store smile and say, “Hosanna!”?  Scholars don’t know exactly what the word meant, but they believe that it’s a contraction of a couple of Hebrew words, one meaning to save or deliver, and the other meaning to beseech or pray. So their best guess 
at a translation is “We beseech you to save us.” So, as one word “Hosanna” sounds like a greeting, but when we consider what it means, it comes across more as a desperate plea for help.

   But this is kind of a strange story anyway, so I suppose this strange greeting fits right in. It’s certainly familiar - one of those stories that sticks with us from our childhood palm-waving days until now with a degree of familiarity that helps us believe we know this story pretty well. We’ve heard it so many times that we’re apt to look right past the glaring fact that Jesus set up this whole scene for a reason. To understand the parody you have to consider the context. 
  And we’ve talked about this aspect of the story before. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, two very different things are happening at the same time, according to New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and Jon Dominic Crossan. 
   First, Jesus is claiming the authority of the Messiah. 
And second, he is enacting a piece of political theater, perhaps making a joke at Rome’s expense - even thumbing his nose at them - by staging a parody of an imperial parade. He’s demonstrating that his power is not at all the kind of power that the mighty Roman military exercises in its occupation of Israel, and not exactly the kind of power anyone expected in a Messiah. There is a sort of perceived foolishness in the image of a king who enters the city riding a donkey and not a big war horse, straddling the beast, trying to balance himself and sit upright. But it’s the image Jesus intended, they suggest.

   But Carol Miller, the author of our Wednesday morning Bible Study resource on John’s gospel, offers another understanding of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem, writing,
   “In 12:12-19 Jesus acts out a living parable of sorts to show the world (the crowds who came for the Passover and those who followed him after having seen the raising of Lazarus) who he is. A king who was not yet in possession of a city entered in only on a warhorse with a contingent of armed soldiers. 
He did not yet have control of the city. 
A king, however, who had already conquered a city could ride in on a donkey, with no military guard, showing that he was confident of his place as the one in control. 
John quotes Zechariah 9:9 in 12:15. John, and with his love of irony, puts the truth of the event into the mouths of Jesus’ opponents as the Pharisees say to each other, “See! You’ve accomplished nothing! Look! 
The whole world is following him!” (12:19). 
As the true king, Jesus had no need to throw his weight around or to threaten violence. His power is the power of self-giving love. That love brings those who accept him to their knees in thanksgiving and service.” - (Carol Miller, Immersion Bible Studies - John, pg. 53)
   Jesus’ power was the power of self-giving love. Pilate, who believed he was in power in this city, rode in on a war horse. Jesus, who knew his was the ultimate power in this city, rode in on a donkey. Jesus enters the city with purpose, Pilate enters deluding himself. “The whole world,” the Pharisees confess, is following Jesus.

   And among those worldly were two Greeks, who approached Philip and asked to see Jesus. Jesus hears their request, but not willing to be distracted from his purpose says,
   “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. 24 I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. 
But if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me.
   So, putting his Greek visitors off, Jesus begins to speak about his purpose, why he has come, what he is doing, what is about to happen.
   “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” A seed sown in the soil does not literally die when it germinates; but it does transform into something other than a seed. As the new plant begins to take form, the husk is burst, and the nutrients stored within are transformed to become part of the growing plant’s body. The seed must cease to be a seed in order to become the kind of plant that it was created to be; ceasing to be one thing in order to bear fruit as a new thing, dying to it’s old way of being in order to experience rebirth or transformation into a new creation is a kind of death and resurrection, a perishing and re-constitution. Resurrection is never about just “coming back to life,” - that’s resuscitation. Resurrection always includes transformation. 

   Then Jesus says, “Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.” The Greek word translated here as “life” also has meaning-overtones of “soul” or “self” or “center of personal identity,” so that the saying is not so much about one’s physical life and death as it suggests that the essence of our very being is diminished by self-centeredness and expanded by self-giving. That’s worth hearing again: the essence of our very being is diminished by self-centeredness and expanded by self-giving. Jesus is saying that when we allow ourselves to be transformed in him, when we’re willing to die to our old way of being, changing who we are and how we are in order to become his disciples, we will gain eternal life, not only in the hereafter, but now. Jesus knows that they can follow and understand him when he uses these agrarian images. The leap is a little bigger, although not too big, when he suggests the idea that “those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me.” That is, they must go where he goes, walk where he walks. And implicit in this statement is that his followers must also die as he dies. Not a literal death - although that will eventually come for all of us - but death to our old ways that leads to resurrection, and with it transformation.

   The transformation of the world is Jesus’ purpose. It’s the calling he received from God. It’s the message he preached from the very beginning, that in following his teachings, in being his disciples, in living the life he modeled for us and in believing that he came from God, we would receive eternal life - not later, but now - not maybe, but guaranteed. That was his purpose - it’s why he came!

   Several years ago, Rick Warren made a splash with his book A Purpose Driven Life. And in the aftermath of that discussions around “purpose” were all the rage. But purpose is still important, with or without Warren’s book. Simon Sinek approached the subject through the lens of why an organization does what it does. Not what it does, nor what the results are, but why do we do what we do in the first place, what is the purpose, the goal. What is our purpose as a church? Why do we do what we do? What is your purpose as a Christian? What is it that God desires for us to do, and why? What is the mission or ministry or calling that God planted within you? Who are the persons that God has brought into your life so that they might experience the love of Jesus Christ through you? How do you need to die in order to be resurrected into new life in Christ now? Is it the cynic in you that must die? Is it the naysayer in you that must be transformed? 
   Those who organized and participated in the March for Our Lives yesterday know that there has been enough dying without transformation. As they marched all over the world on Palm Sunday weekend they had a purpose, to end gun violence. We talked before about how prayer works; that we pray about something and then we do something. We pray for an end to hunger, then we feed people. That’s how it works. The “thoughts and prayers” that are lifted up in the aftermath of every one of these tragic events is not enough, we must do something. It’s time, these marchers, these kids, are telling us, to give up our idols, to give up our golden calf of guns and be the people of peace that God created us to be. If we want peace in the world, we must die to our old way of being and be transformed as peaceful people. I applaud them, knowing that Jesus Christ walked alongside them all around the world.
    For resurrection and transformation to take place there must first be a death. There is no separating the one from the other. But like the old barbershop song says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” But die we must if we want to live in Christ. Are we living our lives with purpose, do we know our why, or do we simply exist?

   Coincidentally, or perhaps ironically, it was thirty eight years ago yesterday, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in El Salvador. I’ve spoken of him many times because I see in him a role model for the kind of faith I would like to have. In fact, I keep two likenesses of him in my office as inspiration. The last sermon Romero ever preached was on this very same passage of Scripture that we consider today. It was Monday, March 24, 1980. And in that message he had this to say:  
"Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ, will live like the grain of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies. We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us.” 
    A short time before his death, Romero had offered these words in response to a question about whether he feared for his life: “I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, 
I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”

   And so, in dying to his old way of being, Jesus of Nazareth was transformed from a Galilean rabbi on a donkey, susceptible to pain and torture at the hands of an earthly empire, into Jesus the Christ, the Messiah that nobody expected but who would change the world and subvert all empires and all kingdoms but one, God’s kingdom. When we decide we will follow Jesus, really follow Jesus, Jesus rises in us. And that’s what Palm Sunday is all about. The palm branches are nice, the songs are pretty, the parades are fun. But Jesus, in John’s Gospel, was all about the business of transformation - that was his purpose, his why. Jesus was about challenging us to sit up, to take notice, and then to decide - will we simply stand along the route watching the parade go by, living our life as a single seed, or will we follow him, let him transform our hearts and our lives, and bear much fruit?  
   I want to conclude today with a poem by Archbishop Romero that I shared with you a few years ago, but that seems appropriate for our message on “Finding Your Purpose: Listening to Your Heart.” If you would like to know more about Oscar Romero, who it was just announced by the Vatican will be beatified as a Saint later this year,  I will be screening the acclaimed film “Romero” here at the church on Sunday, April 8th, following worship. I hope you’ll join me. 

“A Future Not Our Own” by Archbishop Oscar Romero
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. 
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.                                                                                  We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.                           
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.                           
No prayer fully expresses our faith.                   
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.                          
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.                   
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:       
We plant seeds that one day will grow.                          
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.  We lay foundations that will need further development.  
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. 
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.  
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. 
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. 
We are prophets of a future not our own.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, March 19, 2018

3-18-18 “Finding Your Mystic: Listening Behind the Voices”

3-18-18  “Finding Your Mystic: Listening Behind the Voices”

   “Finding your Mystic” sounds like one of those quizzes that pop up from time to time on Facebook doesn’t it, like “What Star Trek Captain are you? Take this quiz.” Or, “Find your St. Patrick’s Day Name - take this survey!” Right? So how do we find our mystic? For that matter, what is mystic? 
  A mystic is one for whom God is not something merely to be believed in, but is an experiential reality. As theologian Marcus Borg put it, a mystic is one for whom God is “a first-hand religious experience rather than a second-hand religious belief.” Mystics are people who have decisive and typically frequent first-hand experiences of the sacred. And while mysticism is not exclusive to any particular faith, there are many people in the Christian tradition who are considered to have been mystics: Theresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, and more recently, Thomas Merton, just to name a few. Jesus was certainly a mystic in that same tradition, and maybe Paul was as well. And as we think about that, we understand that these are people who have not conformed to the patterns of the world, right? They’ve been transformed by the “renewing of their minds” to discern God’s will - what is good and pleasing and mature, as Paul put it. 
   So, how are we, as the message proposes, to find our mystic? Does the title suggest that we should search through a list of people considered to be mystics and choose one, or go online and find a quiz about “What Mystic Is Best For You?” I don’t think so, because as followers of Jesus we have already found a mystic to follow, so this must point toward something else. But what? The reading we heard earlier talked about finding our own inner mystic, but many of us may not feel like we have one, so then what? Let’s see how scripture can guide us.
   Romans 12 is one of the most difficult passages on which to preach because it deals with two very touchy subjects; sacrifice and change. And as much as most people don’t want to sacrifice, not really, they REALLY don’t want to change. Change is hard. 
   Today we’ll use the passage from John as a case study of what Paul means. If we consider this reading through the lens of what Paul suggests, we see an extreme example of what it means to conform to the patterns of the world. To conform here means, in one sense, to go along with the crowd, to give in to peer pressure, to take the easy way out, to maintain the “status quo.” 
We can also get an idea of what Paul means by the “patterns of the world” through this reading.
   What patterns are we talking about? Well, it depends on what aspect of the world we’re talking about. For example, the pattern of the business world is capital gain, accumulation, transactions, and profit, right? The pattern of the military world is training, discipline, strategy, strength, conflict avoidance, and when conflict cannot be avoided, victory at nearly any cost. There are also patterns of violence that are increasingly common across the world, often stoked by fear, greed, or hatred of another group. There are patterns of greed that occur when people feel that there is not enough of whatever in the world so they seek to accumulate more for themselves in order not to run out - not trusting that God will provide. Those are just some of the patterns found in the world at large.
   A more common way that many might think about patterns is in making clothing, right?How many of you have ever made clothing from one of those store bought paper patterns? My mom used to do that occasionally. Those patterns would guide one to make a reliably predictable piece of clothing if the pattern is followed. The patterns of the world lead to reliably predictable outcomes when we conform to them. Good or bad. 
   Thought of a different way, think about our own daily lives - perhaps we experience patterns as well. Patterns are different than our routines, for example, “I always get up at 7, drink my coffee, read the paper, get dressed, go to work, have lunch at 11:15…,” etc. is a routine. No, a pattern is, according to Merriam Webster, “a reliable sample of traits, acts, tendencies, or other observable characteristics of a person, group, or institution, such as a behavior pattern, a spending pattern, or a pattern of speech.”

   We follow a worship pattern in the Christian church. Our worship opens with what is commonly referred as Gathering. And Gathering always includes music, some words of welcome, an Opening hymn, and some kind of opening prayer or liturgy. Then the service moves into Centering, where we begin to focus our worship. We hear or read scripture and music, we have prayer or meditation, and there is a message or teaching. Then we move to a time of Reflection or Response, where we’re invited to respond to what we’ve experienced. 
That might include prayer, the giving of our gifts, the sacrament of Holy Communion or something else. And finally we move to a time of Departure, sometimes called Scattering or Sending, where we are challenged as those sent by God to go into the world as a living embodiment of the pattern we experience in worshiping God in the world. 
   The patterns of the world Paul alludes to here assume control when our values or actions are determined not by our faith or how our faith shapes us, but by our culture and the world around us. And these patterns of the world are often driven by the loudest voices in our society aren’t they - like celebrities, politicians, business leaders, and the media. And often, those outer voices shape our inner voices.
   So we need to consider, what is behind these loudest voices in our culture? 
Is it greed, a desire to accumulate more money or more wealth? 
Is it about position or power, a desire for control? 
Is it an attempt to set one group over and above another, and if so, for what reason, to divide and conquer? The voices behind the patterns are often as important as the patterns they represent. 
   When we look at the story of Jesus’ trial in John’s Gospel, we see represented the patterns of the world. 
In today’s story, to whom do the loudest voices belong?
The crowd, the Jewish religious leaders
   And what is behind their voices?
Fear of loss of power, or fear of having their power and authority undermined, fear that the Temple system that supported their livelihoods would be challenged, fear that if they didn’t silence this Jesus Rome would enforce their Pax Romana, their Roman peace, by military force. 
Do you recognize the “patterns of the world” in play here? 
    So we see the crowd conform to those familiar patterns. They single out those who threaten the status quo, who threaten their power, or threaten to upset their plan, they plot to kill those who might to upset their apple cart. And this pattern has persisted throughout history:
  • Cain didn’t like how Abel’s offering to God was preferred over his own, so he killed his brother. 
  • Four decades before Jesus’ birth, a group of Roman Senators, fearful of the power he was accumulating, assassinated Julius Caesar. 
  • In 1865, stoked by anger over the Union victory in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer, who is in turn killed by government troops before he can be brought to trial. 
  • In the 1950s and 1960s assassination became the     de-facto replacement for lynching for white racists in dealing with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. 
  • In 1980, after Archbishop Oscar Romero called on Salvadoran soldiers to refuse to follow their orders to kill innocent civilians, he was assassinated while presiding over Mass in a hospital chapel by a government death squad.

   The pattern of employing violence in order to protect power, wealth, status, or any other thing of value is ingrained, has been ongoing throughout the centuries, and has been a common tool of both the so-called “good guys” and “bad guys.” In their cries to “Crucify! Crucify!” the crowd simply follows the pattern desired and promoted by the loudest voices.
   But it’s not just the crowd who gives in to worldly patterns is it? The soldiers conform in how they so easily play the school yard bully in mocking and causing harm to those not like them, those with less “apparent” power, those who are somehow different or who appear weaker. 
   And Pilate is a conformist as well, isn’t he? He’s willing to let Jesus die even though he knows he’s not guilty of the crimes of which he is accused. 
He turns a blind eye to the injustice of which he’s a part in order to protect his own powerful position. The high priest Caiaphas had said it was better for one man to die than for the entire country to be destroyed. Pilate allows those outer voices to shape his inner voice and then he just conforms.
   And so this compels us to consider, when have we contributed to or accepted injustice done to others, simply to conform with one of the well-worn patterns of the world? Upon whom have we consigned the status of “other,” either openly or by failing to stand up or speak up on their behalf, and allowed the powers-that-be, the loudest voices in the world, the nation, or worse yet the church, to consolidate their own power, wealth, or position at the expense of the marginalized, the minority, those who are in some way different?
    Paul says that rather than conform to the patterns of the world, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern God’s will—what is good and pleasing and mature. To renew our minds that we might be transformed requires intention on our part. We must be intentionally open toward those things that will lead to our renewal in Christ. As disciples of Jesus, people who have made covenant to follow this mystic who, more than anyone, had a first-hand experiential relationship with God, how do we understand what it means to do God’s will? If doing God’s will is doing, as Paul says, what is good and pleasing and mature, what does that look like? The prophet Micah, perhaps also a mystic, said that what is pleasing to God is to love justice, do kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And as Jesus told us, to love God and love our neighbor.
   At the same time, though, Paul says to us, in our consideration of how we will or won’t seek to do the will of God, “don’t think of yourself more highly than you to ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you.” Now, we can think about that message in a couple of ways. One way we might hear those words is, don’t think that your way of practicing or understanding the faith is the only way, the end all and be all, because God has only given you a partial faith, so that your mind might be renewed by growing in faith. And another way we might hear that is, don’t think that the things we prioritize for ourselves, many times those things he earlier named the “patterns of the world,” are more important than those things which please God, that because God has measured out only a portion of faith to each one of us, our faith is incomplete. It is immature, only a portion of what God could give us, would give us, if our desire were for those things that renew our mind, that are pleasing to God, that stand up to or go against the patterns of the world. 
   And Paul makes this point by comparing our faith and our gifts to the many parts of the body. All of the parts of the body are not the same he says, yet together they make up the whole body. My incomplete faith, your incomplete faith - on their own are limited - but when joined together as the body they glorify God. The gifts that any of us bring to the body of Christ, on their own, are but a partial picture of God’s desire, but when joined together to do what is good, pleasing and mature in the eyes of God, bring glory to God. 

Paul writes,
 We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

   Whether or not we are transformed by God is a choice we make. James Hopewell offers these thoughts: “Ponder this: the Greek metamorphousthe, (from which we get the word metamorphosis) [grammatically] is a passive imperativeImperatives imply Go do this — but the passive imperative is Go have this done to yourself, or don’t actually go, just let it be.
   “This metamorphosis goes hand in hand with the decision to abandon conformity. The passive imperative is all about God’s doing; and yet we are responsible.” (MM)
   “We are responsible,” he says. The choice is ours, this suggests. We have the freedom to choose, to choose which outer voices we let in, because we know that the outer voices influence the inner voice that determines our actions. 
God gives us a portion of faith. John Wesley considered that portion a grace of God, prevenient grace, grace that goes before us, grace that is present in and within us before we are even aware of God. It’s a grace that draws us nearer to God, that seeks out God. Thought of another way, the image of God in which we are made plants a seed within our Spirit that seeks God, that seeks union and unity with our Creator. A partial faith, or the desire or potential for faith, is built into us, whether we use it or not.
   Paul declared rightly that we all have gifts; they differ from person to person, but we all have gifts that are given us by God. And he goes on to say, basically, 
“If your gift is this….do this, and if your gift is that…do that.” This is how we allow God to transform our minds, by using the gifts God has given us to God’s glory, to God’s pleasure, to seek God’s will - for us AND the world. NOWHERE does it say that we are to sit on our gift, that our gift is not valuable, that our gift is to be reserved, saved, retired, or DENIED. It’s not to be put under a bushel.
   And then he concludes that we are to love without pretending. We are to hate evil but love what is good. Remember, love is an action, not an emotion. 
Our love is measured by what we do, not by what we feel. We’re to love the other, he says, like members of our own family. Paul wrote,
“Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer.”

   It is in doing those things, Paul suggests, that we are renewed or transformed, like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar that emerges from its cocoon a beautiful butterfly. When we allow God’s voice in Jesus Christ to guide our renewal, our experience of God borders on the mystical.

   The voices of the world would have us conform to the ways that maintain patterns of greed, violence, mistrust, and hatred and which represent evil in the world. And these voices are loud - hard to ignore. But when we take time to listen, when we are intentional about silencing the voices of the world, we begin to hear that still small voice of God. And behind the voice of God, the voice of our mystic Jesus Christ, is nothing less than love, compassion, and justice. That is the way of Christ and is to be the way of Christ’s followers.
   They say change is inevitable, even for those who resist it. And intentional change can be particularly hard. But if we follow Paul’s words about how we are to be followers of Christ, we can’t help but be transformed - we can’t help but resist being conformed to the world and being renewed in our minds, our thinking, and our living.
   So, what’s behind the voices you listen to? Amen.

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.