The Healing Faith

(sermon 2/4/18)

Jesus-Healing-Peters-mother-in-law
An ancient depiction of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

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Last week, we heard about Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. This week, we heard about him doing more of that, along with more run-of-the-mill healings while they were visiting Peter’s home, and starting with Peter’s own mother-in-law. I once heard a feminist theologian offer a somewhat tongue-in-cheek criticism of that part of this passage, wondering if Peter was really worried about his mother-in-law at all, or if he was just hungry and wanted her to get into the kitchen to make them all sandwiches. I laughed when I heard her say it, and reading the text I can see how she could get that perception. In the end, though, even though I read the exact same words, I don’t draw the same conclusion. I want to believe that Peter did genuinely care about his mother-in-law’s well-being, and even if he didn’t, Jesus did, and he would have healed her anyway, any thoughts of sandwiches notwithstanding. I know the theologian was joking – at least a little bit – but despite that, the fact remains that we were both reading the same exact text, and were different perceptions were coming to both of us, largely because we were unavoidably reading the words through different-colored glasses – glasses that were crafted by our very different, but both very real, life’s experiences.

Beyond Peter’s mother-in-law, the whole issue of healing is all through the gospels and beyond, through scripture. In fact, the whole idea of healing, in different ways, is at the core of the establishment of the church itself. Healing is one of our core reasons for being: Healing spiritual hurts and wounds. Healing physical illnesses, injuries, birth defects, and other physical ailments through the church’s caring ministries. In fact, do you know that the very concept of a hospital, as we understand it today, was the outgrowth of Christian ministries to the sick? There are other aspects of healing that the church is all about, too. Healing social ills by working to change unjust conditions and systems in society. Healing broken relationships.

Healing is a part of the very DNA of the faith, and the church. We were established by Christ, in large part, to be seen as an alternative model over against the way much of the world exists, which in many ways can be anything but healing.

We’re supposed to be a model for healing kinds of relationships, people being in caring, loving relationships who are from across a broad spectrum of who we are – just as the feminist theologian and I saw things through unavoidably different-colored glasses just based on our own life experiences, neither necessarily being totally right or wrong, and both likely having many common points but some differences. We, the church, are called to be this alternative model of being a loving community made up of people with all those different-colored glasses.

That fact is something that any pastor sitting down to prepare a sermon is keenly aware of. Every pastor stepping into a pulpit knows that there’s a fine line between hearing a sermon and a hostage situation – that no matter how many people are in church on any Sunday morning, there’s likely only one with a microphone. It’s a very sobering thought, a sobering responsibility that, I promise you, I think about and pray about every single week: how do I preach a message based on a given text that will be heard and experienced through glasses of as many different colors and prescriptions as there are people present?

Is this week’s text, laid up against the news of the week and the realities of our time, calling for a message that’s more “pastoral” and calming and peaceful? Or is it calling for a more “prophetic” approach, speaking out against some situation in the world that’s contrary to the core teachings of our faith, and that we need to work to correct, but for whatever reason, we’ve grown comfortable with? And whichever of those routes I feel God is leading toward – how do I even really know that my take on it is right? And how do I proceed from there, being aware of  all those different-colored glasses – and realizing that even faster than sugar turns to fat in our bodies, the theological becomes the political?

Well, that’s always been the pastor’s dilemma, but it’s become a more difficult tightrope to walk in current times – when our society has become so polarized, so hardened, on both the left and the right. We’ve allowed ourselves to become tribalized – we only associate with people who are like us – who look like us, who think like us, who vote like us, who basically live in the same area as us, who make about the same amount of money as us. We only read the websites that agree with us. We’ll only watch MSNBC but never Fox News; or we’ll always watch Fox News but never CNN. Friends, the church is called to be the “anti-tribe.” We’re called to be an intentional community, a family, that doesn’t pretend those differences don’t exist, but that forms a loving, healing community across all those lines, all those different-colored glasses. And preachers are called to proclaim the gospel to that diverse community – that diverse family. Sometimes, that will be calming and comforting. And sometimes, it has to be challenging.

That “preacher’s tightrope” is something that I’ve tried my level best to walk ever since I began pastoring. And believe it or not, in the past eleven years that I’ve been preaching pretty much every Sunday, I can tell you that hardly a month has gone by that I haven’t gotten complaints both that I said something too liberal, and that I said something too conservative – and a few of those times, these complaints were about the exact same comment I’d made.

When I was at that little church I mentioned last week, and wanting to break that “hostage situation” where only I had a microphone, I started something new – an “open mic time” right after every sermon. I invited people to offer immediate feedback to what I’d just said. People could ask for some clarification about something I’d said. Or they could say that something I’d said made them think of something they read in a devotional that week that they thought would be good to share with everyone. And sometimes – and I encouraged it – someone would say “You know, you said X – but I don’t really agree with that. I think that’s completely wrong.” And while we couldn’t take the time right then and there to get into it, we would set up a time to get together to discuss it over a cup of coffee or a meal, or it would spin into a topic for a future Sunday School class.

Some of my pastoral colleagues said my open mic time idea was stupid and crazy. I prefer to think it was gutsy and creative. Maybe it was all of those things at the same time, but in any case, it led to some of the most wonderful and remarkable and memorable conversations, for the people in the church, and for me, too.

The upshot of all this is just to say that it’s inevitable that whoever you are, whatever your theology – and therefore, whatever your politics – and no matter how hard I try to walk that tightrope, some Sundays you’ll hear me say things you disagree with. Maybe even something that makes you mad. And if you haven’t yet, I promise, your turn is coming; I’ll get to you. I’ll eventually manage to tick off everyone at some time or another. And when it happens to you, know that I love you, and I’m not trying to upset you. I’m just trying to go where I sense God is leading me on that given Sunday. And also remember that at the end of the day, no matter how hard I’m trying to say and do the right thing, I’m still just a flawed, imperfect human being, and sometimes, I just blow it. I ask for your prayers that those times will be few and far between.

That “open mic time” wouldn’t be a good idea here for a few reasons. But I still want that kind of feedback. I still want to share that coffee with you. I still want to have, I still welcome, those kinds of conversations, especially if I’ve said something that troubles you. Maybe sometimes, after listening to you, I’ll say “You know what, you’re right – I went off the rails with that comment. I was wrong; I’m sorry.” And maybe the outcome of the conversation will be for the two of us to share our different takes, and we’ll share a prayer and just agree to disagree, but we’ll each have a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s different-colored glasses. And most importantly, maybe together, we can come up with a way to show how, with God’s help, people with different-colored glasses can be that alternative model for the world – because friends,  if we can’t, who can?

Thanks be to God.

 

God Isn’t Fair!

(sermon 9/24/17)

unfair god

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what the Ninevites did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

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Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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Today, we heard two really deep and rich texts; you could do a month of sermons on either one of them, but I wanted to look at these two texts and think about the one commonality they share. In both of them, we’re looking at things where people perceive that God was not fair. God just wasn’t being fair. You heard that first story; you know the story of Jonah and all of his trials and tribulations as he did what God had called him to do, and of course we’re picking this up at the very end of the story – he’s very upset, because ultimately, at least, Jonah did what God had asked of him; he’d gone to Assyria and told the people of the city, “Forty days, and you’re history – God is going to overthrow you; you’re going to be destroyed. And of course, we know the outcome of that story, that hearing that terrible thing that was about to befall them, they repented and asked for God’s forgiveness and mercy – and God relented. God did not do what was originally the plan. And of course, Jonah is upset at this, for a couple of reasons, I suspect. First, I imagine he just felt like a fool. He told the people of the city what was going to happen to them, and all of a sudden it doesn’t happen, so he’s got a bit of egg on his face. But also the fact that these are the despised Assyrians, the sworn enemies of the Israelites, in our equivalent they’d be like North Korea and Iran and al Quaeda and ISIS all rolled into one; if anyone deserved receiving the wrath of God it would have been them, and it didn’t happen. So Jonah was complaining, he was grousing, he was saying, “God, you are being unfair!”

Then in the second story, this is one of Jesus’ parables, we’re told that the Kingdom of God is like this story, where the workers in the field who were there and worked just an hour are paid the same as the ones who were there working hard all day. The first workers looked at the situation and said, “This is unfair!” And yet, we’re being told that this is the way that the Kingdom of God is. Unfair. And I suppose that’s true; God is unfair, especially if you’re looking at these two stories from one standpoint versus another. If you’re experiencing the first story through the eyes of Jonah, it certainly looks unfair. If you’re experiencing that gospel lesson, the parable, through the eyes of the people who started working at the beginning of the day, it certainly seems unfair.

I think it’s kind of interesting, whenever we hear these kinds of stories from the scriptures – I know I do this, and I suspect most of us do – we tend to experience the story through the eyes of the “good guys.” We tend to automatically put ourselves in the place of the people who are doing what we think God wants of us; we’re the ones who are working hard; we’re the ones who are adhering to what God wants us to do, so we deserve the reward, and the others deserve something else, or something less. We’re the good guys.

But what if that isn’t the case? And frankly, I suspect it isn’t. I suspect that if we look at our own situations, we’re probably like the people who receive the undeserved benefit of God’s unfairness. We’re the ones, like the people in the city of Nineveh, who needed to be reminded, who needed to have it pointed out to us, that where we were headed wasn’t really God’s direction. We are like the latecomers in the parable. From that standpoint, God’s choices don’t seem so bad, do they? We’re benefitting from this unmerited, gracious, extravagant kind of unfairness on God’s part.

I think that’s an important point of both of these stories. They both tell us something about what God is doing in the world; that God’s sense of fairness is somehow different from the way we might perceive it or want it to be. That God is calling each of us into a new and different kind of existence, with different rules. God is actually trying to create a new kind of community. A new kind of being together. Almost a new kind of family, if you will. Through God’s turning things upside-down, God’s changing the world through this new way of understanding and being, God is establishing what we call eternal life. That isn’t just something out in the future, in the sweet by-and-by; God is saying no, I want this to be the way that you live in the here and now, and that means some new rules, some new ways of looking at things and understanding things are going to apply.

One of the things that happens in order to usher in this new way of being is this right here. This – the church. I don’t mean the roof and the walls; I mean you and me. God is calling us into a new way of experiencing life. We’re being called into a new way of being a family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the church lately, for a few reasons, but one of those reasons was that, as you know, we’re beginning to kick off our annual stewardship campaign, “ENGAGE.” You’ll be seeing and hearing more about that in the coming weeks. As I was thinking about the stewardship campaign, I was considering the reality that there are two primary reasons why someone will support a church with their time and financial resources. The first is that to do so is just the way we were raised; we were taught that this is just the right thing to do; you support your church – it’s a sense of duty; of obligation. And that’s correct; for us, as Christians, it is. The second reason why someone might support a church congregation is because of what it means to us. What is the significance; what’s the benefit; what’s the importance of this group of people in *my* life?

We know that the church gives us opportunities in several directions. First, it gives us a place to explore and deepen our faith; our spirituality; both as an individual and as parts of a larger group, as we work this faith journey out together. It also gives us a good and easy way to engage with the world around us and to do something positive, taking concrete steps to make the world a better place and to improve the lives of the people within it. It gives us a place, and a way, to roll up our sleeves and really make a difference, and not just talk about it, and not just worry about it, and not just share pictures on Facebook about it, but to actually do something about it. And I think the third important thing that the church is to us is that it is this new kind of community. It is this completely illogical, irrational, new way of understanding what the word “family” means.

Family. We’re a family that is brought together not by blood relationship. We’re not brought together by shared socio-economic status. We’re not brought together by race, or ethnicity. We’re not brought together by any of those other categories that the world normally thinks about. We’re called together in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Called – think about that. Each and every one of you have been called by God to be part of this family. What does that mean to you?

He was a young man, in his late twenties. He was the very definition of his generation. If there was some hot new electronic gadget, he had it. He lived in a city. His parents lived 500 miles away. His siblings and his high school and college friends all lived at least that far away. He saw them all routinely, virtually, on the computer screen, on the phone, on the tablet. He was connected with them through Instagram, and texting, and yes, even Facebook, even though he didn’t like it much but that’s where he could connect with his parents so he did it. He was connected. When he talked about the issues of the day, he did it online, with people from around the world. When he wanted some recreation, some downtime, he grabbed his gaming controller and his headset, and he teamed up with someone from Germany, and someone from Sweden, and someone from Australia, and together they joined up and zapped aliens, or wrestled with trolls, or whatever the online game called for. He’s connected. He is more connected than any other generation that’s ever been – virtually – but then again, he really isn’t. And he knows it. Because he knows that someday, the batteries will die, and when they do, he’s going to be sitting in his apartment, alone. And his parents and his friends are still going to all be hundreds of miles away. And he knows he’ll still be stressed out, because he has to work two jobs just to be able to barely make ends meet, to pay the basic bills and to make payments on his student loan to pay for an education that was a thousand percent more expensive than that of his parents, and he isn’t able to save anything for his future. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and there’s no one around him that he can share all this with. He’s alone. He is part of the most connected generation ever, and he’s still alone.

She was well past retirement. She’d lived a long and productive and happy life along with her husband, but he had died five years ago. And she got out of the house from time to time, but it was different now, being just her. Not experiencing life with the person who was connected to you for decades. And when she did get out, she’d often have the experience shared by so many older people – other people, younger people, and they were almost all younger people, actively avoiding her, maybe not wanting to be reminded that someday they, too, will be older. More often than the active avoidance, though, she experienced that feeling of invisibility that so many older people experience. To walk through a room and have no one notice. When she was home, she was alone. She realized that it had been a month since she’d known the simple, wonderful gift of another human being’s touch. A hug. A hand on a shoulder. The stroke of a cheek. She longed for that. She was set financially, she didn’t have to worry about that, but what she wanted the most was just simple human contact. She was alone.

The two of them both found what they were looking for here – in church. As different as they were on the surface, they ended up being part of the same groups and classes, and volunteering for the same mission projects around town. He sat in one pew; she sat in the pew just behind him. Over time, this odd couple struck up a friendship. They cared for one another; they watched out for one another. They found the personal, human connection that they’d both been hoping for. Through the church, they became family. She danced at his wedding. He cried at her funeral.

They knew what was special about this – the church. They knew the great gift that the world has given to the world, and to us by treating us unfairly, in a way we needed but didn’t’ deserve, by establishing the church and uniting us in the Spirit to be part of it. They knew the great extravagance of the God who calls us together.

So, is God unfair? Friends, you should shout it from the top of your lungs, “YES!!! God is unfair!!!” And for that,

Thanks be to God.