Jesus Says Relationships Matter!

“Jesus Says Relationships Matter!”

Matt 5-22 angry, bird

Matthew 5:21-26 – February 16, 2020

The Psalm reading for today tells us all about the Bible, and how wonderful it is. Every single verse of Psalm 119 – and it is the longest psalm in our Bible – mentions the Word of God. We get just a taste of this with our reading today. The first eight verses, talk about the law, the statutes, the decrees and the commandments of God, using different names in each verse for the marvelous book, the Bible.

These words from Psalms are all describing God’s Word. I want us all to get this concept in our heads: this psalm praising the Bible is describing God’s Word as God’s rules for living life.

Some might already know one or two verses from Psalm 119. These two verses are extremely meaningful to me, and I have memorized both of them. The first, Psalm 119:11 – “I have hidden Your Word in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” The second, Psalm 119:105 – “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” In other words, it’s all about the Bible, the Word of God.

The same with our Gospel reading today. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, the Rabbi Jesus is giving an extended talk on the Law of Moses, part of the Word of God, the Bible. But, what do we do when the words of Jesus are difficult to swallow?

What gives, Jesus? I can understand a murderer getting sent to hell. That’s what Jesus said in verse 21: 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” Okay. Depending on people’s views on capital punishment today, they may not exactly agree with the Law of Moses and its rules and punishment on murder, but few people would have serious discussion with the Rabbi Jesus for stating this rule from the Law of Moses.

Here is the part that is hard to swallow. Listen to the next verse, the next thing Jesus says: “22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Idiot!’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Seriously, Jesus? Really? Look here, Jesus, You have got to be kidding. Aren’t You? I mean, Getting sent to hell for losing my temper and calling someone an idiot? That’s only human. We are all fallible. We all lose our tempers and get angry, once in a while. Don’t we?

Let’s go back to the idea of the Bible described as the rulebook God gave us for our lives. We all know about rules. Good, clear rules make a great deal of sense and make lots of things easier. If it wasn’t for traffic rules, the rules of the road, there would be lots more accidents and lots more people getting hurt on the road.

What about rules for playing games, and rules for different sports? I bet we all know lots of rules. For baseball, a basic rule is “three strikes and you’re out!” In football the ball proceeds down the field ten yards at a time: “First down!” And, in basketball, the object of the game is to get the ball through the opposing net. If players did not follow these basic rules, they would end up in the penalty box – like in hockey! And, if we do not follow God’s rules for life, what happens? Is there a heavenly penalty box that we can end up in? Or, something even worse?

“That isn’t fair!” How many times have we heard that, either on a playing field or over a board game? Following the rules can be a tricky business. Some people take rule-following to an extreme. But, isn’t there a way to follow the spirit of the rules – or the spirit of God’s laws?

That is what I think Jesus is getting at here in Matthew 5:22. My goodness, if God decided to throw everyone into hell for name-calling, getting angry and calling each other “idiot” and “stupid,” would anyone end up in heaven? I seriously doubt it. I don’t think Jesus means this literally – He is exaggerating to make a point, like He did a few verses further on, in verses 5:27-28. Jesus talks about cutting off hands or plucking out eyes to keep from sinning. Plus, many other commentators believe this, too. Jesus is using hyperbole here, exaggerating to make an important point: Jesus cares about relationships between people. He cares, and cares very deeply!

One of my favorite commentators, Dr. David Lose, said exactly this: “our God cares about our relationships—cares deeply and passionately, that is, about how we treat each other because God loves each and all of us so much.” [1]

If we acknowledge that our relationships with one another matter deeply to God, we are being faithful to the spirit of this reading. We agree with the nature and the purpose of God’s commands and God’s rule-book. Jesus doesn’t just heighten the force of the Law of Moses, He broadens it. Jesus makes this relational command all-encompassing. “It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and that means not speaking hateful words.” [2]

What a profound concept. Jesus gives each of us a basic lesson on how to get along with each other in the next verses—how to reconcile with each other.

Jesus knows people get angry. What is a common saying? “I’m only human!” A shrug of the shoulders, and people try to sweep their anger and bitterness under the rug. Not deal with it, and avoid it. (This is not psychologically healthy.) However, Jesus gives us an excellent suggestion on how each of us can cope with anger. Everyone does get angry, sometimes. As commentator Carolyn Brown says, it just happens. “Good people get angry as often as bad people do. Adults, teenagers, and children all get angry. So the question is, ‘what do you do when you get angry?’” [3]

Jesus says not to wait too long to do this. (We all know that anger and bad feelings can fester if left alone for too long.) Name the problem that makes us angry, and figure out something each of us can do about it. Jesus wants us to be reconciled with the person who made us angry. That means for each of us to work it out together, to figure out how to solve the problem between us. That is not easy, and it may help to get advice or help from other, trusted friends. [4]

Commentator and preacher David Lose has a suggestion. He would like each of us to call to mind one of the relationships in our lives that is most important to us. One that is healthy, whole, and good, and sustains each of us regularly. What makes that relationship good? Why is it important? We are invited to give God thanks for that person and the relationship we share.

Second, think of a relationship that is also important, but has suffered some damage. Please don’t concentrate on the blame for that hurt. Let us hold that person and relationship in prayer, right now. Let us offer that broken relationship to God as an offering, and ask God to help us and heal that relationship. What might each of us do to move that relationship to great health and wholeness?

Each of us, let us pray that God would continue to use both God’s commands and God’s Good News of the Gospel to heal and restore ALL our relationships. [5]

Alleluia, amen.

 

(I would like to thank the commentator David Lose for his article on “The Relational God,” and Matthew 5 from Dear Working Preacher in February 2014. For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from this devotional. I also thank Carolyn Brown and her excellent blog Worshiping with Children, for the week of Epiphany 6. I used some material from her blog, too. Thanks so much!)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3071

“The Relational God,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-sixth-sunday-after-epiphany-sixth.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 6, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3071

“The Relational God,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Were Not Ten Made Clean?

“Were Not Ten Made Clean?”

Luke 17-18 rembrandt

Luke 17:11-19 – October 13, 2019

Sometimes, I talk with people in recovery—alcoholics and addicts who are not drinking or using substances, one day at a time. I used to do this more often, when I was regularly facilitating a weekly spirituality group at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab unit at a nearby hospital. One of the suggestions for staying clean and sober one day at a time is to keep a gratitude journal. You know, a running list of things we are grateful for.

A writer for the Hazelden/Betty Ford Clinic, Michael G., tells us “The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius famously said that our lives are what our thoughts make them. In other words, by simply changing the way we think and our focus, we can change our lives. Bearing this in mind, choosing gratitude can have a huge impact on your life.[1]

What on earth does a gratitude journal have to do with our Gospel reading today from Luke 17? To better understand that, we need to look at the background of the situation. Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. The time is growing nearer for Jesus to enter into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday—very near, now. While on the road on the border between Samaria and Galilee, Jesus is met by ten lepers—ten people with various sorts of skin deformity.

Can you see this scene? On the road at the outskirts of a town, Jesus and His disciples are walking. Perhaps, entering the town, hungry, thirsty, wanting a place to rest. When all of a sudden, ten lepers interrupt Jesus while He is on His journey. They stand some distance away, but they still make themselves heard—“Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

Have you ever had the unexpected opportunity to meet someone special, someone important, perhaps interrupting them on their journey? That is exactly what happened.

These ten men, the men with serious skin conditions, were living a very lonely existence. They could not have any direct physical contact with any healthy or “clean” person, for fear of transmitting their skin condition or illness. Even touching a person who had leprosy or touching something they touched might be dangerous—might get someone infected.

Whenever someone developed a serious skin condition centuries ago, they had to be separated, and go live outside of their community. In the Law of Moses, the book of Leviticus devotes a whole chapter (chapter 13) to that situation, and is quite specific. ““Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”

How horrible! Imagine never being able to hug your children, spouse, parents, or brothers and sisters again. Imagine never being able to enter the market or the house of worship you regularly attended, much less being banished from your home. This was life, in an ongoing and sad reality for these ten lepers. How incredibly lonely!

Especially to an observant Jew, the religious and spiritual separation must have been awful. As Dr. David Lose tells us, “That disease made them ritually unclean, which meant that they couldn’t participate in the Temple services and rituals at the center of their faith. And not able to practice their faith, these men stood on the outside of their community as well, likely feeling alone, abandoned, and desperate.” [2]             But, there is unexpected hope. I don’t know which of these lepers hears that the Rabbi Jesus is in town, but Jesus had been healing people throughout Israel and Galilee for about three years by this time. Wouldn’t you ask for healing, if you unexpected met the Rabbi Jesus?

As I considered this reading during the week, I wondered how addicts and alcoholics felt. Are they considered “Unclean!” and ostracized? Shunted aside? Ignored? Does their disease of alcoholism or addiction cause them increasingly to live alone and isolated, in poorer and poorer health?  These two situations from Luke 17 and the condition of addicts today do not line up completely, but there are some close parallels between our Gospel reading and the sad, lonely, debilitating condition of countless people who are afflicted by the disease of addiction.

I want us to begin to understand the hopeless, helpless sense of these ten lepers, ostracized and isolated, suddenly and unexpectedly getting hope for the first time in a very long time. “The Rabbi Jesus! Coming to our town? I’ve heard about Him! Isn’t He the Rabbi who heals the blind and lame? And, didn’t He raise that widow’s son from the dead? And—and—that Rabbi has healed some lepers. I know, I heard the stories. Maybe—He might heal me!”

Hoping against hope, you know what happens. Jesus does stop, and He does talk to them. He says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” That’s puzzling, at first hearing. But, not if you are someone living by the Law of Moses. When a person was healed from illness, they were routinely supposed to go to the Temple or to the priest and show themselves. In today’s terms, the priests were similar to physicians’ assistants in the role of certifying people’s return to good health. Jesus told the lepers to go even before they were healed. And as they were obedient and started on their way, a miracle happened. They were healed, cleansed, and their skin conditions were totally gone. Imagine how excited and delighted those former lepers were!

Here’s where the problem is: ten were healed, but how many came back with thanks to Jesus? How many were truly grateful? Yes, ten lepers left Jesus, and along the way to the priests became clean, healthy, and whole. Only one ex-leper truly recognized the incredible healing and gave thanks to the Rabbi Jesus. In giving thanks, he became what God had intended all along.

That is the answer. That is the secret to life: gratitude. “Noticing grace, seeing goodness, paying attention to healing, stopping to take in blessing, and then giving thanks for the ordinary and extraordinary graces of our life together. This is the secret to a good life and the heart of saving faith.” [3]

I started off this sermon quoting from an article on recovery. I’ll end it the same way. Michael G. says, “When I first came into recovery more than 30 years ago, my sponsor told me to buy a notebook and write down 10 things I was grateful for, and then add three things to that list every day. I stopped numbering my list when I got to 5,000 items.

Why did I write a gratitude list? Because I didn’t want to be miserable, and if being grateful was the solution, then that’s what I would do. And importantly, a grateful heart doesn’t drink. I learned very quickly that the struggle stops when gratitude begins.” [4]

I don’t often end with a challenge, but I am today. This is for me as well as for you. What practices ought we undertake, with what stories might we surround ourselves, with what rituals might we allow ourselves to be shaped, so that we might respond to God with gratitude and joy?

Dear Lord Jesus, help all of us to search for the answers to these sincere questions, and follow Your way in our daily lives, perhaps even writing a daily gratitude list.

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/sober-dad/gratitude-early-recovery

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2019/10/pentecost-18-c-the-secret/

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/sober-dad/gratitude-early-recovery

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Prayer: Powerful and Effective

“Prayer: Powerful and Effective”

James 5-16 prayer of righteous, words

James 5:13-20 (5:16) – September 30, 2018

If anyone has been following the news in the past weeks out of Washington, you know that journalists have been trying hard to get as much information as possible about the people and the situations involved. Journalists always are on the lookout for reliable information. They want to answer some basic questions: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. If you can answer those five questions clearly, you will have a good, solid news story.

The past two weeks have been a roller coaster for many people. With the nail-biting news about the Supreme Court nomination, many people across the United States have been sitting on the edge of their seats. While I am not going to play politics or tell anyone which Washington politician or opinion is right or wrong, as a pastoral caregiver I do pay close attention to people’s emotions and reactions.

What I have seen in these past days are the overwhelming number of people with heightened emotions and reactions to anxious, even fearful situations. As someone involved in pastoral care and trained as a chaplain, I notice these things. In our scripture reading today, we find the apostle James talking straight about how to pray, and thus deal with things similar to these: heightened emotions and reactions to anxious situations.

The apostle James was a practical kind of guy. We can see that from this short letter, the only letter he wrote, included in the New Testament. He gives some practical advice to his readers on how to live a faithful and effective Christian life: how to live faithfully with others in society, how to control the tongue, how to turn away from evil and towards God. Here, in the fifth chapter of James, he turns to prayer. As we look at this passage, James tells his friends how to pray, in very practical terms, almost the same way as a news reporter might tell it.

Here are the first verses of our scripture reading, from one of my favorite modern translations of the Bible, The Message, by Eugene Peterson. “Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.”

James covers the bases here. People who are hurting, happy, sick, sinning. In other words, he tells us Who ought to pray. Anyone ought to! Anyone who needs God’s help or anyone who has received God’s blessing ought to pray. That means anyone—all of us.

What is the next question? What should we pray about? Anything, and everything. That is the wonder and power of prayer. So many things to pray about, but James gives some great descriptions. He tells us what kinds of situations, in just a few words.

When should we pray? Anytime is a great time to pray. When we are hurting, or feeling great, or sick, or sinning? In each case, we are invited by James to bring everything to the Lord in prayer. Whenever we are in trouble, or in need to healing, or for forgiveness from sin? That is the time for prayer. Anytime.

Where are we to pray? Absolutely anywhere. This is one that James does not directly address, but we can see James tells us we are able to pray any time we need help from God. So, it just makes sense that you and I can pray anywhere we happen to be. Wherever we are, God is with us. God is everywhere.

The last question is, Why should we pray? The simple answer? Because God answers prayer. Verse 16 tells us “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Did everyone hear? “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Except, I have been hearing from a large number of people during the past two weeks. Such difficult and traumatic events are extremely hurtful, especially for people who have had similar things happen to them. Psychologically speaking, the mention of a similar traumatic event can very well cause someone else to vividly relive their personal experience, no matter how long ago it happened. Trauma is imprinted on the brain in a unique way. It’s like the brain flags the specific memories as super-important. Those flagged memories can surface or re-surface at unpredictable times, when someone reminds you of something traumatic that happened. Like, for example, this serious discussion in the news of harassment and assault.

During the past two weeks, calls to rape and sexual abuse help lines have skyrocketed, anywhere from doubling to running four times as many as in a similar time period. Online, in social media, and personally, I have heard more people tell of harrowing incidents of rape and sexual abuse, and the horrible responses received when these actions were reported. Plus, I have both read and heard of situations where no one ever reported these horrific acts—until now.

Though I don’t who or what you believe, I think all of us can agree that as God’s people, we all need regular repentance and soul-searching, no matter what. We are also all in need of healing, personally, and certainly communally. Isn’t that what James tells us here?

When I was a chaplain, working in critical care units like the Emergency Department, Intensive Care, and trauma support all over the hospital, my primary job would be that of compassionate listener—even before prayer, and also as a heartfelt part of prayer. I suggest for all of us to consider a heart of compassion and a gentle hand of mercy. It’s time to put our defenses down and instead experience the vulnerability of listening to one another.

“If someone has a story to tell, the greatest gift you can offer is simply to listen. You don’t need to have answers or wisdom. You probably don’t need to say anything except, ‘I hear you. I believe you. I’m sorry you experienced that.’ In the compassionate version of the world I yearn for, we offer one another solidarity, a listening ear, and a tender heart. “ [1]

As this letter tells us, the apostle James was practical. He also had quite the reputation for prayer. We all know the familiar saying “Listen to what I do, not what I say.” That was James. He would not tell his friends and followers to pray if he didn’t follow Jesus in prayer himself.

Through the power of prayer, total personal and communal healing can occur. James was following the example of Jesus who taught his disciples to pray and showed them that people can be healed through prayer.” [2] James spent so much time in prayer that he had the nickname “Old Camel Knees,” since his knees were so hard and callused from staying on them in prayer for hours on end.

As one commentator said, “we must be active participants in the process. Whether it is the healing touch of the laying on of hands or a simple hug from a sister or brother in Christ or the potent power of prayer or the relief of corporate confession, active participation in the Body of Christ is preventative medicine at its best.[3]

What are we waiting for? “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Amen. Alleluia.

 

(My sincere thanks to Charles Kirkpatrick, for his Object Lessons & Children’s Sermons, Coloring Pages, Puzzles. Sermons4Kids.com. https://www.sermons4kids.com/5Ws_of_prayer.htm  I borrowed freely from this children’s activity for this sermon.)

(What follows is the Response our church had after the sermon. Instead of a Prayer of Hymn of Response, we had the following activity.)

Amidst the prescriptions James prescribes, the anointing of the sick is one that we do not do enough of, and one I want to offer to this congregation, to this family of faith during the worship service.

We read again these verses from our scripture passage from James chapter 5: “Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.”

Come, let us worship God, and claim our desire to be made whole – spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

And if anyone is just sick and tired of the current state of the world, come and be prayed over and be anointed with oil, a sign of the possibility of healing, inside and out.  

 

In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, be strengthened and made whole, filled with God’s grace; may you know the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Dear Comforting God, thank You for hearing and answering our prayers. Help us to remember that You want to heal us when we are sick, help us when we are in trouble, forgive us when we sin, and rejoice with us when we are happy. In the healing name of Jesus, Amen.

[1] https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2018/09/30/time-for-compassion/

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster (Sue) is the pastor of the East Woodstock Congregational (UCC) Church in CT.

[2] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=52

Commentary, James 5:13-16, Christopher Michael Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2008.

[3] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2012/09/rx-for-broken-lives-and-faltering-faith/

“Rx for Broken Lives and Faltering Faith,” Sharron R Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2012.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

How Not to Be Terrified

How Not to Be Terrified” 

Jesus Transfiguration Georgian relief Luke 9

Matthew 17:1-9 (17:7) – August 19, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Have you ever seen a true transformation? I know we are familiar with tadpoles swimming in water changing to frogs as amphibians, comfortable in water or on land. I know we all are familiar with caterpillars, living their earthbound, wormlike existence…and after a time of preparation in the cocoon, out comes a butterfly! Two transformations. We will look at another marvelous transformation today: what we know as the Transfiguration.

Let us set the scene. Our Lord Jesus has been on the road with His disciples for a long time now. I am certain they are accustomed to His teaching, preaching and healing. To His separating Himself for times of prayer, and of Him worshiping with groups of people in the synagogue. So, when Jesus taps the three disciples—Peter, James and John—on the shoulder and asks them to come apart with Him for a time of private prayer and worship, I suspect it comes as little surprise to the three men.

I remember two years ago I preached on Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, and I brought out the worship aspects of this marvelous account. Yes, Jesus withdrew to the mountain for a time of private prayer and worship with His three friends. But, there was more to this time than prayer. Much more!

The account from the gospel of Matthew doesn’t waste any time, because the marvelous thing happens as soon as Jesus and His disciples are on top of the mountain. Listen: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”

What on earth is “transfigured,” anyway? What does it mean?

In Greek, the word used in this passage is metamorphomai, or transform. So, from the three disciples’ point of view, it is a total transformation not only of appearance, but also of bodily form.

Again, I am bringing up the fact that first-century Palestine did not have electricity. The people of that time were completely unaware of the fancy special effects that we have today in stage shows, much less in the movies. When their leader and Rabbi suddenly became shining bright and His clothing as dazzling white as snow, well…that must have totally frightened these disciples. So much so, that they began to cower and hide their eyes.

What is more, Jesus wasn’t the only person to be transformed, shining bright in front of them. This Scripture passage also mentions Moses and Elijah, bright as the sun, talking to Jesus.

It is true, the three disciples had been traveling with Jesus for some time. They had observed Him preaching, teaching, and healing. They knew their Rabbi was a great teacher, perhaps a mighty prophet, and even a miracle worker, But, this unbelievable metamorphosis was something completely outside of their experience.

Of course, Peter tries to make sense of this amazing situation. He stutters and stammers, and wants to put up three tents or places of worship.  “On top of the mountain, Peter recognizes that Jesus’ dazzling appearance in the presence of Moses and Elijah is significant–‘Lord, it is good for us to be here!’–but he does not fully understand what he is seeing. One might imagine Peter, jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like an elementary student who is desperate to give the right answer, but who cannot quite get it right because he does not fully understand the question.” [1]

I might be scared to death, too. Imagine, seeing our almighty Lord Jesus, coming down to earth in glorified form. Seeing His majesty, this spectacular view of our Lord. I don’t blame these guys for cowering and hiding their eyes, not one bit.

One commentator has a fascinating insight into this instance of “Be Not Afraid,” happening at this momentous time in our Lord’s life. “Did this glorious ‘vision’ produce faith in [the disciples]? No, it caused extreme fear. Being in direct relationship to God, hearing the voice from the cloud did not produce faith, but fear — so much fear that the disciples literally ‘fell on their faces.’” [2]

Jesus recognizes that fact immediately. He encourages the disciples with the words “Don’t be afraid!”

We might wonder: how could the disciples possibly relate to Jesus again with any sort of naturalness? Any kind of normalcy, after this clearly supernatural experience?

The answer? Jesus transformed back into human form, and touched His friends. He encourages them with the words “Don’t be afraid!” By touching them and reassuring them that it was really and truly Him, just as He was before? It wasn’t the glorified, “glowing” Jesus who touched them, but the all-too-human, relatable Jesus.

How many of us are frightened or anxious, and need to hear those words today? How many of our friends or family members find themselves in difficult places, or walking through scary situations, and could be encouraged by those words today? Listen to Jesus! Hear His words to the disciples. Hear His words to us, too.

How much do we need this healing, life-giving, transforming touch from Jesus? The words of Jesus—“Be not afraid!” are surely for each of us. Yet, there is more. “In addition to our need for this divine touch, I think that we are also called to offer it to the world. For our congregations and our people, rather than seeking to appear ‘glorious’ as God’s people, perhaps it is more helpful to be simply human beings who offer a healing and life-giving touch to the scared, worried, anxious people with whom we come in contact.” [3]

We can have a view of Jesus as more than just an untouchable, glorified, majestic being. He is also a relatable, human being. The incarnate Son of God. Jesus reaches out to you and to me. He reaches out to everyone we meet, too.

Listen to Jesus! Hear His words to the disciples. Hear His words to us, too.

Be not afraid. Jesus is with us always. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27

Commentary, Matthew 17:1-9, Audrey West, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008.

[2] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm    Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen at CrossMarks Christian Resources.

[3] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm    Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen at CrossMarks Christian Resources.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Hope and Wholeness

“Hope and Wholeness”

Mark 1-27 Jesus-the-divine

Mark 1:21-28 (1:27) – January 28, 2018

A common saying is “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” How true that is! A close parallel is beginning a new position. A great deal is riding on that first impression, the first few days or weeks at a new job, the first major thing or statement a prominent person does or says.

Our Gospel reading today from Mark chapter 1 happens at the very beginning of the Rabbi Jesus’s ministry. Jesus is beginning this new position as an itinerant rabbi, traveling around the countryside, preaching and teaching. What else does Mark include here? This is a narrative of an important first thing that this prominent person Jesus says and does, setting the tone for the rest of Mark’s Gospel. I’d like to thank bible commentator Paul Berge for his fictional first-person account, which is a narrative adaptation of this first miracle of Jesus.

“Were you at the synagogue in Capernaum today? I wasn’t sure I saw you and so I will tell you as clearly as I can what happened. I can only explain that something occurred that has never, yes, never ever happened before in our hometown synagogue where our people “gather together.” What took place is unlike anything our rabbis have instructed us in over the years. This was far beyond their teaching and authority.

“Shabbot worship started out like a routine, very normal gathering. We all came with the usual expectation. Now, don’t get me wrong, our rabbis are faithful interpreters of the Torah as they instruct us in the Word of the Lord, but their teaching does get to be routine. Everything was progressing as usual, the prayers, the Psalms, the reading of the Torah, when a newcomer “immediately” entered the synagogue and began teaching and instructing us, dare I say, with a new “authority” (Greek, exousia). His authority was not as our scribes. When I use the word “authority” about his teaching, you know that the word also includes the power to “exorcize” demonic spirits.

“I am still in shock as to what happened next. “Immediately” a deranged person screams out. No one in the synagogue had a clue as to what brought forth this outburst. It appears an unclean spirit had identified this rabbinic-like teacher as one who had authority to exorcize and called out to him by name: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The voice was a shrill demonic-like scream. How did this spirit know the name of the rabbi from Nazareth? Did the voice really assume that this teacher has the authority to exorcize demonic or unclean spirits?

“The scream continued with words of blasphemy using the name of God: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” With this a hushed silence came over the entire synagogue as these words were spoken. The rabbi named Jesus from the hill country of Nazareth sensed the offense of these words, and the identity of the Holy One of God. Jesus addressed the possessed man and rebuked him with exorcizing words which likewise silenced the entire synagogue, “Be silent, and come out of him.”

“What occurred next was a demonstration I have never, ever, witnessed before. The man was writhing on the floor like he was in conflict with the spirits possessing him. Then the voice of a demonic spirit cried out with the same shrill demonic-like scream. The unclean spirit came out of him and the man appeared to be calm. He stood up and in his right mind looked as normal as any of us.

“Needless to say, we were all overcome and amazed and kept saying to one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority he exorcizes a demonized person!” What took place we saw with our own eyes that he commanded even a host of unclean spirits and they were obedient to him. On my oath, this is what took place on this Shabbot. I can’t explain what came over us, but it was like we gave witness to the rabbi from Nazareth as our praise to the one, holy and righteous God in our midst. We have no other experience like this to compare. We have since heard that what took place in our synagogue “immediately” spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” [1]

Do you hear what Jesus did? He cast the unclean, evil spirit out of the man, and made him whole again. Gave him a new lease on hope and wellness. Gave the man the gift of emotional, psychological and mental wholeness, of abundant life itself.

Not everyone believes that Jesus casts out evil, unclean spirits from people, in the spiritual realm. Some people are very skeptical about this kind of miracle. But, I would like to remind everyone that belief in evil spirits has been a common, widespread belief for thousands of years. It does not as much matter that many people of the 21st century don’t believe that Jesus did this. The point is that the people of New Testament times did believe in the power and authority of the Rabbi Jesus. Power to cast out unclean spirits.

For thousands of years, society has dealt with different kinds of mental, emotional and psychological issues in individuals. Sometimes, these issues and illnesses have been called spiritual and demonic. From what we now know, these conditions can be medical. These people with illnesses and issues sometimes seem to be held hostage to internal, powerful forces only recently understood.

Regardless of whether the illness or issue was emotional, physical, psychological or spiritual, Jesus came alongside of this man with an unclean spirit. Maybe Jesus was the first who had approached the man in a long time. Jesus, with holy power and authority, ordered the evil spirit out of the man. And, immediately, the man was cured.

Was it really and truly an “evil spirit?” In this case, as in certain other situations in the Gospels, My opinion is, “yes.” There are a great many situations which are spiritually energized, throughout the world. Both positive and negative, concerning good and evil spirits.

But, that is not the only thing. No, there are negative tendencies, urgings, and thoughts people get in their heads, on their insides. An explosion of anger, over and over. A suicidal impulse or thought. An intense jealousy, suddenly flaring. A wild sexual fantasy that returns again and again. An overwhelming feeling of depression and dread, creeping into the deepest places inside. We, as human beings, are keenly aware of these unwelcome, unclean spirits in our hearts and inner thoughts. We often wonder where these “unclean thoughts” come from and why we can’t get rid of them. It is as if they are part of our inner nature as human beings. [2]

It does not matter whether our issues are psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, or some combination, Jesus can come alongside of us. Jesus has the power and authority to take care of the situation and restore hope and wholeness. Yes, in this situation in Mark’s Gospel, with this troubled young man. And, yes, in a multitude of various situations, today, too.

Today, you and I are often ashamed of individuals such as this troubled man. We tend not to speak of it. We fear the misunderstanding or the judgment or avoidance we expect we will surely see in the eyes of others. Or, hesitate to choose to whom we dare to entrust that which hurts us the most. [3] Whether we name it evil spirits, mental disturbance, emotional instability, addiction, or something else, Jesus can overcome. Jesus can provide healing, hope and wholeness, whatever the situation. Yes, in Mark’s gospel, and yes, in all of our lives, today.

(A big thank you to Dr. Paul Berge, who wrote the adapted first-person account of this Scripture reading from Mark 1:21-28. Thank you for this writing, and for your excellent insights from your Gospel commentary!)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1122

Commentary, Mark 1:21-28, Paul S. Berge, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[2] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_hunger_for_healingGA.htm  “Hunger for Healing,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/out-in-the-open-casting-out-unclean-spirits/ Janet H. Hunt.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Justice, Healing, Wholeness

“Justice, Healing, Wholeness”

Eph 2-14 word cloud

Ephesians 2:14-17 – August 21, 2016

The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have been going on for two weeks. The Olympics has been a marvelous time of both competition and camaraderie, crossing international borders. I have not spent as much time as in years past watching the different competitions, but there have been some exciting and nail-biting times in these past weeks. Swimming and diving, gymnastics, track and field: the United States has won medals in these and many more. And yes, there have also been some scandalous things that happened, both on and off the field of play.

Scandals, quarreling, fighting, bombing. Attacks, sniping, terrorism, and even warfare. So often those are common events in the world today. Sadly, common, and sadly, robbing countries of their best and brightest young people.

From the time that I was little, I was drawn to the Olympic competitions not only for the sake of sport, but also for the sake of the Olympic values and traditions. The Olympic values strive to counteract those negative traits and actions I just mentioned. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, wanted the Olympics to lift up the ideals of respect, fair balance, pursuit of excellence, joy in effort, and balance between mind, body and will. He held up these as the essential Olympic values. What wonderful ideals to reach for!

However, as faulty, error-filled people in this mixed-up world, we have a big problem. Sin gets in the way of these lofty ideals. Negative feelings like hatred, xenophobia, classism, separation of all kinds get in the way. Sin also includes the haves versus the have-nots, all over again, in a myriad of ways.

I would like us to switch gears and look at the Scripture passage for this morning from Ephesians 2. The Apostle Paul is in the middle of a very long paragraph about Jesus Christ and why He came to earth: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who … has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility; His purpose was to create in Himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross..”

As is typical with the Apostle Paul, he makes a complex argument and brings a whole bunch of ideas into play. But I want to highlight this central fact from Ephesians chapter 2. Humanity was once far away from God, made far away by our separation and sin. There was—and is still—a dividing wall of hostility. Hostility between us and God, and hostility between human beings. Hostility between individuals, neighborhoods, groups, nations, races, classes, and a whole host of other separations.

The Olympic ideals, values and tradition help in counteracting this hostility and separation between humanity. The United Church of Christ’s Statement of Mission helps to counteract this, too. I have been preaching through the Statement of Mission this summer. The sentence for this week states: Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called: to work for justice, healing, and wholeness of life.” Wonderful things to strive for! And, worthy ideals to shoot for, from the point of view of the Olympic ideals, or from a Christian framework.

Jesus Christ came to earth to reconcile us to God, to destroy that dividing wall of hostility, so that each of us could have healing and wholeness of life. Praise God! Alleluia! That involves our relationship with God. Our vertical relationship, which is so important. Jesus has done that for us. No longer separated and far away, we now have a relationship with God.

But, that is not the end of the story. No! God wants us to take the next step. God calls us to work for justice, healing and wholeness of life, not only for us individually, but for others as well. That is our mission, from the UCC Statement of Mission.

I spoke about this several weeks ago, when several moms from Morton Grove went to the south side of Chicago, into the Englewood neighborhood. Two of us went again this past Wednesday, to help serve at a dinner outreach to that community. We took this opportunity to reconnect with the good people in the Englewood neighborhood and show them that friends outside of their community care, and are concerned. Friends want to help them strengthen relationships, and bring peace into their streets. Their neighborhood. Their community.

By several of us going to the Englewood neighborhood, this was a concrete way of showing our love and caring for others. As a follower of Christ, it was and is my responsibility to work for justice, healing and wholeness of life. Not because I am a pastor, not because I am a leader of this congregation, but because I follow Christ and strive to do the things He did and to say the words He said. And most especially, I strive to love the way Jesus loves.

All of us are called to do that same thing. To follow Christ to the best of our ability.

Let me switch gears and talk about the Olympics again. I did have the opportunity to watch a bunch of races last week. My son and daughter got really excited about the men’s and women’s swimming. We were awestruck to watch Michael Phelps add to his haul of Olympic medals, plus all of the other American swimmers doing an outstanding job in the pool.

I also made note of Simone Manuel, who won two gold medals, one for the 100 meter freestyle and the other as a member of the 4 by 400 relay team. Ms. Manuel is one of the fastest swimmers on the planet today. She also happens to be African-American, the first black woman to medal for the United States in swimming. Ever.

Articles and news stories immediately proliferated on the Internet, television, newspaper and other forms of media. Yes, they all praised Ms. Manuel for her grand achievement. Yet, some of the longer articles told a different story. About how the history of swimming pools and racism are closely tied together in this country. About how “according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, in the United States, a black 11-year-old is 10 times as likely to drown in a swimming pool as a white 11-year-old. And as of 2010, around 70 percent of African-Americans said they couldn’t swim, compared with some 40 percent of white folks.” [1]

I quote from an article in Rolling Stone, “the fraught dynamics of segregation were fought within swimming pools as well. Often whites would shut down or avoid pools rather than have to intermingle with black people. There were legal battles fought throughout the 1950s over the access black people had to swimming pools and beaches that continued even after Brown v. the Board of Education and the idea that “separate but equal” facilities were deemed unconstitutional.” [2] A large percentage of American children having a likelihood of drowning. It doesn’t matter who, or what, or where. They are our country’s children. All of our children. And, this is a matter of justice—or, injustice.

This racist attitude is changing. Praise God! Plus, I am so happy for Simone Manuel and her two gold medals in swimming! This aspect of justice is something we all can do something about. And healing, and wholeness. Can you hear God calling? Calling to each of us? As the book of Isaiah says, “God will teach us His ways, so that we may walk in God’s paths.”

We can all look forward to God’s shalom, healing, peace, and wholeness, and verdant life. God wants us to try to communicate this Good News, work for justice, and do our best to spread healing and wholeness. To our friends, our neighbors, those we work with. Let us strive to live healing-filled lives, with God’s help. Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/08/12/484841513/simone-manuel-wins-olympic-gold-thats-a-really-big-deal

[2] http://www.rollingstone.com/sports/simone-biles-and-simone-manuel-wins-impact-on-race-w434453

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)