Sunday, January 29, 2012

Are You Ready for a Miracle?

Mark 1:21-28
Are You Ready for a Miracle?

        Sometimes when I read a biblical passage, I feel …… awkward.  By that I mean I am wondering exactly what I am supposed to do with the text.  Sometimes the scripture takes me out of my comfort zone.  Sometimes the text seems irrelevant for a sophisticated 21st century audience.  This morning might be one of those times.  Jesus entered the Synagogue and began to preach.  The folks listening were astounded by his words.  Mark wrote, “He spoke as one having authority, not as one of the scribes.”  I have no problem with this part of the text. Ever heard James Forbes preach?  Forbes is an African-American with a smallish voice that seldom seems to rise above a whisper.    When he begins, Forbes appears to barely be 5 ½ feet tall.   But by the time he finishes he could play center for the Los Angeles Lakers.  I remember hearing him preach to a room full of Presbyterian ministers.  Trust me, that is a tough crowd.  He preached for over ninety minutes.  By the end of the sermon Forbes had us waving our arms over our heads, singing “This Little Light of Mine”, begging for more.  I thought the whole room had gone Pentecostal.    That is the power of someone who is filled with the spirit of God.  I have no doubt when Jesus preached, the room fell quiet as folks turned all their attention on this young Rabbi and when he finished, they probably begged for more.  Jesus’ ability to preach is not what causes me to have problems with this text.
        As Jesus was preaching a man stood before him and cried, “Have you come to destroy us?  I know you are the Holy One of God!”   Even this doesn’t bother me.  I have had plenty of folks comment on my sermons.  I was preaching once in an African-American congregation and a lady in the back stood up and hollered, “Help him Jesus, help him.”   And she was right, I needed help.   My belief has always been if one is brave enough to engage in this “holy monologue” then one has to be courageous enough to hear the not so complimentary comments that are offered.  Criticism is part of the job and your comments are welcomed.  But you might want to wait till after the service.
        What frightens me about this text is how Jesus responded to his critic. Jesus said, “Be silent, come out!”  Instantly an unclean spirit left the man’s body.          (stop) 
        I saw “The Exorcist” when I was 23 years old.  I had just completed Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Polk where I was instructed by our nations finest to overcome my fears and face my fiercest enemies. My instructors would have not been very proud of me that evening because that movie nearly scared me to death.  I mean when Linda Blair’s head did a 360, my stomach was performing the same feat.  Yet when I left the theatre, I didn’t jump at shadows or look under the car.  It was just a movie.  It was scary, but still it was just a movie.
        I am not suggesting the supernatural doesn’t exist.  I am not suggesting there is no such thing as the personification of evil.  I am not even suggesting that somewhere in history there might have been exorcisms that worked.  I am just saying that is not part of the world in which I reside.  I know mental illness exists.  I have witnessed some folks who are obviously possessed by things I do not understand.  But I am a rational guy, pretty much convinced that it takes more than a wave of a hand to heal a wounded soul.
        Yet here is Jesus, who with a word quells the dispirited; with a word, makes the lame walk; with a word, raises the dead to life.  And then we who believe in Jesus are told if we have enough faith, we can perform the same miracles. 
        There is something going on here that make me a little nervous.  I do not doubt that God has the power to heal, but I know there are charlatans out there who play on the emotions of folks who are hoping for a miracle.  Folks in my profession are not shy about laying their hands on the afflicted and asking that a limb, or spirit, or heart be healed.  Trust me when I say I believe in the power of prayer.  But I also believe more damage than good is often done by these unholy exercises.
        Ever see the movie, “Leap of Faith?”  It starred Steve Martin who played a faith healer.  He made the rounds in  Texas creating a carnival like atmosphere where he promised healings to a people had little else to hope for but a miracle.  Martin’s line was always “Do you believe God can heal you?”  Now who in their right mind is going to say no?  We trust in the power of God, we have witnessed folks recover from cancer and heart attacks, we believe those miracle stories in the Bible yet this is a dangerous question which preys on the soul of anyone who is desperate.  “Do you believe God can heal you?”   Of course we do, but what happens if a healing does not take place.  Charlatans like the character played by Martin can then say, “Obviously your faith was lacking.”  The failure of a miracle is placed on the already burdened soul of the afflicted, doing more harm than the disease itself.
        In this particular scripture Jesus didn’t say to the possessed man, “Do you have the faith that God can heal you?’  Jesus rather said, “Be silent, and come out.”   The man is healed, not by his faith, but by the power of a word.
        At first glance this puts an incredible burden on those who are agents of healing and reconciliation.  It would seem if our faith was strong enough, if our words are spoken with enough authority, cancer would be eliminated, mental health would be restored, and wars a thing of the past.  This text causes considerable conflict within my soul because I want to believe that there is the possibility that I possess the healing touch of God but my faith is challenged by the reality of what I witness each and every day.  People get sick and people die.  That is simply a fact of life.  And if that is the case, where is the good news?  Where is the gospel?   
        A number of years ago a middle aged stranger entered my office.  He was a bit unkempt and had a rather wild look in his eye.  Jack said, “You don’t know me and I don’t know you but a preacher down the street said we ought to get to know each other.  I have been diagnosed as schizophrenic but I am not.  I have been tossed out of two or three churches. I have no trust in organized religion. I am not about to become a Presbyterian.  But I believe in God and I believe God loves me.  Can we talk?”  
        My initial thought was, “Why did one of my colleagues send this crazy guy my direction?”  But Jack was already in my office so I asked if he would like to sit and talk.  Jack never sat down.  He ranted and raved for an hour, never letting me get a word in.  I finally said, “Jack, I have another appointment in two minutes.  Would you like to come back?”
        He stopped, and to my surprise calmly said, “Yeah, this has been helpful.”  Twice a month, for the next five years, Jack would come to my office for an hour.  Mostly he would talk and I would listen.  Sometimes I would hear the same story over and over again.    At the end of each conversation Jack would say, “I still believe in God and I still believe God loves me.”
        In December, Jack came to my office for the last time.  He knew I was leaving Clinton and told me the trip to Nellysford was a little further than he wanted to travel for our bi-monthly sessions.  As we got ready to part I asked Jack the question I had wanted to ask for years.  “Jack, why did you keep coming? I’m not sure the progress you have made has anything to do with our conversations.”
        He looked at me and said, “Quite the contrary.  Each time I leave, I always say, “I still believe in God and I still believe God loves me.”  And you always respond, “Yes Jack, God does love you.”  Do you how few times I have heard those words?”
        Sometimes we forget the power of a word.  Sometimes we never realize the healing balm of a phrase especially when offered in prayer.  Many of us pray everyday that someone will recover from an illness or a difficult situation in life.  We routinely pray for miracles which may never happen.  But when we pray, we remind the ones with whom we pray that God’s presence, God’s love will be with the one who suffers… that God’s presence, God’s love will be with the family of the one who suffers… that God’s presence, God’s love will be with the community of the one who suffers.  By doing so, we offer hope not just for the moment but for tomorrow.     
        Is that any different than a faith healer?  I think it is.  We acknowledge that God’s time is not necessarily our time, but God remains with our wounded souls even when we feel desperately alone.  We are not faith healers, but we are dispensers of Gods Holy Words of grace and compassion.  We are not miracle workers, but we are believers, who awaken one’s willingness to be made whole again.
        Do not be afraid to speak the Holy Words.  They create spaces of freedom and places of healing and communion.  Do not be afraid to speak the Holy Words.  Transformations and resurrections do happen, even if they don’t meet our particular timetable.
                                        To God be the Glory.  Amen

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Road to Nineveh

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The Road to Nineveh

        Gertrude Stein; Saul Bellow; J.D. Salinger; Bernard Malamud; Chaim Potak; Elie Wiesel;  You want to hear a great story?  Read one written or told by a Jew.  The Jews have spent three millenniums perfecting their craft and they were pretty good when they started.   Remember the one about the shyster Jacob who tricked his older brother out of the family birthright for a bowl of soup?  Or what about  the folks trying to build a tower to heaven out of sub-par materials?  Perhaps one of the all time favorites is the one about a whale that swallowed a man and the guy lived to tell about it.   Do you remember what happens next? A man being swallowed by a whale is a big deal.  But it pales in comparison to the end of the story.
        Let me catch you up to speed.  The story begins when Jonah receives a message from God to take a trip to Nineveh and preach a sermon about God’s forgiveness and grace.  This presented a problem.  Jonah didn’t much care for the Ninevites.  He didn’t really know them but he had heard they were strange, different, and therefore not to be trusted.  To further complicate matters Jonah’s neighbors didn’t much like the Ninevites, which meant if Jonah made contact with this folks, he would have to answer to his neighbors when he got home.   So Jonah ran away.  Being a good Jew, Jonah believed the only place he could run was toward the ocean.  The ocean represented chaos.  It was the home of the sea-monster Leviathan.  Jacob figured even Yahweh, the God of the Jews, knew better than to venture into such treacherous waters.  As is the habit of many folks, Jacob underestimated the very nature of God. 
        Jonah headed out to sea and the sea erupts.  Jonah, the same guy who has no compassion for the people of Nineveh, felt responsible for the sailors and has them throw him overboard.  Instead of drowning is swallowed by a big fish.  In the bowels of this fish, Jonah discovers he is not alone.
        Jonah did not exactly expect God to be waiting inside the fish.  Truth is God often appears when we least expect it.    Once Jonah recovers from his surprise, he utilized this discovery to plot his escape.  Using a time honored Jewish liturgy, Jonah cried out, “O God I cry out to you because I know you can hear my voice.  God, I know you are merciful and forgiving.  I know if I only ask for deliverance you will grant it. Have mercy on me and I will be your faithful servant.”
        Upon completion of this prayer of confession, Jonah was literally spit out on dry land.  As he was clearing the salt water from his ears, the first thing he heard was, “Get up, go to Nineveh, and proclaim my message of repentance.”  Reluctantly, Jonah set out on his God-given task.  He still didn’t want to go.  If he had had a cell phone he would have called his wife telling her to sell the house, because he certainly wasn’t going to be able come home and face the neighbors.  Jonah knew what was about to happen.  The same God who rescued Jonah from the whale would certainly offer repentance to Nineveh and Jonah wanted nothing to do with that.  He didn’t like the Ninevites.  They were ….. different.  He had never actually met anyone from Ninevah but he had heard stories, and he didn’t much care about what he had heard.  All Jonah wanted to do was get in and out of the city as soon as possible.  And that was what he did.
        Jonah didn’t tell anyone he was coming.  He didn’t make a reservation with the King.  He didn’t rent the local auditorium.  His sermon was exactly eight words long.  “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  Having fulfilled his part of the bargain, Jonah started the long walk home. He had delivered the message.  He probably hoped no one heard it.  But as we know, that was not the case.  Instantly the people of Nineveh, including the King begin to offer prayers to God.  And when God saw this outpouring of repentance, according to Chapter 3, verse 10, God’s mind was changed and Nineveh was forgiven.
        Jonah was outraged.  He screamed out at God, “I knew you would do this.  I knew you were too gracious and merciful.  I knew you were just some bleeding heart who is always overcome with the desire to show compassion.  Just go ahead and kill me.  If I have to be friends with a Ninevite I would rather just die right here in the desert.” 
        Poor Jonah.  He believed in a God whose mercy and grace extends far beyond what some folks consider reasonable.  Poor Jonah.  He believed in a God who by God’s own words is ever changing and ever evolving.  Poor Jonah.  He now has the option of sitting in the desert under a plant that is getting ready to die or acknowledge that God’s family uncategorically includes folks whose gender, race, economic status, and sexual orientation might be different than his.  Jonah is not the only one who struggles with this.  But there is good news.  Many of us have had our own “time-out” inside the whale and when we got spewed out on the beach our eyes were opened to the wonders of God’s complete community.
        What a marvelous imagination the creator of the Jonah story must have had.  Was the story factual?  I sincerely doubt it. Did it express a God-given message of truth? Without a doubt.  Be honest, how many of us have been swallowed by our prejudices and misunderstandings when considering who might be part of God’s great community.
        This morning we will ordain and install five good folks to serve as elders at Rockfish Presbyterian.  Al Gale and Jane Andrews will be ordained as first time elders.  Like Jonah, I am a little suspect of Al.  We had dinner together the other night and I discovered we have some political differences.  Worse than that he also admits to not a being a Redskin fan.  Can there be a place in heaven for a person of such questionable taste?  Al is probably wondering the same thing about me.   
        On the other hand, what Al and I have in common with each other, and with the rest of you good folks, is today we celebrate Jane’s ordination.  My understanding is that 10 years ago Jane was elected to be ordained but peculiar language in our Book of Order would not allow that ordination to take place.  I believe for quite some time now God has been having a talk with our denomination.  Rockfish heard and listened a little sooner than others.  You folks are trend setters.  Finally, we can “decently and in order” celebrate what you have been celebrating for over a decade; Jane’s God-given gifts.  I give thanks to God for being allowed to be part of this historic moment.      I give thanks to God for the opportunity to also celebrate the gifts of Al, Sue, Walt and Lynn.  But most of all I give thanks God is still out there stirring the waters, reminding us to be careful when we attempt to put limits on God’s vision and imagination.
        Let us give thanks to our God who created us and celebrates each one of us as children of God’s kingdom.