Sunday, January 28, 2018

Are You Ready for a Miracle?

Mark 1:21-28
        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. I’ve heard James Forbes preach for over r ninety minutes and by the end of the sermon Forbes had me waving my arms over my head, singing “This Little Light of Mine” and begging for more.    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 only speaking to beg for more. 
        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.   A little criticism is good for the soul.
        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. 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.
        But sometimes it is not a movie. In this text we see Jesus as one who quiets the dispirited with a word,  and then tells us if we have enough faith, we can perform the same miracle. 
        There is something going on here that make me 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.  In a nutshell, what do we say or perhaps not say to folks like Kelly and Sam Alexander who every moment are praying for a miracle.  
        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, using language I had hadn’t heard since I left the Army.  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.”
        I still remember the last time Jack came to office. 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 know how few times I hear 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 recipient that God’s presence, God’s love will be with those who suffer… God’s presence, God’s love will be with the family of those who suffer… God’s presence, God’s love will be with the community that suffers.  By doing so, we offer hope not just for the moment but hope for tomorrow.     
        Is that any different than a faith healer?  I think it is.  We acknowledge that while God’s time is not necessarily our time, 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 happen, even if they don’t meet our particular timetable.
                                        To God be the Glory.  Amen

Sunday, January 21, 2018

God Sticks with Those God is Stuck With

Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20


        When describing the attributes of God various lists have been complied.  The great minds of the Reformation referred to God as Omniscient, Omnipresent and a whole lot of other Omni words that I have long ago forgotten. Those linking God to empires like to talk about God as all-powerful, all-knowing and again a lot of other “all-something” words. The Old Testament, a source certainly worth considering, consistently refers to God as, “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and steadfast in love.” I would like to suggest there is one attribute consistently left off most lists and it deserves to be considered. God can work with anyone, regardless.

        Imagine you are God. From the beginning of time you have watched the evolution of humankind. There is great dissatisfaction as you watch endless wars and rumors of wars. You have had a hand in each culture developing a code of moral behavior that promises to assist in their relationship with others. Each list contains some pretty common sense stuff. Take care of your elders. Get enough rest. Don’t murder or steal. Keep your eyes off your neighbors stuff and spouse. And whatever you do, don’t lie about it. But the deceit continues and humans spend more time talking about the commandments than following them. So you come up with a marvelous plan. You will place perfection among creation. You will offer an example of how life together is possible if we just try a little harder.

        So Jesus arrived and quickly assessed the situation. He decided it was not a job he wanted to undertake by himself. His first action was to pick his twelve go to guys. Now if anyone today was going to engage in a life changing opportunity, the first people picked would be expected to know something about public relations and finances. They would be among the best and brightest.   Since this was a religious movement, leaders from local Synagogues would be called upon. And just to make the movement sparkle, someone like Oprah would publicly endorse the group. But what did Jesus do? He gathered a bunch of fishermen, an out of work tax collector and a religious zealot to spark what was to become the most important spiritual revolution the world had encountered. Can you imagine what God must have thought when looking down on this turn of events? Was God appalled? Believe it or not, I suspect God laughed. After all, God has a history of picking strange characters to introduce the idea of a new heaven and earth.

        Jacob was a liar and a cheat. Moses was a convicted murderer. Sampson was a selfish womanizer. David was a child who played with sheep.  And then there was Jonah.

        Remember him. Let me refresh your memory. The book of Jonah begins, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise and go tell Nineveh I am aware of her great evil.’ And Jonah fled.”

        Who was Jonah? We have no idea. Why did God call him? On the surface he seems like a bad choice. Who was Nineveh? It was the capital of the cruelest nation imaginable. Think Uganda under Idi Amin.   To be fair, who in their right mind would want to go to Nineveh? All that awaited Jonah was a public execution. So what did God see in this man? Usually when we think of Jonah our minds go quickly to the encounter with the Great Whale. But this story is more than a fishing exhibition. It is an impossible task given to an improbable man who did not lack the courage to have a tempestuous conversation with God.

        I am always amazed when people claim Jonah was afraid of dying. Truth is, the only thing Jonah feared was God’s mercy toward folks Jonah happen to hate. As many of you are aware I believe God’s grace is gift given to each of us based not on our actions or belief but on God’s universal love. What a glorious thought until I realized this presents a huge downside. It used to be if I despised someone I would think, “At least when I get to heaven I’ll never run into him.” That is not because heaven is a big place. It is because I assumed if I hated someone, God was smart enough to see my enemy for their real worth and would make sure my adversary spent eternity in a place where warmth would never be a problem. But if I believe condemnation is not part of God’s final plan, eternity isn’t looking as rosy as I once imagined. Suddenly forever becomes a very, very, long time.

        Jonah does not want to go to Nineveh because he knows God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger and steadfast in love. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knows there is nothing redeemable about those people and he doesn’t want to be the one who offers them a chance at redemption.

        So Jonah runs away. Then Jonah jumps into the ocean and is swallowed by a fish. For three days Jonah stews within the stomach of the great monster. Jonah’s disposition is so bad he gives the fish indigestion. Finally the fish throws up and Jonah once again finds himself face to face with God. There is no conversation only an invitation. And with that Jonah starts walking toward Nineveh.

        There was no joy in Jonah’s heart. He was a condemned man preparing to preach to enemies he did not care to have as neighbors. With the enthusiasm of a child who hates to sit through worship, Jonah began to speak. His voice resembled mine at the end of a sentence. The fact that the people of Nineveh heard him is in itself a miracle. It was the shortest and quietest sermon in the history of sermonology. Jonah said, “God knows you are evil, so repent.”

        AND THEY DID! AND JONAH WAS LIVID! He retreated from the city and screamed from the very bottom of his soul, “I knew you would forgive them. As soon as we leave they will be the same old mean, evil people. They don’t believe in you; they don’t believe in anything. How could you be such a fool? For the sake of all of us kind and loving people strike them down. Make them an example. Use your power to show the rest of the world you will not tolerate wickedness. Destroy them now.”

        When he finished lecturing God, Jonah went out into the desert where he spied a small tree. Jonah sat under the tree hoping to rest in its shade. While he slept, the tree died, leaving Jonah exposed to the sun. Jonah then screamed at God for killing the plant. And God responded, “Why do you show more love toward a plant that gives only temporary shade than to those who are my children?”

        I don’t know which is harder to understand. The idea that God loves the world or the idea that God wants us to preach this message to folks we have decided are unredeemable. Why am I supposed to care for my enemy? How can I be expected to share good news with someone I know is bad news? They are never going to change. I know it and I bet God knows it. And yet the message any disciple is sworn to preach, be it Matthew, or Peter, or John, or Jonah, or you, or me, is God loves and God forgives all of us.

        Perhaps if we preach this long enough …….. and loud enough …….. WE might actually come to believe it.     Amen.