Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series – #5: Practicing Healing

SCRIPTURE – James 5:13-16 – 13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

SERMON
Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series
#5 – Practicing Healing
March 18, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I’ve never told you this before, but I was once on the receiving end of a miraculous, super-natural healing. No, a TV evangelist didn’t smack me on my forehead or slay me in the Spirit. I was miraculously healed by a chicken poppyseed casserole. This happened right after our first child was born. We were living several hours away from our family, we had virtually no support system, and we were beyond exhausted. And then a little old lady from the church I was serving as a youth pastor showed up at our apartment door with a steaming hot pan of chicken poppyseed casserole. And the Lord said, “It was very good.” It was absolutely the cure we needed for what ailed us at that moment. Does that count as a healing?

For our Lenten sermon series, we’ve been looking at how to grow in our faith through the ways we practice living it out. We’ve learned that practicing things like saying yes and no, honoring our bodies, and offering forgiveness help us take the next step on our faith journey. We never expect to master these disciplines, but by practicing them, we can hope to gradually get better at them and honor God in the process.

Today, we are talking about practicing healing. The first challenge we have to overcome is trying to come to a common understanding of what it means to heal, because that concept means different things to different people. For a lot of folks, healing means a physical cure from some malady or illness. That’s certainly one aspect of healing, but it in no way defines its totality. What does it mean to heal or to be healed? And does healing have anything to do with our faith?

Early believers thought so. Healing was very much a part of the early Christian understanding of a life of faith. We know that Jesus healed many people during his time on earth, including the 10 lepers we read about earlier. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the neighboring towns, one of their marching orders was to heal every sickness and disease. The early church picked up on that, making rites like anointing the sick with oil and the laying on of hands an integral part of their wholistic ministry. To this day, the Catholic Church has as one of its seven sacraments the anointing with oil for the purpose of healing.

But somewhere along the line, the sacrament of healing lost its cultural value. It was most likely around the time of the Enlightenment, when spiritual reality and material reality were separated, and the role of human knowledge took precedence over the role of faith. You no longer needed to be anointed with oil when you were sick, because new discoveries were providing scientific cures for diseases. That has proliferated down through the centuries, to the point where the concept of healing is relegated almost exclusively to the world of medicine.

Of course, healing does still exist in religion, but only as a caricature. You probably know of folks like Benny Hinn, who’ve made a fortune off of performing theatrical “cures.” You’ve probably also heard about the dog who was sent to Christian obedience school. On graduation day, he was asked to sit, and he sat. He was asked to speak, and he barked. He was asked to heal, and he raise his paw and said, “Lord Jesus, I command you to remove the squeaky demon from this chew toy.” There’s a good reason we Christians are skeptical about healing as a spiritual practice.

So, healing is either something done with medicine or something to be made fun of in religion. And yet, healing has so many more layers and dimensions to it than a physical cure. As John Koenig says in the book Practicing Our Faith, “Healing events are daily signs of the divine mercy that is surging through our world and guiding it toward its final perfection. This is true whether they take place by the sharing of chicken soup, the performance of delicate surgery, or the laying on of hands in a service of worship.” All these acts, and many more, are ways of practicing healing.

In our passage, James tells us praying is one of those ways. He says, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” One of the most effective ways we can practice healing is through intercessory prayer, praying for someone who is sick to be made well (which may be different than being physically cured).

Right after I was diagnosed with MS, a staff member at my seminary came to me and said, “Kory, a group of us have a prayer meeting every Wednesday morning, and we’d like to invite you to attend so that we can lay hands on you and pray for you.” I liked this guy, but I was still coming to terms with my this next chapter in my life and skeptical of what sounded like evangelical revival tactic, so I didn’t go, because that’s not how healing happens. I had just learned I had multiple sclerosis; what good could they do for me?

I have since learned two things about that invitation. First, what he was offering was solidly grounded in scripture. And, second, healing absolutely does happen that way, but maybe not the kind of healing I was looking for. If we think of healing only as a physical cure, then we are limiting our understanding of how God works in our lives, and we’re setting ourselves up with unreachable expectations. If our only form of practicing healing is an intercessory prayer that says, “Lord, take away my grandma’s terminal cancer or else,” then we’re missing the ways God can bring about healing that transcends the physical realm.

Healing, in its most divine form, is not about curing. It’s about restoration. It’s about restoring wholeness to what is broken. That can be a broken bone, or a broken heart, or a broken society. Theologian Paul Tillich said that, “Healing is an element in the work of salvation.” Often, Jesus combined a physical healing with a spiritual one, telling the person who had been physically cured that their sins were forgiven. And remember, James says the prayer of faith will save the sick. Salvation, not curing. So, to practice healing is to practice restoring something to its original, God-ordained state.

Because of this more holistic way of seeing this practice, I believe healing is making a comeback, returning from its banishment to the outskirts of religion to take a central role in the restorative process. I believe, after centuries of thinking religion didn’t have anything to offer in the way of healing, people are coming to see the power of prayer in a different light. When I started in ministry, whenever I was visiting someone in the hospital, I would have to wait until the doctors and nurses and staff were done before I could spend any time with them, and my visits were frequently interrupted for the more important work of attending to the patient’s physical needs. But several times in the past few year, I’ve been visiting with a patient when the doctor has come in the room. I have introduced myself as the person’s pastor, and the doctor has said, “Oh, don’t me interrupt. I’ll wait until you are finished.” The power of prayer is being accepted as part of the healing process for a patient.

So how do we practice this? First, we have to expand our understanding of healing. Trust that God can bring about healing in all situations, even if a physical cure doesn’t take place. Wounds can be healed and wholeness can happen even as bodies give way to sickness and death. Practice having the eyes to see the healing power of God that goes beyond our limited expectations of a person receiving a super-natural cure.

A second way to practice healing is to trust that your prayers for healing make a difference. It can feel helpless to see a friend or loved one suffer, and sometimes prayer can feel like busy work or last-ditch effort to do something, although we don’t always believe it matters. But James tells us the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. When I laid in the hospital bed with my new diagnosis of MS, I could feel the power of people praying for me, and that brought me a sense of peace, that God could work through this curve ball my body had thrown me.

So, who can you pray for today? Who needs healing? Who needs peace, assurance, guidance, a cure? How about praying for our country to be healed from violence and division? We can pray for all of those things, and then trust that God hears those prayers. I believe healing is happening all around us, in some of the most unorthodox and unexpected ways, through whispered words of forgiveness and steaming hot chicken poppy seed casseroles.

I want to close with this story, my most memorable experience of the power of healing. I was once asked to come see a man in a coma so that I could anoint him with oil. Now, you may not know this, but I’m not Catholic, so this was something new to me. Thankfully, I had some oil in my office we use on Ash Wednesday, so I grabbed it and headed to the ICU unit at UK hospital.

The scene when I arrived was tense. The man in question, an athlete in his 40s, had fallen and hit his head and was not expected to survive. The family included a 10-year-old son and the man’s ex-wife and his current girlfriend and his parents and his ex-in-laws and his current girlfriend’s parents. The mood was chaotic and turbulent and contentious. So I gathered the family in the room, and I anointed the man’s head with oil and said a prayer. Then, I invited each family member to anoint his head with oil and speak a word of love to him. And then, completely by the Holy Spirit’s leading, I asked if any of the family members would like to be anointed with oil. Almost all of them stepped forward. Instead of doing all the anointing myself, I anointed the first person, then handed them the oil and said, “Now, anoint the person behind you.” I watched as the son anoint his mother, the ex-wife, who then turned and anointed the current girlfriend as all the various in-laws looked on. The best way I can described what happened was that air in the room softened. Although the man died the next week, I know healing took place in that room, thanks be to God.

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This Week’s Sermon – Famous Last Words

SCRIPTURE – Rev. 22 – 12 “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 

16 “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.


20 
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen

SERMON
Famous Last Words
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
May 13, 2018

I picked the title for this sermon weeks before Wayne Lollis’ funeral, but it seems like God’s sense of humor was at work again. At Wayne’s funeral last week, his son Stephen shared that Wayne’s last words before he died were, “Oh, shoot!” Except Wayne didn’t say “Shoot,” and neither did Stephen. I don’t often condone profanity from the pulpit, but on that occasion, knowing the kind of character Wayne was, it seemed quite appropriate.

I bet you know some other famous last words. “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Do you know what movie that line ends? Of course, it’s “Casablanca,” How about, “Oh no, it wasn’t airplanes. It was beauty that killed the beast.” That’s from “King Kong”. How about “Silence of the Lambs,” in which Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, following a former nemesis of his, says, “I do wish I could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

How about this: ““We have to chase him. Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now, so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it, because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a Dark Knight.” That’s from “Spiderman”…just kidding! It’s from a Batman movie. I’m a big fan of the ending of “The Usual Suspects.” After the big twist is revealed, Keyser Soze says, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that…he is gone.”

But my favorite movie ending is probably “The Shawshank Redemption.” The movie, which is based on a Stephen King book, tells the story of Andy DuFresne and his imprisonment for murder. While in prison he meets Red, played by Morgan Freeman. Andy and Red strike up a friendship, and Red helps Andy with his escape attempt. At the very end of the movie, Red gets released from prison, and goes in search of Andy. His last line is, “I find I am so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

Hope also plays a role in the ending of another favorite work of mine. If I were to ask you the very first words of the Bible, I bet a majority of you would know, “In the beginning.” But if I were to ask you how the Bible ends, would be able to come up with it? How do you end a book like the Bible?

The predominant theme of the ending of the Bible is stated right before the benediction in the last line. That theme is “Come, Lord Jesus!” The Bible ends with a request, a plea, for Jesus to come again and make the world right, to end all pain and suffering and usher in the kingdom of God that is described in Revelation 21 and 22. These verses we read today bring to a close the book of Revelation, which uses very symbolic and disturbing imagery to paint a picture of what the end times will be like. I once did a verse-by-verse study of Revelation that took nine months, and when I finished I didn’t really understand it much better than when I started. But I do know that it ends with the earnest desire for Christ to come again, a concept that has been problematic for believers down through history.

I think part of the struggle with the idea of the Second Coming is how much focus has been put on predicting when it will happen. Even though Jesus says no one knows when this will happen, people have spent so much time talking about the date of the second coming. Well, I’ve read Revelation, and it doesn’t lay out a blueprint for what’s going to happen. I wish it did. I wish I could give you a day and a time of the Rapture, and then a checklist of what you needed to do before it happened. “Walk old lady across street.” Check. “Put on clean underwear.” Check. “Make sure pledge is paid up.” Check. OK, I’m ready!

I have to think that the amount of energy expended figuring out how things are going to end is out of whack compared to the amount of time scripture spends on it. If the Christian life is merely about getting to Heaven, why is the Bible so thick? If all that matters is how things end, why do we have 66 books about loving our neighbors and carrying our crosses and keeping commandments? Is that just busy work until the Jesus arrives? The Bible doesn’t end with “Come Lord Jesus” in order to give a time and date for Christ’s return. Instead, I believe it’s making a statement about preparation.

Because we believe Christ is coming again but don’t know when that will happen, we are charged to live in a constant state of preparedness. That’s a challenge for us today because the thought of Christ coming again has lost its urgency. It really meant something to the original readers of this book, when Jesus had only been gone a few decades and there were still eyewitnesses telling stories about him. It’s like the difference for us between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. People still have vivid memories of one, but no one remembers the other. Many of us can tell you exactly where we were when the Challenger exploded or planes flew into the World Trade Center. But no one remembers Jesus telling us he’s coming again, so that concept has faded back into history.

So then, what do we do with the idea that Jesus is coming again? First, we have to acknowledge that it can absolutely happen at any time. After all, that’s the promise of scripture. But are there other ways to think about the second coming? You know, next week we celebrate Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit of God descending to earth and ignited the disciples to go out and spread the Good News. Here’s a crazy idea. Could it be possible that Pentecost WAS the second coming of Jesus Christ?

Hear me out on this. The promise of Christ’s return to earth in Revelation is that he will enact a thousand-year reign of peace. Doesn’t that sound great? Why don’t we just sit back in our recliners, pop open an ice-cold Coca-Cola, and look up to the clouds for a bright light and some harp music? “Hey Jesus, we’ve really made a mess down here, would you mind coming on down and cleaning it up for us?” Is that what we mean when we say, “Come, Lord Jesus?”

Not hardly. In fact, I would argue that instead of us waiting on Jesus, Jesus is waiting on us. In the story of the feeding of the 5,000, when the disciples come to Jesus to miraculously provide food for a hungry crowd, remember what Jesus says? “You give them something to eat.” And remember when the resurrected Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter says, “Yes”? Jesus says, “Then feed my sheep.” I can think of plenty of other occasions where Jesus doesn’t jump in and save the day but instead empowers his followers to do it. As he says in John’s gospel, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

What if the Second Coming has already happened in the form of Pentecost? What if, when the Holy Spirit was poured out and spread around, God was saying, “Ok, kids. Here’s all you need to make my kingdom real here on earth. Now, get to work.” What if Jesus is waiting on us to enact peace in this world? We have to laugh, right? My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Huh! Then he’ll be waiting until Jesus comes!” What if fixing this world isn’t up to Jesus, but up to us, or better yet, up to the Jesus in us? Sounds insane, right? But think about it. Isn’t that what the gifts of the Spirit are all about? Isn’t that what it means to be made in God’s image? We have the gifts, we have the tools, we have the motivation, and God knows, we’ve created the mess. It’s time to get to work.

We do that by taking what has been given to us – the living water of Jesus Christ – and offering it to those around us who are dying of thirst, literally and spiritually. There are people in our midst who are thirsty for acceptance, thirsty for justice, thirsty to know that their lives matter. There are people parched from addiction and oppression, people who live in deserts of poverty and hunger, people who whose throats are like sandpaper because their voices have been silenced. This is a thirsty, thirsty world.

And we have water. Don’t we? “Let everyone who is thirsty come,” Jesus says. That is an invitation to each of us, to come to this table and drink the living, life-saving water of Jesus Christ. But this water wasn’t just poured out so we might be quenched. This water is for the world, and we hold the hose. We control the spigot. We hold the wrench to the fire hydrant. I’m running out of metaphors, but you get the picture. They are thirsty and we have the water! We can offer them cups of cold water by looking in their eyes, by speaking words of encouragement and hope, but serving them lunch, by sharing our abundance, or by literally taking them jugs of fresh, clean water.

Is Jesus coming again? I honestly don’t know. I hope so, because we could sure use him right now. But the Bible says no one knows when that’s going to happen. So instead of waiting for Jesus to come and set things right, how about we do it. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Empowered by the Holy Spirit, enlivened by the resurrected Christ, and gifted with life by our gracious God, find someone who is thirsty and offer them something to drink. “Come, Lord Jesus!” He’s here. He’s here.

 

 

 

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This Week’s Sermon – Poof!

SCRIPTURE – Acts 8:26-40 – 26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[g] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”[h] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[i] baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

SERMON
Poof!
Acts 8:26-40
April 29, 2018

The English newspaper “The Guardian” ran a contest a few years ago to pick the favorite English word. As you can imagine, there were a lot of entries, with words like “nincompoop” and “discombobulate” ranking in the top five. But the No. 1 favorite word came from the original name for the island we now know was Sri Lanka. In 1754, writer and politician Horace Walpole wrote a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” From that story, we got the No. 1 English word “serendipity.”

Serendipity is defined as “the phenomenon of finding valuable things not sought for.” We’ve all experienced serendipity in our lives. We might call it “good luck” or “chance” or “fate,” but we know the unexpected joy of serendipity, like finding a $20 bill in the pocket of some pants you haven’t worn in a while or humming a song that then comes on the radio.

I was in Chicago last fall for a wedding, and several of my former youth group members and I sat around talking, reminiscing about the good times we had shared together and the good people we had spent them with. One person we talked about was Maggie, who had gone on a couple mission trips with us. Everyone had lost touch with Maggie and we wondered together where life had taken her. When I was getting ready to fly back to Lexington, I was walking down the concourse of O’Hare airport, one of the busiest airports in the world, and guess who I happened to run into. Michael Jordan! Just kidding. It was Maggie, her husband, and her newborn daughter. Poof! Serendipity, the phenomenon of finding valuable things not sought for.

Our story today from the book of Acts is a great example of serendipity. The apostle Phillip is minding his own business when – poof! – God shows up and calls him to go to a wilderness road that runs between Jerusalem and Gaza. Back then, there weren’t a lot of rest stops between cities, so when I say it was a wilderness road, I mean there wasn’t even a Speedway or Starbucks there. This was as deserted a road as you could find.

God’s call to Phillip is a reminder that God often calls us to the strangest of places. You just never know what God is going to call you to do, do you? Abraham is minding his own business and gets called to move. Moses is tending his sheep and gets called to Egypt. The disciples are busy casting their nets in the sea when Jesus says, “Follow me.” I was preparing to start a doctoral degree in communications when the idea of seminary popped up. You never know when God is going to call you or where God is going to put you.

I’ve been called to some pretty interesting places. Crestwood Christian Church comes to mind. I’ve also been called to some scary places. Hospital rooms. Funeral homes. Talk about desert roads, paths that lead through the wilderness. Have you ever been called to go somewhere you didn’t want to go? Maybe to a doctor’s office. To the bedside of a friend or family member. Even to church, where you have been called to serve and you’re just not sure if you’re good enough for the job. I wonder how Phillip felt when he got this call to meet the Ethiopian in the middle of the desert. Me? There? Now?

So Phillip goes and meets this Ethiopian eunuch, an official in the court of the Queen. It seems this Ethiopian has a serious problem, and Phillip is just the man to help him with it. The Ethiopian has been to Jerusalem to worship and on the way home has been reading the Bible. But he’s struggling to understand what he is reading. Really? He can’t understand the Bible? What’s wrong with him? This is SUCH an easy book to read.

When I was in high school a Christian friend of mine gave me my first Bible. I had never owned a Bible, much less tried to read it. So that night I propped up a few pillows, got a tall glass of water and set to work to read the Bible. It was the King James version, which is of course the original language of the Bible, right? Despite all the “thees” and “thous,” things started out well. Genesis is a firecracker of a book, lots of sex and violence and other stuff that, as a high-schooler, really held my attention. Exodus was pretty cool, some good special effects with the plagues and Moses parting the sea. I made it about halfway through Exodus. And then came these strange laws and obscure instructions. The Ten Commandments were OK, although as a teenager I questioned that “honor thy father and mother” part. But then I got to things like, “All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you. Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth. Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.” Huh? I remember thinking, “Who eats bald locusts?” And therein endeth my first attempt at reading the Bible.

What I learned from that experience, and what the Ethiopian confirms for us, is that reading the Bible can be hard. This is the primary revelation of God, and yet it’s so darn thick. If it were easy to understand, we’d all know exactly what to believe, wouldn’t we? The reason we have all these denominations is that one person reads the Bible and says, “It obviously means this” and another person reads it and says, “I beg to differ, I think it means this” and then the first person says, “No it doesn’t, you idiot” and before you know it fingers are being pointed and punches are being thrown and then I have to step in between these two nice ladies to separate them.

The Bible is not easy to understand – sometimes its obscure or complex or even boring – and trying to understand it can frustrate us, confuse us, make us feel like we’re not good enough. And when that happens, we have two choices. First, we can just give up, like I did. We can say “This is too hard! I don’t get it.” That’s an understandable response, but then that means we’re willing to let others decide for us what we should believe. “I don’t have time to figure out my faith for myself, so I’ll just believe whatever I read on Facebook.” The other option is to do what the Ethiopian did. He kept reading, and asking, and looking for God to show up. And when Phillip magically appears, the Ethiopian doesn’t say to Phillip, “Just tell me what to believe.” He said, “Help me understand what this means.”

That’s what happens when we persevere through the challenges of having faith. Following Christ isn’t easy; in fact, it can be really, really difficult. Sometimes I feel like it would be easier to ditch the whole “belief” thing and just do what I want. But if I did that, I would be removing from my life the opportunity for divine serendipity, those sacred moments when – Poof! – God shows up when you least expect it and, before you know it, it’s Easter all over again.

Phillip and the Ethiopian are reading scripture and Phillip is telling him about Jesus, and lo and behold, scripture says, “As they were going along the road” – the desert road, mind you – “they came to some water.” That’s not typically something you find on a desert road. If the Bible had said, “they came to some sand” or “they came to a cactus,” I’d believe it. But water? In the desert? The phenomenon of finding valuable things not sought for. That’s serendipity.

You see the pattern here, right? The Ethiopian tries to read the Bible, he doesn’t quite get it, he perseveres and asks for help, God serendipitously sends him the right person at the right time, and the Ethiopian says, “There’s water for baptizing, and here I am.” He has a life-changing experience. You just never know where God is going to show up, but to see God, you have to keep looking for God.

On Friday, March 2, 2000, I was traveling on my own desert road, lying in a hospital bed awaiting what would eventually be my MS diagnosis. Like the Ethiopian, I was searching for answers and not finding any. I closed my eyes and screamed silently at God that I didn’t understand, and when I opened them – Poof! – there stood Rick. Now, I imagine most people in Rick’s position would have assessed the situation and politely excused himself. It was obvious I was in a lot of distress, and the last thing I wanted was a visitor. But Rick stayed.

Two months earlier, Rick had lost his wife Linda to pneumonia. She was a sweet lady, only in her 40s, and beloved by the church. Rick had shown incredible strength during the whole ordeal, and was an inspiration and comfort to us when we were supposed to be doing that for him. So there Rick stood, hands in his jacket pockets, watching me process my news. I tried to gather myself as best as possible and but on my hospitality face, but Rick didn’t care. He simply said, “Kory, God sent me.”

“Did you know,” he continued, “that Linda was in the room right next to this one before she died? I pulled into the parking lot tonight, and I didn’t think I’d be able to come in. But God told me to, he said I had to see you. So I came in the hospital. But when I got on the elevator, I couldn’t bring myself to push the button for this floor, for Linda’s floor. But I had to. And then I saw your room, and I saw her room, and I knew I couldn’t walk into a hospital room again. But God told me it would be OK. So here I am.”

I didn’t know what kind of journey I was facing in my life, but I couldn’t imagine it being any more difficult than the journey Rick had just made to see me. I remembered my prayer, “God, what do I do?” And I remembered Rick’s words, “God told me it would be OK. So here I am.” In the midst of my darkness, Rick walked again through his own wilderness experience to bring me a refreshing word from God, like finding water in the desert.

Having faith isn’t always easy. Sometimes you don’t feel like praying or going to church. Sometimes the Bible is boring or complex. Sometimes it’s easier to stay quiet than to speak up. But we don’t do any of this faith thing alone. God puts people in our lives to help us navigate the desert roads of our faith and lead us to the living water of Jesus Christ. You just never know when and where God is going to show up – in O’Hare airport, on a desert road, in a passage of scripture, in a hospital room. We are simply called to wait, to watch, to listen, to expect that God’s promises are true and that God will show up. And when that happens, all we have to do is say, “Here I am.”

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This Week’s Sermon – Rise and Shine!

SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 60:1-5 –

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
    they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
    and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
    your heart shall thrill and rejoice,[a]
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
    the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

Luke 24:36-49 – While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”[l] 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.[m]41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah[n] is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses[o] of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

SERMON
Rise and Shine!
Luke 24:36-49
April 22, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I’m not a morning person. I’m a tried-and-true night owl. In fact, when I was younger, I didn’t realize the sun came up before 9 a.m. I figured it got up when I did. I swore coming out of seminary that I would not go to a church that had an early morning service. My first church had an 8 a.m. service. God was amused, I was not.

I’ve always struggled with getting going in the morning. In my freshman year of college, I actually failed a geography course because it met at 8 a.m. and I simply stopped going because that was too early to try and remember the capital of Zimbabwe. I deliberately chose my first job at a newspaper because my hours started at 4 p.m., which gave me just enough time to get up, shower, and eat breakfast before I had to be at work.

I’m convinced the Bible is biased against night owls because it constantly talks about the benefits afforded to early risers. For example, Psalm 30 says, “Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” I know some people who rejoice quite heavily in the night and then weep in the morning, but I don’t think that’s what the psalmist was talking about here.

As I’ve aged I’ve been forced to reckon with the fact that the day does start before 9 a.m. and that there may actually be some benefit to being awake for it. Among the decorations in our house, we have two signs, one at the bottom of the stairs and one at the top. The sign at the top, which we see on our way to bed each night, says, “Good night, sleep tight, sweet dreams.” And the sign at the bottom of the stairs, which we see on our way down each morning, says, “Rise and shine and be happy.” Sometimes, I’m lucky to accomplish one of those three. While I may rise, I may not shine, and I definitely am not happy about it. But both of our scripture passages today remind us that we were made for something more than just getting up in the morning and going to bed in the evening. We were made to change the world in the time in between.

We are in the middle of our Time and Talents Stewardship Campaign. Each year around this time, we take a few weeks to remember that God has given us all gifts and we are called to be stewards of those gifts. In the fall, we focus on our financial gifts, and in the spring, we look at the gifts we have of time and talent. To steward something means to manage or look after something that belongs to someone else. So if we are stewards, which the Bible calls us, we have the responsibility of managing the gifts God has given us, using them in a way that gets the best ROI.

Do you know that acronym? I didn’t until a few years ago. I thought it was the French spelling of the name “Roy.” ROI is a financial term and means “return on investment.” For example, when you’re putting money in stocks or bonds or other stuff you put money in, your choice is determined by which one will give you the maximum results. What will give you the best return on your investment? God’s promise to us in scripture is true: each of us has been given a gift to use. As Paul says in I Corinthians, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” In other words, you’ve been given a gift to use for the good of others, and God is expecting a good return on God’s investment.

That’s what the risen Jesus is reminding the disciples in our reading from Luke today. It takes place on Easter evening, as the disciples are still trying to make sense of what has just happened to Jesus. When they went to bed last night, he was dead. This morning, there are rumors he’s alive. Rise and shine, indeed! Just a minute ago they had been wrestling with the fact that Jesus’ body was missing, and suddenly the missing body is standing among them, breathing and talking and offering peace and ordering a fish fillet.

But before the crumbs can even fall from his beard, he has a few after-dinner remarks to make. He expounds upon the scriptures and says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that rpentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Jesus is saying, “God has invested in you by sending me. Now, it’s time for you to provide a return on that investment.” In other words, God has done what Jesus said God was going to do: God has raised Jesus from the dead. Now it’s our turn to do what we said we were going to do when we made our confession of faith or were raised from the baptismal waters. It’s time to rise and shine.

We do this by following Jesus’ command to be witnesses to what we’ve seen and heard. That might seem strange, since we haven’t really witnessed anything. Any of you there when the stone was rolled away? Did anyone grab a selfie with Jesus as he walked out of the tomb? All we know is what we’ve been told by a 2000-year-old book. How can we testify to something we didn’t personally witness?

Because someone did witness it. Once there existed a real, flesh-and-blood group of people who said, “We saw him. We saw his hands and feet. We saw him eat. We heard his offer of peace.” And those people told others, who told others, who wrote it down, who passed it on, who lived it out, and now we hold it in our hands and our hearts. We stand on the shoulders of the disciples, who saw with their own eyes what we know in our hearts to be true, and then lived it out in ways that changed the world.

But it’s not completely accurate for us to say we haven’t witnessed the presence of the living Christ, because we have. We haven’t heard him say, “Peace be with you,” but we’ve seen the power of his reconciling love and his ability to help heal divisions. Although he may not appear in bodily form and share a meal, his presence is tangible in soup kitchens, and around our kitchen tables, and around this communion table.

We have witnessed Christ in our midst and must continue to do so by how we use our gifts. Father Hugh Burns says, “The place to look for Jesus is in our need. Look for him in our pain. Look for him in the boredom. We will find him right in the middle of our sickness, nestled in the darkness of our depression, in the loneliness and anger of a divorce or a child gone astray. It is only in our weakness that we will ever know the power of Jesus’ resurrection. It is only in the ordinary moments of life that we can experience an extraordinary gift that his risen life can give us.” And when we do, we are witnesses, call to share the good news of repentance and forgiveness with all the nations.

In other words, we are called to rise and shine. We are called to rise to the good news that nothing can separate us from God’s love, and then to shine our lights into this dark world. By doing so, we are following the example of Jesus Christ, who was called to rise from the darkness of violence and death, and to shine the light of resurrection and hope out from the tomb and into this dark world. Every time we use our gift to serve someone else, we are being a witness to the presence of the risen Christ among us.

But we miss those opportunities, don’t we? We don’t always provide God a good return on God’s investment in us, mainly because we’re not paying attention. I was at an amusement park once, and to get to the top of one of the rides, you had to climb a winding wooden staircase that was at least 150 stories high. I’m a scared of heights, so that may be a slight exaggeration. I finally made it, and do you know how? One step at a time. I kept my head down and my eyes focused on the next step. I never looked up, I never looked around me. I stayed focused on the next step. Sure, I missed a gorgeous view of the park, but I also made it to the top safely with my lunch still on the inside.

I’m glad Isaiah wasn’t behind me on these steps, because listen to what he tells the Israelites when they are facing their steepest challenge of returning to their homeland after being  in exile: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Lift up your eyes and look around.”

No way! Are you kidding? Then I might realize how high up I am, I might see the dangers all around me – the rickety staircase swaying in the wind, the hard concrete sidewalk 150 stories below me. I’m keeping my head down. That’s a tempting approach to surviving life. Keep your head down. Stay focused on the next step ahead of you, the next task ahead of you, the next day ahead of you. Don’t look up, because what you might see may be too scary – children growing up, your body getting older, relationships changing. Keep your head down. Focus on getting through today. Don’t look up. But what opportunity might we miss if we do that? There is tremendous need all around us, tremendous opportunities to serve others, if we would only look around.

I’m a part of a movement here in Lexington called LexGiveBack. This week, we’re encouraging everyone in our city to do an act of compassion for someone else for the purpose of raising the level of kindness in Lexington. I was at Chocolate Holler a few weeks ago, and had just set some LexGiveBack cards on the counter. A minute later I saw a little girl, probably five or six, go up to the counter and take one of the cards. She brought it back to her mom, and they read over it. “What does it say, Mommy?” “It says we should do something nice for someone else.” “Oh, I want to do that!” I eavesdropped as they started brainstorming together ideas of what they can do during that week. The little girl got excited and suggested picking up trash around their neighborhood and making “No Littering” signs. This little girl looked around, saw a need, and is doing to meet it. To quote Shakespeare, by Willy Wonka, “How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

God created us, God granted us gifts of generosity and teaching and leading and service, and then God invested in us, going all in by sending Jesus to us. And now, we are the witnesses to these things, the good news that Christ is alive and has something to offer through us if we are willing to rise and shine. Rise and shine to the joy of teaching our children. Rise and shine to the blessing of visiting someone who is lonely. Rise and shine to extending God’s grace to local and world outreach ministries. Rise and shine to offering a hand of greeting or a communion tray on Sunday morning. Rise and shine to helping us care for our facilities, to helping us offer opportunities for fellowship and learning, to lifting up songs of praise and thanksgiving. You have a gift. God has invested in you. God has put everything God has into you, trusting that you will provide a good return on that investment. Join us in the joy of serving God! Rise and shine!

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Practicing Our Faith sermon series – #6: Practicing Dying Well

SCRIPTURE – Romans 14:5-9 – Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

SERMON
Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series
#6 – Dying Well
March 25, 2018

I’ve preached a lot of funeral sermons in my career so far. Some of them have been incredibly difficult, like the funeral sermon for the little Emma, a two-year-old who died of a brain tumor. Others have been moments of celebration, like the funeral sermon for Jeanne, a pillar in a previous church I served. But the most challenging funeral sermon I ever preached was for a man named Stan.

Stan’s funeral sermon was challenging for two reasons. First, Stan was an ornery son-of-a-gun, bless his little heart. It was hard to find a lot of people who had something nice to say about Stan, and I’d had my own run-ins with him. Many people who knew Stan echoed Mark Twain, who said, “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” As I started to write about Stan, I realized that I may just have to make stuff up. The second reason that Stan’s funeral sermon was so tough was that Stan wasn’t dead yet. This was an assignment in my seminary preaching class, to preach a funeral sermon on someone that we would have trouble eulogizing.

As I was working on this assignment, a thought struck me that still nags at me to this day. What if this assignment is given 50 years from now to a seminary student? The student is told to write a funeral sermon about a person for whom it would be difficult to come up with five minutes of positive material, and the person the student chooses to kill is…me? What if I’m Stan for someone else? Am I living my life and following my Savior in such a way that when I die, the preacher won’t have to make stuff up?

Today we conclude our sermon series called “Practicing Our Faith.” We embarked on this journey with the understanding that faith is not something we have, it’s something we do, and in order for us to get better at it, we have to practice. We’ve looked at several different aspects of faith – like honoring our bodies and offering forgiveness and healing – to see how practicing these things will make us better followers of Christ. You can find those sermons on our website if you missed them.

Our last practice is dying well. I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed that the sanctuary isn’t filled to overflowing with such a sexy sermon topic. I mean, really, who doesn’t want to talk about dying? Well, if we’re honest, none of us do. The topic of death is a real conversation-killer, so to speak. We don’t like to hear about it, we don’t like to talk about it, and we sure don’t like to be reminded that it’s going to happen, either to us or our loved ones. So, thanks for showing up today.

Of course, the irony about our reluctance to talk about death is it’s the one thing we all have in common. Unless you were born in a manger and crucified on a cross, I’m pretty sure that you are doing to die. So am I. The last time I check the polls, the mortality rate of Americans still stood at 100%. Same for Iranians and Nepalese and everyone else on the planet. It happens every day. Since I’ve started preaching this sermon, dozens of people have died, hopefully not from listening to me preach this sermon.

It’s almost comical what we’ll do to avoid talking about death. I once called on a person who was very sick in the hospital to see how they were doing. When I got to their room, it was empty, so I asked a nurse where the patient was. She paused and looked down and said, “He’s moved on.” I said, “Oh, OK. What’s his new room number?” She shuffled her feet and said, “No, that’s not it. He’s transitioned.” I said, “You means he’s a woman?!?” No, she said, obviously not getting the joke, “He’s no longer with us.” I so wanted to say, “So, he’s in another hospital?” But I got what she said, so I simply said, “Oh, he died.” She nodded, her eyes on the floor, and quickly walked away.

I have a theory on why we don’t like to talk about death. It’s because we’ve made it so hard to accept that it’s going to happen. Back in Jesus’ day, when life expectancy was about half what it is now, death was more of a natural part of life because it happened sooner. Fewer babies survived infancy, fewer adults made it to old age, and so death was more accepted. But these days, we have all kinds of means at our disposal to prolong our life. When you can replace joints and take multi-vitamins and eat healthier, death seems like something to avoid, not something to accept. Like Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.”

Another reason we’re not comfortable with death is that we’ve removed the role of the church from helping us process death. In biblical times, a person’s death was a sacred time, seen as a time to both mourn and celebrate, and Jews set aside a 30-day period for mourning the dead. In modern times, death has been relegated to two institutions: the hospital and the funeral home. One treats death scientifically, the other treats it as a business. And, the cultural expectation is that once the funeral is over, life should return to normal.

But it never returns to normal, does it? Life is never the same after a person dies. So, part of the practice of dying well is reclaiming the church’s role in helping people deal with death, either their own or that of a loved one. And that means helping them move through all the emotions that come with death, especially the move from lament to hope.

Lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow and it has deep roots in the Bible. Many of the psalms are psalms of lament, expressing despair or sadness and asking for God’s comfort and assurance. Lament is such a universal human condition that even Jesus experienced it. We all know the shortest verse in the Bible is, “Jesus wept,” but do you know why he did? While out of town, Jesus learns that his good friend Lazarus has died. Even though Jesus knew he was going to bring him back to life, when Jesus arrived on the scene and saw the intense sadness of Lazarus’s friends and family, the Bible tells us, “Jesus wept.” As Christians, we can only acknowledge the good news of Easter if we walk through the anguish of Good Friday.

But, as followers of Christ, we can’t stop at lament, because belief in Christ is our source of hope, even and especially in the face of death. Easter is coming, and it brings with it the promise that death is not a period for us, but a comma, as we move from the old way of living to the new one. When I do a funeral, I try to set the stage at the beginning by acknowledging that we gather to both mourn and celebrate, to look backward in remembrance and forward in hope. Funerals don’t erase the fact that the person has died, but they remind us that death isn’t all there is.

This is where we as a community of faith can practice and participate in the art of dying well, because dying well is less about the person dying than it is about the people who surround that person in those last sacred moments. Because we all know that not every death is a good death. Not everyone dies peacefully in their sleep at a ripe old age. Too many lives are ended too soon, too violently. This practice doesn’t hold a magic formula for transforming premature, tragic or unjust deaths into good deaths. I fully acknowledge the fact that not every death is a good death, but I believe God can work through every death to bring about good. If the church has nothing to say to the grieving parent or family of the slain soldier, then it has nothing to say.

So for us, the practice of dying well speaks to the way we talk about death and caring for the person before and after their life ends. I was at Temple Adath Israel recently, one of our local Jewish synagogues. They have a huge wall that has on it a plaque for each person in their congregation who has died. Each plaque has a lightbulb attached that is lit during the month of the person’s birth. It was powerful to stand in front of that wall and read the names of those whose lights were shining, as if to say, “Don’t forget me. I’m still here.”

That’s really at the heart of the practice of dying well. When we do this as a faith community, we ensure that a person’s spirit lives on within and around us, even though their body has given out. We promise to each other that, when we die, the church will gather to celebrate our life and mourn our death, and we are confident that the community will care for our family through prayers and visits and casseroles, that we will be remembered with white roses on the altar and having our names read on All Saints Day.

I mentioned Jeanne earlier in my sermon. During her last days, she laid unconscious in a hospital bed in her home, cared for by Hospice nurses and surrounded by her husband, Tom, and their two daughters. I was over at their house one afternoon, the four of us sitting around Jeanne’s bed, each person holding her hand or stroking her hair. We sat around for a couple hours, telling stories, sharing memories, laughing about Jeanne’s stubborn personality or crying over special memories. The Hospice nurse arrived, took Jeanne’s pulse, and said quietly, “She’s died.” None of us knew. But I found comfort in the fact that the last thing Jeanne heard was the laughter and the tears and the stories told by her family, a beautiful and holy litany that helped carry Jean to her home with God. It made me think of the quote from writer Annie Dillard, who said, “I think the dying pray at the last not ‘please’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door.”

Not all deaths are as peaceful. In fact, most aren’t. Dying for most of us will be a messy, painful business. We cannot expect to die well in the biological sense. I’m with Woody Allen, who said, “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But through the love of our family, through the care of our church, through the promises of our savior, we can trust that what awaits us is nothing short of the resurrection shown to us through the empty tomb.

We can start practicing this today by how we choose to live, because dying well starts by choosing to live well, to live out all the practices we have talked about. You realize that we’ve already died, at least in a spiritual sense, right? When we were baptized, we were counted as dead to sin and alive to Christ. Each day, we are called to die to the things the separate us from God and to live into the promise of new life received at our baptism. Each day is a day to die well in order to live well, so that when we come to the end of our earthly life, our pastor doesn’t have to make stuff up about us for the funeral.

In the story of Lazarus, Mary says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

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Practicing Our Faith sermon series – #4: Practicing Forgiveness

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 18:21-22 – 21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

SERMON
Practicing Our Faith sermon series
#4 – Practicing Forgiveness
March 11, 2017
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

Jesus had a lot to say about forgiveness, didn’t he? You know why he spent so much time talking about it? Because he knew we’re not very good at it.  He knows we are more inclined to follow the Law of Lamech. Ever heard of that one? Way back in Genesis  4, right after Cain and Abel, we learn about a man named Lamech, who was wronged by one of his neighbors. Probably put out the wrong candidate’s campaign sign. So Lamech says, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” Yes, Jesus knew what we humans were capable of when it came to a lack of forgiveness.

So notice how Jesus reverses the Law of Lamech when Peter asks about forgiveness. Mr. Brown-Noser tries to show Jesus just how merciful he is by suggesting a number of times to forgive someone that only a saint would consider. Seven! Whoa now, Peter, let’s not overdo it. But Jesus has something better in mind. Some translations of this passage have Jesus responding, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy times seven times.” That’s 490 times, if you’re keeping score. Which you shouldn’t be doing, which is the whole point of this scripture. Jesus isn’t giving us permission to get to our 491st moment of forgiveness and go, “Aha! Not THIS time!” Jesus is telling Peter that any number he thinks of is too low. Forgiveness is not a one-time event; it’s a way of life that must be practiced.

Forget about the 491st time, or the seventh time. For some of us, it’s hard to forgive the first time. That’s why we have to practice it. During our Lenten sermon series, we’re looking at disciplines of faith which take practice in order for us to grow in them. If we want our faith to continue evolving, we have to work at getting better at living it out. That’s not so easy with forgiveness. We can’t say to someone, “Pretend to insult me so I can practice forgiving you.” We can only practice forgiveness by actually forgiving someone, and most of us have a little bit too much of Lamech in us. It’s a lot easier to know that forgiveness is the right response than it is to actually forgive. On razor-thin gilt-edged paper, forgiveness sounds great. But to live it out in real life?

One of the reasons forgiveness may be difficult for us is that we don’t fully understand what we’re called to do when we forgive. Forgiveness is not condoning the behavior of the other person. It doesn’t mean excusing the action or pretending it wasn’t bad. If someone wrongs you, it’s still wrong, even if you forgive them. We are called to be forgiving, not to be doormats.

Forgiving is also not forgetting. In some instances, that would be irresponsible. A lot of times we can’t forget what someone has done to us. We forgive because we can’t forget. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean reconciliation. Yes, we are called to love, but that doesn’t always have to be at close range. It’s great if forgiveness does lead to reconciliation, but sometimes the person we need to forgive is dead, or moved away, or no longer in our lives. Or maybe they’re not interested in reconciliation.

Those are some things forgiveness isn’t; but what IS it? Forgiveness is essentially about letting go. It’s about letting go of my right to hurt you back for what you’ve done to me. It’s about letting go of our desire for vengeance. That’s different than our desire for justice. I think I’ve told you before that in college, I worked for the school newspaper and once wrote an editorial questioning the need for our small school to have a baseball team when that funding could be used elsewhere, like for the school newspaper. The week that article came out, I was playing in an intramural basketball game, and the referee was one of the baseball players. The first time I contested a shot, I got called for a foul. The second time I contested a shot, I got called for a foul. The third time, I just stood there and let the other person shoot, and got called for a foul. When I protested, I got a technical foul. Finally, I said to the guy, “OK, you’re obviously going to call a foul on me no matter what I do or say. In that case, is it OK if I just think something?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Good, because I think you stink!” I got a second technical foul, but at least I earned that one. At some point in that game, the referee moved from seeking justice to vengeance.

So forgiveness is letting go of our desire to see the other person suffer as much as they made us suffer. We might say that’s unfair, that they deserve to feel what we felt, but that’s the Law of Lamech talking, that’s exactly what we have to let go of. That’s the kind of “eye for an eye” thinking that Jesus reinterprets when he calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He didn’t say we should pray for them to only get phone calls from telemarketers or gain 50 pounds. We can’t let go if we’re still holding onto a desire for payback.

There’s something else forgiveness is – forgiveness is costly. It’s scary to lay down your grudges, to trade in your pride and your power. After all, one of the great benefits of having an enemy is that you get to look good by comparison, right? Mary Gordon wrote, ““To forgive is to give up the exhilaration of one’s own assailable rightness.” In other words, to forgive is to admit that not all the mistakes that were made were by the other person. It means seeing the other person as more than their errors. Sure, they make mistakes, at times they are weak, insensitive, confused, and in pain. They’re faulty, fragile, lonely, needy, and emotionally imperfect. In other words, it means admitting they’re just like us.

That assailable rightness can feel exhilarating, right? One writer said, “Of all the deadly sins, resentment is the most fun.” But the consequences of not forgiving can be self-inflicted wounds. Writer Anne Lamott said, “I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of the Christians who is heavily into forgiveness – that I’m one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay that way. In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

In practicing forgiveness, we willingly risk letting go of who a person was in order to envision a new future for who that person may be. It’s allowing for the grace of God to flow through us, saying to the other person, “I’ve made mistakes. You’ve made mistakes. I believe we’re both more than our mistakes.” And we do this, let’s remember, because God did it for us. God got so tired of forgiving us for each transgression, that God forgave us once and for all through Jesus Christ. Lewis Smedes wrote, “God invented forgiveness as the only way to keep his romance with the human race alive.” If God can forgive us for what we’ve done, is there a chance we can forgive each other?

Of course, we all know the hardest person to forgive is the one we see in the mirror. We can be our own worst critic, setting expectations unreachably high, then beating ourselves up when we don’t attain them. We create voices that remind us of all the things we have done wrong, replaying them over and over again on a masochistic loop in our brains. One of the greatest fears we have is the fear of not being good enough. If we feel we’re not good enough, we also can feel that don’t deserve forgiveness.

When we do that, we are usurping God’s role as merciful judge and putting ourselves in God’s place. We are taking a gift we have been given – God’s unmerited, unlimited grace – and rationing it out only when we feel as if we deserve it. We are forgetting the message we receive each week at this table that we are more than our mistakes, more than our bad decisions, more than our lapses in judgment. We can be so hard on ourselves, can’t we? Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves because we’ve done the best we can. Other times we need to forgive ourselves because we haven’t done the best we can. And all the time, we need to remember that we serve a forgiving God, who even forgives our failure to forgive, and encourages us to keep practicing.

We have to remember that Jesus talks a lot about forgiveness, not only because he knows it’s hard for us, but also because he knows it’s the only hope we have for finding peace in this world. As long as we hold grudges and wish ill will, we stifle the beloved community of God we are called to model. That’s why true forgiveness is not just about looking backward to the exoneration of guilt; it’s about looking forward to the restoration of community. It’s not forgetting the past; it’s making the bold statement that our future does not have to be defined by our past. It’s saying to the other person, “I love you more than this moment. You are more than this wrong. There is more to our story than this hurt.”

We are God’s child, loved and forgiven. No matter what you’ve done, if you sincerely ask, God will forgive you. Not just once or twice or seven times or seventy times seven times. We are so imperfect that God stopped keeping score a long time ago. So maybe we should do the same for ourselves and for each other. Maybe we should put down the score sheets and just take a walk, or make a phone call, or say a prayer.

Doing this well takes practice. We may try to forgive a few times, only to find ourselves smiling in delight when we see the other person getting a parking ticket or sporting a bad haircut. That’s OK. We all know that this life will give us plenty of more opportunities to practice forgiveness. But we have to work on it, or else the only person we’re hurting is ourselves. As one writer said, “Forgiveness is setting a captive free, and realizing the captive was you.”

There’s one more place in the Bible where Jesus talks about forgiveness. We say it every week. “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against.” Each week, when we say those words, we have a chance to practice forgiveness. And then each week, we have a chance to come to this table to be reminded that we have already received that which we have asked for. May God grant us the grace and courage to offer to others that which has been so freely, so graciously offered to us.

 

 

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Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series – #2: Honoring the Body

SCRIPTURE – Psalm 139:7-18

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

SERMON

Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series
#2 – Honoring the Body
Feb. 25, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

Today, we’re continuing our Lenten sermon series on “Practicing Our Faith,” in which we’re learning about different ways we can grow in our faithfulness and service to God and to each other through practicing aspects of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Today, we’re talking about the practice of honoring the body.

Does that make you feel a little nervous? “We’re talking about the body in worship? What if there’s a wardrobe malfunction? What if Kory says the word ‘uvula’?” When we start talking about our bodies, there’s a physical reaction of curling up and covering up, as if we are somehow ashamed of our bodies. And we most likely are, because our culture has taught us to be ashamed of them, especially if they are less than perfect.

That’s a far cry from what we read about bodies in scripture. You may think the Bible is only a spiritual, sacred text, too sophisticated and ethereal to talk about the body, but to be honest, the Bible is an earthy, fleshy text, and the role of the body is prevalent throughout it.

It starts in the first chapters of Genesis, where God scoops up a handful of clay, breathes life into it, and makes the first human. The story says God makes humankind in God’s image, meaning we are God-bearers, and we’re told that Adam and Eve were naked, but were not ashamed. Historically, the church has put so much emphasis on the original sin of Adam and Eve, which occurs in chapter 3, that we forget the original glory of God’s creation, including the human body, in chapters 1 and 2. From the beginning, the body was a part of creation that God called “very good.”

After God tried all kinds of ways to get us stubborn, stiff-necked people to pay attention and embody God’s love and grace, and after we continually let God down, God finally took the drastic measure of becoming a body in the form of Jesus. Jesus was God incarnate, a word which literally means “into flesh.” As the human embodiment of God, Jesus built his ministry on his relationship to other bodies – healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, releasing demons, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, blessing the children. Jesus’ lived a body-to-body ministry.

And we can’t forget the powerful symbolism of Jesus’ own body. On a tense night in an upper room, Jesus took an ordinary loaf of bread, tore it in half, and said, “This is my body,” transforming our understanding of what it means to break bread together. That body was then beaten, bruised, broken, pierced, and ultimately crucified, enduring more than any human body can take.

But we know that’s not the end of the story. Just as the bread was broken in order to make us whole, God took Jesus’ broken body and breathed life back into it, and Jesus came back to life, in spirit and in body. This is important to our understanding of the value of bodies. Jesus wasn’t a ghost; he had Thomas touch his pierced hands, he ate fish sticks with the disciples on the beach. Jesus was resurrected in the body because our bodies matter. They are who we are.

Paul interprets the value of the body when he tells the Corinthians, who are abusing their bodies with too much food and sex, that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. That really changes the way we think about ourselves, doesn’t it? Doesn’t matter if we’re shaped like the spire of a church or the Taj Mahal, our bodies are nothing less than temples where God’s Holy Spirit resides. Try using that next time you’re going through airport security. “Careful with that wand! This is a temple you’re dealing with.”

Somewhere along the line, the human body, a creation of God, lost its inherent value, becoming something to cover up and hide. The early Greco-Roman culture believed that the flesh was all bad and the spirit was all good, and so anything that brought pleasure to the body was meant to be strictly avoided. We became ashamed of ourselves, so much so that some folks go to great lengths to nip, tuck, trim down and puff up themselves to achieve the ideal body, as if such a thing even exists. We forget that we are made in God’s image and, instead of looking at ourselves in all our nakedness and vulnerability and seeing God, we see wrinkles, blemishes, too much here, not enough here. We see a reason to be ashamed.

An example of this comes from my favorite all-time comedy show, “Arrested Development.” There’s a character on that show named Dr. Tobias Funke who suffers from a crippling psychological disorder that affects every aspect of his life. Tobias is what is called a never-nude, meaning that he is never, ever naked. He’s shown taking a shower and lying in bed with his wife wearing his always-present cut-off denim shorts. It’s a funny way of making a serious point – we are ashamed of ourselves.

In modern times, the body has been more seriously devalued. The prevalence of sexual harassment charges and human trafficking show that we see bodies as commodities to be used, abused, traded, and discarded. We see bodies of immigrant children washed up on foreign shores and the bodies of high school students gunned down in schools. We look at bodies of different colors and hear voices with different accents and forget that they are made in God’s image, just as we are. We have become experts at dishonoring our bodies, which means we are dishonoring God’s body, too.

Church is one of the few places where we can come to hear a different story and experience a different understanding of the body. Think about all the ways our bodies are involved in worship. We stand and sit, we sing and pray, we shake hands and hug and pass trays to each other. I love watching the choir embody the anthem, or people smile when they sing the familiar line of a hymn, or the care with which the deacons pass the trays. And, of course, we break bread and pour a cup and take it into our bodies, transforming us into the body of Christ once again. That powerful act not only re-enlivens our bodies, it reminds us we are connected to every body, those sitting beside us, those sleeping under bridges, and those being tortured in refugee camps. In worship we aren’t just any body; we’re Jesus’ body. We’re God incarnate, called to take care of the body, ours and Christ’s.

So how can we reclaim the value of our bodies in a world and culture that sends us the contradictory message that we should be trying to achieve the ideal body while completely discarding the value of real flesh-and-blood bodies? It starts by regrounding ourselves in scripture, reciting to ourselves the words of Psalm 139, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by our God, and that, where we see imperfection, God sees infinite value.

This point is made beautifully by Stephanie Paulsell in her writings about honoring the body. She tells the story of Kate, who had a face full of acne a horribly embarrassing condition for a teenager. One day, Kate’s anguish over her appearance made her not even want to leave the house. Seeing how distressed she was, Kate’s father asked if he could teach her a new way to wash her face that might help her condition. Leading her to the bathroom, he leaned over the sink and splashed water over his face, telling her “On the first splash, say, ‘In the name of the Father.’ On the second splash, say, ‘In the name of the Son.’ And on the third splash, say, ‘In the name of the Holy Spirit.’ Then look in the mirror and remember that you are a child of God, full of grace and beauty.”

Bathing is one of the primary ways we can recapture the value of our bodies. It is in our nakedness where our sacredness and vulnerability meet. Stripped of all pretenses and coverings, we appear to ourselves just as God made us, even if it’s with a few more pounds or wrinkles. One of the most powerful moments of scripture is when Jesus bends his knee to wash the disciples’ feet, an act of radical humility and extreme servitude that evokes the cleansing power of baptism. Each time we bathe ourselves, we are rebaptized into the inescapable truth that we are loved just as we are.

Another way we can honor our bodies is through the power of touch. We know from scripture that touch was a powerful healing agent for Jesus. It still is today, because a timely hug or pat on the shoulder can remind us we’re not alone, even during the most difficult time. Not everyone likes to hug, and I certainly respect that, but I also know that a hug on Sunday morning may be the only meaningful touch some people get all week. I always make sure to hold someone’s hand when I’m praying for them in the hospital. At a time when their bodies are being poked and prodded against their wills, the power of skin-to-skin contact cannot be put into words.

I experienced this myself in a completely unexpected way. On occasion, I like to walk down to my local Catholic church on Friday to worship at the 5:30 p.m. mass. Since I work on Sunday mornings, I need my own worship time, and I’ve found it there. When it comes time for communion, I don’t partake of the bread and the cup. First of all, I’m not Catholic, and I want to honor their tradition. But more importantly to me, I’d rather share that sacred meal with my own church family. Instead, when the time comes, I go forward, cross my arms over my chest, and received a blessing from Father Danny, the priest. And I get something no one else in that church gets – he touches his thumb to my forehead, makes the sign of the cross, and pronounces a blessing. And each time, I can feel the divine electricity when that happens. That touch is a blessing to me far beyond what any words can convey.

This body is what we’ve got. We can try to change it, manipulate it, put in bionic knees or take out annoying cataracts, but this is it. It’s easy for us to take it for granted. After all, we’ve been looking at it our whole lives. But what would it mean for us to really honor it? Instead of hurrying through our bodily tasks for the day – bathing, dressing, brushing, freshening, tending, touching – what if we prayed through each one, giving thanks to God for what our bodies have done and for what our bodies can still do? God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image.” We have been created in nothing less than the image of God. Never take for granted that you were fearfully and wonderfully made. Thanks be to God.

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