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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Jesus, Friend of…Women

We continue our sermon series on the people with whom Jesus was friends by looking at the women Jesus encountered during his ministry.

SCRIPTURE – Luke 8:40-56 – Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. 41 Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.

As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. 43 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45 Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47 When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

49 While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” 50 When Jesus heard this, he replied, “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” 51 When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. 52 They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But he took her by the hand and called out, “Child, get up!” 55 Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat. 56 Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened.

Jesus, Friend of…Women
Luke 8:40-56
March 17, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

We continue our Lenten sermon series today, in which we’re looking at some of the groups of people with whom Jesus was friendly during his earthly ministry. We’re acknowledging right up front that, if Jesus were to come today, he probably wouldn’t hang out with us, but would be with people who live on the margins of society. In his time, that included the poor, the mentally ill, foreigners, the sick, children, and today’s group, women.

This isn’t incredibly shocking to us. What’s the big deal about Jesus being friends with women? You probably know that the culture in which Jesus lived and moved was patriarchal, favoring the power and privilege of men over women. Women were definitely considered lower-class citizens compared to their male counterparts. But that doesn’t mean Jesus couldn’t be friends with people of the opposite sex, right?

Wrong. If he was truly following the societal customs of his day, then Jesus actually couldn’t be friends with women. Or hang around with them. Or talk to them. The culture was not only patriarchal toward women, it was oppressive, and there were strict guidelines that dictated how men and women interacted. You know those unwritten taboos of society? Things like talking loudly on your cellphone in the doctor’s waiting room or taking 20 items into the “15-items-or-less” line at the grocery. You can do them, but there’s a social consequence for it. The same thing was true back then for men who associated with women in public. You just didn’t do those things.

The reasons behind these rules are biblical, which is sad, one of many examples of how the Bible has been co-opted and misused to support someone’s agenda. It goes all the way back to the creation story in Genesis, when God gives Adam and Eve the whole Garden of Eden but tells them not to eat from that one tree. The snake tempts Eve, who takes a bite of the fruit, thus sealing her fate as the perpetrator of humankind’s downfall. What we conveniently forget is that, after she takes a bite, she hands the fruit to Adam and he eats it, too. That means he was standing there the whole time and didn’t say a word. I think the serpent came to Eve instead of Adam because he knew who wore the fig leaf in that family.

Blaming Eve for disobeying God neglects the fact that, earlier in the story, Eve was created from Adam’s rib. As Matthew Henry wrote in his commentary, “The woman was not made out of the man’s head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal to him and near his heart to be beloved.” I also think she was created and given the name “woman” because God realized men were going to need someone to say, “Whoa, man!” Some things never change.

The demonizing of Eve set the tone for women’s roles in much of scripture and society. By the time you get to Jesus, women have been relegated to the roles of child-bearing and housekeeping, with hardly any presence in the wider culture. They were always supposed to be under the protection and authority of a man, either their fathers, husbands, or a male relative. Women had little access to property or inheritance, were only allowed in the outer courts of the temple, and were not allowed to divorce their husbands, although husbands could divorce their wives. One Jewish rabbinic law held that the testimony of 100 women was not equal to that of one man.

Thankfully, a lot has changed since those times and women overall hold a much higher place in society, but we have work to do. Women are still paid a fraction of their male counterparts in many industries. While more women have moved into executive leadership roles, the glass ceiling is still very much intact in a lot of places. And I can tell you plenty of stories about my female clergy colleagues who have received looks of shock and disgust when someone asked for the pastor and they responded, “That’s me.”

When we were pregnant with our first child, I really wanted a boy. Then we had our daughter Sydney and my heart grew 10 times its size. When we were pregnant with our second child, we lived across the street from a family that had two little boys. Let me correct that. They had two demons disguised as little boys. The more I was around them, the more I really wanted another daughter! And God blessed us with Molly.

As the father of two strong-willed, intelligent, independent daughters – they take after their mother – I see first-hand the gifts and graces women have to offer this world. I’m glad we’ve moved past the patriarchy of Jesus’ time. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem, because not all women are valued equally. The more vulnerable they are, the less presence they have in our society that values progress and productivity. I thank God for ministries like Step by Step that works hard to keep women on the margins from becoming invisible.

I was in a seminar last year in which the presenter was talking about different personality types. For each personality type, he offered a famous example. On his last one, he said, “I realized a few weeks ago that all of my examples are men. I should change that.” And my friend Tawanda, an African-American woman who is the executive director of the local Red Cross, said, “So, why don’t you?” If it was possible for this white guy’s face to get any whiter, it did. I admire Tawanda for her holy audacity, but it shouldn’t just be up to her to speak up when women are not fully represented. Jesus would have spoken up, but I didn’t.

That’s the same kind of audacity we see in our story today with the woman who touches Jesus’ garment in hopes of healing. Jesus’s power is pick-pocketed, and when he calls out the perpetrator, the woman falls down before him and proclaims to everyone there why she did it. Does Jesus get angry? He should, according to society. This woman, unclean because of her bleeding, not only touches him but then speaks directly to him in public. Instead of being indignant, he calls her “daughter” and says, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”

This is one of many examples of the respect and dignity with which Jesus treats women. He talks with them, like the foreign woman at the well. He heals them, like Jairus’ daughter. He receives their blessing, like the woman who anoints his feet. He even teaches them, a serious social taboo, like when Mary sits at his feet while Martha works. Jesus not only said, “Many who are first shall be last, and many who are last shall be first,” he lived it by putting first the very people that society had put last.

Jesus had good reason to do this because women were the lifeblood of Jesus’ ministry. The women are the ones who must understand Jesus while the male DUH-ciples are fighting over who gets to sit next to him in Heaven. In John’s gospel, it’s Mary who says, “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” The women are the ones who stick with Jesus. When Jesus is crucified and his disciples are fleeing to save their own skin, it’s the women who are at the cross with him. And it’s the women who receive the greatest news ever. Remember what I said about the worth of a woman’s testimony? In all four gospels, the first people to find out that Jesus has been resurrected are women. Even the disciples in Luke don’t believe the women about the empty tomb, claiming it was an “idle tale.” Regardless, it is women who become the first bearers of the good news.

One particular story highlights the esteem with which Jesus held women. While he’s eating at the home of a Pharisee, a woman from the street comes in and anoints Jesus’ feet with oil. The Pharisee criticizes Jesus for associating with such a “sinner,” but Jesus counters by admonishing the Pharisee for not offering him hospitality, and then honors the woman who did so. Drawing the Pharisee’s attention to the person who has extended him true hospitality, he says, “Do you see this woman?”

Do you see this woman? Most of us in this room have the privilege of being seen, and I hope we don’t take that for granted. But there are other women around us who don’t enjoy the same privileges, rights, and accesses that we do. Do we see them? The woman who is working two jobs to help pay bills while her husband is out of work. Do you see this woman? The single mother who’s been abandoned by her support system and is trying not to give in to the pressures of life. Do you see this woman? The teenager ostracized from her family because of her sexual orientation. Do you see this woman? The widow who doesn’t come to church much anymore because it’s too painful, and when she does, she sits alone. Do you see this woman? The lady in the traditional Muslim headdress who gets stares and jeers as she walks in the store. Do you see this woman? The woman of color who can’t stay silent at society’s injustices but can’t speak up for fear of being labeled a trouble maker. Do you see this woman? They are our sisters, just as much as the women sitting with us today.

I’m thankful to serve in a denomination that values the role and gifts of women. I’m honored to stand next to Rev. Trish Standifur as we lead worship each Sunday. I’m thrilled my daughters have gotten to see strong women serving as deacons standing at the table, as elders lifting up the bread and the cup, as ministers proclaiming a bold word from God. But it’s not only our daughters who need to see that. It’s our sons, too. They need to see women, not through the eyes of society, which glorifies certain types of women while demonizing others, but through the eyes of Jesus, who saw all women the same as men – created in the image of God, sinners worthy of God’s grace.

In our scripture today, when Jesus calls out the woman who touched his garment, she falls at his feet and proclaims to the crowd why she touched him. Through Jesus’ healing power, she finds her voice. If we are to be followers of Jesus, living as he showed us how to live, then we must also help women find their voice in this world that seeks to drown them out. Rather than accusing them of telling “idle tales,” we all would benefit from hearing them, listening to their stories, learning from their struggles, being inspired by their perseverance. As women continue to take on more leadership in our political system, both local and national, as women become bolder in standing up to sexual assault and male chauvinism, as women continue to claim their place alongside men as equals created in the image of God, may we follow Jesus’ lead, not standing behind them, not standing in front of them, not standing over them, but standing beside them, equal co-laborers in the kingdom of God.

 

 

 

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Jesus, Friend of…the Sick

We start our Lenten sermon series today called “Jesus, Friend of…” We’ll be looking at some of the people Jesus befriended during his time with us and how we are called to follow his example.

SCRIPTURE – Mark 1:40-45 – 40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus[t] could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

SERMON
Jesus, Friend of…the Sick – Mark 1:40-45
March 10, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

One of the standard provocative questions that we preachers are fond of asking says, “If Jesus were alive today, who would he hang out with?” We usually pause and squint for a more dramatic effect. We ask that because we want to point out that Jesus probably wouldn’t hang out with us, no matter how cool and hip and popular we like to think we are. In the gospels, Jesus hung out with misfits and outcasts and the kind of people that our kind of people didn’t hang out with. As much as we would like to think Jesus would be our friend, the reality is that Jesus was more likely to be friends with people who didn’t have friends like us.

For our sermons during the season of Lent, we’re going to spend some time with the people who were friends with Jesus – the sick, the poor, women, children, the mentally ill, and foreigners. Spending time with these folks may make us a bit uncomfortable, but that’s OK, because if we’re striving to do this faith thing right, then Jesus should make us a bit uncomfortable, calling us to go to places and associate with people that we would otherwise avoid. If these are friends of Jesus, maybe they should be our friends, too.

We start with the sick. Did you know that of the 678 verses in Mark, 198 of them are about miracles? Go ahead, count ‘em! I’ll wait. That’s about 30 percent of the whole book devoted to miracles. There are 18 different miracle stories in Mark’s 16 chapters, and 13 of those are healings. Obviously, Mark was fascinated with this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Of all the things he could report, and we have to imagine there was an endless supply of stories about Jesus, Mark chose to focus on the miraculous healing stories.

That highlights the fact that Jesus spent a lot of time with sick people. Some he sought out and others sought him out, but we hear over and over again about Jesus hanging with the blind, the lame, the people with withered hands and leprosy, and dead people, which is about the worst kind of sick you can be. Rather than shying away from them or institutionalizing them, Jesus spends time with them, treats them like human beings, and heals them.

One of my favorite movies of all time is “The Untouchables.” In case you aren’t familiar with the film, Kevin Costner plays Elliott Ness, who goes on a crusade against the evil gangster Al Capone, played by Robert DeNiro. Because Ness was so successful at thwarting Capone’s mob business and avoided several assassination attempts, he and his gang were called “The Untouchables,” people who were larger than life, who seemed to be above the natural pecking order. The not only upheld the law, they were the law. You don’t mess with “The Untouchables.”

Jesus is the Elliott Ness of our story today, a one-man crusade against evil. In the span of the first 45 verses of Mark, Jesus gets baptized, calls his supporting cast of disciples to help him, rebukes a demon, heals Simon’s mother-in-law, cures a whole crowd, preaches in Galilee, and then cleanses our leper, managing to mix in some downtime for prayer. Those who saw Jesus in action must have thought he was larger than life, that he was above the natural pecking order, that he was the law. You don’t mess with Jesus.

But there’s another untouchable in this story, and he in no way bears a resemblance to Jesus or Elliott Ness or any other hero. The unnamed leper is untouchable for a completely different reason. We don’t know if the disease he had was truly leprosy or some other skin ailment, but we do know his disease would have been visible to others: ulcerated skin, infected nodules with foul discharges, hair falling out.

We also know how people with skin diseases were treated in those days. The law in the book of Leviticus spends two whole chapters, 116 verses, detailing how to deal with lepers, including the intense and lengthy purification rituals that must be endured for a cured leper to be considered clean. Because leprosy was highly contagious, some people threw rocks at lepers to keep them at a distance. The leper had to announce his approach with the cry of “Unclean, unclean!” so people would know he was coming. By doing this, the leper was warning people not to come in contact with him, to stay away. The best way to deal with a leper was to not have to deal with a leper. You don’t mess with the untouchables.

But notice in our passage, we don’t hear the leper’s cry. He ignores the laws he is commanded to obey, not keeping his distance, not announcing his approach. He simply strides right up to Jesus, falls to his knees, and says what he knows to be true. “If you choose…you can make me clean.”

So there we have it. A meeting of the untouchables. Clean and unclean. Holy and unholy. Sacred and profane. Divinity and humanity. How will Jesus respond to this intrusion, this sick person who has invaded his space? Verse 41 is an interesting little word study. In the translation we read this morning, it says Jesus was “moved with pity” by this man. But other translations vary widely because the Greek word used here could either mean pity or anger. Some translations try to capture both sentiments, like the one that said Jesus look upon the man with “warm indignation.” Sounds like something you’d order at the Cheesecake Factory, doesn’t it?

I understand his pity. But why would Jesus look upon this man with anger? Jesus had just gotten away from a crowd of people wanting healing, so maybe he was angry to be confronted with yet another case. Maybe Jesus was upset that the leper didn’t follow protocol when approaching him. Maybe he was mad because the leper was putting Jesus in harm’s way by potentially contaminating him. Or maybe Jesus was angry because this man represented society’s unwillingness to touch those who most needed help, to treat the sick like human beings.

So, Jesus does something about it. Back then, if you touched a leper, you were considered as unclean as the leper was, and you were treated the same way. If you reached out to them, you became one of them. By touching this man, Jesus was in effect putting himself alongside the leper, taking on the same humiliation and limitations the law placed on the leper. Jesus was willing to risk his own health, his own status, even his own life, for this man. And what happens when the divine in Jesus touches the humanity in the leper? Healing happens.

And it’s not just a physical healing. The leper wanted more than a change in skin texture. He wanted to be made whole, to be restored in society, to be welcomed back into the world as a human being, not an untouchable. Even though he still must undergo the ritual purification, which Jesus instructs him to do, Christ has taken his brokenness, his physical and spiritual incompleteness, and made him whole. He is no longer defined by his sickness; he is once again a human being.

I don’t think we have any lepers with us this morning. I don’t see any ulcerating skin, no nodules with foul discharges, some loss of hair, but I’ll write that off as natural. Physically, we all look to be leprosy-free. Of course, looks can be deceiving. What looks on the outside like a disfigured, disgusting leper could really be a decent human being yearning for a chance to be whole. And what looks on the outside like a normal, healthy person could be someone suffering from emotional or spiritual leprosy. In the next chapter of Mark, Jesus will be criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He responds, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

By that definition, we’re ALL sick. We all have those discolored patches, the ones that omit a foulness that seeps into and infects the rest of our lives. There’s something in our life that keeps us from being whole before God. There’s someplace where we are incomplete. Broken relationships, hasty judgments about people, addictions, infidelities, pride, hatred, racism – all these things make us unclean, and we all suffer. Part of being human is admitting that we are sick and that we need healing.

And that’s what we have been offered. Through his death and resurrection, through the gift of bread and cup, through the gathering of this body, Christ has reached out his hand to us and offered a healing touch. When Christ’s divinity meets our humanity, healing begins again. Regardless of the afflictions and the seriousness of the symptoms, each week at the table we are told over and over again, “I choose. Be made clean!”

The irony here is that the leper is made clean by a touch, when such a thing is usually thought to spread uncleanliness. At the church I served in seminary, when the time came for communion, people didn’t pass bread trays. They passed the bread. The picked up the loaf, tore off a piece and handed the loaf to the next person. So, the cold germs from the person in the first row were shared with everyone else in their section. I don’t think that’s what is meant by “spreading the gospel.”

Reaching out makes us vulnerable. It puts us at risk. Jesus could have walked right by this person, ignored this need, not put his own freedom at risk. The man simply could have stayed sick. You don’t mess with the untouchables. And yet when Jesus looks at him, he gets angry at what he sees. And he does something about it.

Are there still untouchables today? I asked that question to a group of folks once and got this list: the homeless, Muslims, people of different races, Hispanic immigrants, the mentally and physically disabled, convicted felons. Each of us has our own list of untouchables. Who is it for you? Jesus shows us that behind the labels and stereotypes and our own fears are real human beings who are yearning for a chance to be whole.  And it’s our job to show them the healing touch of Christ.

But in order to bring healing, we have to get involved. We can’t just walk by and ignore the need while people go on being sick. If they are going to experience God’s healing love, it will come through us, the hands and feet of Jesus. We live out what we have received from Christ, the one who came to earth to dwell among us, who dared to touch us untouchables, bringing us hope and love and healing. Pastor Will Willimon says, “Jesus got what we got so that we may get what he has.” We’ve got it, thank you, Jesus. But now what? Do we not risk getting our hands dirty and just walk on by? That’s safer, you know. Cleaner. More convenient. Or do we reach out our hand, touch the untouchable, dare to make a difference in the life of someone this world has discarded? We’ve got what Jesus has given us – love, forgiveness, compassion, the resources to help. So, what are we going to do with it?

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The Ripe Stuff sermon series – Joy

SCRIPTURE – Psalm 30:1-5 –

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
    and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you have healed me.
Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
    restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.[a]

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
    and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
    his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

SERMON

The Ripe Stuff sermon series
#9 – Joy; Psalm 30:1-5
March 3, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

Have you heard of Marie Kondo? She wrote a nifty little book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and now stars in a Netflix series called “Tidying Up.” Kondo is an organizing consultant who goes into people’s homes and helps them get their lives in order. She’s a hoarder’s worst nightmare! On the TV show, one of her tricks is to have a person put all their clothes in one big pile and then, one by one, go through each piece and ask themselves, “Does this spark joy?” If it does, it stays. If it doesn’t, the person thanks the piece of clothing and puts it in a pile to be given away.

Leigh recently binge-watched the entire series and started Marie Kondoing our house. I was afraid to stand too still because I wasn’t sure which pile I would end up in. Some days I spark joy, but then there are those other days… I tried watching the show, but in the second episode, Kondo talked a man into getting rid of most of his baseball card collection. That’s when I learned that Marie Kondo is actually the devil. There are lines you simply do not cross, people.

“Does this spark joy?” What a fascinating question, isn’t it? I wonder what we would keep and toss out in our lives if we let joy by the determining factor. As we conclude our sermon series on the fruit of the Spirit, we’re going to look at the fruit that may seem easiest to cultivate, but which usually gets confused with other feelings and emotions. I saved joy for last because I thought we needed to end this series on a high note before we move into Lent next week. For the record, Lent does NOT spark joy for me.

The Bible talks a LOT about joy. It’s mentioned 52 times in the Psalms alone. Paul refers to joy 21 times in the course of his letters. One of the most well-known is in Philippians when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again I say, rejoice!” This is not a request; it’s a command! And Jesus makes his purpose clear when he says in John’s gospel, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” So, joy is fundamental to living the Christian life. One commentator said, “It’s a contradiction to God’s purpose to not be joyful.” Another person called a life without joy, “practical atheism.” That’s when you proclaim Jesus Christ with our lips, but don’t live our joy with our lives. And we ALL know people like that, present company excluded.

So, what is joy? The dictionary definition says it is a “feeling of great pleasure or happiness.” I completely disagree, because both of those words have worldly connotations that are antithetical to the biblical meaning of joy. Pleasure is a fleeting feeling, happiness is a fickle emotion, but joy is a disposition, a worldview we choose to take. In her book Outlaw Christian, author Jacqueline Bussie eloquently wrote, “Joy is when your morning coffee smells like fragrant possibility released from its husk. Joy is the feeling that the present moment is a tree you want to climb. Joy means loving others for the love they can give you rather than the love you want. Joy is gratitude so overflowing, it comes out the corner of your eyes.”

That’s different than pleasure and happiness. One of their main characteristics is that they are self-serving. After all, one of the founding principles of our nation is the individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And since then, we’ve been pursuing that with a vengeance in ways that have contributed to the socio-economic divide that exists in this country. We’ve been sold a fake bill of goods that pleasure and happiness equal joy. But they don’t. We feel pleasure when we get what we want, but we feel joy when others get what they need. Pleasure and happiness are externally motivated, but joy comes from within.

One author contrasts biblical joy with manufactured desire. He wrote that our culture instills in us desires that we think give our lives meaning. For example, we’re sold on the fact that more and bigger is better. Bigger houses. Faster computers. More stuff. But more of something doesn’t mean better. Comedian Dennis Miller once joked, “I saw where K-Mart was having a 2-for-1 sale on their suits. Hey, folks, two of junk is still junk.” It is, but then you have TWO of them! That’s always better than one, right?

As long as we buy into the myth that our joy is contingent upon what and how much we own, we’ll always be in pursuit of joy but never arrive. It’s called the principle of joy endlessly deferred. We know we’ll be happy once we get that one thing that we’re missing. But we get it, and then realize there’s a bigger and better thing that will really make us happy. So, we pursue that. And we forget that the person who dies with the most toys…still dies.

In the pursuit of all the things the world tells us are important – possessions, productivity, reputation – we miss the true joy that God offers us each and every day, the joy that comes from within but is always other-directed. The other day, Debbie, our childcare center director, was in my office asking a question and told me it was Crazy Sock Day at the center.  I happened to mention I had on my Star Wars socks and she said, “You should come and join us!” Immediately, I started thinking of all the things I had to do to be productive, so I began to decline, but she said, “It will only take a minute. And it will be fun!” This is a church, we’re not allowed to have fun!

So, I followed her to the center and join a class of two- and three-year-old kids who all had on crazy socks. We took our shoes off and sat on the floor and we all put our feet in the middle so Debbie could take a picture. One little girl sat on my lap and we wiggled our toes and bounced our feet up and down. Then Debbie said, “Would you like to read them a book?” Hmm. Go back to work or read a book to a group of preschoolers? The book was “The Foot Book” by Dr. Seuss. I don’t care how bad a day you are having, nothing will bring you joy like reading a Dr. Seuss book to a group of little ones. We giggled and made funny voices and rolled around on the floor – the kids did some of that, too – and at the end, all the kids gave me hugs. And to think, I would have missed that for the pleasure of crossing a few emails off my to-do list.

Erin Wathen writes, “Joy often comes spontaneously and without planning or manipulation on our part, which is ironic because we wind up spending much of our time and resources trying to arrange for joy to visit us.” The joy God offers us, the joy Jesus wants for us, has absolutely nothing to do with what you buy, what you own, where you live, what you drive, or what other people think about you. If those were factors in our joy, it would change faster than February weather in Lexington. Those things may affect our happiness, but they can’t touch our joy, because our joy comes from the knowledge that we are loved by the God who created the universe and coffee and crazy socks. We talked in Sermon Talkback about joy being an undercurrent that runs within us, bubbling up to the surface and bursting forth like a geyser when a friend calls unexpectedly to say “Hello” or a child emerges from the baptismal waters. Joy is the spontaneous response to God’s goodness all around us.

I used to work with a pastor named Nelson who lived out this God-given joy. His favorite saying was, “It’s a great day to be alive!” He said that every day. Even on his bad days. I would get frustrated with him because not every day was a great day to be alive, but it was to him. If it was raining outside, he would say, “Well, we’ll just make our own sunshine!” You couldn’t help but feel joy around Nelson because he radiated it. True joy is always other-directed.

And yet, in the challenges of life, it can feel totally absent, or at least conditional. Brene Brown writes about what she calls “foreboding joy,” the fear that if we let ourselves experience joy, we’ll get blindsided by disaster or disappointment. Saturday Night Live used to have a character called Debbie Downer who was the living embodiment of foreboding joy. Someone would say, “I’m getting a puppy!” and Debbie would say, “It’ll probably die within 10 years.” Brown says when we do this, we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test-drive for despair and we end up squandering our joy.

Our difficult times feel like the hardest times to have joy, and yet it is when joy is most needed and most present. Listen to the prophet Habbakuk express this unquenchable joy: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” I hate it when my fig tree doesn’t blossom. And yet, I have joy.

That’s what separates us as followers of Christ. We know that joy can be found in the midst of difficult circumstances, not outside of them. Some think joy can only be experienced by escaping the world’s cares and sorrows, and yet true joy can be experienced in the midst of them. Some of the greatest joy I’ve experienced has been at funerals where we have laughed and cried and told stories about a life well-lived. Henri Nouwen, the spiritual writer who gave up his professorship to work at a home for severely mentally disabled people, wrote, “My own life is this community has been immensely joyful, even though I have never suffered so much, cried so much, or anguished so much as at Daybreak.” Romans 8 says, “God is at work in all things to bring about good.” Joy is not the absence of something undesirable. It is the peace and presence of God with us at all times, working to bring good out of even the worst situations.

I was diagnosed with MS while I was in seminary and had to spend several days in the hospital for tests. It was not a time in my life that sparked joy. One of those days was a Sunday, so I had to miss church and youth group. That evening, I got a call from the nurse’s station to go down to the cafeteria. Cheryl, one of our youth sponsors, decided we should have our youth group meeting at the hospital. I sat there in my hospital gown in that sterile hospital cafeteria, eating potato chips and playing board games and laughing with my favorite people in the world. In the midst of those dark circumstances, it was a time so overflowing with joy that it came out the corner of my eyes.

Jesus does not promise us an easy life. But what he does promise us is he is with us in the midst of it, gently reminding us of God’s promises and God’s desire for us to be joyous. In that regard, joy is a choice we make each and every day. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Does the day hold potential problems or potential opportunities? Is it a great day to be alive, or is it just another day? If we leave it up to feelings and emotions, who knows? Happiness and pleasure are conditional, they exist because of something. But joy exists in spite of everything. Theologian Karl Barth said that, in the face of human suffering, the joy of a Christians stands out as a “defiant nevertheless!” That is my prayer for us. May our lives be a “defiant nevertheless” to all the challenges and obstacles in our path, and may every day be a great day to be alive, thanks be to God.

 

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The Ripe Stuff Sermon Series – Faithfulness

 

SCRIPTURE – Lamentations 3:19-26 –

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
    is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,[b]
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.

 

SERMON
The Ripe Stuff sermon series
#8 – Faithfulness – Lamentations 3
Feb. 24, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I’m a card-carrying word nerd, so when I hear a new word I love to share it with others. I have a new word for you today that you may not know. It’s “evanescence.” Do you know that word? There was a band at the end of the last decade called Evanescence. Great music, but I thought the name was made up. Turns out it wasn’t! “Evanescence” is best described by an example. My grandfather, my dad’s dad, died in 1997, about a month before my wedding. It’s been almost 21 years since I’ve heard his voice, and I’m not sure I know what it sounds like anymore. That’s evanescence, which means possessing a quality of vanishing or disappearing. A rainbow is evanescent. Fog is evanescent. I’m afraid many of my sermons may be evanescent.

I wonder if, in today’s society, faithfulness is evanescent. In a culture that encourages us to pride ourselves on not being tied down, it’s becoming harder to be faithful, to make lasting commitments. Think about the impermanence of the contracts we sign. We can switch cell phone service providers with no penalty. We can join a gym on Jan. 1 and quit on Jan. 31 with no consequences, at least not the monetary kind. There are very few things today that require us to sign on the dotted line and commit ourselves, and so the quality of faithfulness may be becoming a lost art. It is evanescent.

What does Paul mean when he calls faithfulness a fruit of the spirit? The definition of faithfulness is “trustworthy, honest, loyal, steadfast. ”The word appears over 60 times in scripture, mostly referring to God’s faithfulness to us. I’m not sure how many references there are to our unfaithfulness to God, but I’m guessing it’s some multiple of 60. We have a history of unfaithfulness to God, and yet, as Paul writes in 2 Timothy, “If we are faithless, God remains faithful – for God cannot deny Godself.” So, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way here at the beginning: we are not faithful to God. We try but we fail. A few chapters into the Bible and Adam and Eve have already disobeyed God and then Cain has killed his brother Abel out of jealousy and lied about it. Go one book further and the Israelites, whom God rescued from slavery in Egypt, are grumbling and complaining and worshiping a golden calf rather than the God that saved them. Are we any better today at not worshipping false idols? We are not faithful.

Then why should we be motivated to cultivate a fruit of the Spirit that we already know is evanescent, that is going to shrivel on the vine? If we know we’re not capable of faithfulness, how can Paul call us to live it out? This is one of many instances in scripture where we are called to be more than we are. Remember when Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect?” There’s about a 0% success rate on that one, and yet that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We’re not always going to be perfect in our faithfulness to God or to each other, but we can strive to be a little more faithful today than we were yesterday. Because, I believe when we are faithful to each other, we are faithful to God. So, trusting that God is faithful to us even when we’re not faithful to God, how can we do our best to live out the fruit of faithfulness in our lives?

Do you remember the game “Scruples?” A person would read a situation from a card, and then the rest of the players would vote on what they think the person would do. For example, a card would say, “Someone you really don’t like invites you to an expensive restaurant and offers to pay. Do you go?” Hmm. I would ask, “Is it a BBQ restaurant?” Or, “A friend asks you to write a reference for a job you feel they aren’t qualified for. Do you write it or refuse?” Hmm again. The person would write down their answer, and then the rest would vote. A person who has scruples or is scrupulous is someone who does the right thing, even when it might not be the popular thing. They are true to their character and to who God created them to be.

We used to be able to assume that about people, didn’t we? Our default setting for people used to be, “I’m going to assume the best about this person until they prove otherwise. I’m going to assume they’re honest and trustworthy. I’m going to assume they’ll do the right thing, and even if they don’t, I’m still going to give them the benefit of the doubt.” Talk about an outdated way of thinking! Can we make those assumptions today? Or do we lead with the expectation of unfaithfulness, untrustworthiness, unscrupulousness? If that’s not a word, it should be.

Our society has given us plenty of reasons to doubt people’s faithfulness. Did you know a properly made lightbulb could last 100 years? It’s true. But today’s lightbulbs don’t, and we can thank the Phoebus Cartel. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? The Phoebus Cartel was a group of early lightbulb makers, including GE and Phillips, we got together in 1925 and colluded to limit the life of a lightbulb by making the filament much thinner, which would mean consumers would have to buy lightbulbs more frequently, thus increasing the cartel members’ profits. The cartel had planned on keeping this scheme up for decades, but their plan burned out in 1939 with the start of World War II. If you can’t trust the people who give us light, who can you trust?

No, I mean it. Who can you trust? Can you trust doctors? Lawyers? Mechanics? Politicians? Clergy? We could all think of examples in each category of people who have proven themselves unfaithful to their calling, who have produced the rotten fruit of dishonesty, who have abused trust, who have not honored their promises. We’ve been conditioned to lead with skepticism and the expectation of unfaithfulness because our world tells us that’s the way most people are these days. Is that true? I don’t believe so. But we’re always wary, aren’t we?

That’s why cultivating faithfulness is so important today. Because if anyone should be able to be found faithful and trustworthy, it would be those of us who claim to follow God as shown to us in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 11 gives us a litany of people from the Bible who were reckoned as faithful – Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets. While none of them were perfect, they were known for their faithfulness, their steadfastness, their loyalty and trustworthiness. And that is how we should endeavor to be known, as well. Are we known for our faithfulness?

I ran into an acquaintance a few years ago that I hadn’t seen in a while. I used to read his blog on a regular basis but had fallen out of the habit. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings with that information, so I engaged in what’s called social lying, which means lying to avoid sharing a painful truth. I told him, “I really enjoy reading your blog!” He said, “Cool! Did you enjoy reading about my trip to Australia?” I said, “Well, I didn’t read it last week.” He said, “I was there a month.” I dug the hole deeper by saying, “Oh yeah! I forgot. Great blog posts!” Then, thinking I could tap dance my way out of this one, I said, “I can’t remember…did you go with anyone?” He paused and said, “Uh…it was my honeymoon.” Ok, so I got caught in a social lie. No big deal, right? But it is a big deal.

I remember when I was a kid I went to K-Mart with my aunt Nancy. As we were walking back to the car, she reached in her pocket and pulled out a packet of flower seeds. She had picked up the packet in the store and absentmindedly stuck it in her pocket instead of in the shopping cart. This packet probably cost $.25. I don’t think not paying for it was the cause of K-Mart’s downfall. Aunt Nancy looked at it, looked at me, and said, “I better go back and pay for this.” At the time, I thought, “Really? It’s a quarter! It’s no big deal.” But it is a big deal.

I rented a car a few years ago and found in the trunk a really nice pair of sunglasses. As luck would have it, I needed a really nice pair of sunglasses. No one would know, would they? The original owner could just buy new sunglasses. A few days later, Sydney asked me where I got my new sunglasses. I told her I found them in a rental car. She said, “Hmm. I bet the owner probably misses them.” Dang it. So, the next day I took them back to rental car place. The clerk looked surprised that I would return them, then opened up a drawer with about 50 pairs of sunglasses in it and threw them in. Keeping them would have been no big deal, right? But it is a big deal.

Part of being faithful means being the person God created us to be in the little things and in the big things. It means honoring the promises we make at our wedding and our baptism and when we dedicate a child, but also our promises to be fair, to be just, to be kind at all times. It means being steadfast in our commitments even when the quality of faithfulness seems to be fading away in our society. As one commentator said, “Our culture traffics in the impermanent and the fleeting.” Because of God’s unwavering faithfulness to us, we followers of Christ should stand out for the ways that we strive to be faithful to each other and faithful to the person God created us to be. The person sitting here in this church right now should be the same person making the tough decisions about how to be faithful out in the world. If we are only faithful followers of Christ in here, then we’re not really following Christ, we’re just letting him carry our stuff while we lead our own life.

Do you know the concept of muscle memory? It’s the idea that if you do something enough times, your muscles will learn the task and be able to perform it almost involuntarily. Riding a bike, throwing a ball, and playing an instrument all involve muscle memory. The best way to cultivate faithfulness as a way of life is to actively practice it each and every day. The more we strive to be faithful, the more it becomes a part of who we are and how we live, like spiritual muscle memory. We should cultivate faithfulness to the point that we don’t have think twice about returning some sunglasses or going back into the store to pay for something or honoring a commitment. Our faithfulness becomes a part of who we are.

When we falter, which we will, we can lean on the promises of scripture that God is always faithful. God will always offer us a second chance to learn from our mistakes and do the right thing, to live out our faithfulness each and every day. Let us never forget the words from Lamentations, which can serve as a balm for the broken promises made to us and made by us: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning.” Despite our wavering faith, we can trust the promise that great is God’s faithfulness to us.

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The Ripe Stuff sermon series – Peace

SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 2:1-4 –

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
    Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.

SERMON

The Ripe Stuff sermon series

#6 – Peace – Isaiah 2:1-4
Feb. 10, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

There are a lot of things people can get arrested for, but I’ve always that one of the most peculiar ones was disturbing the peace. Did you know the official name for that charge is “a breach of the peace”? Someone gets a little bit tipsy and starts a kerfuffle – or worse yet, a hubbub – or a music aficionado decides to blast their Celine Dion album a bit too loud on a Saturday night, and before you know it the police are at the door issuing a citation or, if the Celion Dion music is way too loud, making an arrest for “disturbing the peace.”

If causing a breach in the peace is truly a crime, we probably all should be arrested, because, at some point in our lives, we’ve fractured the peace that surrounds us. A harsh word, a judgmental look, a snarky retort, a door slammed a bit too hard out of frustration, and we’ve disturbed the peace. Are those crimes? Maybe not egregious enough to send us to the pokey, but certainly enough of an infraction to warrant a disapproving look or a sternly worded email.

But here’s my question: Can someone really be guilty of disturbing the peace when there is no peace? In our current sermon series, we’re looking at the fruit of the Spirit as Paul lists them in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. By living out these fruit, Paul says, we exhibit the Spirit’s presence within us and transform the world around us.

Like with most of these words, peace has several different definitions in scripture. One definition is inward-focused, as when Jesus tells us not to worry but to cast our cares on him. Another definition is upward-focused, like when Paul tells us in Philippians to let the peace of God, which surpasses all of our understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Both of those definitions of peace are supremely important and should be something we talk and pray about, but as one preacher said, “Different scripture, different sermon.”

What I want to focus on today is peace that is outward-focused, the kind Isaiah promises in our passage today. How do we follow Paul’s advice in Romans when he says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone”? Really, Paul? Everyone? Why couldn’t Paul have said, “Live at peace with people you like,” or “Live at peace with people who play their Celine Dion albums at normal volume.” But everyone? That may have been feasible in Paul’s time, but I’d venture to say it’s pretty much impossible today.

Which makes Isaiah’s prophecy seem desirable, yet so foreign to us. The prophet describes a world directly opposite of ours, a world that is peaceful because of the fairness and righteousness of the ruler, a world in which all creatures live in harmony. He talks about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and nations not going to war with other nations. That sounds so far-fetched for us that it comes across as naïve, or more like fantasy than reality. Can such a peace ever exist?

I have my doubts, and you probably do, too. One of the reasons is because our culture is saturated with a motif that we see over and over again. Theologian Walter Wink calls it the myth of redemptive violence, which tells us that violence saves, war can bring peace, and might always makes right. It’s a myth because it only works half the time. One side always loses. I would guess that about 99% of movies today that feature any kind of conflict perpetuate the idea of redemptive violence the good guys using violence to defeat the bad. I remember in high school watching the Clint Eastwood western “Pale Rider.” Eastwood plays a preacher who defends a small town from land-grabbers, and at the end of the movie the preacher shoots and kills all the bad guys. And I remember thinking, “Preachers can DO that? I want to be a preacher!” The myth of redemptive violence is all around us.

Our culture bombards us with so much violence that we have become numb to its presence. And I’m not just talking about the violence on TV shows or the evening news, although both of these contribute significantly to the problem. Think about how violence is in our everyday language. If we’re being efficient, we are killing two birds with one stone. Someone who wants to ride in the passenger seat doesn’t say, “I get the passenger seat!” She calls, “Shotgun!” We tell actors to “break a leg” and someone who pulls a fast one “gets away with murder.” If we’re trying to do something new, it may be a “shot in the dark” but we’ll “take a stab at it.” If it doesn’t work, I’ll “bite the bullet” and “roll with the punches,” even if it means I’ll “take a beating” or don’t get a “bang for my buck.” These may seem trivial, but their effect is cumulative, and it gives you an idea of how pervasive the concept of violence is in our culture.

So, how do we bridge the gap between where we are and where Isaiah calls us to be? How in the world can we live out the peace to which Paul calls us in a society that teaches us that even superheroes use violence to win and nobody watches reality shows where everybody gets along and is nice to each other? How do we break the cycle of violence in our lives and in our language and in our relationships and in our political system in order to bring transformation to a world that only knows swords and spears?

It starts by remembering that peace is a fundamental part of what it means to be a Christian. Paul says in Romans, “Make every effort to do what leads to peace.” Peter says in his first letter, “Whoever would love life and see good days must pursue peace.” I like these passages because they honor the fact that peace is elusive, that it takes an effort and we must actively go after in order to catch and claim it. If we sit around and grumble at how the world has gone to Hades in a handbasket but we’re not out there actively pursuing something different, then we’re part of the problem.

We worship the Prince of Peace, who calls us to live peaceably with others. But we’ve let the myth of redemptive violence supersede our faith and we’ve moved the pursuit of peace to the background. Here’s a good example. Most major faiths have as part of their lexicon a greeting which bestows peace upon the receiver. The Muslim greeting “Asalamu Alakum” and the Jewish greeting “Shalom” both mean, “Peace be with you.” But we Christians don’t do that. We have “Hello” and “What’s up?” We have the saying “Peace be with you,” but when I encouraged us to use it here a few years ago, people didn’t like it. “I don’t like being told what to say. It’s too Catholic.” Fair enough. But if we’re going to bear the fruit of peace in our lives, the word “peace” needs to be a regular part of our vocabulary, a blessing we bestow upon each other.

We also need to find what Walter Wink calls the “third way.” This the middle ground between fight and flight, between meeting violence with violence or passively standing by while peace is disturbed. Dr. Martin Luther King lived this third way in his non-violent resistance to racism during the Civil Rights Movement. Trish demonstrates this each time she prays for those serving in our armed forces and then prays for a day when they are no longer needed to serve in that capacity. She’s not praying that someone wins and someone loses. She’s praying for a world where nobody loses because nobody needs to win.

This is where it gets tricky. The myth of redemptive violence and the pursuit of peace clash against each other in some really messy ways. The death penalty. Our government’s spending on the military. Gun ownership. I can’t tell you what to believe about these issues, because we each must decide for ourselves. And in this case, the Bible only makes things worse. After all, David didn’t invite Goliath over for a cup of chamomile tea and a heart-to-heart talk. He killed him with a stone to the temple. And our savior didn’t die of old age, but in a brutal and bloody fashion at the hands of the Roman armed forces. So, we have to do the hard work of pursuing peace in a world that tells us it’s more important to draw lines than live love.

It’s hard to pursue peace when we feel fearful and threatened. It’s hard to pursue the third way when we’d rather lash out or hide away. But the Bible is clear: “Make every effort to do what leads to peace.” And we can do that precisely because Jesus died on the cross. He has shown us what God’s peace looks like, a non-violent resistance to the domination systems in our world. He didn’t fight back, but he also didn’t lie down. He called out those who perpetrated the violence, and in their shame, it was easier for them to silence him than look in the mirror. He responded to their hate, not with more hate, but with love.

So, it’s our turn. It’s our turn to combat evil without becoming evil. It’s our turn to stand up against violence without becoming violent. When the next school shooting happens – and we know it’s going to happen – let’s not only offer our thoughts and prayers, let’s offer our voices let’s offer our compassion, let’s offer the sacrificial love we have received from Jesus Christ to stop this cycle of violence. Let’s follow Jesus’ example of being less concerned about power and more concerned about peace. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get arrested for disturbing the violence?

Like I said, I know this is a difficult fruit to live out and you may not agree with everything I’ve said. That’s cool. So, let me close by letting someone else take the bullet for me – ah, there’s another one of those phrases! A wise man once said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” That’s radical, isn’t it? So radical that we nailed him to a cross rather than give up our swords and spears. Jesus didn’t have much to say about protecting our individual freedoms, but he had a lot to say about feeding the poor and taking care of the vulnerable. So, let’s commit to figuring out what that looks like in our lives, remembering that “whoever would love life and see good days must seek peace and pursue it.” And, as you do so, may the peace of Christ be with you.

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The Ripe Stuff sermons series – Goodness

SCRIPTURE – Luke 6:43-45 – “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.

SERMON
The Ripe Stuff sermon series
#5 – Goodness – Luke 6:43-45
Feb. 3, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I’m glad the Boy Scouts are with us today in worship, because I need some help with his one. In this sermon series, we’re looking at the fruit of the spirit as laid out by Paul in Galatians – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Today, we’re talking about the one that I think is the hardest to define: goodness. What is “goodness”? What does it mean to be “good”? The scouts have a law that might help us out here. A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. I’d say if a person lives out those qualities, they would be a good person. But based on the fact that “clean” is on that list, I may have to disqualify myself.

Is that what Paul meant by “good”? A lot of times we can dig into the original language for some help, but not here. The Greek word for “goodness” is only used two three other times in the New Testament, so it’s hard to get a contextual understanding of what it means. But on the flipside, the concepts of “good” and “goodness” are mentioned over 100 times in the New Testament, with several different Greek words being put to use. This happens a lot. In English we have one word for “love,” but the Greek had several, depending on the kind of love you’re talking about. We say we love our parents and we love hamburgers, but that’s not the same kind of love, unless it’s a REALLY good hamburger! So, when we say something or someone is “good,” what do we mean?

Let’s take a car, for example. I drive a 2007 Toyota Matrix with about 170,000 miles on it. What can I say, I like living in luxury! And to me, it’s a good car. What I mean by that is that it does what a car is supposed to do. It gets me from point A to point B and has caused me very little trouble. But someone who was hoping to haul bricks or move furniture would not think it was a good car. And an antique car collector wouldn’t think a 2007 Toyota Matrix was a good car. Maybe the concept of “good” is in the eye of the beholder. What makes something or someone “good”?

Good can mean “competence,” like “He’s good at soccer.” Or it can mean someone who follows the rules. “Be a good girl and eat all your vegetables.” Or it can mean a certain kind of quality of living. “They really live the good life!” Being good can mean a lot of things, but I think Paul meant more than competence or rule-following when he says that one of the fruit of the spirit is “goodness.”

I think what Paul means by “good’” is both a disposition within a person and how that disposition gets lived out. A person who is good has certain qualities about them. They have integrity, they do what’s right, they are authentic, they are genuine, they are transparent. Thankfully, nothing on that list about being clean! A good person may be hard to describe, but we know one when we meet one. Ben Buckley, who’s funeral was yesterday, was a good man. There are a lot of good people in this church.

But being good is more than about what a person thinks; it’s also about how they act. One commentator said that goodness is “kindness in action.” Goodness involves deliberate deeds that are helpful to others. A good person does things, even at their own expense, that promotes the happiness of others. A good person is upright, honorable, and noble. They have strong ethics and morals. They do the right thing even when it hurts.

I think I just described Jesus! Jesus is the only person I can think of that lived out all of these qualities. Not even Ben Buckley was perfect, and neither are we. In fact, according to Paul, we are anything but good, which throws a real wrinkle in our discussion. In Romans, Paul says, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul has a lot to say about the sinful nature and how we must constantly fight against it in order to do what’s good. You could say that our lack of goodness is the whole reason Jesus died on the cross, so that we wouldn’t have to suffer the penalty for not being good. But if goodness is such a struggle, why would Paul list it as a fruit of the spirit? Where can we get this goodness?

Some people look within for goodness, thinking that if they can just work hard enough, they can make themselves good. That’s the whole point beyond the miles of self-help books that are out there. I went to the bookstore this week to check out some of those books. I walked into the store and said to the clerk, “Can you show me where I can find the self-help books?” and she said, “Well, that would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?” The self-help movement would have us believe that if we just are mindful enough or do enough yoga or write enough in our journals, we can be good people.

Here’s the danger in that. If we do those things, we may start to believe that we can make ourselves good. And if we can make ourselves good, well, then who needs Jesus? We would still come to church, of course, but we wouldn’t come because we needed help being good. We Christians are so skilled at acting like we have it all together sometimes, like we’ve got this sin thing under control. And when we slip up, well, that’s between God and me. I’m still a good person. But what the story of the Bible tells us over and over again is that, in this epic narrative, we’re not the “good guys.” We’re the ones who rebel, who eat the forbidden fruit, who try to build towers, who whine and complain, who disobey God’s laws, who ignore the prophets, and who take the love made flesh that God gave us and nail him to the cross. We are not monsters. We are not demons. We are not mass murderers. But we are not good, either.

So, we can’t make ourselves good from within. But our goodness also cannot be determined by external factors. What does it mean to be good by worldly standards? In our punitive society, we can be good simply by not being bad. If we obey the laws, we’re considered good. When I was in high school, the police in my town started a program where, if they saw a car obeying the traffic laws, they would stop and give the driver cash. So, what did my friends and I do? We filled up our gas tanks and drove around town like little old ladies, stopping at every stop sign, going the speed limit, using our turn signals. Did that make us good drivers? Maybe, but as soon as the program ended, we were back to speeding and driving recklessly, like a teenager is supposed to do. We have laws that tell us what it is bad to do, but little guidance on what is good to do.

This being good stuff is hard, isn’t it? If we can’t make ourselves good, and being good in the world is only a legal requirement, how can we be good as Paul calls us to be? You would think we could turn to Jesus, but even that is a challenge. When the rich young ruler approaches Jesus with a question, the ruler says, ““Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus says to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” So, according to Jesus, only God is good. That seems like a pretty high bar to set for us, doesn’t it?

But remember this: we are made in God’s image. It tells us that right there in Genesis. So, if that is true, then that means we have within us the capacity to be like God, to reflect God’s goodness in our own lives. Paul may be right in that we struggle to live out the goodness within us, but there is goodness within us! Each one of us has the potential to be good like God is good. Paul writes in Ephesians, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” And he writes in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” And Jesus caps it all off when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” We do good when we let our light shine, when we illuminate the dark places in this world, when we offer a beacon of hope to those who can’t see what the future holds. When we give of ourselves so that someone else knows God’s love for them, we are doing good.

The best definition we have of doing good comes from Matthew 25. In his parable, Jesus says, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous (also translated as “good”) will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Doing good may seem like common sense, but as Paul points out, we have to be intentional about it, or else our selfish, sinful nature will take over. We can’t make ourselves good, so we have to rely on a source greater than ourselves in order to do the good works we were created to do. That source is the love and grace of God shown to us through Jesus Christ, who saved us from ourselves in order to be the people God created us to be. We don’t do good in order to be saved. We do good because we were saved. And every day, there are opportunities for us to do good.

I don’t know that we’ve made any progress today on understanding what “goodness” means. It’s one of those things that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Do people see goodness in you? Do they see integrity, authenticity, generosity? Do they see you do what is right, even if it’s not popular or self-beneficial? God has been good to us, so we are called to be good to others. As Paul says in Galatians, let us never tire of doing good, because when we do so, we are showing this dark world what the light of Christ looks like. So, you want to be good? Feed the hungry. Give a drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Give clothing to those who don’t have any. Care for the sick. Visit those in prison. That’s what Jesus calls us to do. Let us never tire of doing the good works that Christ has called us to do. There’s enough bad in this world, isn’t there? Let’s be good to each other.

 

 

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The Ripe Stuff sermon series – Patience

SCRIPTURE – James 5:7-11 – Be patient, therefore, beloved,[b] until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

SERMON
The Ripe Stuff sermon series
#4 – Patience – James 5:6-11
Jan. 27, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

James says, “Be patient, beloved.” Oh, James. Sweet, naive James. Has he seen the world we live in? Has he been on Nicholasville Road at rush hour? As I was preparing to write this sermon on Thursday, my computer started acting up, so I had the joy of spending time with my new friend Julio, a Microsoft tech support super-hero. As he was helping me fix my problem, he would put me on hold for long stretches of time. At one point, I said to on-hold generic jazz music, “C’mon, Julio! I have a sermon on patience I need to write!” I love God, but I don’t always like God’s sense of humor.

The fruit of the spirit we are spending time with today is patience. I want to disagree with Paul about including this one on the list. Kindness? Yes, Lord. Gentleness? Of course, Lord. worship. Faithfulness…goodness…yes, yes, yes. Patience. Say what? That’s not a Sunday word. That’s a Thursday afternoon generic-jazz-music on-hold word. It’s a challenging word that feels like it belongs on a New Year’s resolution list, not a list of spiritual fruits. And yet, Paul says one of the fruit of the spirit is patience.

We need to clarify what Paul is talking about here, because there are different kinds of patience, and the word is used in differing contexts in the Bible. One of the ways is better translated “long suffering,” meaning people who are enduring hardships or suffering. They are called to be patient because God is working through those difficult situations to bring about something good. That’s the kind of patience James talks about in our passage today, being patient while God does God’s work, like a farmer waiting on a crop to yield a harvest.

This version of patience doesn’t really apply to us, does it? When Paul talks about “long suffering,” I don’t think he means the traffic on Nicholasville Road. He means real suffering, the kind we can only imagine and are blessed not to endure. So, while this is one definition of patience, we’re going to spend some time on the other definitions that more directly apply to us.

I have two clocks in my car. One is on my car’s dashboard and the other is on my car radio. And they NEVER match. Ever. About once a week, I set them to the exact same time, and then within a day or so, one will read 2:02 p.m. and the other will read 2:04 p.m.

That’s only one reason that I think the clock is the most evil invention in the history of the world. Now, I know the clock has plenty of good uses, like telling time and stuff, but when it was created as a way to measure time, we became captive to it. The irony is that the mechanical clock was invented by Benedictine monks to keep them on schedule for their prayers! And yet, we are slaves to the way we measure time.

Time is a gift from God, and yet think about how we humans try to control it.  Did you know that the concept of a second wasn’t invented until the 17th century? After all, why in the world would we need to measure time in such a small segment? Nothing happens that fast! When I Googled “When was the second invented?” I got 115 million results in .74 seconds. We’ve turned time into a commodity. We spend time, buy time, save time, waste time, manage time, and invest time. Time is no longer a seamless, endless flow. It’s a resource, something to be chopped up into segments, regulated, scheduled, and managed. After all, time is money.

Therefore, our value as humans is determined by how effectively we use our time. The more work we can get done in the shortest amount of time, the more productive we are. And we are conditioned to value productivity. After all, who wants to be thought of us wasting time? That’s why we have to-do lists and computers in our pockets. That’s why we get frustrated when we sit in traffic, even if we’re hurrying home to do nothing. Because we think we can control time, we get angry when life keeps us from using our time in the most productive ways. That’s called impatience.

Do you know someone you would describe as short-tempered? Don’t look directly at them right now, they may get mad at you! We all know someone like that. Well, one of the ways you can translate the biblical word for “patience” is “long-tempered.” Isn’t that a great adjective? I want to be known as long-tempered. Someone who is long-tempered is more concerned with how they treat another person than whether or not that person is wasting their time.

That’s one of the curses of the clock, the problem with productivity. When we expect ourselves to be productive, anything – or anyone – who stands in our way becomes an obstacle, and we lose our patience. The Bible also translates “patience” as “forebearance.” But rather than bear with that person, we succumb to the tyranny of the urgent, believing that in our instant gratification world, waiting for something violates our right to have what we want right now. Thomas Friedman, in his fabulous book Thanks for Being Late, says that we have made waiting technologically obsolete. When we can have what we want when we want it, who needs patience anymore?

For the most part, he’s right. We don’t have to be patient. But at what cost? A few years ago Leigh was making a pot of her world-famous beer chili – one of my all-time favorites – but she forgot an ingredient, so she sent me to Kroger to get it. I was planning a quick in-and-out – after all, time is chili! I grabbed the ingredient and jumped in the first line I came upon. In front of me was a little elderly lady unloading her grocery cart. She didn’t have many items, but she handled each one like it was a Faberge egg, gently placing it on the conveyor belt. The more time she took, the more impatient I got. She was standing in between me and beer chili! She finally unloaded her cart and stepped forward to pay. She looked around for her purse – it was in her cart but it took her a couple hours to find it – and pulled out…a checkbook. I’m sure this lady was someone’s sweet grandma, but at that moment I was about to knock her out of the way and pay for her groceries myself just to get out of there. She slowly started filling out the check, ignoring my foot-tapping and throat-clearing. Finally, she finished writing, slowly tore out the check, and handed it to the cashier. Then she turned to me and said, “I’m sorry I’m taking so long.” She paused and looked down. “My husband used to do this for me.”

In our effort to maximize our time, we sacrifice some of the most important things in life. Rather than practicing forebearance, we see others as commodities who contribute to our productivity or as obstacles who impede it. Time does not heal us, time wounds us, because we let it determine our worth. As one commentator asked, “In this impatient age, do we really have time for each other?”

Granted, some people make it hard to be patient. I said don’t look at them! Some people are easily upset. Some people were born upset. Some people have no respect for your schedule, freely interrupting and wasting your time. And yet, in Ephesians, Paul urges us to live a life “of patience, bearing with one another in love.” Some people need more bearing than others, don’t they? And yet, we need to remember that someone out there or in here has to bear with us. We forget that, don’t we? That’s pride at work, the unconscious belief that others exist to serve us, that the traffic should part before us when we’re in a hurry. Our lack of patience turns people into objects and obstacles. Do we really have time for each other?

I think we can even ask that question about God. Do we really have time for God? We desire to grow as Christians, which we know intuitively will take the rest of our lives and will happen slowly, sometimes imperceptibly. But that doesn’t fit into our culture that only counts results that are tangible, measurable, and instantaneous. We know in our hearts that fruit doesn’t grow overnight, and yet when we God doesn’t work on our timetable, we get impatient.

A good example of this is the time we spend in worship. This is not productive time, at least for those of us not making out our groceries list on the bulletin. We sit here, we listen, we sing, we pray, all activities that don’t produce any tangible results. Many folks would argue we’re wasting time, engaging in what Henri Nouwen called “strange periods of uselessness.” And that may make us antsy to get out of here and back to doing things. How can we truly worship if we are continually mindful of all the other things we could be doing right now? How can we be fully present with God and open to what God has to say to us when we have one eye on the hymnal and the other on our watches? One could say that a person concerned about the length of the sermon isn’t really worship. I didn’t say that, but one could.

We are so blessed that God doesn’t treat us with the same impatience with which we treat God and each other. God forebears us far beyond what we deserve. In fact, it’s a primary characteristic of God. God is often described as “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” One writer said we worship a three-mile-an-hour God. I think I’ve been behind God on Nicholasville Road before! God is long-tempered, and to be honest, I don’t really think God cares much about our desire to be on time and productive. As one writer said, “God is under no obligation to speed up God’s timetable to accommodate our urgency.” Forty-three times in the Bible we are encouraged to “wait on the Lord.” Do we have time for God? Do we have time for each other? Are those two different things, or one in the same?

We are so conditioned to be productive, to use our time wisely, not to waste or squander it. It goes so fast, or at least that’s what our clocks tell us. I wonder how life would be different if we were freed from the tyranny of believing that our ultimate worth is tied directly to how we spend our time. I wonder what would happen if, instead of letting impatience get the best of us, we counted to ten…or 100…and realized that the Bible’s call for us to forebear others is predicated on the fact God forebears us each and every time we become an obstacle to God’s love in this world. Jesus Christ died so that we might be forgiven, but he also died so that we might be forgivers, so that we might see others, not as roadblocks between us and our productivity, but as real people with real challenges and a real need to be seen and heard. Every time I forget this, I hear a little old lady with a checkbook say, “My husband used to do this for me.” I’ve got bad news for all of us with to-do lists. God doesn’t care how productive we are, but God does care about how we treat other people, how we bear one another in love. May we be reminded each day that we are called to value people over productivity, and until that day when time no longer matters to us, may we live a life of patience, bearing with each other in love.

 

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