A Sermon for 19 June 2015 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost
A reading from the gospel of Luke 8:26-39. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Amid all the disturbing news this week – not only the deaths that have occurred in this congregation, but also the tragic events in our nation and world; did you catch the clip about Phoebe? Phoebe is a dog from Fort Worth, Texas. In the past 18 months, Phoebe has logged 236 visitation hours at eight different hospitals in the Fort Worth area. Though it looks simple, her owner attests Phoebe received extensive training for a year and a half before being set loose in local hospitals. Phoebe is a golden retriever, known to be an extra sensitive dog bread. But she’s not entirely unique. It’s long been understood that dogs have incredible healing powers. Let one curl up near you for a little bit. As it settles in, possibly nudging your hand with its wet nose to ensure you will stroke its beautiful coat or pat its head right above those milky chocolate eyes, it’s likely your heart rate immediately will drop. Before you know it, any swirling anxieties within will calm. With such a beautiful creature relaxing at your side, most every human being will find their own cares melting away.
It’s the idea behind Phoebe and a dozen or so other dogs like her who are known across the country as the Comfort Dogs. A news clip shows Phoebe walking the halls of a hospital. Whether she chooses a patient to visit based on her intuitive senses, or if the nurses direct Phoebe and her owner to a particular room; before you know it the patient in the bed is smiling, laughing, and enjoying the consoling warmth of Phoebe who is surrounding the patient with her curative powers. Patient after patient attests: “You just forget about what’s wrong. It’s like your whole attention turns to them.” . . . Phoebe and others like her are trained by Lutheran Church Charities. The news clip went on to report that Phoebe and her owner were boarding a plane early the next morning to spend the week as a comfort in hospitals and counseling centers in Orlando, Florida. They’re heading to the very places that have been flooded with broken-bodied and broken-hearted people since last Sunday’s horrific mass shooting. The clip reported that Phoebe and the other Comfort Dogs have been present everywhere from Sandy Hook, to Boston after the marathon bombing, and now to Orlando. What they do is simple really, though so incredibly profound. In the midst of such intense, inexplicable pain; they show up. They calmly greet a grieving survivor. They sit as a loving presence at the person’s side for whatever pats and hugs the dogs may receive. What they offer is a calming, comforting presence in times where words will never be enough. Somehow they allow people who haven’t been able to breathe since the crisis, finally to exhale. It is as if the night terrors evaporate. The bottled-up emotions can flow. The pain – at least momentarily – disappears. Where humans have done the worst to one another, Comfort Dogs provide an oasis in the midst of heart wrenching despair. (www.wfaa.com/mb.life/phoebe-the-comfort-dog-helping-orlando-victims-243718287 and WFAA-TV, Tuesday 14 June 2016). Comfort Dogs come alongside us to help us heal.
Though I love dogs and can see how they would offer uniquely restorative powers, I find it kinda of disheartening that its dogs that end up in such places of mass destruction instead of us people. In the gospel of Luke especially, we learn of a Lord who went wherever he was needed to heal. In the story before us for today; it’s out of his homeland, Galilee. Beyond the set boundaries of his people. Off to the neighboring country of the Gerasenes he goes. There a man, hardly man-like anymore, has been left to live in the tombs. He’s out of his mind from all that has possessed him. Demons, the text reads. And we might understand such malevolent forces that can overtake us yet today. Commentators often translate ancient ideas of demonic powers as the kinds of maladies that leave us chronically ill today. Maybe the man has something akin to paranoid schizophrenia. Or could it be more like the turbulent inner turmoil in which many of us end up from living a lifetime wracked by incessant worry? Or self-hatred. Or debilitating fear. Maybe the demons that drive us today to live less human-like and more as shade-like dwellers in the land of the dead are arrogance or ignorance or greed. Whatever it is that takes us over so that we, in the language of the PCUSA’s “A Brief Statement of Faith,” “violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care” (PCUSA Book of Confessions, 2014, p. 303, line 35-38). . . . To one who has experienced this, our Lord goes.
It’s a great comfort to know that Jesus shows up in our greatest hour of need. But it’s even more important for us to realize that he went about such ministry so that we now will. It’s all over the gospels and the rest of the New Testament too. One of Jesus’ primary ministries was that of healing. And he passed that ministry right along to his first disciples. Luke chapter nine reads: “Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal . . . They departed,” verse six continues, “and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere” (Luke 9:1-2, 6). When they return a short time later, they fall all over each other telling Jesus about all they had done. Later in the New Testament, after Christ’s resurrection, we can read about the people they healed. Everywhere they went, they found a way to restore the bodies, minds, and spirits of those in need. To cure the dis-eases people experienced in the living of their days. That’s healing – making something whole once again. It’s a ministry entrusted to us too. As we look around the world today, we might just see it’s the primary ministry God is calling us to now – in the families and neighborhoods and nation in which we live. Even to those beyond our comfort zones – those outside the boundaries we tend to set.
I know, our rational minds might right away kick in, if not to question how Jesus and his friends so long ago actually healed all sorts of people, then perhaps to wonder how in the world we’re supposed to do the same kind of healing today. I wouldn’t dare advocate something other than the miracles we can experience due to modern medicine. Like, I’m not about to go home and stop taking the pills my doctor has prescribed me to take as I continue to heal after shoulder repair surgery. I’m still going to do the necessary exercises and follow the surgeon’s advice. And I suggest you all listen to your doctors as well. . . . But I just can’t get Phoebe out of my mind. The hugs she received in Orlando this week. The people whose physical, emotional, and spiritual pain was eased as the Comfort Dogs descended upon their hospital rooms and showed up at the trauma counseling center. Remember their simple, but o so profound gift? Presence. Calm. The comfort of just sitting with another when no words ever will be enough. We can do that. Every last one of us can get out of ourselves long enough to just be with another who feels like the whole world is falling apart. We can listen to the silence or the sobs that might arise. We can wait as an oasis until one who hasn’t been able to breathe since the crisis, finally finds themself able to exhale. We can help to heal, can’t we? Offering a powerful, curative peace wherever it is needed. After all, if Phoebe and her furry friends can do it, certainly we can too. Following the lead of our Lord as he goes outside his typical territory to heal the one who meets him there. . . . As Christ’s hands and feet in the world today – a world we know to be in such deep, deep need – it’s our turn to take up our Lord’s ministry of healing. May God’s Spirit guide us as we go to the side of whoever needs it!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2016 (All rights reserved.)
A Sermon for 6 December 2015 – 2nd Sunday of Advent
A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:68-79. Listen for God’s word to us as we hear this proclamation from the priest Zechariah on the birth of his son John the Baptist. Listen.
“”Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. God has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before God all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.””
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
A Washington Post article appeared early this week that I found very disturbing. (The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham, “There have been 334 days and 351 mass shootings so far this Year,” 30 Nov. 2015). It came out Monday, before the event at the special needs facility in San Bernardino, California. The article was a piece on mass shootings in America in 2015. The article defined mass shootings as “incidents in which four or more people, including the gunman, are killed or injured by gunfire.” According to the article, it’s a definition a bit broader than some sources that reduce the definition of mass shootings to incidents that only count deaths and not injuries by shooters. And while I’m sure there are good reasons why the difference is delineated, four or more killed or injured, versus four or more killed seems unnecessary hairsplitting really when we’re talking about such unacceptable degradation of human life. You probably remember the shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs Thanksgiving week. And maybe you remember the shooting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June when nine people were ruthlessly killed while at a Wednesday night prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Maybe you even remember the last school shooting this year on October 1 at a small community college in Roseburg, Oregon where ten people were killed and seven others injured before the shooter killed himself. If you remember only those, then you might be shocked to learn that according to the article in The Washington Post, as of November 30; there have been 351 mass shootings in America in 2015’s 334 days. That’s an average of more than one a day – a number that already has surpassed the total number of shootings in 2014 and is well above how many took place in 2013. Though we only may have heard of the one shooting in Colorado Springs the day after Thanksgiving, the article reported that there actually were twelve mass shootings in our country during the week of Thanksgiving. . . . Could the poetry of Zechariah have fallen upon us at a more opportune time, so that we might join our prayers with his words in calling out to God: “Guide our feet into the way of Peace!” (Luke 1:79).
Ten years ago, one pastor sent me these words and since receiving them, I have kept them close: “Peace. It’s not the absence of conflict or an enemy threatened or pummeled into submission. Not a boot squarely and securely placed on the neck slowly squeezing life from a hostile windpipe. It is the overwhelming desire for and commitment to overcoming violent differences via communication, risk, trust. A reciprocal recognition of inherent worth and mutuality; the bell that tolls for the demise of ego, pride, greed, and, most of all, fear” (“Peace,” by Todd Jenkins, 2005). Peace.
Might it be possible that the opposite of peace isn’t violence but ego, pride, greed, and most of all, fear? . . . Zechariah gave great thanks to God for a history of rescuing the people from the hands of their enemies in order to serve God without fear. In other words, in peace. More than once, according to the long history of their people which we come to know in Scripture as our own history too. God sets us free in order to serve the LORD without fear – in peace. The prophet Isaiah long ago spoke for God to the people reminding of the way we are to be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12). Healing springs up quickly, the prophet proclaims (Isaiah 58:8), when we live in ways that bear our name: repairs of the breach – those broken places. Restorers of streets to live in. . . . We are to be people who live peace – that overwhelming desire for and commitment to overcoming violent differences via communication, risk, and trust. It is like that beloved Christmas carol charges: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us!
But how? We can’t storm into everyone’s homes and take away weapons. We can’t round up all the troubled young men – as seems to be the profile of those who commit these mass shootings – we can’t round up anyone we might suspect as a potential threat and suddenly fix whatever’s broken in them that would conceive such destructive violence. What can we – a little ban of followers of the Prince of Peace do as we seek to serve God without fear? What can we do that all feet might be guided into the way of Peace?
I think the first thing all of us must do is pray –because prayer changes things – it has the power to change the very energy in the atmosphere around us. . . . Sometimes I wonder if the world around us is getting more violent because the world inside us all is becoming more violent. It is as if the very air we breathe has become toxic. It seeps into our bodies, minds, and spirits until we don’t want to talk to those who are different from us. We don’t dare risk and we definitely find it difficult to trust. While twenty minute segments work best, even five minutes a day seeking to cultivate interior quiet allows the Spirit of God to work in us. To pull out the negativity that gets in from outside and pops up from inside too. It’s like the silence just rakes that all away for the beautiful calm of God to pervade us instead. We must start there because we serve the One who started there all the time. According to the gospels, all the time, Jesus was out somewhere communing in quiet with God. Some churches have begun weekly centering prayer groups as part of their peacemaking ministry efforts. The groups cultivate inner peace as a first step in affecting any sort of peace between families and communities and countries. Anyone can do this – this simple act of peace through quiet, centering prayer. And if you want to give it a try but don’t know how, or feel like you haven’t been successful at it in the past, then let me know and we’ll learn and practice together.
From such a place of inner peace, we can begin praying for others who need peace. 351 mass shootings, and a few more this week too –if it’s just the minimum number of people killed or injured in each shooting, that means that at least 1,500 families all across this nation this year are trying to figure out how to go through these holidays for the first time since losing their loved one to the unspeakable violence done to them at the hand of another person. That’s a lot of grieving parents – a lot of hurting siblings – a lot of grandparents whose hearts are breaking this year over the loss of their loved one.
You know the story of the peace crane, I’m sure. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of our nation being bombed at Pearl Harbor. Well, the peace crane is a paper crane one little girl in Hiroshima, Japan lifted up on her deathbed as a way to work for peace in the world. She started out hoping to make 1,000 of them to bring about her own wish for healing from the cancer she developed, which was believed to be a result of her exposure to the atomic bomb. Upon her death, her classmates took up her cause. The children collected enough money to build a statue in her honor that reads: “This is our cry, this is our prayer: Peace in the world” (www.budddhistcouncil.org). . . . What child doesn’t want to grow up in a world free from violence? There are easy instructions online of how to make the origami peace cranes and wouldn’t it be an interesting Advent practice to make a crane each day as you pray for peace and for those reeling from the loss these mass murders have brought? You even might consider making a paper peace crane each day with the name of a child you know on it – maybe even with the name of one of the children of this church or of the children of the community who are coming to be with us on Wednesday nights – as you pray for their daily safety and self-esteem as they seek to grow in the world we’re giving them.
I know not everyone gets excited about peacemaking – because after all, memories of “peace protests” in our nation’s history can leave a bitter taste. But did you know that the Presbyterian Church has a long history of peacemaking ministries? Since 1983, more than 4,500 PCUSA congregations around the United States have signed the Commitment to Peacemaking. Because, as a denomination, we believe that “peacemaking is not a peripheral issue but a central declaration of the gospel” of Jesus Christ (www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/peacemaking/pdf/commitment.pdf; p. 3). Congregations commitment to everything from worship expressing God’s desire for our peace, to peacemaking pledges offered to families as guides for how to live together at home, to study of global issues that affect human rights, to being a part of local peacemaking ministries however the church chooses to define such efforts. Congregations who take the pledge begin to see that everything they do to build relationships and uplift the needs of the downtrodden and learn about living together is done as ways of making peace. As ones praying to God to guide our feet into the way of peace.
It’s not enough for us to turn off the news. Or helplessly wring our hands when we hear of another shooting. Or shake our heads naively believing it could never happen here. It is our call to join our best efforts – to use our hearts and minds and creative imaginations as we call out to God to guide our feet into the way of Peace! Guide our feet into the way of Peace. Teach us, LORD, show us this Advent the way we are to walk as the ones who follow the great gift of Peace. . . . Let peace be our prayer, our commitment, our overwhelming desire.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)