Calling and Mentoring Disciples

Calling and Mentoring Disciples

Jesus was very intentional about creating a community that would continue his ministry, if and when something happened to him. The difference between John the Baptist and Jesus is that Jesus had prepared his followers to continue and extend his ministry in a way John had not. One business consultant explained it this way. John was a sole proprietorship, Jesus was a franchise. We need to also remember that when Jesus gave his final commission to the disciples, in the 28th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, he did not say, “go build church buildings,” he also did not say, “go create institutions with committees and by-laws,” instead he said, “go make disciples.” A theologically liberal congregation like United Church needs to pay attention to the old fashioned term “discipling.” What does it mean to help others to become followers of the way? It means helping people to transform the way they live their lives in order to follow in the way of Jesus.

One of the most serious failings of the modern church is we have failed to disciple new people into the way of following Jesus. We have programs to attract new members, to reach the unchurched, to offer radical hospitality. And all of these programs are laudable and necessary. But we often are not mentoring people to transform their lives to become followers of the way of Jesus. One reason we often miss this task of mentoring is because too many Christians have settled for being just members of a kind of religious club, rather than pressing on to become disciples, true followers of the way of Jesus in mission and service to others.

And here I would like to share with you a modern parable as told by Theodore Wedel in an article from 1953 entitled “Evangelism—the Mission of the Church to Those Outside Her Life.”

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort of the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club.

Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held.

About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along the shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.

At the Seven Secrets Conference in Atlanta sponsored by the Center for Progressive Renewal one of the speakers, Steve Sterner, Acting Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ said: The shift to discipleship requires greater commitment rather just membership. A higher level of commitment is required of disciples – self-transformation is required and then social transformation occurs. The shift from membership to discipleship creates the greatest struggle in congregations. Faith communities have disciples, disciples agree to have expectations placed upon them.

Most “members” in churches resist expectations and accountability. After all their participation, attendance, and giving are all voluntary. How can anyone expect anything of members. The church is there to serve them. But congregations that mentor people into discipleship have a whole different orientation. The people who join the congregation become partners in ministry. As the Rev. Susan Mitchell said, “the most important people in the church are those we are inviting into the congregation, and those outside the walls of the church we are serving not the members.”

Congregations that mentor people into becoming disciples, following Jesus, understand they are inviting people to serve. The church is not a club, where people wait around for their needs to be met. We are the followers of Jesus, who are expected to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, heal the sick, comfort the afflicted. As Coy James from the Cathedral of Hope said, “when visitors become members they take off their bibs and put on aprons.” 

So how does a congregation mentor people into discipleship? We begin by understanding the parable of the farmer in Mark 4:26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a farmer should scatter seed upon the ground, 27 and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

The first point to understand about the parable is the mystery of the seed. Despite all of our scientific knowledge we still cannot explain why seeds sprout and grow. The seed then is like grace. God’s grace has to be part of the mentoring process. We have to pray and understand that all of our efforts will come to naught, if God is not in it. We have to be willing to mentor from the grace of God and not our own egos. When God is not at the heart of our evangelism efforts, then we are just engaged in marketing. So first, we need to lose our pride, humble ourselves in prayer and ask for God to give us the grace to mentor in faith.

The second point of our parable is the slow evolutionary progression of growth: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. We mature in faith with baby steps. Saints aren’t made in a day. The development of faith is a life time project as we change and grow in stages. Discipling is the process of mentoring people from one stage of faith to another, and having the discernment to recognize when someone is ready for the next step. Unless grace has done its work, we cannot rush someone in their development – sort of like trying to grow 90 corn in 30 days. It doesn’t work. We can plant, water, fertilize, stand on our heads but 90 corn will take just about 90 days to ripen. We can bring daffodils inside in the early spring and force them to open. But we can’t force 90 day corn. Mentoring others in faith means: having patience and a discerning eye to know when someone is ready for the next faith challenge.

The third point of our parable is to recognize the harvest. When people are ready to be spiritually fruitful, turn them loose to do whatever the spirit leads them to do. Sometimes the church needs to get out of the way so mission and ministry can happen. Again let me share with you some comments about administration by the Rev. Susan Mitchell: What does administration really mean? Administrare the Latin word means literally to serve, not to control, not to rule, not to dictate. Administration is clarity. Administration gets to know people well enough so that we know the gifts and talents of each person, so we can then invite them into the ministry of the church at the place they can be most effective. And then wise administration gets out of the way.

How did Jesus mentor his disciples? Jesus instructed them, both in word and in deed. He told them parables that left it up to his listeners to figure out the meaning for themselves. He helped them find the truth by asking them questions. He had them observe his actions in healing and forgiving. He lived with them, and showed them that the love of God was more important than the rules. He traveled with them and shared the hardships of life on the road. He taught them table fellowship by eating with them. He taught them the scriptures and how to pray.

Then he gave them responsibility. He gave them authority over unclean spirits, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. He sent them out two by two and commissioned them to preach and heal. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. He prepared them and then sent them out to minister to the needs of their world, and to invite others to follow the way of Jesus. This is our challenge. This is our mission. Go into the world and help others to become disciples.

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Intoxicating Spirit

Intoxicating Spirit

Most of us don’t like surprises. We like buttoned down, nailed down everything under control. We like to plan, and all the arrangements set – like concrete. We want to know that the bills are paid and where our next meal is coming from. We don’t like phone calls in the middle of the night, or last minute change of plans. Most of us have learned through experience that surprises usually are unpleasant, because they at least require us to make adjustments, and change is often inconvenient if not painful.

Our story this morning about the first Pentecost was a huge surprise. Pentecost was actually a Jewish High Holy Day, Shavuot, one of the days in the Calendar, when good Jews were supposed to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Shavuot coincided with the harvest of the winter wheat and the presentation of first fruits in the temple.

It was the tradition to fast and pray the night before Shavuot. Jesus followers from many towns around Jerusalem had crowded into the City for the occasion and according to the text there was a company gathered. We can assume this was more than the eleven, it might even have been the company of 500 to whom the Risen Christ appeared. The exact number we do not know. As they were praying together, however, about 9 a.m. they heard the sound of a rushing wind, and lights appeared like flickering flames. The followers of Jesus began to laugh and shout, and dance. They were on fire with the Holy Spirit, and they rushed out into the streets to share their joy and the news that Jesus was a living presence among them.

No one had anticipated that the Holy Spirit would show up. They were caught off guard and propelled to share their joy. By standers began making fun of them because they were so jolly and enthusiastic claiming they were drunk, full of new wine. The presence of the Holy Spirit was intoxicating.

When I was a very young new pastor in Allentown, Pennsylvania I was working in a church that for a UCC church was very high church. The Sanctuary was a gothic structure with a high vaulted ceiling, like a European Cathedral. There were even kneeling benches in the pews, because the congregation knelt for communion. The Senior Pastor was seventy years old, an old school Herr Pastor. And everything about the place was formal and controlled. It was so formal and controlled it squeezed the life and the spirit out of the faith.

I began working with a group of young adults, who were seeking to break out of the stifling atmosphere of that church to discover some connection with the divine. So we began meeting in homes, and as part of our meetings we shared communion. One evening as we sat on the floor passing the elements around the circle, the Holy Spirit showed up. People began laughing, actually enjoying themselves, something unheard of at the church building. Suddenly one of the members of the group stiffened up and said, “oh we’re kind of loud, what will the neighbors think?”

And the hostess, God bless her replied, “Oh, they’ll just say it’s those rowdy Christians again.”

Rowdy followers of Jesus, that’s what we might become if the Holy Spirit showed up, and we were open to allowing ourselves to being carried away by the Spirit. Sometimes as followers of Jesus we are just too sober, too cautious, too calculating, too safe. We forget we are called to risk and joy. Love is risky especially when we reach out to others. God might call us to move out of our comfort zones. We might have to rub up against lowlifes, and poor people, give away what we have in order to find the joy of Jesus. God help us if we should get intoxicated like that – right?

Thank God, the Spirit sometimes surprises us anyway. I remember as the budget meeting began in January, I was ready for the same old litany of there isn’t enough money, so let’s start cutting. And then Greg Kamback said, “let’s go back and look at the income side again.”

And then quite to my surprise and maybe everyone else, Fred Phillips said, “you know I’ve really been surprised by how much some items can bring on e-bay,” and that was the beginning of the on-line yard sale. And then the Holy Spirit showed up. There was an explosion of creativity in the room, that has carried over throughout the Spring. We decided we were going to try to be more than we thought we could be. When we make room for the Holy Spirit, when we allow ourselves to be surprised miracles can begin to happen.

The great psychoanalyst Carl Jung had a sign hanging in his home, “bidden or unbidden, God is here.” And so I am reminded of a scene from Forrest Gump. Forrest and Lieutenant Dan were out shrimping, and they had caught nothing. So Lieutenant Dan who was very bitter with life said to Forrest, “where’s your God now.”

And Forrest who is the narrator says, “and just then God showed up,” as a hurricane arrives. Bidden or unbidden God shows up, and we might all want to be prepared for a surprise. We can deny God’s presence, we can be blind to the miracles all around us, we can refuse to respond to God’s calling to a life of service to others, but in the end God will not be denied.

I am thinking of the last verse of our next hymn: “When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.”

Are we going to be open to God’s surprises or are we going to insist that it has to be our way, buttoned down, nailed down arrangements set in concrete. We plan and God laughs. On this Pentecost Sunday let us open ourselves to God’s surprises, welcoming the God who comes bidden or unbidden.

God’s blessings may come as a surprise, and how much we receive depends upon how much our hearts can believe. May we be blessed beyond what we expect.


The Miracle of Material Aid

The Miracle of Material Aid

The emotional climate in Jerusalem was hot. Peter, John, Andrew and James had been going to the Temple daily, preaching against the authorities, and praying for those brought to them for healing. The disciples had been arrested on several occasions in a bid to intimidate and silence them. Then a young Deacon in the church named Stephen, began engaging members of the synagogue of the freedmen, Jews from Asia Minor, in debate over whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. Stephen argued in the affirmative and a certain young Jew from Tarsus, one Saul was arguing in the negative.

The young men from the Freedman’s synagogue became so incensed over Stephen’s arguments, they laid hands upon him and dragged him before the Sanhedrin accusing him of blasphemy. The hearing before the Council became so acrimonious the High Priest recessed the meeting in order to allow tempers to cool. But Saul and the other young men of the Freedman’s synagogue broke Stephen out of jail, dragged him outside of the City and stoned him to death. Peter and several other leaders among the followers of Jesus decided to get out of town to allow Jerusalem to cool down.

Peter left through the Joppa gate heading west along the road to the Sea. His first stop would be the village of Emmaus, where he could stay with Cleopas and hear more news about the Jesus communities in the towns and villages in western Judea. Emmaus was the place where on Easter Day the Risen Christ had blessed and broken the bread and Cleopas and his companion had recognized him as Jesus.

Peter, however, did not stay long in Emmaus – too close to Jerusalem. So after a day or two he left for the town of Lydda, where according to Cleopas there was an active group of Jesus followers. Lydda was on the coastal plain surrounded by rich farmland. Today the main airport for Israel is located there.

The little group of Jesus followers in Lydda welcomed Peter and asked him to tell stories about Jesus, and share news about the church in Jerusalem. When Peter told them about the lame man at the Temple Gate who had been healed, Jacob asked him to visit Aeneas, a lame shut-in.

When Peter prayed with the shut-in he said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” Aeneas rose. News like that travels fast, and when the Jesus followers in Joppa heard it, they sent for Peter to come right away, because Tabitha, a much beloved member of their community was gravely ill. When Peter arrived, the community was already in morning. Tabitha had stopped visibly breathing and they had washed her body and laid it out in an upper room to be ready for burial. The other widows were sharing stories about their friend’s legendary charity – taking casseroles to families who were sick, sewing clothes for orphans, knitting blankets for new babies.

Peter remembered how Jesus had raised Jairus’ daughter from a coma, and he asked the widows club to leave him alone for a few minutes. Peter knelt down and prayed, and then said, “Tabitha rise.” And just like in Capernaum, Tabitha opened her eyes and sat up – a miracle. 

As I thought about this story I remembered another miracle from long ago in Galesburg. We had a lady there who devoted herself to what was then called material aid. Mary Alice collected blankets for Church World Service. She organized the women to cut and sew leper bandages. She sewed dresses for orphan girls. She made up layettes for poverty stricken new mothers complete with belly bands. She organized the whole congregation to put together school bags to send off to church world service for poverty stricken children overseas. One year we brought all of the school bags, blankets, layettes and dresses to the church to dedicate them before they were sent off, and the piles and piles of material aid filled the whole front of the sanctuary. It was a miracle.

Now one reason I am sharing the story of Mary Alice is because now only was she a wonder because of her industriousness, she was also a miracle, because she was severely mentally ill. Every so often she would begin hallucinating and would have to go to the hospital for a while, until her medications could be adjusted. One time when I was visiting her, she threw a cup of coffee on me, because she thought I was the devil. Of course that is not the first or last time someone has thought that.

I lift up the example of Mary Alice, because she reminds me that even though she was severely disabled by her mental illness, she still had a good heart. So often we are afraid of people who have illnesses that affect cognition. As our Monday Bible Study is discussing the book Still Alice, about a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s Disease I see how we often dehumanize people who have mental illnesses. (After reading Still Alice, I keep checking myself. Like when I walk into the pantry and forget what I walked in there to get. I realize my own tenuous hold on cognition makes me more sympathetic out of fear for myself.)

Mary Alice in her own way was far more compassionate than many of us well ever think of being. She did not judge other people, because she had suffered judgment at the hands of others. She opened her heart to the poor, because she had found so many hearts closed to her, because of her mental illness. And not only was Mary Alice compassionate, she had purpose. By God she was going to get those dresses sown for those orphans. And not only did she have purpose for herself, she encouraged her faith community to join her in putting together school bags, and sewing leper bandages. She was an encourager of the faith of others. And for a little church that didn’t think it could do very much, the faith of Mary Alice was an incredible gift.

In the First Century symptoms of mental illness were treated as demon possession. I don’t know how Jesus healed demon possession, but then his spiritual gifts were pretty incredible. John Dominic Crossan suggests that many of the healings of Jesus, however, were not so much a cure, but a change in the way the community viewed, accepted and treated a person with an illness. Sometimes people who are mentally ill can be restored to fellowship with the community through compassion and understanding, and that is healing.

As the Monday Bible Study is discussing Still Alice, I begin to see, for instance, that there may not be a cure for dementia, but how the community and the family, treat the person with dementia as a human being of dignity and worth, that is a form of healing for an otherwise incurable disease. And I want to thank Barbara Rice for her excellent presentation to the Women’s Fellowship last month and the excellent example of faith and courage she and Larry are providing for all of us.

We still treat many forms of mental illness, especially addictions, as a kind of demon possession. We are too often unwilling to spend the money on treating mental illness, and so we end up criminalizing the victims of mental illness. We sort of double victimize the mentally ill. Your behavior is out of control and we don’t want to spend the money to hospitalize you and treat you, so we will lock you up in jail.

I believe United Church, with our commitment to openness and acceptance of all people, is uniquely suited for a ministry for and with the mentally ill. We support the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many of our families have members who are mentally ill. As one person says, this is one of the only churches where you can walk into the kitchen on Sunday morning and listen to people openly discussing what anti-depressants they are taking. We can advocate for and support mentally ill people. We can insist on respect for the basic humanity of all people regardless of who they are, where they are on life’s journey or what disability or mental illness they might suffer. We can even help persons with disabilities to express their compassion and claim a purpose in life by partnering with us in mission helping others like Mary Alice and her material aid. Some illnesses may be incurable, but if there is a community of faith that is understanding, caring, treating individuals as persons of dignity and worth there may still be healing.

Whenever I read the story of Tabitha, I am reminded of Mary Alice and her dedication to material aid. Looking back now, I am also struck by how a woman of good heart suffering serious mental illness encouraged and led her little community of faith into mission they never would have had the courage to attempt without Mary Alice’s prodding and her faithful example. And I am not sure which was the greater miracle, Tabitha’s recovery or MaryAlice’s good heart.


Living By Faith

LIVING BY FAITH

Women especially mothers have more experience living by faith than any other group. As a woman becomes pregnant she enters into a time of waiting, where the outcome is uncertain. Not every pregnancy results in a healthy happy baby, a huge investment of a woman’s life in an uncertain outcome. And even if a baby is delivered into the world, there are no guarantees how the child will turn out. Now I will grant that many women do not understand the courage that will be required of them in becoming a mother. Motherhood is an exercise in living by faith.

Our scripture this morning is about learning to live by faith. Peter and the disciples were still hanging out in Jerusalem, and each day when they went to the temple to pray, they would go to Solomon’s Portico, where the other Rabbis would gather to teach their students. Peter, James, John, Andrew would begin engaging in telling the story of Jesus to whoever would listen. And people began bringing their friends and relatives to the disciples for healing. As the following of the disciples grew, the Temple Authorities became anxious and angry.

Finally in an attempt to put a little fear into the disciples, the High Priest ordered his Temple Police to arrest the disciples, rough them up a bit, and throw them into the common prison. But miraculously either an angel from heaven or a sympathizer among the jailers came in the middle of the night and let them out.

So the next morning, when the High Priest convened the Sanhedrin to hear the case of the disciples to decide what to do with them, when the Temple Police were sent to the prison to bring them before the Council, the disciples weren’t there! I can just imagine the consternation of the Temple Police. “We put them in the jail, now where are they?” And then someone came and reported to the Council that the disciples were in the courts of the Temple itself preaching in the name of Jesus again.

“Go get them,” shouted the High Priest. And the Temple guard dutifully trotted off to arrest the disciples all over again. But according to the text the police did not rough them up this time for fear that the crowd of admirers standing around the disciples might attack them.

When the disciples were brought before the Council the High Priest accused them: “We strictly charged you not to teach in the name of Jesus, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

Now remember, Peter was the disciple who climbed out of the boat to walk on water and when he saw the wind and the waves he started to sink in terror. Peter was also the disciple who on the night of Jesus’ arrest, when he was accused of being a follower of Jesus denied he ever knew man. It would have been easy and in character for Peter, surrounded by the police and accused by the High Priest, and standing before the Sanhedrin, who could have ordered him to be stoned to death, Peter to his everlasting credit replied: “We must obey God rather than human authority.”

Peter had been changed, transformed. He was a different person than the man who denied even knowing Jesus in the court yard of the High Priest. So let’s ask this morning, what made the difference? How was Peter transformed from a cowardly lion into a person of faith and courage who could withstand the attempt of the authorities to intimidate him?

First, Peter had experienced the Risen Christ. Jesus had been tortured to death on a cross, and yet Peter had experienced Jesus alive after his crucifixion a jaw dropping transforming experience. Because if a person who was murdered so brutally could live again then all that he stood for must be true. Love can be murdered and yet live again. Love is beyond the power of death, and lives eternally in those who walk the way of love. That is ultimate hope. And if we have that kind of ultimate hope, we can be transformed too.

Besides witnessing the resurrection appearances, Peter also knew the living presence of Christ in the breaking of the bread. Daily the disciples were sharing the breaking of the bread and the cup remembering Jesus and learning that simple sharing is transformative. Every Thursday night we are sharing the breaking of the bread and the remembering of Jesus, and it is transformative.

Peter had begun living by faith. He was responsible for organizing the sharing table of the Jesus community. And when we are trying to provide food for everyone who comes to share that is an act of faith that there will be enough. We don’t require reservations or RSVP’s just come and share. Sharing may be such a small beginning but it is an act of faith – living by faith.

Peter had also taken on the role of encouraging others. Remember last week when we talked about engaging the faith of others by becoming encouragers. In learning to engage the faith of others Peter’s faith had been strengthened. And our faith can grow, when we encourage other people to live by faith. Of course we have to live by faith ourselves, encourage by example.

Speaking of encouragement I am reminded of a story. A minister in a little church had been having trouble with the collections. One Sunday he announced, “Now, before we pass the collection plate, I would like to request that the person who stole the chickens from Brother Martin’s henhouse please refrain from giving any money to the Lord. The Lord doesn’t want money from a thief!”

The collection plate was passed around, and for the first time in months everybody gave.

Peter also had been engaging the faith of others by calling forth healing in them. Praying with and for other people not only encourages them, our faith is strengthened as well. Margaret Grace Reese writes in her book Unbinding Your Heart: “Prayer is the way to stay in love with God. Prayer is the way individuals, small groups and congregations grow and become vivid. It is a habit, a discipline, but not discipline with a clenched jaw. Prayer is more about receiving from God than it is about asking God for things or working hard at intercession. . . . prayer involves effort, habit and focus; but it results in lightness and energy and excitement.” Through a ministry of prayer Peter and the early followers of Jesus had found lightness, energy and enthusiasm – all components of courage.

Even when we commit to following the way of Jesus, death and all of the agents of death will try to intimidate us. The Temple authorities were desperate trying to hold onto their power, wealth and privilege, and this upstart Jesus movement was a threat. The Jesus people were inviting the poor, the sinners and the nobodies to come and eat at the sharing table. They were challenging the Temple’s land foreclosures that were pushing peasants off of their farms and into poverty. They were proclaiming a Commonwealth of God, where all people would share and have food, shelter and clothing. The Jesus movement rejected the caste system of the law based upon clean and unclean, and they sought to heal the sick and give dignity to the poor.

The early church also admitted women as full participants in the life of the faith community, because Jesus accepted women as the intellectual equals of men. The Jesus people were threatening to turn the social hierarchy upside down, and by God someone had to stop them! It was true then. It is true now. When we embrace the radical way of Jesus, proclaiming that everyone is welcome at the sharing table, some people will try to stop us. The powers that be will try to warn us, intimidate us, threaten us. And unless we have been transformed, like Peter, by the courage of faith, we will bargain, compromise, concede.

We need a vision of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ in our 21st century world in Huntsville, Alabama, so compelling, we will have the courage of Peter to respond, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” My prayer is the visioning process being led by our Moderator Greg Kamback will lead to that compelling vision that will transform us and give us courage to faithfully follow in the way of Jesus.

Since it is Mother’s Day allow me to note that the kind of courage we need to be transformed like I pointed out at the beginning of the sermon is feminine. Even Paul used feminine imagery to describe transformative faith: We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labour pains, and not only creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, are straining inwardly to help give birth to a new reality – the Commonwealth of God. For in this hope we have been saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Faith of our mother’s holy faith, may we have the courage to give birth to a vision worthy of the way of Jesus.


What I Have I Give to You

WHAT I HAVE I GIVE TO YOU

The story of the healing of the blind beggar is one of the very first incidents recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles right after the experience of Pentecost.  The disciples were still hanging out in Jerusalem expecting Jesus to come back any day.  The followers of Jesus were having a communal meal each day, where everyone especially the poor were fed.  At the communal meal they shared in the breaking of the bread and the remembering of Jesus.

Those early followers of Jesus probably believed that the cosmic Christ would also bring an army of angels to establish the reign of God, and then they would be appointed Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of the Interior.  Slowly but surely they began to figure out that Jesus wasn’t physically coming back any time soon.  Jesus was with them in the breaking of the bread.  Jesus was also with them in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was with them as they began to continue his ministry of teaching, feeding and healing people.

The followers of Jesus were also going to the Temple to pray the hours.  In Judaism prayers were to be offered at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., Noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.  When they were in the temple, the disciples also began preaching the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus.  In our scripture Peter and John were walking to the Temple to pray at the 9th hour – 3 p.m. 

In our story the beggar was sitting beside the Beautiful Gate imploring passersby for alms.  Probably this was the double Hulda Gate, where most worshippers passed in and out of the Temple.

The beggar saw Peter and John and asked for a hand out.  Peter made eye contact with the beggar.  We should remember that most people do not make eye contact with beggars.  Even people who give panhandlers money mostly treat them as non-persons never connecting with them.  But Peter engaged this beggar by saying, “look at us.”  He bonded with the beggar as a person of dignity and worth.  Peter didn’t have any money, but what Peter did have to share with the beggar was love, respect and faith, and that was enough to heal the man.

Now this story raises an interesting question.  If this beggar had been sitting at the gate to the Temple day after day, why had not Jesus healed him, as Jesus passed by on his way into the Temple?  The gospels leave us with the impression that Jesus was healing everyone all over the place all the time.  Probably Jesus healed some people and was not able to heal others.  For instance, there is no record of Jesus reconnecting a severed limb. The miracles of Jesus are so wide and varied, and we really know so little about them it is hard to make any generalizations about the healings reported in the gospels.  In fact the generalizations I am about to make can be contradicted by examples from the gospels, but let’s not let that stop me.

First, I don’t believe Jesus healed anyone against his or her will. There were times when Jesus healed individuals at the behest of a third party, but I think we can assume the individual had a desire for healing.  And I believe even with all the miracles of modern medicine people cannot be healed against their will.  If someone wants to be sick, if someone wants to hold onto their illness, I don’t think they can be healed against their will.

Second in most of Jesus’ healing miracles the person desiring healing engaged Jesus.  They actively sought him out, and expressed some belief that Jesus could be an agent in their healing.  Even when they harbored doubts like the father of the epileptic child, remember last week, “I believe but help my unbelief,” faith mixed with doubt was enough to bring healing.

Third, again and again and again after a healing Jesus said to the individual, “your faith has made you whole.”  Therefore I think it is fair to imply that faith was somehow an important agent in the healings performed by Jesus.  Now I want to be careful that we don’t use any of these observations to judge and blame people, when they are sick or when they don’t get well.

We don’t need people running around pointing fingers and saying, “the reason you weren’t cured is because you didn’t have enough faith, or because you are not a good person.”  Blaming people for illness is counterproductive. Sometimes healing doesn’t consist in a physical cure.  I have attended people on their death beds who found healing in dying.

Healing isn’t magic.  Remember the three most common physician’s prescriptions?  Exercise, lose weight and diet.  I can testify losing weight, dieting and exercise are not magic.  It’s hard.  And giving up our addictions, whether it is tobacco, alcohol, drugs, work-a-holism, overeating – it’s hard – not magic.

Allow me to suggest four ways the faith community can engage our faith as part of a healing process.  First, the way of Jesus emphasizes forgiveness.  We are all welcome at the sharing table, and we are all wounded in need of God’s grace.  Receiving the forgiveness of God through Christ encourages us to claim our need for healing.

Second as we engage with the faith community we will be challenged to enter into honest self-reflection to discover obstacles to our healing like over inflated ego, unresolved anger and hurt, lack of consideration for others, addictions.  Honest self-reflection is one of those hard things Jesus encourages us to undertake.  And because we are blind to many of our own failings, we often need to conduct part of our self-reflection with good spiritual friends to whom we grant permission to be honest with us.  And while many of us are willing to give our honest opinion to others, not so many of us are willing to receive the same in return.  Honest self-reflection is hard but essential to our healing.

Third, a faith community of good spiritual friends will encourage us and hold us accountable to do the hard things.  In order to be healed we may have to give up an addiction, or commit to an exercise regimen, or go on a restricted diet (no more M & M’s and popsicles for lunch).  Twelve Step programs have proven that recovery in community promotes healing.  Exercise adherence is more consistent, when we have workout partners.  We are more likely to be honest with ourselves, when we empower other people to hold us accountable.

Fourth, our healing is promoted as we invite others to pray with us and for us.   I can’t explain it.  Prayer is a mystery, but when we start to pray with other people, and ask them to pray for us, miraculous transformation becomes possible.   Prayer’s miraculous power is graceful and therefore unpredictable.  Though we can ask for an outcome, we can’t pray expecting any certain outcome.

We have to leave room for the Holy Spirit to surprise us.  I know surprises can be tough for some personality types who like everything nailed down and in order.  But when the Holy Spirit shows up, anything is possible.  And the people of God need to be constantly making room for the Holy Spirit.  So often the church shuts the Holy Spirit out, because we are afraid we will lose control and become carried away by God’s sacred presence. We want to be in control.  And that is why so often we aren’t ready to fly, to make room for miracle.  We sing “have thine own way Lord, have thine own way,” but we don’t really mean it, because we don’t want to allow God to be the potter and us to be the clay.  Mold me and make me, after thy will, while I am waiting yielded and still.  We have a hard time yielding to God, and being still, being patient long enough for God’s will to work in us and through us.  Have thine own way Lord!  God we have a long way to go to become your faithful people.

Now the good news is we don’t have to have perfect faith in order to begin to engage the faith of others.  Consider Peter.  When he tried to walk on water, he sank.  The night Jesus was arrested, his courage failed him and he denied Jesus.  And yet in our scripture today he was able to call forth from the lame man enough faith that he could be healed.  And I believe all of us each in our own unique way can engage the faith of others.  We don’t have to walk around hitting people on the forehead shouting “be healed!”  We can be encouragers of others.  Encouragement sometimes is all that some people lack to realizing a dream.  When someone has been emotionally beat up by life, encouragement can help them get back up to try again.  Encouragement is an important element in healing.

Faith sharing when it is discrete, subtle and welcome, can engage another person’s faith.  I’m not talking about preaching on street corners or offering unsolicited testimony, but when we honestly share with another person a story from our life, we can give them the inspiration they need to move ahead in their life.

And let’s not forget small acts of kindness.  Sometimes when we’re feeling beat up, or discouraged, and we’re down so low, we’re not sure how to get up, a small act of kindness can help to engage and energize our faith.  And if we think we aren’t somehow spiritual enough to engage other people’s faith, just imagine the small acts of kindness we can offer to others.  That’s what the caregiving committee is all about.

Finally, we can engage people’s faith by praying with them and for them.  The Unbinding Your Heart Program last year helped to open up a whole new appreciation of the importance of prayer in the spiritual life of a congregation, and in reaching others.  I truly hope we will offer another Unbinding Your Heart Group in the coming months.  We sometimes underestimate the power of prayer, and I understand many of us are uncomfortable praying aloud.  But hear me, if we are praying from our hearts, there are no wrong words.  And I know it seems like too small a gesture, but when we have prayer circle I am always surprised by the genuine gratitude we hear from people for whom we have prayed and to whom we have sent cards.  I think we are all capable of writing and send a card that says, “Thinking of you, and praying for God’s healing energy in your life.”  Most of us do not have silver or gold to give to others, but what we have is faith enough to share.


Bible Study 5.7.12, 5.10.12, 5.13.12 For Worship 5.20.12

Bible Study 5.7.12, 5.10.12, 5.13.12 For Worship 5.20.12

Acts 9:32  Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints that lived at Lydda.

33  There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years and was paralyzed.

34  And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose.

35  And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.

36  Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity.

37  In those days she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room.

38  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him entreating him, “Please come to us without delay.”

39  So Peter rose and went with them. And when he had come, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing tunics and other garments which Dorcas made while she was with them.

40  But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up.

41  And he gave her his hand and lifted her up. Then calling the saints and widows he presented her alive.

42  And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

43  And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.

COMMENTARY

The disciples had engaged in increasingly dangerous confrontations with the Temple Authorities.  They were ordered to stop teaching and healing in the name of Jesus.  They were roughed up by thugs and locked up in prison, and still they escaped from custody and continued preaching, teaching and healing in the name of Jesus.  Peter was being identified as the leader of the new Jesus movement, and so the authorities were planning to make an example of him.  But before they could arrange a stoning, or even a crucifixion, Peter slipped out of Jerusalem and began visiting the little clusters of Jesus followers that were beginning to sprout up around the country.

He headed west from Jerusalem on the Joppa Road, and along the way he stopped in Lydda, to share stories about Jesus and pray with the fledgling community of faith there.  Lydda was present day Lod, where the main airport between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is located, part of the fertile coastal plain.  There was in Lydda a man named Aeneas (a Greek name) who had been “bedridden,” “paralyzed” for eight years.  That would have indeed been a long time for someone in ancient times to survive as a paralytic.  Similar to the lame beggar at the gate of the Temple, Peter told Aeneas to rise, and he did.  In response to the miracle some of the people in Lydda joined the Jesus movement.

News of Aeneas’ healing traveled fast, and the people in Joppa close by called for Peter to come quickly.  A widow of outstanding reputation, full of compassion and good works had become ill and apparently had fallen into a coma.  Even though the text uses the word died, we can we reasonably assured they would not have sent for Peter if that had been the case.  Whether believing her to be in a coma or dead, the community was gathered at the home of Dorcas and they had begun to grieve.  In this  instance, the text gives us both a Hebrew name, Tabitha, and a Greek name, Dorcas.  The healing of Dorcas parallels the healing of Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5:22-43 and Luke 8:41-56.  We might even note that in the Mark passage Jesus used the Aramaic phrase: “Talitha cumi,” or “little girl arise,” and how the name Tabitha is a derivative of Talitha.  The theme of the Acts of the Apostles is that the disciples were replicating the ministry of Jesus.

Again the response to the miraculous recovery of Dorcas was that new people in Joppa join the Jesus movement, and Peter settled down to preach and teach and gather more followers in this busy port City.  The very end of the story gives us an important detail.  Peter stayed at the home of Simon the tanner.  Tanners in Judaism were considered to be ritually unclean, because in their work, they were constantly handling dead animals.  For Peter to stay in the home of a man who was ritually unclean was an indication the Jesus movement was already breaking through the restrictions of the law in order to extend the gospel to an ever wider circle of people ultimately including people like us – gentiles.

Dorcus was one of those wonderful women who took soup to the sick, casseroles to grieving families, made dresses for orphan girls, washed and tore up old cloth to make leper bandages. When I was serving in Galesburg, we had a lady who diligently led the “material aid” committee.  That was Dorcus.  She was hands on and faithful – material aid.  In Galesburg our material aid lady also suffered from schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder, which just goes to prove that even in the midst of mental illness there can be a good heart. I don’t know what was the greater miracle, Dorcus’ recovery or Mary Alice’s good heart.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. Where all was Peter visiting?

2. Why had Peter left Jerusalem?

3. What was Aeneas’ medical condition?

4. How did Peter heal Aeneas?

5. How did other people respond to the healing of Aeneas?

6. Why did emissaries arrive from Joppa looking for Peter?

7. What was the nature of Tabitha’s character?

8. What was Dorcas’ marital status?

9. Where was Dorcas laid out, when Peter arrived?

10. How was the community grieving?

11. How did Peter heal Dorcas?

12. With whom did Peter stay in Joppa?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. Have you ever left a town, or a school, or a church, or a job, or a group,  to escape something?

2. What is the most miraculous healing you have ever experienced?

3. Have you ever known someone who was full of good works and acts of charity?

4. Have you ever know someone who died who was very, very good?

5. Do you think our rituals of grief are any different from ancient times?

6. We mainly rely upon medical science for our medical care.  What role if any do you see for spirituality in medicine?

7. Without persecution do you think the disciples would have moved beyond Jerusalem in their ministry?

8. Can you see any external forces in our culture trying to move the church to change?