Lifted up for Service

 

cialis

Mark 1:29-39 NRSV

These few verses found in the end of the first chapter of Mark paint a beautiful portrait of who our Lord is, how our Lord acts, and what our Lord desires. Listen to them again, carefully, prayerfully…

“As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.”

Do you hear the urgency in this passage? “As soon as they left…” “…at once.”

I hear a lot of people talk about God’s timing. They say that God will bring healing or restoration in God’s own time. They say that God’s time is usually not our time. And they say that God has reasons for God’s delay. I believe this passage teaches us that the Lord wants to heal us and restore us now: not tomorrow, not some day or one day, but today, right now, “at once.” It is not the Lord’s will for any of us to ever be sick, broken, or even have a fever.

Therefore, if we are sick or broken, if we are suffering in any way, we must understand that it is not because God has some twisted reason or some purpose-driven plan for it. And since suffering is not the will of God, and since we are loved by God, we can know that when we suffer, God suffers with us and is doing all God can do to bring healing, wholeness and restoration.

“He came and took her by the hand…”

Perhaps more than anything else, I believe it is the will of our Lord to come to us and take us by the hand. When I was a child I learned a wonderful song:

Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water

Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea

Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee

Our problem is that we put our hands in so many other places to receive wholeness.

Instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord we put our hands to work. We believe that if we can somehow work hard enough, serve diligently, industriously, thoroughly, and persistently enough, then we can achieve or earn wholeness or peace.

This may be the greatest sin of most of us.

We put our hands, our trust in our own selves instead of in the hands of the only one who can save us. Ephesians chapter two teaches us: “For by grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord, we also put our hands in the hands of others. My granddaddy was not a pastor, preacher, or a scholar, but he was sometimes quite the theologian. One thing that he said, and said often was: “There’s only one man that you can trust in this world, and that is the Good Lord.”

However, many of us put our trust in the hands of so many others. We put our hands in the hands of the government, we put our hands in the hands of our friends and neighbors, even in the hands of the church. Then we become disillusioned when they sooner or later disappoint us. The 118th Psalm reminds us:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord

than to put confidence in mortals.

It is better to take refuge in the Lord

than to put confidence in princes.

 

And instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord, we also put them in our own pockets. We put our trust in our wealth and our material possessions. Our sense of well-being, wholeness and security comes from our bank accounts, 401-k’s, our homes, automobiles and clothing. In chapter six of the Gospel of Matthew we read the warning:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

The good news for all of us this day is that Jesus, the Son of the God of Heaven is coming to us, and he wants to take us by the hand and give us a peace that the world simply cannot give (John 14:27).

“Jesus came to her, took her by the hand, and lifted her up.”

When we put our hand in the hand of the Lord, the Lord lifts us up. Preacher and Princeton Theological Seminary professor Nancy Gross says this is good news because “There is no shortage of “down” from which people need to be lifted up.”

Down today are all those things that the young people in the Scouts of America seek to emulate:

Trust and loyalty are down. Helpfulness and politeness and kindness are down. Respect for the law is down. Fiscal responsibility, a clean environment, courageous leadership and reverence are all down.

And in the middle of one of the worst flu seasons on record, many are down with sickness.

The good news is when we are down in the dumps, down with despair, down with disease, down with a fever, when we put our hand in the hand of Jesus, Jesus always lifts us up!

Now, as much as we might like to do so, now is not the time to sing a hymn, break some bread, sing another hymn and go home. Because our scripture text doesn’t end here.

“Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mark 1:31).

When we put out hand in the hand of Jesus, we are lifted up. We receive wholeness. We receive peace. We receive salvation. Then, we serve. We are lifted up for a specific purpose: to serve.

Jesus makes us whole not only for ourselves alone, not soley to help us feel better, more hopeful, more happy, more peaceful and more alive, not solety to help us get through a hard week at school, at work or at home. We are lifted up for service to others.

I believe a major problem with the Christian faith today is that many have a very selfish understanding of salvation. Our faith has been reduced to some kind of ticket to heaven, some sort of divine stamp of approval, or some kind of new drug to make our lives better, fuller, richer.

Have you noticed that every other television commercial that comes on the air is an ad touting the benefits of a new prescription drug? There is a new drug available for whatever it is that might ail you!

Are you tired of being tired? Do you have trouble going to sleep? Do you have difficulty waking up? Is your hair falling out? Do you have a going problem or a growing problem?  Are you overweight but love to eat?  Do you need to put some excitement back into your relationships? Do you read the story of the the three little pigs and wolf who huffs and puffs only to have your granddaughter say, “That sounds like you grandpa!” No matter what you’ve got, there is a new pill created just for you.

And then, in nearly every commercial, after the person begins taking what they asked their doctor to prescribe, there is all of this exuberant celebration: dancing in the streets; jumping up and down; digging for clams; running around in the yard with their dog and your water hose; even sitting outdoors and watching the sunset while holding hands with their significant other in separate bathtubs!

I oftentimes wonder if this is not how we oftentimes promote our faith. If you channel surf through the religious channels, you will find that there is no shortage of preachers who sound like they are spokespeople for some new drug. “Are you down and out?  Are you drowning in a sea of debt? Are you empty inside? Does your love life need a boost? Then pick up the phone and make your pledge, send in your check, and sit back and wait for God to pour out God’s blessings!  Wait for God to give you a reason to celebrate!”

I am not exactly sure, but I suspect that is what many people were thinking when they were following Jesus throughout Galilee. Listen to how the Sermon on the Mount begins: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”  Folks had come out from all over to follow Jesus with these expectations that Jesus was going to somehow make their lives better

And listen to what Jesus says:

Are you 40 years old and wonder where your life is going? Are you feeling blue?  Do you need help raising your children? Does your marriage need a boost?

No, instead, Jesus says things like, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The crowd gets really quiet!  Someone whispers, “I know he didn’t say ‘hard,’ did he?  I thought Jesus was all about making things easy. What’s he talking about?

And he’s not finished. “Love everyone, including your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive those who have wronged you. Don’t judge. Accept others as I have accepted you. Deny yourself. Pick up your cross and follow me. Die to yourself.”

I am afraid that churches are so desperate to attract people that they have been willing to trivialize and water down the gospel. So much so that the salvation that many churches are preaching is no different than the salvation that is being preached by the prescription drug industry.

May God forgive the church for implying that we need Jesus in our life to lift us up… period. Just lift us up. And implying Jesus will make our lives easier, fix everything that is wrong with us, put a little lilt in our voices, a little sunshine in our souls.

Because the chances are very good that when we put our hand in the hand of the man from Galilee, our lives will become even more difficult than they were before.

It is the will of the Lord to come to us, and to come to us immediately, without delay, with as sense of divine urgency, to take us by the hand, lift us up, and make us whole, for one purpose and for one purpose only: service, self-denying, self-expending, sacrificial service.

Let us pray together.

O God, as Christ took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, take our hands. Make us whole. Lift us up to be the church you are calling us to be in this world. Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

Do you need to be lifted up? Are you down in the dumps, down with despair, down with disease? Have you been down with a fever? If so, gather around this table and put your hand in the hand of Jesus. He will lift you up. But he won’t stop there. The bread which he says is his body given is going to lift you up to selflessly give your own bodies as sacrifice. As he pours and lifts the cup he is going to lift you up to sacrificially pour yourself out for others.

Let us prepare to be to be lifted up for service as we sing together.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

He’s coming to you. He’s coming without delay. He’s coming immediately, with a divine urgency. He’s coming reaching in and reaching out his hand.

So, go ahead, right here and now, put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee. He will lift you up. He will make you whole. For service.

As you go and serve, may the Lord bless you and take care of you; may the Lord be kind and gracious to you; may the Lord look on you with favor and give you peace.

Unity in Christ

lincoln

Philippians 2:1-13 NRSV

This week, my friend, the Rev. Bob Ballance, made the following observation on social media:

Our divisiveness across this country, so it seems to me, at least, is like a cancer spreading throughout the body. We just keep finding new ways to attack one another. National tragedies like hurricanes used to pull us together, but reports on the destruction of these storms is already old news, seemingly powerless to jolt us back to our collective senses. What was it President Lincoln said so eloquently? “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” A century later, Khrushchev said the same: “We do not have to invade the United States. We will destroy you from within.” Where on earth are the prophets in times like these, those rare voices who have the gift and courage to rise up from the fringes with the right words at the right moment for the right reason? We used to could count on them to shout out the truth, hoping on a wing and a prayer to find a listening ear–any ear at all–to force at least a small nucleus to THINK and CHANGE, and then begin the work of pulling society back from the madness. This division has spread like wildfire into political parties, elections, the White House, the workplace, our stadiums, congregations, communities, families, even…into our playgrounds.

As a church that encourages inclusion and reconciliation, I believe we have a grand opportunity to be a shining example of harmony and unity to a divisive nation.

Do you know how to tell if your church is unified? It’s not by the number in attendance on a Sunday morning. And it’s not by what is put in the offering plates.

I believe that one way is by how long people linger in the building when worship is over. For when people find genuine love, acceptance and belonging in a place, they tend to want to stay in that place. I noticed last week how some of you hung around after the service like you didn’t want to leave. And that was good to me. A unified church is a church where people find love, acceptance and belonging.

A unified church can be a respite from the chaos and hurt that is in our world. It can truly be a sanctuary, a place to receive peace beyond understanding.

As I mentioned last Sunday, after Bruce Birkhead spent a difficult week in the hospital his wife Kaye, unaware of what would transpire this week, when Bruce needed some peace and rest, when Bruce needed to recharge is soul, I loved that he came here to this place.

So, I believe we have a wonderful opportunity to be a leader bringing peace to a divided nation. We have the opportunity be the rare prophetic voice that Rev. Ballance says our nation needs, those who posses the gifts and courage “to rise up from the fringes with the right words at the right moment for the right reason.” With our example of how to be a united blessed community we have the opportunity to “shout out the truth” to “pull society back from the madness.”

Let’s look again to the words of the one who seems to be speaking directly to us this morning:

Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

We can be the prophetic voice that is needed to heal our nation with the humility of Christ.

And as First Christian Church in Fort Smith I believe we have a unique opportunity, as we are a people with diverse beliefs, different views, assorted experiences, various interpretations of the scriptures; yet we still come together each week with mutual respect for one another, in grace, in love and in humility around this table, united as one.

However, as good as our church is, I am afraid we still have some work to do, some obstacles to overcome. Because the truth is, that when many people today think about church, the word “humility” is not something that comes to their minds. In fact, it is the exact opposite that comes to their minds: words like “haughty,” “judgmental” and “uppity.”

Sadly, sometimes the church has been the cause of some of our nation’s division. So, when I say we have some work to do, I am saying that we need to go full-steam in the other direction.

Think of what a powerful witness we would be to our divided nation, if everyday, we literally and figuratively practiced humbly bending ourselves to the ground in the way of our God!

For when God wanted to reconcile the world unto God’s self, when God wanted to unite the world, God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, as a humble servant. God bowed down, down to meet us where we are, down to earth through a humble baby, laid down in a humble manger, worshipped by humble shepherds.

The gospel writers continually paint a portrait Jesus as one who is continually lowering himself in humility.

When his disciples chastised little children who needed to shape up and grow up before they be a part of God’s Kingdom, Jesus bent down down and welcomed them saying that the Kingdom of God actually belonged to such children.

While his disciples bickered about who was going to be promoted to be first in the Kingdom, Jesus taught them another way by doing things like stooping down to wash their feet, moving down to sit at the lowest seat at the table, crouching down to forgive a sinner, reaching down to serve the poor, lowering himself down to accept the outcast, touch the leper, heal the sick, eat and drink with the sinner, and raise the dead.

And nearing the culmination of this downward life, Jesus, the savior of the world, made his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to liberate God’s people, not on some white war stallion that made its way up the equestrian ladder, but on a borrowed donkey. And he rode into Jerusalem not with an elite army that had advanced up the ranks in some up-and-coming militia, but came in with an army of rag-tag followers who had no idea what they were doing or where they were going.

While people exercise worldly power to move up, climb up, and advance, Jesus exercised a prophetic power that always propelled him in the opposite direction.

In the wilderness when he was tempted with worldly power, we watched Jesus embrace another power.

It is not a power that rules. It is a power that serves.

It is not a power that takes. It is a power that gives.

It is not a power that seizes. It is a power that suffers.

It is not a power that transforms stone into bread to feed his body. It is a power that transforms his body into living bread to feed the world.

It is not a power that commands angels to save himself. It is a power that gives himself away.

It is not a power that dominates from some high place in glory. It is a power that dies in a low place called Golgotha.

This is the narrow, humble, downward, descending way of Jesus toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless–toward all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.

And the good news is that as I look around this room, I see people who are committed to traveling this same downward path.

I see people who have chosen to be here this morning, not to get ahead, not to feel more righteous or superior than others, not to get something here in worship that will make you more successful, more affluent, climb a little higher. You are not even here looking to be uplifted, or to be more upbeat. I see people here who have chosen to move in the opposite direction.

I see a room full of people who are here not to get something, but to give something, not to be served by programs, but to serve on a mission.

Because you have heard, and you have believed Jesus when he said: “Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

May this always be who we are as a church.

May we come here each Sunday morning to embrace a mission of humility, sacrifice and selflessness. And then may we go out on a mission, bending ourselves down to the ground if we have to, to touch the places in people that most need touching. May we go out and stoop down to welcome all children. May we go out and reach down to serve the poor, lower ourselves down to accept the outcast. May we go out and get down on our knees to pray for and suffer with the sick and the despairing.

And by our humble example, may our divisive nation be inspired come together, be united as one, and together see our Lord “highly exalted…”

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

 

Invitation to the Table

As part of the world-wide community of Christians, we remember Jesus’ meal with his disciples.

The different languages you will hear today are symbols of the diversity of Christian experience, both close to us and around the world.

Jesus sets the table and his welcome extends to all of humanity.

People of all ages, of all genders, of all cultures, of all economic conditions are welcome here.

No one can earn a place at this meal. Come of your own choice. You need only desire to follow the downward way of Jesus.

Bring your hopes and your history. Bring your deliberations and your doubts.

Come with those who differ greatly from you and be reconciled as one.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Although it sounds good to be an up and coming church, I commission us to be a church that is always down and going.

May we go out in humility, bending ourselves down to the ground if we have to, to touch the places in people that most need touching.

May we go out and stoop down to welcome and accept all children. Crouch down to a child in a wheelchair who has been told their entire life: “No You Can’t!” and tell them: “Yes You Can!”

May we go out and reach down to serve the poor, lower ourselves down to accept the marginalized, and may we get low, get down on our knees to pray with all who suffer.

And, there, as low as we can go, may this church be a shining example in a divisive nation of harmonious humility and revolutionary reconciliation.

And now may the communion of the Holy Spirit of God who came down to us in a stable and the grace of the Christ who knelt down to pick up his cross, be with us now and forevermore. Amen.

 

 

The First Easter Word

 

Easter Welcome

Sermon delivered at the 6 PM service  following the first Enid Welcome Table Meal, Easter, 2017

John 20:19-23 NRSV

The very first word that the risen Christ brought to his fearful and anxious disciples who denied and abandoned him was: “PEACE!” “Peace be with you!”

It was the same word that was proclaimed at his birth by the angels: “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!” And it was the last word that came from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“PEACE!” It is the word that every human being living in this fragmented world needs to hear from our risen Savior.

Thus, after Jesus pronounced the word to his disciples, he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The Church has been commissioned by none other than the risen Christ to share this word with others. “PEACE!” It is the word people need to hear from the church more than any other word, and it needs to be the very first word that they hear from the church.

However, sadly, even after nearly 2000 Easters, churches all over this world have ignored this commissioning. And tragically, the very first words that many hear from the church are words that denote the exact opposite of peace.

The first words they hear from many in the church are words of judgment and condemnation. They hear loud, angry, hate-filled rants and protests. They hear words judging them as not only sinners, but as “abominations.” In the name of God, they are condemned by those who justify their hate with the same type of Christ-less scriptural interpretation that was used to support sexism, slavery and racial discrimination.

They may hear reserved words of welcome to come in and sit on a pew, but they clearly get the message right away that they are not to expect to truly become a part of the church. They are not to expect to be able to use their gifts to serve with and alongside those who have been deemed worthy for service. They are not expected to be truly accepted, forgiven, and loved.

However, I believe the Risen Christ still speaks to his disciples today. He is still saying to us that first word of Easter, “PEACE;” and is still saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

For God knows that there are people in every town, at every crossroad,  who hunger and thirst for a community of people in our world who have the audacity to truly live as followers of Christ who take the commission of their Risen Christ seriously to share “PEACE” with all people.

They are yearning for a church that seeks to be, not an institution or club of moral and devout people with right religion, right beliefs, right color and right lifestyles, but a church that seeks to be the living embodiment of the Risen Christ in this world, serving, loving, accepting and embracing the poor, the lost, the broken, the fearful, the grieving, those riddled with guilt and shame, and those whom society has rejected as outcasts, offering them the unlimited hope, unfettered grace and unreserved love that is in that first beautiful first Easter word, PEACE.

Joseph: More than a Name – Remembering Joseph Scott Thorne

Joseph's Coat of Many Colors
Logo Designed by Joseph Scott Thorne for His Handyman Ministry
Genesis 32:22-30; 37:3

Since Scott and I became friends fifteen years ago, he and I had numerous conversations about his name. Although he did not have a big problem with his middle name Scott, the name by which he was most commonly known, he actually preferred his first name Joseph; because, like the Jewish people of the Bible, Scott understood that names are important.

Joseph was his favorite name for a couple of reasons. First, Joseph reminded Scott of Jesus’ earthly father, the selfless carpenter who had the privilege of raising the savior of the world.

Although Scott was always quick to admit that he was no carpenter, Scott did consider himself to be a pretty decent handyman. And not only was he a decent handyman, Scott was a most selfless handyman. As far as I know, Scott never profited from any of his labor.

I could literally stand up here for the rest of the day and talk about the countless mission projects that Scott worked on voluntarily in Farmville for the First Baptist Church, for Monk Memorial Methodist Church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church and the Farmville Community Soup Kitchen. Scott spent incalculable hours, many times working all through the night, painting, refurbishing, repairing, restoring and landscaping.

Scott also shared his talents by working on many homes that needed repair throughout eastern North Carolina. Additionally, Scott volunteered at a homeless shelter in Tarboro doing whatever they needed him to do. And just this past summer, he helped our church build a handicap ramp for someone in Farmville, as he built many handicap ramps in this community with the West Edgecombe Baptist Church.

Scott would do anything that you needed him to do, and Scott never expected anything in return. In fact, Scott volunteered to serve, without pay, on staff of the First Baptist Church in Farmville as the Church Sexton. Anytime anything needed repairing or refurbishing, the church could count on Scott.

Along with local mission projects here in eastern North Carolina, Scott traveled to Gulfport, Mississippi to repair homes with the First Christian Church of Farmville after Hurricane Katrina. Scott and Bridget also traveled to Moldova on a mission trip with the Oakmont Baptist Church of Greenville.

Like the Good Samaritan, Scott never passed up any opportunity to help someone in need. And he literally never passed anyone on the side of the road who needed assistance. I bet no one in this room has changed more flat tires for strangers than Scott Thorne.

Scott was always volunteering to do things for me personally. Scott repaired my lawnmower, repaired my son’s electric scooter, repaired my washing machine, repaired my dishwasher, repaired cracks in my sheetrock, caulked my windows, painted my ceilings and spread pine straw around my bushes. Scott was the consummate giver, always doing whatever he could do to selflessly help others.

Like I said, I could talk all day about Scott’s selfless ministry, but Scott would not want me to do that. Because Scott’s favorite name was Joseph.

Scott preferred the name of a selfless handyman who had the honor of raising the savior of the world, yet in the scriptures, does not utter a single word. Scott’s favorite name was Joseph, the name of one who selflessly gave himself to the world, yet never drew any attention to himself and never asked anything in return for his selflessness.

Scott also loved the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, the favorite son of Jacob. In fact, Scott’s dream was to start a ministry based on this story called: Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors. Earlier this year, he designed a logo that he wanted to put on an enclosed tool trailer to use to offer his many gifts with any who needed them, whether it was painting a church or a house or repairing a washing machine. Bridgett said that the T-shirts Scott ordered with the Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors logo were just delivered to their home.

The following are Scott’s words that he put on Facebook earlier this year to describe his dream:

I am trying to start up a new ministry to occupy my time and serve God. Over the past eight years, I have done much needed work on four churches and on many homes of elderly and disabled community members. My wife and I want to continue this ministry. I am not asking for money from my family or friends, only prayers. This type of ministry is not expensive. I always refer back to the time I helped a widow who had a broken shower. She took pan baths for six months, because her hot water nob in her shower was broke. With less than four dollars for a part and with a few tools, I was able to change her life. All I asked was for her to know that God loved her and for a hug. Please lift me and my wife up as we plan a more detailed and organized ministry. The “many colors” in our ministry name represent many aspects of our ministry.

I am not sure I can even remember the last time Scott introduced himself to anyone as Scott. He always introduced himself as Joseph. Sometimes Joseph Scott Thorne; but never just Scott Thorne.

Like the people of the Bible, his name was important to him. Moreover, Scott also understood that names have the peculiar power to bless or to curse. Like few others we know, Scott understood the popular lie that we have been taught by our culture that sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us.

Scott understood that names do hurt. He would agree with David Lose, President of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia who has written:

“Whether they are names we have been called by others, or those we have called ourselves, names can exaggerate our inadequacies or herald our failures; names can expose our weaknesses or pay tribute to our bad decisions.”

It was no secret that Scott suffered with mental illness. Scott suffered with it, and in a world that does not treat mental illness like other diseases, Scott also suffered for it.

And I believe it needs to be said today, and said clearly, that Scott did not take his life. The disease of mental illness took his life.

Scott would be the first to admit that he had a disease. He would often say something to me in jest that was simply hilarious. For example (now, remember I am a pastor): “Hey Jarrett, why don’t you and I go out tonight, buy us some lottery tickets, get us a case of beer and a carton of cigarettes and just have a big ol’ time.”

Or, after he joined the staff of First Baptist Church as our Sexton: “Hey Jarrett, I am going to get me some business cards that read ‘Joseph Scott Thorne: Sexton. It’s not what you think.’”

I would say, “Scott, you’re crazy.”

And each time he would respond, “Yeah, and I’ve got papers to prove it!”

On some days, Scott could joke about his mental illness. But on many days it was no laughing matter.

It was no secret to anyone that Scott struggled; not just recently, but for much of his life. Some days he felt as if he was blessed by God, but other days, perhaps most days, he felt as if he had been cursed by God.

And more than anything, all Scott wanted was to know that he was blessed by God.

This is the real reason I believe Scott’s favorite name was Joseph. Joseph: the favorite son of Jacob, the fulfillment of the promise of God to Jacob.

None of us will ever understand Scott’s struggles, much like we will never understand the struggles of Jacob. Much like Scott, Jacob also struggled with his name. Jacob, literally, meant “heel,” as he was named for grasping the heel of twin brother Esau in the womb to prevent him from being the firstborn. And ever since that day, Jacob lived his life grasping and struggling.

One might say that Jacob’s grasping and struggling came to a head one night on a bridge over troubled waters. It was there we are told that Jacob wrestled all night. No one knows exactly with whom Jacob wrestled or what monsters assailed him in the dark of that night. Perhaps it was his hopes and his fears; his dreams and his nightmares; his present and his past; his regrets and his hopes. Was it a demon? Was it an angel? Was it an enemy? Was it a friend?

Whatever it was, the struggle was real. The struggle was spiritual. The struggle was mental. And the struggle was even physical, as he dislocates his hip during the fight.

Jacob, realizing that he is in the presence of something real, but at the same time, something supernatural, asks for that which he had always yearned, to be blessed. Because more often than not, Jacob believed that he was somehow cursed.

It is here that the story takes a strange but wonderful twist as Jacob’s opponent demands to know Jacob’s name before he will bless him. But names in the biblical world are never simply names; rather, they are descriptors, tell-tales, indicators of one’s very character.

And Jacob’s name, literally, “heel,” is no exception. Jacob was the one who was grasping to be blessed by God even before he was born. And he’s been grasping ever since, struggling to make sense of the world and to find his place in it.

In asking for his name, the demon or angel or enemy or friend was demanding that Jacob confess— confess his grasping and struggling, confess his pain and brokenness, confess his fears and failures, confess that he can no longer live in this world the way he has been living.

And when he does, when he confesses that he is at the end of his rope; when he confesses he has simply had it with his life; when he confesses that he has had all that he can stand; when he confesses that he wants the pain and the suffering, the dark voices of torment lurking inside his head and in his soul to finally be silenced, something extraordinary happens. Something miraculous happens.

Amazing grace happens. Unconditional love happens. Eternal salvation happens. Resurrection happens. Because God happens. God shows up, and God refuses to allow Jacob’s name, Jacob’s ceaseless struggles, Jacob’s relentless grasping, to define him forever.

So, God gives Jacob a new name, a name that signifies to the world that although he struggled his entire life, struggled with humans and with God, struggled with angels and with demons, he has prevailed. He has finally and eternally prevailed. He has seen God face to face, and his life has been preserved.

Thus, Jacob enters a new future with a new hope. Jacob is given a new name and a new life, a name and a life that he passes down to each of his descendants, but somehow, especially to Joseph, his favorite son, his favorite name.

Joseph: It is just a name. But, it is much more than a name.

Joseph: the favorite name of the one who had been grasping so.

Joseph: the favorite name of the one who had been struggling so.

Joseph: the favorite name of the one you had been yearning to be blessed by God so.

Joseph: the fulfillment of the promise of God to the one who found himself at the end of his rope.

Joseph Thorne, your name means that your dark struggle on the bridge over troubled waters is over.

Joseph Thorne, your name means that although the fight with unseen monsters appears to have gravely wounded you, the good news is that you have prevailed.

Joseph Thorne, your name is the revelation to the world that you have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith, and you have struggled with humans and with God, with angels and with demons; with others and with yourself, and you Joseph, you Joseph Thorne have won.

Joseph Thorne, you have finally been given that which you have always yearned. You have finally been blessed by your God. You have been wholly, completely and eternally blessed.

Joseph Thorne, you have seen God face to face, and your life is now whole, complete and eternal; your life, Joseph Thorne, has truly been preserved.

Lifted up for Service

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This sermon was preached for Scout Sunday at First Christian Church on February 8, 2015.

Mark 1:29-39 NRSV

These few verses found in the end of the first chapter of Mark, paint perhaps the most beautiful portrait of who our Lord is, how our Lord acts, and what our Lord desires. Listen to them again, carefully, prayerfully…

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.

Do you hear the immediacy, the urgency in this passage? “As soon as they left…” “…at once.” I hear a lot of people talk about God’s timing. They say that God will bring healing or restoration in God’s own time. They say that God’s time is usually not our time. And they say that God has reasons for God’s delay. I believe this passage teaches us that the Lord wants to heal us and restore us now: not tomorrow, not some day or one day, but today, right now, at once. It is not the Lord’s will for any of us to ever be sick, broken, or even have a fever.

Therefore, when we are sick or broken, when we are suffering in any way, we must understand that it is not because God has some twisted reason or some purpose-driven plan for it. And since suffering is not the will of God, and since we are loved by God, then when we suffer, God also suffers and is doing all that God can do to bring healing, wholeness and restoration.

He came and took her by the hand…

Perhaps more than anything else, I believe it is the will of our Lord to come to us and take us by the hand. When I was a child I learned a wonderful song:

Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water

Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea

Take a look at yourself and you will look at others differently

Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee

Of course, we put our hands in so many other places to receive wholeness, peace and security.

Instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord, we often put our hand, our trust, in our own hands. We believe that if we can somehow work hard enough, serve diligently, industriously, thoroughly, and persistently enough, then we can achieve or earn wholeness or peace. We put our hands, our trust in our own hands instead of in the hands of the only one who can save us. Ephesians chapter 2 teaches us: “For by grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord, we also put our hands, all of our trust, in the hands of others. My granddaddy was not a pastor, preacher, or scholar, but he was sometimes quite the theologian. One thing that he said, and said often, was: “There’s only one man that you can trust in this world, and that is the Good Lord.”

However many of us put our trust in the hands of so many others. We put our hands in the hands of the government, in the hands of our friends and neighbors, even in the hands of the church. Then we become disillusioned when they sooner or later disappoint us. The 118th Psalm reminds us:

 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever. Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on my side I do not fear. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.

And instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord, we also put our hands in our own pockets. We put our trust in our wealth and our material possessions. Our sense of well-being, wholeness and security comes from our bank accounts, 401-k’s, our homes, automobiles and clothing. In chapter six of the Gospel of Matthew we read the warning:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The good news for all of us this day is that Jesus, the Son of the God of Heaven is coming to us, and he wants to take us by the hand and give us a peace that the world simply cannot give (John 14:27).

Jesus came to her and lifted her up.

When we put our hand in the hand of the Lord, the Lord lifts us up. Preacher and Princeton Theological Seminary professor Nancy Gross observes: “There is no shortage of “down” from which people need to be lifted up. Down today are jobs, wages, the economy, church membership, our hopes, and our children’s futures. Take your pick, add your own.” The good news is when we are down in the dumps, down with despair, down with disease, down with a fever, when we put our hand in the hand of Jesus, Jesus always lifts us up.

It is important to realize that being lifted up, being healed and being made whole, does not necessarily mean in the physical sense. I do not know of anyone who has suffered as much as Alawoise Flannagan. Right now, I do not know of anyone who is more down, more low physically than she. However, when I saw her this week, when she opened her eyes and miraculously asked me how my family was doing, I saw a woman who was more whole, more lifted up spiritually than anyone I know. It was evident that, even in the midst of great suffering, that Alawoise had placed her hand in the hand of the man from Galilee, and that man had lifted her up.

Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

It is very important to notice that when her fever left her, she got up and began to serve them. We are lifted up. We are healed. Then we serve. We are lifted up for service. Jesus makes us whole, not only for ourselves alone, not to simply feel better, more hopeful and more alive, but for service to others. As Ephesians chapter 2 reads: “God will enable us [lift us up] to continue on in righteousness and to do the good works which the Lord has appointed for us.”

Like Alawoise, John Barefoot also possessed spiritual healing and wholeness, a remarkable strength and joy in the midst of great suffering. At his memorial service, I pointed out that God did not lift him up, give him that strength and fill him with that joy just so he could watch a few more NC State ballgames on TV.

As it was evident to Gayle and Mark when Alawoise miraculously asked me how my family was doing, it was evident to all who encountered John—to all who saw his smile, heard his laughter, experienced his joy—that God was the source or his strength.

Right before Christmas, a group of parents and children from our church came to John’s house to sing Christmas carols. Some who were there, including me, were not a part of any church a couple of Christmases ago. We had been struggling with what we believed about the Church, what we truly believed about Christmas.

But there, standing around John’s bed with others from the church singing Christmas carols, through John, something miraculous happened. God spoke. As we watched John donning a Santa hat and wearing a smile that was so amazing that it had to be from Heaven, as we watched him sing along with the children the best that he could, with this amazing joy, a joy that had to come from God, Christmas became real. Faith became real. God became real. Church became holy.

There is no telling how many people have been served through Alawoise and John’s amazing strength and joy in the midst of suffering, through God’s amazing grace in the midst of their lives.

This morning, I want to thank the Boy Scouts who are present today for the unique manner you make our scripture lesson come alive each day in our world.

First of all, you are young. You are strong. When the Lord lifts you up, he can lift you high. But more importantly, you live your lives by a sacred oath or promise which begins: “On my honor, I will do my best.” And how do you do you your best?

By first doing your duty to God, by first putting your hand in the hand of Jesus, for that is the only way you can truly serve your country and to obey the Scout Law. For it is Jesus who takes you by the hand, lifts you up, gives you strength, keeps you mentally awake and morally straight so you can help other people, serve other people at all times.

How Low Can You Go?

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 Luke 14:7-11 NRSV

Looking around this room tonight fills me with so much hope for our world. For I look around and see a generation that is up and coming. I look around and see a room full of energetic youth with high ambitions. I look around and ask, “My God, how high can they go? How high can these young men and women, these future leaders of the world, go?

You were probably taught at a very early age that up high is where it is at, and no doubt you spent the first eighteen years of your lives trying to grow up, graduate high school and then possibly pursue an even higher education. All so you move up a little higher in this world. And after all of your graduations, you will work hard to make sure you are always upward bound: up for a promotion so you can move up the ladder. For up, up highis how our society measures success.

Up high, we are told, is where we will find our life, a life that is full, complete, satisfied, and abundant. Up high is where we are able rub elbows with others who also shaped up, grown up and moved up. Up high is where we find what we call the “in” crowd. They are the “up” and the “in” as opposed to the “down” and the “out.”

So we set goals that are high. We seek to make high marks, achieve high grades, meet high expectations.

The message of nearly every motivational speaker or life coach in America today is all about how to shape up and move up, aim high and soar high.

After all, who in their right mind would want to move in the opposite direction? Who wants to change directions from up high to down low? As the late Henri Nouwen one of my favorite preachers, has said: “Downward mobility [in our society] is not only discouraged, but even considered unwise, unhealthy or downright stupid.”

Can I get an “Amen?” Come on now, really? Who in their right mind would want to lower themselves? What mind must you have to want to humble yourself, move to and sit at the lowest seat at the table, lower yourself to the ground to wash another’s feet, descend down the economic ladder to relate to the poor, be with and love the down and out?

What kind of mind? As Adam Greene read a few moments ago, the mind of Christ.

When God chose to reveal to the world a life that is full, abundant and eternal, God’s will for all people, God chose a life of downward mobility. God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, humbled God’s self, lowered God’s self and came down. Down to meet us where we are, down to earth as a lowly baby, born in a lowly stable, laid down in a feeding troth to worshipped by down and out shepherds.

The scriptures do say that Jesus grew upward in stature; however, the gospel writers continually paint a portrait Jesus’ life as one of downward mobility. He is continually bending himself to the ground, getting his hands dirty, to touch the places in people that most need touching.

While his disciples seemed to always focus on privilege and honor and upward mobility, chastising little children who needed to shape up and grow up before they could come to Jesus, Jesus argued that the Kingdom of God actually belonged to such children.

While his disciples argued about who was going to be promoted, who was going to graduate to be the first in the Kingdom, Jesus frustrated them (and if we are honest, frustrated us) by doing things like moving down to sit at the lowest seat at the table, bending down to wash their feet, stooping down to welcome small children, crouching down to forgive a sinner, reaching down to serve the poor, lowering himself down to accept the outcast, touch the leper, heal the sick, and raise the dead.

While others exercised worldly power to graduate and move up, climb up, and advance, Jesus exercised a strange and peculiar power that always propelled him in the opposite direction. It is not a power that rules but is a power that serves. It is not a power that takes but is a power that gives. It is not a power that seizes but is a power that suffers. It is not a power that dominates but is a power that dies.

And nearing the culmination of his downward life, to save the world, Jesus went to highest seats of power in the capital city of Jerusalem, not on a white stallion with an elite army of high ranking soldiers, but riding a borrowed donkey with a handful of ragtag students who never even got a GED. The whole scene of Jesus riding that donkey, in the words of Henri Nouwen, looks “downright stupid.”

This is the narrow and seemingly foolish way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus toward the poor, toward the suffering, the marginalized, the prisoners, the refugees, the undocumented, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless–toward all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.

And what do they have to offer? Those who are down and out in our world cannot offer success, popularity, riches, or worldly power, but they do offer the way to life, full, complete, abundant and eternal.[i]

So tonight, filled with hope for the world as I look around this room asking, “My God, how high can these young men and women, these future leaders of the world go?” I am also asking with even greater hope for the world and the Kingdom of God, “My God, how low can they go? How low can these young men and women, these future leaders of the world, these future leaders of the church go? How low can they go to fulfill the divine purposes that you have for each of their lives?

My hope is that you are here tonight, not to ask God to help you move up to be with the “in” crowd. Not to find something here in worship that will make you more successful, more affluent, climb a little higher. I hope you are not even here looking to be uplifted or to be more upbeat or for some kind of upstart to get this new chapter in our life headed on an upswing. My hope is that you are here in worship tonight because you have chosen to move in the opposite direction.

My hope is that you will always want to continually go down, get low, lose yourselves, die to yourselves, to live for Christ. For you have heard, and you have believed Jesus when he said: “Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

Although it sounds good to be a part of the up and coming generation, my hope is that you will be a generation that is always down and going. May you always go down, get low, sacrificially and selflessly. And then go out bending yourselves down to the ground if you have to, to touch the places in people that most need touching. May you go out and stoop down to welcome and accept all children, to love on those in hospitals and nursing homes. May you go out and reach down to serve the poor, lower yourselves down to accept the outcast and the marginalized, and may you get low, get down on your knees to pray for the grieving and the lost.

And, there, as low as you can go, may you truly find your life, your purpose in this world, one that is full, complete, satisfied, abundant and eternal.

 

[i] The sermon is inspired by this paraphrase from Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 138-139.