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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Keep Your Eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-3)


So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.  Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.  He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.
Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up.

Today’s message is one of the more unusual and difficult to put together in my four years as your pastor.  It is not just any sermon, but a final sermon, a farewell sermon, a benediction to bless you as you have blessed me.

Today is my last Sunday as your pastor before I begin as the pastor of Morehead United Methodist Church in Greensboro.  Today is a day of mixed emotions for me – on one hand, excited to be going to a great church, to cut my daily commute from 25 miles to 12, and none of those miles along I-77 (can I get an “Amen!”), and for a new chapter and all the promise and possibility that holds.

On the other hand, moving forward into that next chapter requires leaving behind so many of the wonderful people who have been a part of my life for four years.  So many of you have blessed me in ways large and small.  I am grateful for the countless ways you have supported me, for our relationships, for the ways you have been open to the subtle and not-so-subtle movements of the Holy Spirit, for the ways you have grown in your faith and for the ways you have pulled together to make this church better and stronger.  It has been an honor to have a front-row seat to watch you grow as the love of God and neighbor expands in your hearts, that all people may know and experience God’s grace through you.  You should not be surprised when you hear these words one day: “Well-done, good and faithful servant.”

I am leaving you in the hands of another good and faithful servant in Pastor Carol, who is excited to begin as your next pastor.  I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hand things over to someone who has been a good friend of mine for the better part of 11 years.  Many of you have met her already; is she not great?  The rest of you will have an opportunity to meet her, and I know you’ll quickly grow to love her.  I can’t wait to see what God is yet to do through all of you and Pastor Carol as you work together to be the church God wants you to be.  I look forward to hearing her tell about what a happy and fulfilling ministry she is having here, and I expect each of you to try to outdo one another in being her biggest cheerleader and supporter.  Deal?

Today, the word of God for all people comes to us from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the 12th chapter, verses 1-3.  It represents my sincerest hope and prayer for you as I depart:

So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.  Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.  He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.
Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up.

If I may summarize: “Keep running the race.  Stay the course.  Look at the wonderful people – past, present, and future – God has surrounded you with!  Keep your eyes on Jesus.  Train yourself toward him.  Train yourself to be like him.  Whatever you do, don’t give up.  Keep your eyes on Jesus.”

The Christian life is a journey, and here in Hebrews, a long-distance foot race.  Any long-distance runners among us today?  I am not a runner – I know you’re shocked – but I know enough about running to know that you don’t just wake up one day and decide to run a marathon.  What do you have to do?  You have to train.  Serious long-distance runners train for months, sometimes years, for one big race, slowly building their endurance and capacity, not trying to get there in one fell swoop but growing, growing, growing.

Being a follower of Jesus is very much the same.  We may commit our lives to Christ in an instant or over time, but being a follower of Jesus, deepening in our faith, expanding in our love of God and neighbor, takes a lifetime of training and stretching, challenging and growing.  Following Jesus is a discipline.  It’s a commitment.  It’s a lifestyle.  But those who commit to it find it not to be a burden, but one of life’s greatest blessings.

In many sports, the adage is often “Keep your eye on – the ball.”  Keep your eye on the ball.  Why?  It’s pretty simple, actually, because “What you see – is what you get.”  If you can’t see the ball, you’re not likely to get the ball.

Many of you know I enjoy playing golf.  If I am starting to consistently mis-hit shots, the first thing I check is where I am looking, and nine times out of ten, it’s not at the ball.  Now, I think I’m looking at the ball!  I’d swear I’m looking at the ball!  But in reality, before I’ve come through, I’ve picked my head up and by the time my club comes through and makes contact with the ball, I’m looking 300 yards down the fairway while the ball is still at my feet.

I’m looking where I hope the ball is going to be, where I’d like for the ball to be, but that’s not where the ball is.  You ever do that with Jesus?  Look for him where you’d prefer for him to be, rather than where he actually is?

Keep your eyes on Jesus.  What you see is what you get.  If you’re focused on Jesus, guess what you’re going to get?  Jesus.  And if you’re not focused on Jesus, then what do you get?  What you see is what you get, and I want you to get as much Jesus as you possibly can!

Keep your eyes on Jesus.  Now, that’s not an easy thing, sometimes.  There is so much to distract us, so much to take our attention away from Jesus, extra baggage, things that trip us up, so God has given us some help in the form of training partners – a great cloud of witnesses who surround us, encourage us, challenge us, and hold us accountable in love for staying focused on Jesus.  Look around at the great cloud of witnesses who have assembled here today – what a gift you have been given in this particular community.  Your job is to cheer each other on, despite whatever obstacles and challenges you may come across, keep cheering each other on and supporting each other and keeping your eyes on Jesus.

The cloud of witnesses who surround us are not only those we see here and now.  The cloud stretches back into the past and off into the future to include all followers of Jesus of every time and place.  I can’t help but think of all of your loved ones who have left this life and gone on to the church triumphant, especially those I have had the honor to bury over the last four years:
·        Mary Edythe Britt
·        Alma Efird
·        Thelma Elkin
·        John Foster
·        Jo Gurganus
·        Wylene Hinkle
·        Frank Honeycutt
·        Lucretia Kinnaird
·        Bob Kinnett
·        Marie Landis
·        Mary Bryce Langford
·        Margaret Levan
·        Clint Maxey
·        Ellie Stratton
·        Mildred Walker
·        Jetta Williams

Think for a minute of their example, the way they ran their race, kept their eyes on Jesus, embodied Christlike character, lived lives full of God’s love and grace.  Has the witness of any of those people made a positive impression on you?  They have finished their course, but they have now taken their seats in the great grandstand of life and are cheering us on.

The great cloud of witnesses stretches off into the future, as well.  One of the things I love about being a pastor is welcoming new folks into the life of the church, as they begin their discipleship journey through the sacrament of baptism.  I can’t help but think of all those I have had the joy to baptize in my four years here:
·        Rowan Clarke
·        Robin Franklin
·        Stacey Perrow
·        Cameron Wilcox
·        Chance Franklin
·        Rob Vervoort
·        Adam Vervoort
·        Missy Meyer
·        Braxton Hudson
·        Adalynn Watford
·        Elle Neill
·        Cannon Davis

Friends, these do not represent the next generation of the church; for they are part of that great cloud of witnesses this day.  They are looking to us, as part of that cloud of witnesses, to run our race, to keep our eyes on Jesus and nothing but Jesus to show them the way.

Another way to think of the great cloud of witnesses?  Saints.  A young boy was once asked what a saint was. The only saints he had ever seen were the saints in the stained glass windows in church. So he replied very simply: “A saint is someone who lets the light shine through!”

Keep your eyes on Jesus, and his light will shine through you.

It has been my honor to run this leg of the race with you.  Keep running the race.  I won’t be here with you anymore, but I’m still rooting for you.  Just consider me part of the great cloud of witnesses that is cheering you on.  So, stay the course.  Look at the wonderful people – past, present, and future – God has surrounded you with!  Keep your eyes on Jesus.  Train yourself toward him.  Train yourself to be like him.  Whatever you do, don’t give up.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, so others can see Jesus through you.  I’ll be cheering for you.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Interrupting Jesus (Mark 5:21-43)


Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore.  Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward.  When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die.  Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.”

A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him.  A woman was there who had bleeding for twelve years.  She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better.  In fact, she had gotten worse.  Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes.  She was thinking, “If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed.”  Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him.  He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you?  Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’”  But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward.  Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth.  He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, be healed from your disease.”

While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died.  Why bother the teacher any longer?”

But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid, just keep trusting.”  He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother.  They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly.  He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about?  The child isn’t dead.  She’s only sleeping.”  They laughed at him, but he threw them all out.  Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was.  Taking her by the hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.”  Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around.  She was 12 years old.  They were shocked!  He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened.  Then he told them to give her something to eat.

 

Have you ever been interrupted?  How does it feel when someone interrupts you?

Life is full of interruptions.  Despite our best efforts and diligent planning, many things do not turn out exactly as we had hoped or expected.  As Robert Burns famously wrote, “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry” (To a Mouse, on Turning Up in Her Nest with the Plough, 1785).  Our best plans and preparation are prone to interruption.

Sometimes an interruption is just an interruption.  But sometimes, life’s interruptions are an opportunity for God’s love to break through our best-laid plans.

In today’s Scripture from the 5th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has just returned to the western side of the Sea of Galilee.  It’s said that sound travels quickly across water, which must be true: news of Jesus’ calming the storm and casting out demons has made it back across the sea before he did.  A large crowd is there to greet him, they are pressing in close, and they want to see what else Jesus is going to do.

Him

At the edge of the crowd stood a man named Jairus.  He was one of the leaders in the synagogue, an important and respected person in town.  He was also father to a dying girl. 

Her parents named her Talitha, which means “beautiful little girl.”  It’s a term of endearment, and for Jairus, it may as well have meant “Daddy’s little princess.”  She was the apple of his eye, and no father has ever loved a daughter more than Jairus loved his precious Talitha.

About a year ago, six months before her twelfth birthday, she had gotten ill.  At first they thought it was some sort of a bug that would run its course and be gone in a few days, but she had slowly gotten sicker and weaker.  They had called in specialist after specialist, who came and ran tests, poked and prodded, diagnosed and prescribed - but she was no better.  She was slowly slipping away, and the well-known bouyancy in Jairus’ walk was replaced by the plodding pace of someone who carries too much of the world’s weight upon his shoulders.

Jairus was there to see Jesus, but here’s the problem: Jesus was a controversial figure, particularly among his fellow religious leaders.  There were some who thought Jesus was ok and even intriguing, but others viewed him with suspicion and contempt.  Jesus was a threat to every tradition they held dear, and he was turning the world upside-down.

Jairus knew, deep down in his heart of hearts, that Jesus was the only one who could help his daughter.  But, he also knew that going to Jesus would potentially put him at odds with his peers, cost him his reputation and standing in the community, possibly even cost him his job and way of life.  And look at this crowd!  He would most certainly be spotted.  There was no approaching Jesus secretly or quietly - coming to Jesus would most certainly be public, and being seen with Jesus could cost him everything.

What seems like a dilemma to us was a no-brainer to Jairus.  The unconditional love of a father wins out every time, and nothing - nothing! - is going to get in love’s way.  He pushes his way through the crowd toward Jesus, and Jairus - important, respectable, proud Jairus - falls to his knees at Jesus’ feet and says, “Please help.  My little girl needs you.  I need you.  Please, Jesus, help me.”

Jesus agrees to go, and tears of hope stream down Jairus’ face.  He jumps to his feet, grabs Jesus by the hand, and begins to lead him through the crowd toward his house.

Her

Jairus wasn’t the only one looking for Jesus that day.  Another familiar figure was slinking through the crowd, her posture hunched and her pace slow, also like someone with the world’s weight upon her shoulders.  She was stealthily, discreetly, creeping toward Jesus.

Her internal bleeding had gone on for 12 years now, and if the physical pain of that wasn’t bad enough, the social stigma that came with it was even worse.  “Unclean,” they called her.  Can you believe it?  Unclean!  She had been turned into an outcast in her own community, as even her own friends and family turned away from her.  She knew Jesus right away when she saw him, but she also recognized the man escorting Jesus through the crowd.  It was that man from the synagogue, the one who had turned her away on more than one occasion when she came to beg a few small coins from those coming to worship.  He had said it was just a matter of propriety – what would happen to everyone if he allowed an unclean person to enter in and mingle with the rest of the community?  “It’s not personal,” he always said, but it was certainly personal to her.

How can it not be personal to be cast aside and treated like yesterday’s garbage?  How can it not be personal to yearn for a deeper connection with a loving God, yet banned from making that connection by the very people who claimed to be closest to God?  How can it not be personal, when you desire the support of a loving community, yet the community treats you with judgment and exclusion?  How can it not be personal, when you’re desperate for hope, yet told by those around you that you are hopeless?

So she’s been told - unless, unless, unless - she can get to Jesus.  Lord knows she doesn’t want to create a scene and become the unwanted center of attention.  If she can just get close enough to feel the fringes of his garment run through her hand, surely that would be all she needs.

She crept closer.  No one was paying any attention to her.  Jesus and the synagogue leader were walking this way.  Jesus was going to walk right past her, and as he passed, she reached out and the trailing edge of Jesus’ robe whispered across her open palm, so lightly that the fabric didn’t even tug or buckle, but it was enough!  She knew she was healed, and no one would have to know how it happened.

Except, Jesus wouldn’t let it go.  Sensing that power had gone out from him, he immediately began to look around and ask, “Who touched me?  Who touched me?”  Jairus, having seen the woman creeping through the crowd, secretly prayed, “Please God, anyone but her, anyone but that woman, anyone but that unclean woman.”

He knew that if it had been her, she would ruin everything.  If she had touched Jesus, now he would be unclean, and unable to come and pray over the leader’s daughter until he had been ritually purified, and by then, it would be too late.  What business did this woman, this unclean woman, have touching someone as important as Jesus.

She knew she wasn’t going to get to stay incognito, so she might as well come clean.  Embarrassed, she mumbled, “I did it.  I reached out for you, Jesus.”

Jairus’ heart sank, and then he became furious.  Didn’t she see that Jesus was on his way somewhere important to do something important for someone important, and they didn’t have the time for this interruption?  But, before he could even blurt out, “Who do you think you are?” Jesus tells her and everyone around who he thinks she is.

Jesus

He says, “Daughter, you faith has healed you; go in peace.”  And that word, “daughter,” pierced Jairus like an arrow.  “Daughter” is a word that means something to him.  He thinks of his own daughter and his love for her and his willingness to do anything for her, and then his mind flashes back to the ways he has treated this woman – the times he has run her out of the synagogue and crossed the street to avoid her - the ways he has treated her like a pain or a nuisance, and here Jesus is, calling her “Daughter,” a term not terribly different from “Talitha.”

Jairus’ head is still spinning from this revelation, but he’s starting to get the picture.  Jesus is addressing this woman with the same sort of unconditional love as Jairus has for his own daughter; could it be that Jesus loves this outcast woman in the same way?  And if that’s true, what might that mean for how Jesus loves every other outcast, every other person on life’s margins, every other person we have rushed to call “unclean?”  Could the love of God fill our hearts and lead us to see others as Jesus sees them - not as interruptions, but as somebody important, somebody who matters, somebody who is part of the family of God?

Jesus calls the woman, ‘Daughter,’ a term of affection and endearment that signals one very clear thing: she matters.  Jesus wouldn’t just let the healing go unnoticed because he wanted it known, publicly, how he saw her and loved her as his own.

My friend Logan served as the Associate Pastor to the American Church in London after seminary.  He had opportunity to be in a setting where the queen was speaking to an audience of about 200 people.  During her speech, someone’s mobile phone started ringing.  She stepped back from the podium, politely folded her hands, looked at the person and said, “You might want to take that - it could be somebody important!”

If the Queen of England herself looked at Jesus and said, “You might want to attend to that woman; she could be somebody important,” Jesus would say, “She is somebody important.  She matters.  She’s part of the family of God.

On that day beside the Sea of Galilee, Jairus came face-to-face with his own prejudice, which made him quick to call “unclean” someone who was, in reality, a precious part of the family of God, someone made in God’s image, someone meant for more than a life of cruel labels.  The woman who, at first he viewed as an interruption to his plans for Jesus, he came to see as someone who needed Jesus just as much as he did.

Jesus would heal not one, but two daughters that day.  Turns out there’s plenty of Jesus to go around.