The Spirit of Healing

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A few years ago, I was in Tampa for a church conference in a part of town that had a lot of homeless folks around. I have to be honest that when I saw the folks standing on the street looking for handouts, I didn’t stop to respond. I spent a lot of time diverting my eyes, or politely saying I’m sorry and moving on quickly.

Until a man on a bench asked me for some money for food.

I went through my usual explanation – I don’t have cash, I’m in a hurry, I’m sorry… and kept moving.

But I got about 25 feet from him and I stopped.

I knew that I could help him. I knew there was something I could do.

The Holy Spirit filled me up and turned me around and before I knew it, I was introducing myself to Fred and taking him across the street to Quiznos.

I really was in a hurry, but I stood in line there with him and he ordered a nice hot sandwich and we talked about his life. He had lost his job and had moved here looking for work. He hadn’t found any. He was waiting for his unemployment check to catch up with him and until it arrived he had nothing, so he was staying in a shelter.

He was hoping to be back on his feet in a week or two… but I had the feeling that this was only the beginning of a tough road for him.

I knew I couldn’t fix all of his problems… but I could get him a nice, hot dinner. As we parted ways outside the door, he gave me a huge smile and said, “God bless you.”

As we heard in our scripture this morning, a lame man was carried to the temple every single day to beg for the resources that would sustain his meager life.

He was begging for bread and water and shelter.

And when Peter and John encounter him – his life is turned upside down and would never be the same again.

It wasn’t a sandwich that stirred his blood – it was the power of the Holy Spirit and the name of Jesus Christ that strengthened his weak legs. This broken man stood up leaping and laughing.
He ran in through the temple gates and made a joyful exuberant scene – praising God for the chance at new life.

I want to invite us to look at this story from a couple of different angles this morning.

First, from the perspective of Peter and John.

After the ascension of Jesus, these two had found themselves leaders of a small movement – three to four thousand people were now following their guidance and were committing themselves to the way and the teachings of Christ.

Each person had given up everything they knew before in order to support and care for and nurture this precious new community. They had gone all in with their time, money, and talents.
One of the primary things they did together was to worship and pray. One of the customs of the Jewish faith is to pray three times a day – morning, afternoon, and evening – as a way of keeping your whole life focused on the Lord.

And so it is not surprising that these two are on their way to the temple for the 3:00 prayer.

They walk to the temple, passing through the same gate they may have entered hundreds of times before, passing the dozens of beggars who would often gather along the way.

I think to fully understand this story of healing, we need to understand the culture of begging that would have been present. It was present in downtown Tampa, some of our participants on the VIM Trip to Memphis experienced it, and it would have surrounded Peter and John at the temple.

Bob Deffinbaugh describes his experience with a begging culture in India this way:

There were so many beggars there was no way one could respond to all of them. The solution was often not to “see” any of them. But the beggars made this difficult. Those who were mobile would press themselves on you. They would approach your taxi at an intersection, tugging at your sleeve and pleading for help. Those not mobile would call our for charity. The beggar would be aggressive, something like the salesmen as you try to walk through the appliance section at Sears. You would concentrate on not seeing them as they converged on you, and you hurried to get through the section before you were trapped.

Living in the midst of this culture, you train yourself to ignore them, because you simply cannot respond to the needs of all.

Maybe you occasionally stop and help one person to make yourself feel better.

But you don’t make eye contact. You keep moving.

Peter and John are walking along the same road they do every day and they see countless beggars along the path.

What is different about today? Why do they stop? Why do they reach out to this particular man?

I think Peter and John felt that tug on their heartstrings that caused me to turn back in Tampa. It is the feeling we get when we encounter someone that God is inviting us to help – even if we might not have the confidence, or money, or resources to do so.

Peter and John felt that tug of the Holy Spirit and knew there was something they could do for this man.

They had not a dime in their pockets, no food to offer, nothing that could satisfy this man’s earthly needs, except for their faith in Jesus Christ.

These two disciples knew that was enough.

They had once been sent out to preach and heal and teaching with nothing but the clothes on their back. They had learned through practice that God truly can be depended on, that God is our very present help in times of trouble. They knew that faith could move mountains… and if it can move mountains than it can certainly help this lame man to walk.

They looked him in the eye, they reached out their hands in faith, and the lame man leaped for joy.

Every day, you and I pass countless people who are broken and hurting.

They may not be sitting on the street corners and their pain might not be visible to the naked eye, but if we look closely – we can see the strain of tension by the eyes, we can hear the waver in the voice, we feel the frustration and despair in the way they move and live in this world.

And because it is so common, we keep walking. The world we live in is begging and crying out for healing and we don’t have the heart to pay attention because it might overwhelm us.
Listen to those promptings of the Holy Spirit that stop you in your tracks.

God will give you everything you need to share with that person the hope and faith and love you have experienced through Jesus Christ.

You know, sometimes we have the opportunity to be Peters and Johns – going through our daily lives and coming across the opportunity to heal someone.

But we are also the lame beggars who sit by the gate.

Each of us has a whole host of problems – aching backs, sore knees, family disagreements, conflicts in our marriage, struggles with our children, sinful pasts and temptations in the present, stress around deadlines and finances, cancer, disease, death.

You name it, this community has experienced it or will experience it.

But unlike the lame beggar, we tend to hide our struggles. We don’t sit with them out in the open for all to see, but hold them close to our hearts and silently wait for an answer.

This lame man knew he couldn’t remain at home and do nothing. So every day, he convinced someone to carry him from where he slept to the Beautiful Gate.

For nearly forty years he had done this daily.

He went to the temple, to the place of God, and begged.

I wonder if sometime during the last year or two, he heard rumors of Jesus passing by.

I wonder if he had heard about the miracles taking place all around Jerusalem.

Maybe Jesus had walked through that very gate, but that man was too weak or too quiet, to catch his attention and to ask for a miracle for himself.

Maybe he didn’t feel worthy, like a lost cause, a hopeless mess.

It doesn’t matter how sick you are, how broken or how sinful; the grace of God has time for you.

The Holy Spirit has time for you.

And so even though our beggar could not even look them in the eyes, Peter and John stopped in front of him and healed him.

He leapt for joy.

Some of us have experienced miracles, healing, and forgiveness… and we know that when we have, we cannot go back to life as it was…. nothing will ever be the same.

I must admit, I always have a deeply engrained “BUT” on the tip of my tongue whenever I talk about the power of healing and the miracle of faith.

I know too many people who have prayed for miracles that have never come.

Earlier this week, I got word that Greg Leonard passed away. We have been praying with the Harvey and Leonard families without ceasing for healing in his life and yet no cure was to be found.

I have watched with agony as so many friends and so many of you have prayed for healing for loved ones that did not come in this lifetime.

One summer, I worked as a hospital chaplain and watched one young woman healed and watched another die within a week. Both had leukemia and both were clutching their faith.

Sometimes, I think we hide our problems, our disease, or our sins because we are afraid that we will be found wanting.

We are afraid that if we tell the truth, everyone will know we “didn’t have enough faith” for the answer we desire to come to pass.

Friends, prayer is not magic.

It is not an incantation we can repeat over and over in order to get what we want.

Prayer is a relationship with God. A two-way relationship.

And sometimes the answers we receive are not the ones we initially begin praying for.

Sometimes we receive the gifts of peace and comfort instead of cures.

Sometimes we hear a calling to be strong and to share our faith with others in spite of the pain we are experiencing.

Sometimes the answer to our prayers is that we ourselves have to change – that we need to forgive or give up a lifestyle that was harming us or move away from a difficult relationship.

But in the miracles of healing in the scripture and in my experience, Jesus or the disciples never told someone to go out and find more faith and THEN come back and be healed.

No, the words the Holy Spirit speaks into our hearts are: “be still and know that I am God… trust in me and my goodness… I am with you… Do not be afraid…”

Sometimes, as is the case with our lame beggar, the healing comes in the present moment.

Sometimes, complete healing and wholeness only comes after our time on this earth is over.

But still we pray, and still we have faith, and still we trust, because we have a relationship with the One who is able to bring some goodness and beauty out of the brokenness of our lives.

Today, we are both disciples and beggars.

We can both offer prayers of healing for others and we can ask for healing in our lives as well.

One of our primary gifts, one of our strengths, a huge piece of our vision is prayer… and this room is filled with people who believe in the power of miracles and that God truly can work for good in our lives.

I want to invite us to claim that gift today and before you leave the sanctuary this morning, I encourage you to take time to talk with someone, to listen to their prayers, and to pray with and for them.

Cries for Healing

“I alone am left. “

That was what Elijah had started to believe in his heart, as Trevor shared with our congregation last week.

But Elijah was not alone.  He was not the last of the faithful prophets.

In fact, right there in that very cave, Elijah hears the name of the one who would succeed him – Elisha.

Elisha was no one special.  He was the son of a wealthy land-owner but not immune to labor and work.  And so when he is called, he tells his family goodbye and follows Elijah. For seven or eight years, he serves as his apprentice until Elijah is taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot and Elisha takes up his mantle.

And all summer, we will be exploring the everyday people who received an extraordinary calling to serve God in their time and place.

 

Lest we forget that these are simply every day people, one of the very first “miraculous” acts that Elisha performs is to get revenge on a bunch of kids that call him “Baldy.”

In 2 Kings chapter 2 – Elisha is walking down the road when a group of young people start taunting him for his lack of hair… “Get going, Baldy!  Get going Baldy!”

So, he curses them and bears appear out of nowhere and attack the youth.

No one is perfect.

 

Elisha answers his call to guide the people by warning the kingdom of ambushes, and has a role in the downfall of the house of Ahab.  He speaks God’s word about who will be king in both Israel and in Syria.

In the midst of political intrigue and the constant fighting between nations, Elisha’s story is also deeply woven with signs that the power of God was present in the lives of the people.  He was a great wonder-worker and filled with the Spirit of God he brings healing and resurrection, he multiplies loaves and creates food in the midst of famine. Water springs forth with a word and a song. And these miracles are for both the leaders and for the overlooked and downtrodden.

I find great comfort in that.

Because in our time and place, like Elisha’s, famines and disaster, war and politicking are an ever present reality.  The problems of this world are so big and seem so out of our control.

And sometimes it is hard to even imagine that God would listen to the cries of someone like me… like us.

But in the midst of even our individual pain and brokenness… God is present.

 

One of the most famous of these miracles of healing done by Elisha was that of the Aramean military commander, Naaman.  He was a great warrior and helped to lead raiding parties into Israel to capture and conquer.  Yet he lived with leprosy, a skin disease that greatly bothered him.

In our text for this morning, we discover a number of ways in which God works to bring healing to our lives… in spite of our preconceptions, our pride, and our inability to see the providential love of God at work.

 

First, God brings healing through providential bystanders.

Donald McKim describes God’s providence as “God preserving creation, cooperating with all creatures and guiding or governing all things toward the accomplishment of God’s purposes.”   Or, as Carrie Mitchell puts it:  “God employs ordinary people to act in extraordinary ways.”

 

In the story of Naaman, it is the voice of a young Israelite woman, a servant in Naaman’s household that points his way towards healing.

She has no name in this story and she had been captured and taken far from home, against her will.  And yet, in spite of her lack of power or agency, she allows God to use her to bless another.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bystanders this week, especially in the wake of the national conversation about the Stanford sexual assault case.  Two young men, who happened to be passing by, made a difference in that young woman’s life.

One of the realities of our human story is that we are not immune from pain and violence, tragedy and illness.  Our bodies our fragile, our spirits are bent towards sin, and we harm one another through our action and inaction.

But we also have the fantastic capacity to help.  In those moments when we become aware of the pain, suffering, and tragedy of another, God is guiding us, directing us, shouting out for us to hear the call to be a difference maker and work towards healing and hope in another’s life.

It is the prompting of the Spirit that causes us to turn around when we would have walked past.  It is that tug of the heart that calls us to speak a word of comfort or to reach out with a personal touch.

And that is exactly what the young servant girl did.  She knew the power of God was with Elisha and so she used her voice to speak a word of good news to her troubled master.

You may be an ordinary person, but wherever you are, if you are paying attention, God can and will use you to bring healing and hope into another person’s life.   Maybe God is calling you to visit someone or to pray for them.  Maybe God is inviting you to point someone in a different direction or refer them to someone who can help.

Pay attention to where you might be in just the right place at just the right time to bring healing and hope.

 

Second, God’s healing is bigger than our faith.

One of the fascinating parts of this story is that it is about the healing of an enemy.

That young servant girl is only in Naaman’s household because she was captured on a raid.  There is conflict and distrust between Israel and Aram… further evidenced by the way in which the King of Israel tore his clothes when the request for healing came.  He thought it must have been a trap, an enticement to war… rather than an opportunity to show the power of his God.

The king’s distrust in this moment put both his enemy AND his God into a box.

When we look upon another person and are not willing to see the possibility of transformation in their life, it is easy to write them off.  We do it with enemies, but we also do it with people who have disappoint us, or who are different than us.

And when we are not willing to see God work in the lives of the people we have written off, then we miss the opportunity for transformation in our own lives.

Last fall, I was part of the Right Next Door conference and we explored what it means to really listen to the stories and lives of people who are just down the street.  Sometimes, the label we attach to another person:  poor, felon, addicted… keep us from sharing the transforming love of God with them… AND keep us from seeing how the transforming love of God is already at work in their lives.

When we read this story of Naaman, what we discover is that the point is not even the healing of Naaman, but the way that Naaman is brought to faith because of the healing he experienced.  Elisha offers to heal him, even though he’s not part of the elect of Israel. Even though he is an enemy.  Even though he doesn’t believe in Elisha’s God.  And as Naaman returns from the river, he declares:  “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.”

And if we refuse to see God working in the lives of the other, we miss the opportunity to be transformed ourselves.

 

Finally, God’s healing doesn’t always look the way we want it to.

This is perhaps the most important lesson of our scripture this morning.

As Naaman finally got the opportunity to meet Elisha, he was greeted by a servant instead of the prophet.

The instructions seemed too simple and Naaman stomped away in anger.

When we pray for healing, we are initiating a conversation with God and the answer we get back is not always the answer that we want.

Healing does not always happen according to our plans and I have no simple answers as to why that is.

Sometimes we get miracles.  Sometimes we are invited into a difficult journey that is full of joy and sorrow.  Sometimes healing comes in the next life instead of this one.

All that we know is that this scripture, as Haywood Barringer Spangler puts it: “discourages our tendancy to look for God’s work in terms of our own desires or expectations. Naaman’s healing does not occur as he expects, but as God chooses.”

We are not immune from tragedy and we cannot always see God’s picture of this world.

Prayer is not a magic word.  Rather, it is a relationship where we both cry out and we must be silent and listen.  When we pray for healing we stay in the conversation, in a relationship with our God so that we might be comforted in our suffering and so that we might start to hear and understand God’s will is in the midst of our pain.

 

Today, we have the opportunity to pray for one another.  We have the opportunity to bring our prayers and concerns, our hurts and pains and to place them in God’s hands.

May we be the answer to another’s prayers.  May we look for God to work in unexpected people and places.  And may we listen as much as we speak so that we can understand God’s healing presence in our own lives.

 

Amen.

 

Renegade Gospel: The Red-Letter Rebel

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There was a challenge issued TWICE by Mike Slaughter in chapter one of this Renegade Gospel book we are examining during this Lenten season: to read through one of the gospels and pay specific attention to the red letters… to the words of Jesus… spoken there.

I pulled out my bible and started with Luke. Luke is the gospel assigned for this particular Lenten season according to the powers that be. It is the gospel we will be following most weeks during worship.

The very first time Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel, it is in the synagogue in his hometown and he is preaching.

Jesus reads from Isaiah, explains a bit about what he has read, and makes everyone so angry they drive him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.

I really hope you don’t try to do that to me this morning!

Now, many of his words, like the ones we find today in the reading (Rod/Natalie) just shared with us, are words of healing or forgiveness or calling.

“Woman, you are set free from your sickness” (Luke 13:12)

But almost every single time, like we found in our reading today, when Jesus does so, he really makes people angry.

He calls the wrong people, he forgives the unforgiveable, he heals on the wrong day…

The synagogue leader, in this particular healing, was “incensed” (as my bible puts it) that Jesus was healing on the Sabbath.

And all of this anger and frustration on behalf of the system was slowly coming to a boil, as we find just a few verses later.

As our reading continues, the Pharisees (the religious leaders) are plotting together with the political leader, Herod, to be done with Jesus for good.

Now, Herod’s father was the one who had tried to kill Jesus as an infant because he thought he might be a threat to his power.

And this Herod has already beheaded John the Baptist.

Both Herod and the religious leaders were upset about the populist movement stirring up in response to the ministry of John and Jesus.

As Mike Slaughter writes in Renegade Gospel:

“Jesus could never be perceived as a protector of the status quo” (p. 27)

 

I think the same is as true today as it was then.

Jesus is never satisfied with things the way they are, because Jesus has a vision of the way things can and should be.

He is constantly getting into trouble for doing what is “right for the sake of people” … even if it was against “the rules.”

I think, at the core, Jesus is always pushing the status quo, always challenging us to do more and to be more faithful, because his goal is nothing short of the Kingdom of God lived out on earth… and friends, we aren’t there yet!

Those of us gathered in this room are incredibly blessed… even if we struggle… because we have more resources at our fingertips than most people in this world.

But even here, in a great city, in a great state, in a great country, can we agree that we’re not in heaven yet?

And the KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding us to. The KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding the political and religious leaders to. The KINGDOM OF GOD is the standard.

And so even today, as a modern religious leader of the Christian faith, I read these words of Jesus and I am still challenged and pushed to really think about the teachings I share with you and how I call us to live them out together.

And all of those harsh words Jesus has for the Pharisees…. well, they are for people like me, too. Because too often, as your leaders, we have simply not preached the gospel! We haven’t shared the vision of the Kingdom of God and we haven’t given you the tools to truly be the Body of Christ, in the world, helping to bring that Kingdom to fruition.

 

And friends… I think that’s what we, the Body of Christ, are supposed to do.

When I re-read Luke’s gospel, over and over again, Jesus asks us to not only hear his words, but to obey them. Just on a glance back through this morning, I counted at least 9 times (Luke 6:47, Luke 8:21, Luke 9:48, Luke 10:1, Luke 10:28 & 37, Luke 11:28, Luke 12:1, Luke 18:22)… Jesus asks us to not only hear but to do them. To live them. To go and do likewise.

We are trying to be faithful Christians and put into practice what Jesus says.

And, here is the good news I discovered in these commands to “go and do likewise.”

Jesus is NEVER angry at ordinary people who doing the best they can to live out their faith.

He never shames them.

He never scolds them.

He invites them! But he doesn’t get mad at them for where they currently are in their journey of faith.

He is never upset with someone if they aren’t ready to do it. Jesus simply sends them on their way. Maybe another day, in a different sermon, they’ll be ready.

 

In our United Methodist tradition, we call this “going on to perfection.” Discipleship is a lifelong journey and you are wherever you are today without any judgment.

We are called to be like Jesus, and we fully acknowledge and admit that we aren’t there yet!

And why would we be? Jesus is divine! The Son of Man AND Son of God. The standards are the very KINGDOM OF GOD!

We are mere mortals, trying to live up to the standards of the divine.

There is a quote by Barbra Brown Taylor in her book, “The Preaching Life” that has always stuck with me:

Over and over, my disappointments draw me deeper into the mystery of God’s being and doing. Every time God declines to meet my expectations, another of my idols is exposed. Another curtain is drawn back so I can see what I have propped up in God’s place – no, that is not God, so who is God?

It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough or finished. Pushing past curtain after curtain, it becomes clear that the failure is not God’s but my own, for having such a poor and stingy imagination. God is greater than my imagination, wiser than my wisdom, more dazzling than the universe, as present as the air I breathe, and utterly beyond my control. (p. 10)

Every day, when we read the gospels, we pull back the curtain, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, and we discover that we aren’t Jesus yet… we still have a ways to go!

We still have discoveries to make about what it means to be a faithful Christian.

But here is the beautiful and amazing thing about “going on to perfection”…

Every day, we also have an opportunity to grow more faithful.

Every day, we also have a chance to be more loving.

Every day, we also get to be a better Christian than yesterday.

 

The words of Jesus are NOT easy. The standards he sets for us are incredibly high! You know, Kingdom of God level!

But even in the midst of those Kingdom standards and Jesus’ never ending call for us to respond accordingly, there is grace upon grace upon grace.

One of my favorite lines in the chapter for this week from Mike Slaughter was this:

Although Jesus always called his followers to enter the small gate and take the narrow road to the Kingdom, he repeatedly taught mercy and relationship over rigidity and judgment. (p. 28)

And he points to Peter as the prime example.

You know Peter… the disciple who constantly questioned Jesus motives and got it wrong.

You know, Peter… the one who fell asleep in the garden.

You know, Peter… the one who denied Jesus three times when he needed him the most?

Jesus has ridiculously high standards. But when we don’t meet them… when we fail… and we will… Jesus keeps welcoming us back.

Keeps loving us.

Keeps showing mercy and love.

Keeps pouring God’s sanctifying, perfecting grace into our lives so tomorrow we can pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and try it again.

There is life and power and love and grace and mercy in the red-letter words of Jesus.

Jesus is constantly pushing our world through these words to rebel against what is… in light of what could be.

Jesus is asking us to examine ourselves, our church, our world, and to ask:

Can we be greater tomorrow than we are today?

Can we be more like Christ tomorrow than we were today?

Can this world look more like heaven tomorrow than it does today?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Always.

Thanks be to God.

Good News and Good Works

in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.I’ve had some conversations recently about the work of Imagine No Malaria from folks who are concerned that we are doing good, but we aren’t sharing the gospel.

My first response to that question is to seek out and share more stories about how lives are being changed and, yes, saved, because of the work we have done.  We are seeking more of these types of stories from those who work in the field and can tell us about how and where the word of God is being planted and bearing fruit through the work we are doing with Imagine No Malaria.

My second response is to push back against the divide between the good news and good works.  The book of James reminds us they are like two sides of the same coin, that we can’t have faith without works.  Matthew 25 reminds us that our faithful response is to care for the least of these.  The good news Jesus preached was about more than simply eternal salvation – it was about release for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind.  It was both now and later.  Salvation is already and not yet.  When we share food and shelter and health with those who do not have them, we are sharing the gospel… we are showing them that God loves them, that we love them, and that we love because we were first loved.  We begin the relationship that plants seeds and waters sprouts and eventually bears fruit.

One reality of our missionary work over the last 160 years in Africa is that we have often built churches and clinics and schools side-by-side.  We have not necessarily made strict separations between good works and good news… they are one and the same.  We are focused on saving lives in all sorts of ways – through a relationship with Jesus, through literacy, through health, through empowerment, through justice, through hope, through the scriptures, through systematic change.

Today, I came across this blog post from a young man who I believe helps to put into words what has been on the tip of my tongue… when we heal the sick and empower the poor and are in relationship with those who are struggling – we aren’t just sharing the gospel, we are living it, we are making it known, and others will see.

I encourage you to read Greg’s story here, but the highlights for me and for our work:

…What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).

But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader…

…So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.

And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.

And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there’s a good chance that you’ve convinced them all of something about the Gospel.

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Our work on the ground is often done in partnership with other faith communities who share our concern for saving lives.  In a story written in 2010 about our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sheikh Usseni Faray talked about the importance of local congregations standing together in this work:

Government can only start things once and they stop. But us, we are the community representing the people, and we preach and work with the people all the time. So if they keep the church people involved, I think it will be a lasting program and many people will benefit.

We do these good works because we are people of faith and because Jesus sends us out to heal the sick and preach the gospel.  That gospel is shared through our actions, through every dollar we raise, through every net that is hung in a home, through every relationship built, and every life that is given a reason to hope.  Sometimes we are speaking and singing and praising the name of Jesus.  Sometimes we are simply present. And sometimes that is enough.

Photo: (top) in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. (right) A United Methodist church choir welcomes visitors to Kamina, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A delegation of United Methodist church leaders and public health workers visited Kamina in observance of World Malaria Day. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Shine Like Stars

Imagine No Malaria Guest Sermon – Advent 2

 

When we lit our advent candles just a few minutes ago, we were reminded that not everything in our scriptures is full of sunshine and roses.  Luke’s vision of the coming Messiah includes terrible signs and distress among the peoples.

As the Message translation of these verses puts it:

 It will seem like all hell has broken loose – sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.

We don’t have to look far to see those kinds of signs all around us.

Wars and rumors of war fill our news broadcasts.

Natural disasters have wreaked their havoc on our crops with drought and on our friends on the east coast with wind and rain and destruction.

Mayan calendars appear to have end dates and the fiscal cliff looms precariously in the very near distance.

Even in our scripture from Philippians, we were reminded that this world is filled by  a corrupt and perverse generation… a squalid and polluted society.

While it would be easy to point fingers, the truth is that greed, lust, anger, violence fill our favorite television shows and we don’t bat an eye when yet another child falls prey to child slavery or is forced into an army or work in a sweatshop.

This week, Bishop Hoshibata of the Desert Southwest Conference reminded me that what is truly perverse is that in this world of God’s goodness and abundance there is one corner over here where we have mountains of waste because of our riches and another corner over there where people have nothing.

What is perverse is that we spend until it hurts on things we don’t need in order to celebrate the birth of the child who is everything that we need.

What is perverse is that we live in a time and a place where we grumble and argue over the specifics of health care when there are children who are dying from a preventable, treatable, and beatable disease.

Malaria claimed a reported 655,000 lives in 2010.

And 85% of those who die are children under the age of 5.

D0455When we do the brutal math, that means that every 60 seconds, a child dies from malaria.

A child like this little, blessed child – Domingos.

Domingos weigned only 15.5 lbs when his family brought him to the hospital.  He had been sick for several days before the family brought him in for treatment… although we do not know why they waited.  Sometimes there is a long distance to go to the hospital… sometimes they need to scrape together the funds to pay for treatment… sometimes they are just hoping and praying that a child will get better on their own.

When Domingos was admitted, he was suffering from acute anemia and he couldn’t breathe.

Malaria is caused by a parasite that is transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito.  And when this parasite enters your blood stream it wreaks havoc on your body.  One of the ways that it spreads is by attacking your red blood cells, causing them to swell until they burst.  That lack of blood cells was the cause of his anemia, which in turn meant that oxygen was not being carried through his blood to his organs.

The doctors did what they could, but because Domingos was so small and his veins were so tiny, they were unable to give him the blood transfusion he desperately needed.  If there had a been a pediatric surgeon at that hospital, perhaps a vein could have been found.

Five minutes after this picture was taken…. 8 month old Domingos died.

The photographer asked what else might have saved his life and the doctor responded – “Oxygen.”  This hospital in Angola did not even have an oxygen tank.

 

With realities like these pressing in on us… with the weight of human sin and the fears of disaster… what are we to do?  Sit back and weep?  Crawl into a hole and hide?

In our candlelighting scripture, Jesus speaks directly to our burdened hearts:

When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near!

Your redemption is drawing near!

Do you hear those words, people of God?

Your redemption is drawing near!

The day when weeping and crying and hunger and sickness will be no more… that day is drawing near!

The day of the Lord is drawing near!

And seeing that day on the horizon, the apostle Paul left us with words to live by:

Do everything without grumbling and arguing so that you may be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt. Among these people you shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life.

Stand up! Raise your heads! Shine like stars in this world!  Be beacons of hope and light and life in this world full of darkness and disaster and death.

As people of faith, we know that there is nothing to fear because the Lord is on our side.

And we are called to tell the world the good news that not only has Christ come… but he will come again.

We are called to shine like stars in the dark night sky.

 

I’m here this morning, because I believe one of the places where we as a church can be a shining star for Jesus Christ is in this battle against malaria.

We, as the UMC, have only begun to let our light shine.  But bright already it has shone.

  • As United Methodists, our tradition of work in Africa spans over 160 years!
  • Together, at General Conference in 2008  we affirmed Global Health as an area of focus
  • Through a generous grant from the United Nations Foundation and out of the passionate response to Nothing but Nets the UMC created Imagine No Malaria as a comprehensive response to the devastating scourge of Malaria
  • Imagine No Malaria builds on the success of “Nothing But Nets” and takes it beyond, preparing us to engage public health in Africa not only with nets, but with a comprehensive and effective strategy that will attack all the killer diseases of poverty.

While we did amazing work before, Nothing But Nets was just that… nothing but nets.  But now we are fighting this disease with nets, treatment, education, communication and advocacy – our scope (and impact) are delivering life-saving results!

We are working together, our little stars shining bright, to say a resounding NO to hunger and poverty, illness and death.  We are speaking words of hope and life into places where there was despair and struggle.  We are answering God’s call to make a world of difference in the name of Jesus Christ.

So I want to share with you a few bright stars I see shining out there in the darkness.

1SL picThis little girl is Dodo.  She is five years old and has a twin brother Caliste.  By the grace of God, Dodo and her brother have made it to the age of five and their family is now protected from malaria because of the work of the United Methodist Church.  Dodo’s face lights up with joy as her dad hangs up an insecticide-treated mosquito net in their home…. And her little brother can be seen playing under the net.

And there are men and women, the people of the United Methodist Church in Africa, who are coming together to make communities like hers a healthier and more vibrant place.  We have already established 15 Health Boards throughout Africa and these community health care workers are attending a training so that they may return to their villages and bring education, sustainability, and accountability to our prevention and treatment efforts.

Each one of those people are a shining star who help their communities to stand up and raise their heads so they can work together to combat this disease.

But it doesn’t matter what age you are… each one of us can be a star for Jesus Christ.  SThese are school children in Nigeria who are teaching their families and their village about the effectiveness of mosquito nets.  This little boy near the bottom is playing the role of a mosquito who has been killed by the insecticide-treated net.

All across Africa, there doctors who are shining stars who combat this disease day in and day out.

I learned this week that in some of the places where our United Methodist Church has been actively engaging in Imagine No Malaria the longest  there is profoundly good news.  In some hospitals today, the doctors and nurses can now honestly say, “we cannot remember the last time we had a death from malaria.”

And that is because we… the United Methodist Church… has made this a priority in our churches.  Just this past week, I was in Washington, D.C. with over 100 United Methodists to learn and make our voices hear throughout the capital about our investment in this work of global health.

We were liberal and conservative, black and white, young and old.   This is something that we all get to do together, a call of God that not only unites us, but allows us to join with Jesus Christ in truly transforming this world.

Paul tells us that we are to chart a different course than the world that surrounds us.  We are to stand in the midst of the darkness and proclaim that there is another way.  We are to fill ourselves with the word of God so that we may act and shine and witnesses to God’s glorious future.

In our work with Imagine No Malaria, there are three specific ways that I want to challenge you to be a shining light.  Each one of us, no matter how old or young, can help shine by advocating, raising funds, and engaging your community.

When we advocate:  raise awareness, build support for this work.  Advocacy is really just finding a way to tell the story.  Be a witness and tell someone when you go home today about the good news that we are making a difference in this world!

But you can also help to raise the funds we need to make a difference.  Nets and medicine and training costs money… but even $10 makes such a huge difference.  In your advent offering this year, give what you can to save lives and be a light of hope for a family in Africa.

And if you feel called to do more… find me after worship and I have some pledge cards for you and your family to pray over and think about what more you might be able to do.

The last thing that each one of us can do is to engage our community.  All around you are people who are hungry to make a difference… people who want to help, but don’t know how.  In this great work, we get to not only shine, but one by one, we will add the voices and work and lives of others who can join us.  Don’t forget to invite your neighbors and your classmates and your co-workers to join us in this effort.

We get to be shining stars.  We get to answer the gospel and let the light of Christ shine through us as we heal the sick and feed the hungry and empower the poor and build relationships with those who are struggling.

D0279AI don’t know about you, but when I hear that invitation from God, I can’t help but stay YES!

Yes to saving lives.

Yes to a world of healing and hope.

Yes to moms like Marie here, who will no longer have to worry when she tucks her kids into bed at night.

Yes, God. Yes.  We want to shine like stars in the sky.  We want to shine for Jesus.

The Spirit of the Damascus Road

If one is going to preach through the book of Acts, you can’t leave out the story of the transformation and conversation of Saul/Paul.  It is a chapter I have heard many times, from many different angles, and recently heard powerfully preached by Bishop Palmer at our Iowa annual conference.

Sometimes, having an overwhelming number of angles going into a sermon is more of a burden than a gift.  There are so many things that you want to say that you aren’t quite sure where to start.  I opened up my bible on Monday, prayed for some focus, and picked out some hymns to send to my organist.  But my prep time was shorter than usual because that evening I got on a plane and flew to Akron, Ohio for our North Central Jurisdictional Conference.

The conference itself was fine. Time with friends and colleagues, conversations about the life of our church and where God was leading us, and worship were the main highlights.  The food was surprisingly good.  But in the back of my mind, I still was thinking about this sermon I had to write.

Just down the street from our hotel was a little cafe called The Damascus Road Cafe.  That’s funny, I thought.  That’s exactly what I’m preaching about!  I secretly hoped that maybe I’d find some clever little story about this restaurant that would give me a parable for my sermon.  Little did I know that I’d throw out my entire sermon to tell the tale of this cafe and the people who ran it.

Every morning, my roommate and I stopped by for breakfast.  The prices were fantastic and the food was delicious.  The muffins were huge and moist and dense.  The fruit was fresh.  The staff was friendly.  What’s not to like?  Every day, those of us attending the conference walked right by this little cafe from our hotel half a block away.  We bought sandwiches and coffee, soup and cookies.  The place was full of nice United Methodist folks with our huge name badges and conference bags.

And then on the last full day of conference, I started to hear the stories.  The story about how this little cafe had been struggling.  A story about the mom and dad and their five children who ran the shop.  A story about how the week before they looked at the bills piling up and began to pray for help.  The story about how they were only a week or two away from closing their doors.  The story about how the United Methodists showed up and they made more money in three days than they had in the three years before.  I’m not sure of the truth of all of those stories… but what I do know is that this family and business needed help and we showed up just in time.

On the last day, conference had ended and we had a few hours to wait until our flight.  So my roommate and I grabbed some coffee and cookies from the Damascus Road Cafe. We sat in the sun and talked through the week and couldn’t wait to get back home.  And then about 3pm, just before our rides were supposed to arrive, we walked back over to the cafe to grab a few sandwiches to go.  The two of us stood there at the counter while they began to close up shop and we started to talk.

They shared with us their gratitude that we had been in town that week.  They asked questions about my friend who was using a cane (Jessica was the one hit by the truck in Tampa two months before).  And then the guy behind the counter told the story of his own injury and healing.  He had a job that required a lot of walking and time on his feet and bone spurs had developed in his heel.  They were so debilitating that he was put on light duty and his job was on the line.  One day, he was doing laundry and his wife was in another room watching Pat Robertson and the 700 club.  He heard in the distance Robertson talking about a man who was being healed… a man who had bone spurs… pain in exactly the spot where HE had pain… and he ran into the main room.  “Honey, he’s talking about me!!!”  As he said the words, he felt warmth travel through his leg.  He felt the pain leave his body.  His bone spurs were healed, right then and there.

Now, those of you who know me also know that I don’t usually pay too much attention to Pat Robertson.  I’ve never watched the 700 Club.  And I’m sometimes skeptical of these kinds of healing stories.  But I was moved by his sharing, and even more moved when he and his family asked if they could lay hands on my friend, Jessica, and pray for healing for her foot.  They knelt down beside us and placed their hands on her ankle and foot.  We joined together in prayer, right there in the middle of the cafe.

The Damascus Road symbolizes for me a place of transformation.  A place where the past doesn’t continue to be the future.  A place where the pain and anger of previous times are replaced by light and grace and love.  That was why Saul couldn’t continue to carry his name around and had to change it.  It is why he left behind persecution and embraced the testimony of Christ.  And at the Damascus Road Cafe, we saw a little bit of hope sneak into a dark situation.  We felt healing and grace.  We saw community formed and relationships built.

That is the story I told on Sunday morning.  Not a tale of a guy on a road, but of people gathered in a cafe for prayer, fellowship, food, and grace.

Spirit of the Underdog

In 1887, a new term was coined in the English speaking world – the “underdog”… as opposed to the top dog – who was the dominant person in a situation or hierarchy, the winner, the victor in a fight or contest of wills. The term likely comes from the world of dog fighting, but soon the phrase was applied to politics, games, matches, and life in general.

We have seen the term “underdog” change from describing the outcome of a contest to the expectations for the outcome…. The underdog is the one who is expected to lose.  The underdog is the one facing the uphill battle.  The underdog is the victim of injustice who starts off at a disadvantage.  The underdog doesn’t have the power, the money, the strength, or the system on their side.

And our bible is full of underdogs… people who march into battle with nothing but slingshots to face a giant… people who head into the seats of power as prophets… people who fight with trumpets instead of swords… people who are not afraid of what might happen to their own lives if they speak the truth…

And in our journey through the book of Acts today, we find disciples who by all accounts are NOT the top dogs of society.  Their leader has recently been crucified, and yet still they go around working and witnessing and worshipping in his name.

As Zoe read for us, immediately after Peter and John healed the lame man in the temple they began to talk about Jesus and his power… and the powers of this world swoop in.  They are not happy, to say the least, and they throw the pair in jail for the night so that they will cease and desist.

The next day, a council comes together… the same sort of council that gathered around Jesus – questioning him and sending him off to be crucified.

Jessica Hagedorn, an American playwright and poet once said: “I’m an underdog person, so I align myself with those who seem to be not considered valuable in polite society.”

That is precisely what Peter and John have done.  Not only have they aligned themselves with the name of Jesus, but they have also aligned themselves with a poor, helpless, and up until yesterday – lame and useless man.

But right there on the margins, on the edge of society, is where the Holy Spirit moves.  And so even though they were standing in front of the High Priest, the elders, and the legal scribes… even though they knew the danger and the risk… even though they knew the outcome seemed grim – Peter was moved by the Holy Spirit to speak:

“Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.”

There the man stood.  The one who was lame for birth stood there – right next to Peter and John as a living witness of the power of Jesus Christ.  It was not a miracle done in the privacy of a home but in the middle of the temple and half of Jerusalem had seen it.  The leaders were shocked by the disciples confidence, overwhelmed by the support of the crowds that gathered for these  underdogs, and couldn’t figure out how to punish them and enforce their power without making themselves look bad.

Peter and John aligned themselves with the underdog – with the man on the bottom of society’s food chain… and for once that underdog was winning… the crowd was on his side… they were on the right side of justice.

In our society today – there are many people who are pushed around and broken.  Last week we talked about the power of prayer and the healing power of God, but God also calls us to simply stand with them.

We are moved by they Holy Spirit to stand with the widow and the orphan.  We are moved by the Holy Spirit to not just minister to the poor, but to get to know them and find out why they are poor and work to change that.  Our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ takes us to the dark and lonely corners of our community – to people who have no one – in order to reflect the light of God into their lives. We, like Peter and John, are called to pay attention to the underdogs and to stand with them…. even if it means that we put our own selves on the line.

I talked a few weeks ago about how even “the church” has been an agent of oppression and injustice in this world.  For a long time, we were on the wrong side of issues of equality for African Americans, justice for native peoples, and the inclusion of women in the pulpit.  But throughout our history, there have also been countless people who have said, “no,” to the church and who chose to stand with and for those people until they found a place at the table.  I am utterly grateful for those who became underdogs for my sake.

And so today, even if it means that I might get myself in trouble, I cannot ignore my calling to stand with underdogs.  Last week, we talked about how Peter and John were led to stop by the side of the road and heal the lame man… and in the same way, the Holy Spirit leads each of us.  We all have different issues that are close to our hearts, but whatever they are –  we have to act, we have to do something, we have to stand up for the underdog.  Maybe it is justice for the immigrant, or support for those fighting cancer, or kids who go hungry every day.  Maybe it is with single parents, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who feel excluded from the church.  Maybe it is with any parent facing the uphill battle of raising kids today.  Whoever it is, wherever they are… if they Holy Spirit calls you to stand with them and for them, go…  even if it means that you yourself become an underdog.

H. Jackson Brown, Jr. – the author of “Life’s Little Instruction Book”  once wrote:  “I never expect to lose.  Even when I’m the underdog, I still prepare a victory speech.”

And in the blessed hands of the Holy Spirit, you and I always have a victory speech ready, too.

In our passage from Acts, Peter and John found themselves in front of the high and mighty in the religious leadership and yet the Holy Spirit gave them the words to speak.

As I think more about it – their speech would have been the same whether they were facing commendation or condemnation.  They were simply speaking the truth:  This man was healed in the name of Jesus Christ who you rejected.  Praise be to God!

As much as the council wanted to throw the book at these two – the crowds were not on their side.  Even with all of their power, they couldn’t win.

I believe that this passage reminds us that neutrality is not an option.  When we choose not to speak or stand with the underdog than we have registered our vote with the top dogs.  The only reason that the council lost the power they held was because of the strength of the crowds – because they spoke the truth, because they were willing to put themselves on the line for justice.

When the Holy Spirit calls you to speak, you just might be the voice that tips the scales in the favor of the underdog.

With the crowds turning against them, the council had nothing left to do.  They tried to maintain their face and they scolded Peter and John and warned them to not preach in Jesus’ name again.

And Peter and John responded:  “We can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

As Christians, our victory speech is the testimony of our hearts about what Jesus Christ has done in our lives.  Everytime we tell it, it is good news.  Whether we are on the top of the pile or the bottom, it is good news.  On good days and on bad days, it is good news.

The musician behind the familiar song “Proud to Be An American,” Lee Greenwood once wrote:  It bothers me to know there is the possibility that I as a Christian would be not only an underdog, but that I would be trodden upon if I claimed that I was a Christian.

I have talked a lot this morning about standing with the underdog, but the very fact that we are Christians make us underdogs in this society.  We start out at a disadvantage.  We will be ridiculed, misunderstood, antagonized, and trampled on.  If we’re not… then we are doing something wrong 😉

I actually believe the beauty of the fact that we no longer live in a Christian nation is that we now have the freedom to truly live out our faith.  Without the blanket assumption that everyone is a Christian, people can see the difference between someone who claims to follow Jesus and someone who really does it.

Too many of us are afraid to associate with the name of Jesus.  We are afraid of being rejected and cast out of our families.  We are afraid of offending.  We are afraid of finding ourselves in a vulnerable position.

You are not alone.  You are in good company.  And for far too long, we as Christians have been timid of speaking the truth of our faith.  My prayer is that the Holy Spirit might move among us like it did among Peter and John and the disciples and early followers of the way of Christ.  My prayer is that we might be challenged to stand with the underdogs, that we might speak the good news in love, and that we might not be afraid to become underdogs ourselves.

Because you know, when the storms are raging and all the powers of this world seem to be against us – that is when Jesus’ power is seen most clearly.

Our children learned this week that with God on our side, we have nothing to be afraid of.  The wind and the waters obey him… the devil doesn’t stand a chance… the hungry are fed… the lost are found… the lonely are loved… all because of Jesus Christ.

Maybe the key to this story is the realization that we are not actually underdogs at all… in the grand scheme of things – we know in whom true victory lies.  Goodness is stronger than evil, life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness.  In the big picture – the powers of this world have nothing on the power of Jesus… they are the ones who will lose.  They are doomed from the start.

We can no longer despair at the pain and suffering because we know through Jesus Christ that all will be made well.

The question of Jesus keeps coming back to me… Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

Victory is already ours…. So lets boldly start proclaming the good news.

Spirit of Healing

When I was in Tampa for General Conference, I saw a few folks on the street who were looking for handouts.  And every time, I diverted my eyes, or I politely said “I’m sorry” and kept going.  Except for one instance.  A man on a bench asked me for some money for food.  I went through my usual explanation – I don’t have cash, I’m in a hurry, I’m sorry… and kept moving.  But I got about 25 feet from him and I stopped.  I knew that I could help him.  I knew there was something I could do.  The Holy Spirit filled me up and turned me around and before I knew it, I was introducing myself to Fred and taking him across the street to Quiznos.  I really was in a hurry, but I stood in line there with him and he ordered a nice hot sandwich and we talked about his life.  He had lost his job and had moved here looking for work.  He hadn’t found any.  He was waiting for his unemployment check to catch up with him and until it arrived he had nothing, so he was staying in a shelter.  He was hoping to be back on his feet in a week or two… but I had the feeling that this was only the beginning of a tough road for him.

I knew I couldn’t fix all of his problems… but I could get him a nice hot dinner.  As we parted ways outside the door, he gave me a huge smile and said, God bless you.

As we heard from Acts chapter 3 – a lame man was carried to the temple every single day to beg for the resources that would sustain his meager life. He was begging for bread and water and shelter.  And when Peter and John encounter him – his life is turned upside down and will never be the same again.  It wasn’t a sandwich that stirred his blood – it was the power of the Holy Spirit and the name of Jesus Christ that strengthened his weak legs… and this broken man stood up leaping and laughing.  He ran in through the temple gates and made a joyful exuberant scene – praising God for the chance at new life.

I want to invite us to look at this story from a couple of different angles this morning.

First, from the perspective of Peter and John.  If you remember from last week, they had found themselves leaders of a small movement – three to four thousand people were now following their guidance and were committing themselves to the way and the teachings of Christ.  Each person – and especially Peter and John as leaders – had given up everything they knew before in order to help support and care for and nurture this precious new community.

One of the primary things they did together was to worship and pray.  And so it is not surprising that these two are on their way to the temple for the 3:00 prayer.  It is a custom in the Jewish faith to pray three times a day – morning, afternoon, and evening – as a way of keeping your whole life focused on the Lord.

So they walk to the temple, passing through the same gate they might have entered hundreds of times before…. and probably past dozens of beggars along the way.  In fact, maybe we can’t fully understand the story unless we appreciate the culture of begging that would have surrounded them.

Bob Deffinbaugh describes his experience with beggars in India this way:

There were so many beggars there was no way one could respond to all of them. The solution was often not to “see” any of them. But the beggars made this difficult. Those who were mobile would press themselves on you. They would approach your taxi at an intersection, tugging at your sleeve and pleading for help. Those not mobile would call our for charity. The beggar would be aggressive, something like the salesmen as you try to walk through the appliance section at Sears. You would concentrate on not seeing them as they converged on you, and you hurried to get through the section before you were trapped.

Living in the midst of this culture, you train yourself to ignore them, because you simply cannot respond to the needs of all.  Maybe you occasionally stop and help one person to make yourself feel better.  But you don’t make eye contact.  You keep moving.

Imagine Peter and John walking a path they have every day and seeing countless beggars along the road.  As I thought about my experience in Tampa, I have to ask.. What is different about today?  Why do they stop?  Why do they reach out to this particular man?

Peter and John stop that day intentionally.  They, too, were filled with the Spirit and knew that there was something they could do for this man.  They had not a dime in their pockets, no food to offer, nothing that could satisfy this man’s earthly needs… except for their faith in Jesus Christ.

We each have times in our lives when we feel that small tug on our heartstrings.  And as the people of God – even though we might not have confidence, or money, or resources, we do have faith.

Our two disciples were familiar with this concept because they had once been sent out to preach and heal and teaching with nothing but the clothes on their back.  They had learned through practice that God truly can be depended on, that he is our very present help in times of trouble.  They knew that faith could move mountains… and if it can move mountains than it can certainly help this lame man to walk.

They looked him in the eye, they reached out their hands in faith, and the lame man leaped for joy.

Everyday, you and I pass countless people who are broken and hurting.  They may not be sitting on the street corners and their pain might not be visible to the naked eye, but if we look closely – we can see the strain of tension by the eyes, we can hear the waver in the voice, we feel the frustration and despair in the way they move and live in this world.  And because it is so common, we keep walking.  We don’t have the heart to pay attention because it might overwhelm us.

Listen to your heart.  Listen to those promptings of the Holy Spirit that stop you in your tracks.  Stop, listen, and share with that person the hope and faith and love you have experienced through Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we have the opportunity to be Peters and Johns – going through our daily lives and coming across the opportunity to heal someone.

But we are also the lame beggars who sit by the gate.

Each of us has a whole host of problems – aching backs, sore knees, family disagreements, conflicts in our marriage, struggles with our children, sinful pasts and temptations in the present, stress around deadlines and finances, cancer, disease, death.

You name it, this community has experienced it or will experience it.

But unlike the lame beggar, we tend to hide our struggles.  We don’t sit with them out in the open for all to see, but hold them close to our hearts and silently wait for an answer.

This lame man knew he couldn’t remain at home and do nothing.  So every day he convinced someone to carry him from where he slept to the Beatiful Gate.  For nearly forty years he had done this daily.  He went to the temple, to the place of God, and begged.

I wonder if sometime during the last year or two, he heard rumors of Jesus passing by.  I wonder if he had heard about the miracles that had happened.  Maybe Jesus had walked through that very gate, but he was too weak, or too quiet, to catch his attention and to ask for a miracle for himself.  Maybe he didn’t feel worthy, like a lost cause, a hopeless mess.
It doesn’t matter how sick you are, how broken or how sinful… the grace of God has time for you.  The Holy Spirit has time for you.  And so even though our beggar could not even look into their eyes, Peter and John stopped in front of him and shared their faith – they healed him.

He could do nothing but leap for joy.

Some of us have experienced miracles, healing, and forgiveness… and we know that when we do, we cannot go back to life as it was…. nothing will ever be the same.

I must admit, I always have a deeply engrained, “BUT” in my soul whenever I talk about the power of healing and the miracle of faith.

I know too many people who have prayed for miracles that have never come.

I watched with agony as my friend, Doug, prayed for healing for his wife that never came.

In my time as a hospital chaplain, I watched one young woman healed of lukemia, and watched another die within a week from the disease – both clutching their faith.

I believe that sometimes, we hide our problems and our sins; we refuse to tell others about our disease, because we are afraid that we will be found wanting.  We are afraid that if we tell the truth, everyone will know that we “didn’t have enough faith” and that the answer we want will not really come anyways.

Friends, prayer is not magic.  It is not an incantation that we can repeat over and over in order to get what we want out of this world.

Prayer is a relationship with God.  A two-way relationship.  And sometimes the answers that we recieve are not the ones we initially begin praying for.  Sometimes we recieve the gifts of peace and comfort instead of cures.  Sometimes we hear a calling to be strong and to share our faith with others in spite of the pain we are experiencing.  Sometimes the answer to our prayers is that we ourselves have to change – that we need to forgive or give up a lifestyle that was harming us or move away from a difficult relationship.

In the miracles of healing – the answer is never, “if you just had more faith, you would be healed.”

No, the words the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts are these familiar words of scripture, “be still and know that I am God… trust in me and my goodness… I am with you… Do not be afraid… repent and believe the good news”

Sometimes, as is the case with our lame beggar, the healing comes in the present moment.  Sometimes, we know that the wholeness will only come after our time on this earth is complete.

But still we pray, and still we have faith, and still we trust, because we know that there is some good that God can make out of the brokenness of our lives.

Today, we have the opportunity to be both disciples and beggars.  We have the opportunity to come forward and to offer prayers of healing and to ask for healing in our lives as well.

I know that one of the primary gifts of this church is the gift of healing and prayer… so many of you believe in this power of miracles and that God truly does work for good in our lives.  I want to invite you to claim that gift, and as we come forward for healing, to take time to talk with someone, to listen to their prayers, and to pray with and for them.
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