Monday, July 31, 2006

July 30, 2006 Sermon: "How to Pray for Others"

Sermon by Rev. Don H. Yeager
July 30, 2006
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

How to Pray for Others
Ephesians 3:14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Whenever you hear an accomplished musician like Marlene or Louie play, do you ever say to yourself, “I wish I’d listened to my mother and stuck with those piano/music lessons when I was a kid”? I know I do. I took clarinet lessons when I was a kid (because the clarinet was the only instrument in our house – my older sister had played it) but I quit as soon as I could. Now I wish I’d stuck with it a little longer. I could serenade my family with beautiful clarinet music in the evenings.

Noah Adams, one of the hosts on National Public Radio, decided about ten years ago, at age 51, that he was going to learn how to play the piano. Can you imagine? That’s just one year younger than I am right now.

Adams had been intrigued by piano players over the years, many of whom he’d interviewed on the radio show he hosted, “All Things Considered.” He was captivated by the power and beauty of the music, the diverse styles (from classical to jazz), and the gift they gave to their audiences.

So at age 51 he bought a piano. And he didn’t buy just some old second-hand piano or a cheap new one. He bought a Steinway upright that cost over $11,000. He thought the investment would give him some extra incentive to practice.

He found learning to play the piano difficult and frustrating at first. It was quite daunting with his busy schedule, which left him only about 20 minutes a day to practice. Of course, he couldn’t just sit down and play. There were scales to learn and basic rhythms to master.

At first he decided not to go to a teacher. He would try to learn on his own. He tried the shortcut of the “Miracle Piano Teaching System” on computer. Next he tried a sight-reading system on tape. Finally, he went to a 10-day intensive adult music camp in Vermont run by the family of the saleswoman who sold him his Steinway. He wrote about his experiences in the book Piano Lessons: Music, Love, and True Adventure.

In that whole process he says he made this discovery: there is no substitute for regular, disciplined practice and the tutelage of teachers. After a year his frustrations receded and he found that he actually wanted to practice. He had finally been initiated into the “art” of piano-playing.

I wish I could want to play the piano as badly as Noah Adams enough to actually do something about it.

Our culture is seeing a growing interest in spiritual matters. Notice I didn’t say necessarily “church” matters. But “spirituality” is very much “in” nowadays. There have been hit TV shows about angels, ministers, mediums, and psychics.

Even in the Christian community we’ve seen increasing numbers of people involved in Bible studies and small groups, and movements like Promise Keepers for men and Women of Faith for women sell out sports arenas on a regular basis.

A lot of people show an interest in prayer. Magazines like Time and Newsweek have done cover stories on it. I’ve never met a United Methodist who didn’t “want to want” to be more diligent in prayer. But there’s something that holds a lot of us back.

Maybe you’ve had an experience with prayer like Noah Adams had with the piano. Your busy schedule just doesn’t allow enough time to pray like you want to. Maybe you tried praying for a while but got bored with the basics. You wanted to pray like Billy Graham right away.

I can remember when I first started out in the ministry. I was serving on the staff at Floral Heights UMC in Wichita Falls and Jim Palmer was the senior pastor. They had something there called “Prayer of the Day.” Jim Palmer was an early riser so he would get to church about 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning and record a prayer that people could then call in and listen to during the day. Jim had published a book of those prayers, so when he was out of town, one of us other ministers would record the prayer, usually just reading one of Jim’s prayers out of the book. I can remember thinking at the time, “Boy, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to write or pray prayers as good as Jim Palmer’s.” You could call on Jim on the spur of the moment and he could pray the most beautiful prayers. I wanted to be able to pray like Jim Palmer, but I found out that it’s not something that just happens – prayer, like playing the piano, is something that is learned.

Learning to pray and learning to play the piano are not exactly alike. There’s no special equipment needed for prayer. You don’t need a special talent. And you can begin to see results as soon as you start to pray. But they are similar in that they both require time and discipline and good teachers. If we stick with prayer, like Adams did with the piano, we discover that prayer is not a burden but a blessing. We find that we want to pray and we look forward to spending time with God.

Then as we grow in our prayer life, we find that we not only want to pray for ourselves, but we want to pray for others. That’s a sure sign that you are maturing in prayer. But one of the things holding us back from praying for others is that we may not be sure what to pray for.

I remember seeing a cartoon a while back. It showed two men walking toward each other who were about to meet. One of the men is thinking to himself, “There’s Bob. I told him I would pray for him. ‘God bless Bob.’” When they meet he says, “Hi, Bob. I’ve been praying for you.”

We surely want to take our prayers for others deeper than a hastily thrown up prayer at the last minute. So we may want to turn to a “master teacher” on prayer. The educational system has come to realize that there are certain teachers who are so good at what they do that they deserve the title of “Master Teacher” and they should be teaching other teachers how to teach. There are people who are so deep in their prayer lives that they would have a lot to teach us. There are many of these master teachers in the Bible. Several years ago I did a sermon series on “Great Prayers of the Bible.” I learned a lot from preparing for those sermons. There are a lot of beautiful prayers and wonderful prayer-ers in the Bible.

I would have to say that Paul is one of the best authorities on prayer in the whole Bible. We can learn a lot by simply paying attention to how Paul prayed and what Paul prayed for. Listen to Paul’s prayer again in Eph. 3…

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Notice that Paul is not praying for himself, not that there’s anything wrong with that. In this prayer, Paul is praying for others. He is praying for his brothers and sister in the Ephesus church. We might want to take note of what Paul prays for others because we may want to make that our prayer for others also.

Paul’s prayer for others includes three essential elements:
· Power
· Presence
· Possibilities

He prays that others might know the power of Christ, the presence of Christ, and the possibilities in Christ. When we pray for others, we often pray for specific needs that we know about: healing, hope, reconciliation, comfort… But when we don’t know the specifics, or in addition to the specifics, we can’t go wrong praying for these three things for others

1) The Power of Christ

Paul prays…

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit…

We can pray that others be strengthened with the power of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. That’s something important we need to remember – power comes from God. Paul draws on the “riches of [God’s] glory,” which is an inexhaustible supply. Our power eventually runs out, but God’s never does.

Christ’s power gives us inner strength. That’s the power we need most – to be “strengthened in [our] inner being,” as Paul prays. The people around us need inner strength – to resist temptation, to face illness, to get through family problems.

In 2 Tim. 1:7 Paul says…

God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

The power of the Holy Spirit can overcome any obstacle. Do you know others whose own power has run out? Pray that they be open to receive Holy Spirit power.

2) The Presence of Christ

Paul also prays that…

…Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…

Our prayer for others can be that they not just know “about” Christ but that they “know” Christ – that they experience the presence of Christ in all his fullness.

When Paul uses the term “dwell,” he means not that Christ make a short visit and leave, but that he take up permanent residence in our hearts – that he come and stay for good. This is something that parents can pray especially for their children as they help them trust in Christ so he can take up permanent residence in their hearts and lives.

One thing we have to realize before we pray this for ourselves or others is that this is really a radical thing we’re praying for. C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity uses this parable from George MacDonald…

"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of -- throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself." [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg. 160]

Paul piles up images to convey this loving presence of Christ:
· Rooted and grounded in love
· Breadth and length and height and depth
· The love of Christ that surpasses knowledge

Do you know people who are alone, unloved? Pray that they experience the presence of Christ.

3) Possibilities in Christ

Paul addresses his prayer to the God of all possibilities…

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…

We can pray that others experience the unlimited possibilities we have in Christ. We can pray that they and we don’t put limits on Christ’s power and presence. Many years ago J.B. Phillips wrote a book titled, Your God is Too Small. That’s true of too many of us – our God is too small. We need to remember that our God is able to accomplish “abundantly far more than all we can ask or [even] imagine.”

Do you know people who think they’ve run out of options, who’ve given up and reached “the end of their rope”? Pray that they may reach out to the Christ of unlimited possibilities.

It doesn’t matter how old you are – it’s never too soon or too late to start learning and growing in the life of prayer. Yes, it does take time, discipline, and good teachers. We may never play the piano like Van Cliburn, but wouldn’t you like to pray like Paul? Wouldn’t you like to know that your prayers could bring others closer to the power, presence and possibilities of a relationship with Jesus Christ?

I invite you, if you aren’t already, to make prayer a part of your daily routine. Spend time in God’s presence. Praise God. Pray for your own needs. Pray for others, in their specific needs and that they experience the power, presence, and possibilities of life in Christ.

Jesus prayed for others. Paul prayed for others. Countless others have prayed for you. Won’t you pray for them? Amen.

Monday, July 24, 2006

July 23, 2006 Sermon: "Is There Any Hope?"

Sermon by Rev. Don H. Yeager
July 23, 2006
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Is There Any Hope?
Ephesians 2:11-14

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their schoolwork during stays in the city's hospitals. One day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child's name and room number and talked briefly with the child's regular class teacher. "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now," the regular teacher said, "and I'd be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn't fall too far behind."

The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much.

But the next day, a nurse asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. "You don't know what I mean. We've been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live."

Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way:

"They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"

Such is the power of hope. Without hope, we can be paralyzed, depressed, and ineffective. But with hope, life is worth living. We look forward to each new day because there is the hope that it will be better than yesterday, and that tomorrow can be even better than today.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians in today’s Scripture reading, reminds them that at one time they were…

“without Christ”

“strangers to the covenants of promise”

“without God in the world”

“having no hope.”

It’s hard to imagine life with no hope, but maybe you’ve been there. People who attempt suicide sometimes say they did it because they had no hope that tomorrow would be any better than today. That’s a very dark place to be in.

It’s been said that people can live forty days without food, four days without water, four minutes without air, but only four seconds without hope. We’ve all heard the saying, “Where’s life there’s hope.” It may be even more true that “where there’s hope there’s life.” Without hope, life can be very difficult.

We may wonder if there’s hope for our crazy little planet. Current warfare in the Middle East reminds us that our world teeters on the brink of disaster. While I’m not sure I believe them, there are those who insist that global warming has already gone past the point of no-return. Whether it’s AIDS, bird flu, or some disease yet to be identified, the threat of pandemic hangs over us like a dark cloud. “Generation-X” (those born between 1965 and 1979) is said to be the first American generation to end up worse off then their parents.

Clare Boothe Luce once said…

“There are no hopeless situations; there are only people who have grown hopeless about them.”

I’m afraid that there are many people who are growing more and more hopeless about the world and its future every day. They wonder…

“Is there any hope?”

That’s where Paul can help us. Paul reminds us that our hope doesn’t ultimately come from the United Nations or the Centers for Disease Control or the G-8 Summit or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Paul reminds us of the one who is the ground of our hope…

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Jesus Christ is the ground of our hope. Because of what God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are never without hope. Hope still has power in today’s world for those of us who understand where our hope comes from. Let’s remember the power of our hope in Jesus Christ today.

1) Our Hope in Christ is Life-Affirming

There is so much in our culture that affirms and almost even glorifies violence and death – television shows, movies, video games, music. But against that culture of death stands the hope in Christ that affirms life.

Christian hope proclaims to the world that death does not have the final word, but life. As Peter says, God…

…has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3)

As God’s people, we are entrusted with the task of sharing a message of life with the world that seems fixated on death. To the depressed, who fear that there’s no hope of tomorrow being any better than today, we are called to say with the Psalmist…

Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
(Ps. 30:5)

To the fearful who aren’t sure what danger lurks around the next corner, we are called to say again with the Psalmist…

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
(Ps. 91:9-10)

To those battling against life-threatening diseases, we who find our hope in Christ are bold to say along with Paul…

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Dr. William Buchholz testified to the life-affirming power of hope in this story…

"As I ate breakfast one morning, I overheard two oncologists conversing. One complained bitterly, 'You know, Bob, I just don't understand it. We used the same drugs, the same dosage, the same schedule and the same entry criteria. Yet I got a 22 percent response rate and you got a 74 percent. That's unheard of for metastatic cancer. How do you do it?'
His colleague replied, 'We're both using Etoposide, Platinum, Oncovin and Hydroxyurea. You call yours EPOH. I tell my patients I'm giving them HOPE. As dismal as the statistics are, I emphasize that we have a chance.'"


2) Our Hope in Christ is Life-Transforming

I’d be missing the mark, though, if I only talked about the power of hope to affect how we face challenges in this life, as important as that is. For Christ gives us hope not only for this life, but for the next.

I read an article by Davis Love III, the professional golfer, in one of the golf magazines recently. He’s had a lot of tragedy in his life in recent years – the death of his father in a plane crash and the suicide of his brother-in-law. He said that something Paul Azinger said at the funeral of Payne Stewart, the golfer who also died in a plane crash in 1999, really helped him gain a new perspective. Azinger had said,

“We’re not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying. We’re in the land of the dying, trying to get to the land of the living.”

How hopeless it would be if we were condemned to be citizens only of the land of the dying. But because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, we have the hope of going to the land of the living – the place of eternal and abundant life.

That hope has the power to transform all of life. With that hope, we no longer live only for ourselves or for this life. We live with an eternal perspective. And that makes all the difference.


3) Our Hope in Christ is World-Changing

Paul says that Jesus has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Paul was thinking specifically about the dividing wall that separated Jews and Gentiles in his world. But the hope we have in Christ is that all dividing walls can be broken down, even the ones that separate people today … between Israel and Lebanon; between Iraq and the U.S.; between Muslims and Christians; between black and white; between young and old; between rich and poor.

Without Christ, we may wonder if there is any hope for the world’s divisions to be healed. But in Christ, we proclaim that the walls are already down, and it is up to us to reach across those tumbled remains to extend hands of reconciliation and peace. That is a hope that is truly world-changing.

The message of hope we have received in Jesus Christ still has the power to change the world, but it is up to you and me to take this good news to the world, to our worlds – to our family and friends; to our classmates; to our co-workers; to our neighbors.

In the Book of Acts, some opponents of the faith accused the early Christians of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Some might say that in reality they were turning the world right-side up. The Christian message of hope can turn the world right-side up with its life-affirming and life-transforming power.

A man approached a little league baseball game one afternoon. He asked a boy in the dugout what the score was. The boy responded, "Eighteen to nothing--we're behind."

"Boy," said the spectator, "I'll bet you're discouraged."

"Why should I be discouraged?" replied the little boy. "We haven't even gotten up to bat yet!"

That’s the kind of hope that we have as God’s people. We should never be without hope, because in Christ, we always have one more at-bat, one more chance at life. Amen.

Monday, July 17, 2006

July 16, 2006 Youth Mission Trip Sunday

I didn't preach on July 16 because it was a day for our youth and sponsors to lead worship and talk about their recent mission trip to Proyecto Abrigo ("Project Shelter") in Juarez, Mexico. They did an excellent job sharing the personal impact of the trip and I'm looking forward to joining them next summer. I wasn't able to go this year because it was right in the middle of our move.

I'm very encouraged to see mission trips move to the center of youth group calendars. When I was a teenager (back in the "dark ages"), our biggest trip was to Six Flags over Texas when school was out. Youth groups still go to Six Flags and Hurricane Harbor and such places, but they are secondary to the mission trip and even the ski trip.

I've been thinking about the mission trips I've been on -- to Anchorage, Alaska (1983), San Antonio, Del Rio, Monroe (La.), Mexico (2-3 times), Tennessee. They have all shaped my faith and made a lasting impact on my life. My hope is for everyone (youth and adult) to go on at least one mission trip during their lifetime. it's something you never forget.

Monday, July 10, 2006

July 9, 2006 Sermon: "Peaks and Valleys"

Sermon by Rev. Don H. Yeager
July 9, 2006
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

"Peaks and Valleys"
2 Corinthians 12:2-10

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

As pastors, we are always getting good news mixed with bad news. For example, at one church I served I was out one Sunday due to illness. The good news was, the UMW voted to send me a get-well card. The bad news was, the vote was 21-20!

At another church, the good news was our women’s softball team finally won a game. The bad news was they beat our men’s softball team.

At another church I received an excited call one day from the SPRC chair that church attendance had risen dramatically the last two Sundays. The bad news was, I had been on vacation!

Seriously though, life is like that, isn’t it – full of good news and bad news, ups and downs, highs and lows, peaks and valleys. As Frank Sinatra used to sing, “That’s Life” -- "Ridin’ high in April, shot down in May.”

Several years ago we were enjoying a family camping vacation in the southwest. We had visited the Grand Canyon in Arizona and had just arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah. We were planning to spend a few days there and then move on to nearby Zion National Park. These were places that I had visited in my unmarried days and I was looking forward to sharing them with Suzanne and the kids. We were having a great time hiking and exploring and seeing the awesome beauty of God’s creation.

However, we had hardly gotten our tent set up in one of the campgrounds at Bryce Canyon when I decided to call the church back in Texas, just to check in. I’d like to be one of those preachers who goes on vacation and stays completely out of touch for the whole time, but I’ve never been able to pull that off – I feel guilty. So I called the church and was given some shocking news: Truett Smith, a pillar of our church and a pillar of the community had died suddenly that day of a heart attack. Even though he was much older than me, Truett had been one of my best friends and most trusted advisors in the church, so there was no question that we would cut our vacation short by a few days and return home for the funeral.

Hiking in the great outdoors one day, planning a funeral the next. That is life, isn’t it? One day we may be on top of the world, having a “mountaintop experience” as they’re sometimes called, and then down in “the valley of the shadow of death” the next.

That’s what comes to mind for me as I read today’s passage from 2 Corinthians 12. In one moment, Paul is describing one of the most intense, ecstatic spiritual experiences a person could possibly have. The next moment he’s talking about a “thorn in the flesh,” which he describes as a “messenger of Satan to torment me.” What a contrast! Talk about your peaks and valleys.

When Paul says he was caught up to the “third heaven,” I don’t think he was saying there are levels of heaven like floors in a department store. I think he meant that he felt was in the very presence of God. It’s sort of like when we’re very happy we say we’re in “seventh heaven.” But Paul clearly had a spiritual experience that he felt would top that of any of his opponents, if he were to brag about it, which he didn’t really want to do.

Now, I’ve never come close to experiencing what Paul is describing here, but I have had my own “mountaintop” experiences with God. I mentioned my call to ministry when I was 17 years old – that was definitely one of them. God didn’t talk to me in an audible voice, but I felt very sure that God was calling me to full-time ministry in the church.

Mission trips have also held many mountaintop or “peak” experiences for me. There was a trip to San Antonio where we concluded the week of work with a foot-washing service. That was very powerful. There was a trip to Louisiana where we spent a couple of hours going around the group and letting each person say what they appreciated about each person – that was very affirming.

I got to travel to the Holy Land in 1997 and seeing the places where Jesus walked and ministered was a mountaintop experience. I mentioned my Walk to Emmaus in 1990 before – a 72-hour spiritual retreat – that was a “high” for me. Maybe you’ve had times like that – where you felt so close to God that it felt like you could reach out and touch him. I think that was Paul’s experience that he tries to describe but words are just not enough.

We may wish we could stay on those mountaintops forever, but that doesn’t happen. Something happens that brings us back down to earth and reminds us that for every peak there’s a valley.

For Paul that was his “thorn in the flesh” that he mentions in verse 7. We don’t know for sure what that was either, but it was an affliction that was serious enough that it brought him back down to earth, or as he says, it kept him from being “too elated” with his heavenly experience. He says he prayed and asked the Lord three times to remove this “messenger from Satan,” but Christ replied…

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

We have to assume that whatever this thorn was, Paul had to learn to live with it for the rest of his life. God left it there as a constant reminder to Paul trust in God’s strength and not his own.

This gets to one of the most perplexing problems that we who believe in a good and benevolent God must deal with. There’s a fancy theological word for it…Theodicy. It means the problem of evil. Why is there evil in the world? Why do people suffer? Why are there things like disease and death and other “thorns in the flesh” in a world fashioned by a loving Creator? Why can’t we live life completely and permanently on the mountaintops? Why do there have to be any valleys at all?

There’s no way I can give a full and complete answer to that question, even if I had the time in one sermon. There is much that is mysterious and there is some suffering that simply defies any human understanding or rational explanation – especially the suffering of children or those incapable of making any sense of it.

But let me try to help us understand the meaning Paul found in his own suffering. Paul did not seek out suffering, but when he did suffer, he was able to find a redemptive purpose in it. That purpose is contained in the answer Christ gave to Paul’s prayer that the “thorn” be removed that I quoted a moment ago…

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s conclusion from that answer points us in the right direction…

“So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that power of Christ may dwell in me.”

That sounds strange, doesn’t it, that someone would boast of their weaknesses? He means that if we only brag about our strengths, then that doesn’t leave much room for God. If I’m always on the mountaintop, then I start thinking I’m the one who got me there. Mark Twain once said that if you ever see a turtle on a fencepost, you can probably bet he had some help getting up there. When we’re on one of those peaks, it’s easy to forget that it was God who helped get us up there. But when we’re down in one of the valleys, when we’re “lower than snake’s belly” as my uncle used to say, then it’s much easier to admit that we need God’s help.

When we’re on the mountaintop – when life is good and things are going our way – we don’t usually stop to say, “God, why is all this good stuff happening to me? I didn’t really do anything to deserve this.” But when the valley comes, we’re so quick to ask, “God, why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?”

We need to learn to look at these valleys as opportunities, as Paul did, to strengthen our character and to give glory and honor to God. As Paul said in Romans 5:3-5…

“…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”

I know it’s hard to do at the time we’re down there in that valley, but maybe with time we can see that God was really showing confidence in us and our faith but letting us go through it.

I went to the funeral of a colleague in ministry last Thursday. Dudley Dancer was a faithful minister in the North Texas Conference for over 50 years. His last few years he and his family suffered terribly from his Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. He and his wife, Elaine, had lost a son to death too early. Elaine said something very insightful at the service. She said…

“There’s no greater compliment God can pay one of his children than to let them walk through tough times because it shows that God trusts them enough to bring glory and honor to God by the way they get through it.”

Anyone can praise God on the mountaintop. But it takes a special kind of faith to say, along with Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” God may be using your trials, your challenges, your valleys, to bring honor and glory to God’s name. People are watching you. They know you call yourself a Christian. They want to see how you’ll react when you get bad news, when life doesn’t go as you expected, when your plans get derailed. If you do it with faith and with humility, think of what a tremendous witness that is to others!

Think about the people who have been the greatest inspiration to you. Chances are, they weren’t people who sailed through life scot-free, without a care. My greatest inspirations are those who have faced the biggest obstacles but who overcame them by relying on God.

My friend Rick was an accomplished gymnast in high school. But one day while doing a routine on the rings he fell and landed almost on his forehead, injuring his spine. He lived with the pain for many years but finally needed spinal surgery a few years ago. The surgery didn’t go as planned, however, and he was left partially paralyzed and in even more pain. He’s had nine surgeries since. This summer he is receiving an assistance dog to help him get around better with the routines of life. But Rick has an incredible spirit. He shares his testimony of faith with everyone who will listen. He visits in retirement and nursing homes with his brother’s dog, Puzzle, bringing joy and delight to those folks. He’s active in lay speaking. He used what happened to him to bear witness to God’s strength in his physical weakness.

You know inspiring people like that. But you know what? We can be an inspiration to others as we allow God’s power to be made perfect in our weakness. Life will always be good news mixed with bad. But the good news is we serve a God who can take the bad and use it for good. Amen.

Monday, July 03, 2006

July 2, 2006 Sermon: "A Healing Touch"

Sermon by Rev. Don H. Yeager
July 2, 2006
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

A Healing Touch
Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Recently, a 40-year-old man was hospitalized for treatment of advanced leukemia. While he was receiving massive doses of chemotherapy, he was put in quarantine for fear that even catching a common cold from family or friends could be potentially lethal. The only person allowed to touch the patient was a nurse who had been specially cleared as being in good health.

Here’s how the patient described the experience of isolation: "This nurse changed my bedding and kept me clean and all that," he says. "But she hated to touch me, or at least it felt that way. Whatever she was doing she did with as little physical contact as possible.

"I wish I could have told her how important touch was," he adds. "I craved the feeling of flesh on flesh. I craved it! But I really felt I was losing my will to live without that touch. I mean, I still wanted to live, to get better, but the reason to keep struggling was slipping away from me. I needed the feeling of someone's skin on mine to held me find it again."

Such is the power of touch. Studies have shown that the simple human touch has the power to slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, relieve stress, and speed recovery from illness. It can even boost your immune system.

Some have said that our world is becoming increasingly “high tech” and “low touch.” That is, thanks to technological advancements like television, cell phones, email, and the Internet, we tend to interact with other people more electronically than in person, and opportunities for human contact become rarer. According to a survey that just came out last week, Americans are far more socially isolated than they were even 20 years ago. Compared to 1985, 50% more people reported they had no one other than their spouse to confide in. We may have 500 “friends” on “MySpace” and get 25 text messages a day, but it hasn’t brought us any closer to real live human beings whom we can reach out and touch. We lose something important when we lose the power of touch.

Jesus and the people he met certainly understood the healing power of touch. We have two good examples of that power in the Gospel reading for today with the woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years and Jairus and his daughter.

Let’s look at the woman with the chronic bleeding problem first. Some of you who have chronic illnesses, especially the older adults, may especially identify with her. She had gone to every doctor she could find, had probably tried all the folk remedies available (one of them involved using the ashes of an ostrich egg in a rag), and was no better – in fact, she was getting worse. But somehow she’d heard about Jesus and decided to take a chance and reach out and touch him in the crowd. In her condition it was against the religious law for her to come in contact with other people – she would make them “unclean” – but she decided it was worth the risk. Maybe she could stay anonymous. Jesus wouldn’t even notice.

Have you ever felt that way – like sitting on the back pew, leaving during the last hymn, not signing the attendance pad, so you could stay anonymous in church? Maybe your last church wore you out. I ran into someone last week who said he used to come to church here but he and his wife got over-involved and he was taking a “sabbatical.”

All this woman had going for her was her faith, but it was enough. She pushed through the crowd and reached out and touched Jesus’ robe, and immediately she was healed. Even Jesus felt it. “Who touched my robe?” he asked. What a silly question, thought the disciples. Who didn’t touch you? The touch of Jesus and her faith made her whole.

This woman could be any one of us who ever feels: desperate … unloved … rejected … inadequate .. like a nobody. Know this: Jesus cares … Jesus loves you … His touch can heal you.

As a church, we want to be Jesus’ hands, touching hurting folks with grace, love, forgiveness, and hope – especially those who feel unloved and unlovable.

Now let’s look at Jairus and his daughter. Parents who’ve experienced the serious illness or death of a child may have a hard time with this story. When your child is sick or facing surgery, you’d do anything, even trade places with them. At first his daughter is gravely ill. But then word comes that she has died. Everyone else was saying it was too late, but not Jesus. “Take me to her,” he told Jairus. And now here comes the healing touch…

He took her by the hand and said to her … “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about…

The woman touches Jesus. Jesus touches the girl. But the result is the same – a healing occurs. There’s something very special about Jesus’ touch. We can’t begin to explain it or even understand it, but we know it’s there. If you don’t believe me, go to a nursing home today or this week and touch one silver head or one wrinkled hand and see if a healing miracle doesn’t occur. You’ll get a smile, or even better, a hug.

In 1976, James C. Gardner, then the mayor of Shreveport, Louisiana, was scheduled to deliver a commencement address at Louisiana State University. He delivered the speech while in a state of shock. Earlier that day a doctor's yearly physical on his wife revealed she had a terminal condition.

When the commencement exercise was completed, Mayor Gardner turned to the rabbi who had delivered the invocation and began to cry. As he shared with the Rabbi what he and his wife learned that afternoon, the rabbi simply placed his hand upon the mayor's shoulder. "I do not know what he (the rabbi) said; it was not important," says Mayor Gardner." What was important was that he let me know he cared. In the months that followed, I learned the importance of being cared for and, in that learning, became a more caring person myself. Ten years ago I was not a 'toucher.' Today I can hug, put an arm around a shoulder and hold a hand with ease because I have learned that touching is such an important element in the expression of caring."

As we celebrate Holy Communion today, we have the opportunity to experience Jesus’ healing touch I don’t know where and how you need healing in your life, but Jesus does. And his touch can make you whole. Amen.