People, not choices

“How does one make in the moment ethical decisions?” is the only question popular ethics ever seems to explore. It may be argued that intent or consequence or some other factor is most important for the ethical calculus of the decision, but in the center of the exercise is always a decision that must be made. The unspoken assumption within the question is that there is an agent who is capable of making a decision regardless of the context and narrative in which that person operates. But, the narrative of the agent’s life is the only context in which an agent can have agency. 

The context that creates the agent is thereby the necessary and sufficient  arena in which ethics is able to meaningfully determine or describe right from wrong. Changing the context changes the agent, which changes the calculus surrounding any decision. The more important question is something like, “what kind of people should be created such that the moment of decision is no longer a meaningful point at which to make an argument about what ought to be done and how then do we create the world that creates that kind of person?”

The greatest shortcoming of popular ethical debates is the notion that there can be a distinct moment or act of decision that can be analyzed in any meaningful way. All behavior makes sense in context and it is the context that must be challenged and changed if we are to create ethical people.

A Prayer

A Prayer by Kings Kaleidoscope is perhaps the most perfect musical encapsulation of the gospel message for our day and time.

In content, the song both lyrically and musically moves from a place of fear and doubt to the assurance of God’s response. God’s response does not reinforce the logic of the beginning questions and instead offers a new foundation of faith. God is not primarily worried about personal action and accountability, but instead goes to incredible lengths to say #metoo as the means by which God makes all things new.

In effect, the song is a critique of the way that evangelicalism tends to focus on a list of dos and don’ts rather than on the goodness of God. The lead singer wrote the lyrics as an authentic expression of the anxiety that his evangelical faith fostered inside of him. That anxiety is powerfully captured and then beautifully challenged over the course of the song. Jesus’s lyrical response is a rejection of the very works focused theology in which the singer was raised.

In response, the song was received by the Christian music world about as warmly as Jesus was received by the religious leaders of his day. Rather than receive any attention for the beauty and depth of the music and message, the only thing most folks cared about was that the song twice includes a single cuss word in the midst of a desperate prayer to God. The band was kicked off of tour stops and radically rejected for merely having recorded a song that includes a cuss word. As so often happens in churches, we look for the easiest identifiable thing to call sin and absolutely reject anything that seems to cross that line. We thereby only have time for superficial talk of symptomatic problems and never get to the point of addressing actual brokenness. In our haste to define sin, we rarely pause long enough to explore the freedom and power of the life that really is life.

In reality, the honesty and vulnerability of the lyrics represent one of the most authentically Christian prayers that can be prayed. At the heart of the gospel is the vulnerability of our God. If we are to love as God taught us to love, we are required to bear all that we have and all that we are to God, from the most pristine and righteous thoughts to the most raw and heartfelt pleas. To muzzle the cry of our hearts is to put up a wall of arrogance that hides behind feigned self sufficiency; it is to reject the point and purpose of the cross.

Nameless. Witness. Generosity.

Nameless. Witness. Generosity.

Date Given: 6/16/19

Luke 21:1-4

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

Two small copper coins. Two small copper coins were all the widow had to give. Two small copper coins would have been quite the remarkable contrast to the beauty, the opulence, the gifts adorning the temple behind her. Two small copper coins. This is not the donation you need to kickstart a capital campaign. This is not the kind of gift that is going to fund ministry for years to come. This is not a donation that the money counters would even notice when they went to collect at the end of the day. And yet Jesus says this nameless widow gave more than all the others.

In this brief encounter outside the temple, we are met by a nameless woman in scripture, who offers a profound witness about the difference God makes in our lives. This nameless woman deeply challenges our most common sense understanding of generosity. I’ll admit, as a pastor and in the middle of a capital campaign, there is certainly a part of me that is a little uncomfortable with her witness. Jesus says, “this poor widow has put in more than all of them.” Two copper coins is worth more than all the gifts of the rich people.

I’ll admit there’s a part of me that thinks, “sure it’s nice, but you can’t keep the lights on if a couple of coins is all you receive.” And there’s a part of me that thinks Jesus clearly never had to worry about making payroll work out on a low giving week. I would imagine that there is a part of each of us that cannot help but associate a much higher dollar amount with “real” generosity. Especially in a nation built on capitalist assumptions and the creation of a kind of wealth that has never before existed in human history; especially here and now it’s only human to nod along with Jesus, while secretly hoping for a few extra zeroes to be tacked on when anyone is generous with us.

Two copper coins. That’s all this nameless woman had to give. And Jesus says she gave more than all the rest. “all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” I don’t know the exact exchange rate for the coins she put in, but it wasn’t much. Lepton is the greek word used for such a coin. A lepton is worth about 1/128th of a denarius. A denarius is worth a day’s wage. So a lepton was worth about 6 minutes of a day’s work. Not nothing, but not much. A lepton is the smallest and least valuable coin she could have given.

To understand why this nameless woman’s generosity is so significant is going to take more than our best common sense approach to money or accounting or exchange rates. Something much deeper is happening in Luke’s gospel. Something much more challenging and hopeful and significant is being shown in the witness of this nameless woman. Through the lens of Jesus, we can’t help but see that generosity is about something much more than just money or things. Generosity is a means of creating community. Generosity is a way to embody the self giving love of our God.

To see this, we start with something generosity is not. Generosity is not giving away the overabundance of stuff that you no longer need and might never have needed in the first place. Don’t hear me wrong, every time Sallie and I move we give away piles and piles of stuff. I’d venture to guess that a majority of us probably couldn’t say the last time we saw, much less used, about half the random junk in our houses. Cleaning out what you don’t need and donating it to a place that will put it to good use is a great thing. It’s just not generosity.

Doing something you need to do that just so happens to help someone else and make you feel better in the process is a win-win all around. But to rise to the level of generosity requires some sense of personal sacrifice, some level of acting for the sake of someone else even when that practice doesn’t benefit you more than the person helped. The rich donors at the temple were the ones who made a show of their giving – no doubt giving huge sums for the sake of recognition or the notoriety that would come. Generosity means putting others’ needs above our wants, not just giving once we have too much.

Next, we find the most straightforward part of this nameless woman’s witness. That part of her witness might simply be called the value of proportional giving. As a church, we’ve talked about and will continue to speak from time to time about proportional giving. Most commonly we talk about proportional giving in terms of a tithe. Tithing is an idea that goes back at least to the very beginning of the biblical story. Tithing to God is found already in Genesis, the very first book of the bible. Tithing means giving to God 10% of what we have been given.

Tithing shows up at various points all throughout scripture and has been an expectation or at least a goal for church members in pretty much all times and locations since the church started. I know how uneasy it can be to talk about money. Especially at times in life when it’s hard to keep up with bills and loan payments and then something breaks that costs $1000 you don’t have… especially in those moments any talk about tithing can feel harsh or judgmental. But part of the freedom and hope within proportional giving is that this is a community gift, not a personal requirement.

We are blessed to lean on one another in community with the expectation that we will all struggle from time to time. And we know that by choice, circumstance, luck, politics, and a thousand other factors outside our control, money isn’t equally distributed; we are only ever asked to give a portion of what we have received. The goal of a community tithing is much less about achieving the exact percentage point and more about trusting what is possible when we all play the role we can.

At the end of the day, we can’t get around talking about proportional financial giving. The Gospel of Luke talks more about money and wealth than prayer, the kingdom of God, or any other spiritual topic you might expect to find. Especially for Luke, our practical choices to support the community of Christ is an absolutely essential part of our witness. Financial support for this community is an essential part of continuing to do the work to which we have been called. There is no more simple, concrete way to show what we value than to see how we spend our money as individuals and as a church.

Here at Cypress UMC, we don’t lay down some sort of punitive requirements that you have to follow or else. If you’re a guest, we hope you see the value in what we’re trying to accomplish and will find some way to support what God is doing here. Our expectation of our members is that you will at least give some percentage of what you have been given, even if that starts out very small. Our hope is that you feel the call to tithe or work towards it. If everyone increased giving by just 1%, it wouldn’t radically change an individual’s lifestyle, but it would radically change what we’re able to do together. Proportional giving is a vital part of Christian community.

Within this reality is a more subtle but equally important lesson. Jesus said, “this woman has put in more than all of them.” Out of her poverty, she has given a gift that is more than all the rich people had to give. Jesus’ point is not just about percentage of income; more than that, we are better when the gifts of all God’s children are brought to light; even those we’re tempted to ignore or devalue.

How often in our quest to be generous do we stop to question our assumptions about what happens when we give? The vast majority of the time, at least for me, my default mindset in ministry is that I who have, am going to give something generous to you, who is in need. On some level, that dynamic is going to be a temptation in every attempt to be generous. We filled this entire room with toys and bikes and an incredible array of presents to give away at Christmas time. In just over a week, we’ll open the doors of our church to be overrun by 750 VBS kids coming to be blessed by an amazing and free week of singing and crafts and games and lessons. This afternoon, we’re sending an amazing group of highschoolers and adults to UM Army where they will put their skills to the test painting, building ramps, and doing anything else they can to serve the people of Liberty.

Each of these acts of generosity is a beautiful and powerful thing. But how often do we pause long enough to remember that all of God’s children are blessed with gifts worth sharing? How often do we find ways to bring to light the gifts of those we think we’re serving? How often could we recognize that the gifts they have to offer might just be more valuable than anything we could give away? Even asking the question is hard. At best, it usually leads to a sentimental notion that we have been blessed by that act of giving. So rarely do we truly recognize that two copper coins could actually be more valuable than anything we could offer.

This reality is most easily seen in the life of Jesus. On this side of the resurrection, after two thousand years of church history and theology writing and all sorts of other influences, we know that what Jesus did was the most significant gift that he could have offered. Jesus gave his life to give new life to each of us. But in that day and time, in that moment when he was doing the one thing that would change everything, in that moment even his closest followers failed to see the value in what was happening.

The disciples, like all God’s people at the time, wanted a new king. They wanted someone to rise up with military might. They wanted someone to rule over Rome. They assumed the way things had always been was the way they would always be and they simply wanted to have more money and power than all the rest. What Jesus did by going to the cross must have felt an awful lot like throwing two copper coins in the offering plate. And yet, Jesus gave a gift that no one knew they needed, and in so doing changed everything.

How often do we overlook the beauty of the gifts we have been offered, just because they don’t look like what we already think we want? In the witness of this nameless woman, we see that we are better together when the gifts of all God’s children are seen and valued; even the gifts we didn’t know we needed.

A final piece of this nameless woman’s witness is worth drawing out. It is something that is presumed within all that I’ve said thus far, but is worth making explicit. If we have nothing, then we have nothing to give. That much should be obvious, but it’s worth sitting with for a moment because it can be so easy to hear Jesus’ words and miss half the point. Jesus says that the woman, “out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” We can hear those words and assume that the real goal should always be to give 110% – to give until it hurts and then keep going. We might see that Jesus gave his very life for us and assume that the point is to make the same sacrifice in any way that we can.

The problem is that Godly generosity is about relationship, not money or things or acts of service. Giving generously is not an end in it’s own right – generosity is only a means to creating the community that God desires for us to know. If we all give until it hurts and then double down to give even more, we’ll eventually just resent one another for failing to carry enough of the weight. Relationship is only born when we experience the mutual growth and trust; when we see generosity that tears down walls and makes us all stronger.

Hurting people hurt people. Healthy people help people. Jesus gave all that he had and all that he was, but he did so out of the abundance of a love that knows no bounds and never ends. He did so to bind all our hearts together in that very love that created life itself. If we don’t care for ourselves, if we don’t come back to the source of life and love, if we just keep giving and giving and giving without any attention to ourselves, then we will burn out, run out, and otherwise have nothing left to give.

Godly generosity is not giving away stuff we didn’t need or want anyway; it involves at least putting others’ needs over our wants. Godly generosity doesn’t rely on dollar figures or magnificent gifts; it relies on giving an amount proportional to what we have been given first. Godly generosity doesn’t simply mean giving what we already think we want; it means bringing the gifts of all God’s children to light. And Godly generosity doesn’t leave us empty; it invites us to come back to the well of love and grace to be renewed time and time again.

It’s only fitting that we explore this profound witness of generosity on Father’s day. Parenting well is one of a handful of endeavors in life that requires a special understanding of generosity. Parenting presents the call to learn how to give generously – to give not for the sake of power and not out of resentment; but to give for the sake of your child. Sometimes that involves giving out of abundance and at times it means giving out of poverty. Even the very best among us, can only do the best we can with what we have been given.

But we gather to worship each week and we build our lives upon the cross of Christ because the source of life itself already gave all. He gave a generous gift we didn’t even know we needed and brought new life for us all. We come to the source of our strength knowing that no matter how far we fall short, no matter how many times we have been let down; here we are met by the one whose generosity knows no limits. Here we find the source and hope for a community in which all our faults and failures are embraced, transformed, and made new.

One nameless woman gave two copper coins. And in so doing, she reminds us of the generosity that God makes possible. The love that binds our hearts together is stronger than death itself. That love is at the heart of a generous life.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Nameless. Witness. Courage.

Nameless. Witness. Courage.

Date Given: 6/23/19

Job 2:9-10

Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

When I arrived at FUMC Texas City, I was a wide eyed young pastor, as ready as I could be to take on my first senior pastor job, with no idea what that actually meant. I was met there by some of the most kind and faithful people I’ve ever known. I want to share just one of their stories with you today. Her name was Audrey. Audrey was in her late eighties when we arrived, but she was still full of life and joy and humor. Audrey came to most of the weekday bible studies we did and was always willing to help in whatever ways she still physically could.

Maybe most of all, I enjoyed that she always called me the vicar. Vicar is what you call the parish priests in the Church of England. Audrey was a war bride. She would tell the story of how she met her husband when he was stationed in England. They fell in love and got married. They feared for her safety there, but his time in country wasn’t over yet. So Audrey loaded onto a ship alone that was headed for America. On their way out into the Atlantic, all the passengers were forced to wear their life vests and hunker down inside. They would come to find out much later that their ship had been chased by a German Uboat for miles.

Thankfully, they made it safely across the Atlantic to New York, where Audrey changed boats to one headed for Galveston Texas. In Galveston, Audrey met her new in laws for the first time ever. They took her in and cared for her like their daughter until Audrey’s husband made it back from the war. Audrey’s husband passed away well before I arrived in Texas City, but she stayed put until shortly after her 90th birthday party. After that point, she moved to an assisted living facility to be closer to one of her children. About 2 years later, she returned to Texas City for good to be buried next to her husband.

When she finally made the decision to move from Texas City after decades of living in the exact same home, it was incredibly difficult to watch her go. We went by her house one day just before she moved so that we could check on how she was doing and how the packing was going. We sat and reminisced over a variety of things and heard a lot about her new place. The most exciting thing for her, or at least for her daughter, was that Audrey’s new place would finally have a dishwasher; after living into her 90s without one. I happened to see this little plaque on the dresser in the room where we were talking – it says “there’s no man like my father… except my grandfather.” It felt pretty accurate as a gift for a future child, so she offered it to me.

I tell the story of Audrey because her story perfectly illustrates the single most difficult thing I experience in being a pastor. Having known Audrey is one of the great treasures of my life in ministry. And having said goodbye to her is one of my deep wounds that will stick with me forever.

I’m finding more and more as I grow into this career that the one and only thing that truly matters is the relationships that are built along the way. Preaching, bible studies, travel, meetings, reading, bar b ques, singing, outreach and on and on and on – all of it is just a means to the only end that matters; just a means toward building relationships, with God and one another; with you here in this room and with our neighbors near and far.

And yet……I cannot help but know that there will come a time when the very best relationships we have built, will be the source of my greatest pain; whether that be because one of us moves, someone dies, or something else radically changes; and change will come. It is no small thing to open your heart enough for it to be broken. It is no small thing to know the outcome going in, and choose to love anyway.

In the book of Job, we encounter a nameless woman who gives witness to this very kind of love. Job is a somewhat strange and unique book of the Bible. Job is a man who is righteous in every way. He had a good life with a wife and kids and property and animals and wealth and everything a man could want. Satan bets God that Job is only so faithful because of his good fortune and God takes the bet. God allows Satan to take away all that Job holds dear, even his own health. It is in the process of losing everything that we encounter the very brief appearance of Job’s wife.

A couple of quick comments are probably worth making before we move forward. Satan is the Hebrew word for adversary. When Job was written, satan was by no means meant to represent the pure manifestation of evil who runs around with a red pitch fork. Most of our images of Satan or the devil or evil come from much later traditions, many of them after the Bible was completed. For today, don’t worry too much about exactly what to do with the idea of God and Satan hanging out and making bets; just try to accept this as the set up to put the storyline in motion.

The second note is that there are lots of questions raised by the storyline itself. Why would God allow this to happen to Job? Can God be fully good if this is what God chose to let happen? Answers will be hinted at as we explore the witness of Job’s wife, but these are largely questions the book itself doesn’t care to resolve. Like so many other places in scripture, the book of Job asks and answers the questions it wants and ignores most of ours. For today, I simply ask again that we accept the story as it comes to us and explore what we learn in through this strange and unique story.

We come back to Job’s wife. Over the course of 42 long and winding chapters, mostly consisting of speeches offered by Job, his friends, and God; Job’s wife is given only 11 words to say. She is then rebuked by Job and the story moves on. If you blink, you might miss her. And yet she has a profound witness to offer if we are willing to look just a little closer.

Job’s wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips. There’s an easy and all too common way to read what is happening here. It goes something like this – Job, the sinless example of all that is good and holy in life is forced to overcome the temptation of his own wife telling him to curse God. She is fickle and he is steadfast. She is a failure and he is the righteous person we should aspire to become.

That reading is no doubt so common because it simply takes for granted that what the text says is how the world does and should work. Without stopping and sitting with this moment, there’s no way we would expect to find anything more than a fickle wife and a steadfast Job. She tells him to curse God. Job says no and we’re even told that he did not sin with his lips. Case closed. Except there are two related problems with accepting that the situation is just that simple.

The first is that the point of the gospel message is not to not sin. The point is to love with the love of Christ. This point is made over the course of the book as Job’s friends try to tell him what he must have done wrong to deserve punishment. For every explanation they offer, Job says no, I did not sin. I did nothing wrong. And no where is Job corrected for his idea that he has not sinned. As we are told from the very beginning, Job is a completely righteous man.

Instead of finding a sin Job committed, God finally comes to Job in a whirlwind and simply says “who are you to question me.” I made the oceans, I set the boundary of the land, I put time in motion, I made everything. How dare you question who I am? In the cross of Christ, God shows us the fullness of who God is. God is not the guy who keeps a tally of sin vs good deeds to be sure that the good we do outweighs the bad. Instead, God is the one who gave His very life to show us what love is. And in so doing, God overcame all brokenness and fear and separation and any of the ways we might fall into sin.

Job was great at not sinning, that much we see in his response to his wife. But the point of the gospel is not to not sin. The point is to love with the love of Christ.

Which brings us to the second problem with a simple reading of Job’s wife. A simple reading ignores the entire context in which she uttered her 11 words. Job’s wife had just suffered through almost all of the very same tragedies that fell on Job. They lost their land, their livestock, and their house. The lives of each and every one of their children were lost. As far as we know, she kept her physical health through the whole ordeal, but she had to watch her husband lose even that.

In her day and age, the only thing keeping her out of abject poverty was the fact that Job was still alive. Women could not own property. A woman starting out late in life husbandless and childless, without land or home or livestock; would have had no hope in her world. At best, she might have been able to beg for food or rely on the help of strangers. But without Job, there would be no guarantee of survival, much less any of the comforts or luxuries that she had known up to that point in life.

It was in this context, at the moment when she and Job had lost everything they held dear in life, after watching her husband lose even his physical health until suffering was the only thing he knew in life – that was the moment when she uttered those troubling words – “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” We have no way to know the full motivation or tone of voice she used. These 11 words are the only thing we have to even know that she existed, much less to understand who she was. We can’t know exactly what was on her heart, but I know that it would have been incredibly hard for her to love Job enough to let him go; to love him enough to see his suffering finally end in a way that would only multiply her own.

But that kind of love is the love at the heart of the gospel. Christ came into our world to love us beyond measure. He did so not by showing us how not to sin. Jesus showed us how to love by opening his heart to us enough for it to be broken. At the climax of his time on earth, he was forsaken by those he came to save. And the new life we have in him is born in the vulnerability of that very act of love. I don’t know exactly what Job’s wife was thinking and feeling, but her willingness to face life without Job sounds a lot more like the love of Jesus than anything Job did.

Far from simply being a fickle failure, Job’s wife represents the danger and challenge of loving another person with your whole heart. Can you love someone enough to let them go? Are you willing to love someone even though you know they won’t be around forever? These are the questions Sallie and I have to face every time I get moved to a new church. Every time we say yes, we are so blessed and so heartbroken at the same time. But most of the greatest blessings in life are simply not possible without taking the risk to open your heart enough for it to be broken.

We have a good friend whose story comes to mind every time I start to reflect on this hard life lesson from Job’s wife. There were, of course, no bets made between God and satan in her story, but she had to face a moment just as difficult as the one in which we encounter Job’s wife. Her husband went to the ER a few months ago with shortness of breath. He was quickly diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and the doctors went to work to fix the problems. For a few days things seemed to get better, until suddenly they became much worse.

Soon, her husband was forced to be on an ECMO machine, which basically means that he was put in a coma so that this machine could take the place of his heart and lungs. The machine was supposed to give his heart and lungs a break so that they could heal, but his condition wasn’t improving. He was transferred to another hospital where our friend received some of the worst news of her life. At some point after being put on the machine and before arriving at the new hospital, her husband had both a stroke and a brain bleed. The doctors did what they could to stabilize his condition and figure out treatment options.

Then came the meeting that changed everything. The doctors told our friend that the stroke had likely decimated the communication center of his brain. The right side of his body would likely be paralyzed. The best case scenario they could offer, if he survived a few necessary surgeries to remove the machines, is that he would be in assisted living for the rest of his life with memories intact, but no way to communicate, feed himself, breathe without assistance, or take care of himself at all. I’ll never forget the conversation we had with our friend as she had to make decisions that no one ever wants to consider.

Perhaps the hardest question the doctors asked – would she like to place a Do Not Resuscitate order in place. There were a variety of potentially fatal conditions that might develop in the process of removing the machines. Did she want them to do everything in their power to keep his body alive, even if the best recovery she was told to hope for was that he’d never be able to communicate or live at home again? Or if the worst started to happen, was she willing to let him go? She went from planning for the birth of their second child to a husband with shortness of breath to the most unthinkable question she could ever be asked in almost no time at all.

Sallie and I had several conversations trying to wrestle with how we could possibly answer the same question if we ever wound up in the same situation. What would love even look like in that moment? Does love fight for life to continue no matter what? Would it be loving for me to keep her around even if she could never walk or talk again…. Or would that just be my selfish desire at work? Would it make me a horrible person to be ok with her passing on so her pain would end and my life would be less complicated?

There are no simple or easy answers when faced with questions no one should have to answer. But there is a chance in every relationship worth having that we might one day have to give an answer. There is no way to experience real love without opening our hearts to the possibility of being broken. Very few of us will ever have to make the incredibly difficult decisions that our friend has had to make. But we each decide every day if we are willing to let each other in enough to risk the possibility of loss.

One nameless woman in scripture had the courage to open her heart to the possibility of losing absolutely everything that mattered in her life. And in so doing, she offers us an incredible witness to the courageous kind of love that Christ has shown for us all. Courage isn’t pretending like we can fix all the problems and face every challenge and get out of life alive. Courage is embracing our imperfections and knowing the difficulties ahead and choosing to love each other all the more.

When we talk about building bridges into our community as a church, we’re talking about having the courage to open our collective heart enough to be broken… enough to truly let our neighbors in. We are standing here today because of the incredible men and women who loved God and each other enough over the last 60 years to make this church what it is today. And we have the opportunity this week to put that love into practice, building a bridge for the next generation.     

I want to challenge each and every one of you to open your heart to at least one child this coming week. Over 700 kids will descend upon the church for vacation bible school and we have the opportunity to love with the love of Christ. It is entirely possible that many of the kids will come for a week and we may never see them again. But we are still called to open our hearts in the way that Jesus Christ opened his heart for each and every one of us. We are called to love with abandon. Be courageous enough to love with the love of Christ. It is that kind of love that changes everything.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Nameless. Witness. Healing.

Nameless. Witness. Healing.

Date Given: 6/9/19

Matthew 9:20-22 – Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well.  

January 1st, 2008. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Sallie and I were staying at her parent’s lake house about 45 minutes outside of college station. We were engaged at the time and I had traveled back from seminary for a few weeks between semesters. My parents had come out to the lake as well so that we could all celebrate new year’s eve together. We had waffles for breakfast that morning and it felt like the perfect end to a nice family celebration. At some point my dad excused himself for a minute before walking back to the table where we were eating. When he came back he simply called my mom’s name, “Karan,” and they went into the other room.

I had no idea at the time, but that one simple word changed everything. My mom came back a moment later and told us that my dad thought he was having a heart attack. She and I immediately loaded my dad into our car and drove toward the nearest town. My mom called 911 as soon as we had service and we figured out where we’d be able to meet an ambulance. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared or driven so fast in my entire life. We finally made it to the agreed upon meeting spot and the medics began to go to work. They confirmed that it was in fact a heart attack and suggested taking my dad to the hospital by helicopter.

My dad left on the ambulance that took him to the helicopter. My mom and I made the drive back to College Station where we were met by Sallie, her parents, and a variety of other family and friends who had heard the news. My dad’s helicopter arrived at just about the same time we did and the doctors rushed him in to do what they needed to do. I’m grateful that the doctors were able to save his life and that my dad is still with us to this day. But there were so many moments along the way when I had no idea what the outcome was going to be.

One of those moments stands out above all the rest. It was just after the doctors had taken my dad back and before we had any real idea how serious his condition was. Family and friends were gathered in the waiting room inside. I was finally coming down from the rush of the drive. In that moment, it sunk in that there was nothing to do but wait, so Sallie and I walked outside together.

I don’t think a single word was spoken by either of us. I just knew that I wasn’t sure if my dad would live or die. Either way, there was nothing I could do about it. Sallie didn’t try to tell me it would be alright. She didn’t tell me to keep positive or look on the bright side or trust in the doctors or offer any other overused and simplistic words. Sallie just hugged me. She held me there outside the hospital as I started to ugly cry and all the fear and panic and stress and worry of the last few hours came out all at once.

That simple hug was more healing in that moment than anything else anyone could have said or done. I felt safe. I felt loved. I felt like somehow, someway, no matter what happened inside I was going to survive the day. Tomorrow would come, and I would be able to face any future life could throw my way. A simple touch from my wife to be, was more than I could have possibly asked for.

…….

This moment is the moment more than any other that comes to my mind when I read the story of the nameless woman who reaches up to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. She had been suffering for 12 years and when she saw Jesus she thought to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” I don’t know if she had to fight through a crowd or if she just happened to be passing by when he was out in the open. But I know that Jesus felt the woman’s touch. He said to her, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” In an instant, she was healed.

This nameless woman provides for us an incredible witness to something far too easily and far too often overlooked in the Christian faith: in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal.

This nameless woman is almost an afterthought in the way the story is told. When she encounters Jesus, he is actually making his way to a house where a young girl had just died. This nameless woman interrupts Jesus on his trip by touching his cloak, Jesus utters just 9 words to her in response, and then the story goes right back to focusing on the young girl who had died. If you blink, you might miss her. And yet this nameless woman reminds us of something about a life of faith that might just be more important than all of Paul’s letters combined: in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal.

What is most remarkable about this passage may be just HOW often and HOW easily we overlook what really happens. The woman touches the cloak of Jesus. Jesus tells her your faith has made you well. And all we want to think about and talk about and analyze is the idea of faith rather than the power of touch. “…your faith has made you well.” Jesus comes right out and says the words. It’s not hard to see why we focus our minds and hearts on faith rather than touch. But the way we draw the distinction between faith and touch already undercuts the reality of both.

Faith, in the ways that we almost always speak about faith, is kept in the realm of philosophy or beliefs or morals. Faith as philosophy looks like the grand pronouncements of the brightest minds in Christianity. This view on faith might explore the most grand and fundamental questions of existence – what is the nature of trinity? How does evil enter the world? How can Jesus be fully God and fully human at the same time?   

Faith as beliefs usually offers a bullet point list of the essential answers to those most fundamental and important questions. We believe God is creator of heaven and earth. We believe Jesus forgives sin and offers eternal life. We believe the Holy Spirit is present and active in the world. And then faith as morality is a way of giving clear and specific implications of those beliefs. Faithful Christians care for the poor and give back a portion of what we are given. Faithful Christians don’t murder, steal, or hate. Faithful Christians do and don’t do about a million different things. Depending on the time, place, and denomination you’re looking into the list could go on and on.

“…your faith has made you well.” Jesus said these words to the woman who was healed instantly. And far too often and easily we hear these words and start to explore faith as philosophy, beliefs, or morality. We ask the big and essential questions that have been asked for generations. We have conversations and bible studies and debates and go deeper and deeper asking all the right and important questions. And by the time we start to think we might be coming to a deep and lasting view of the faith we share… by then we’ve already forgotten the most essential witness of this nameless woman – in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal.

The questions we ask, the beliefs we share, the ways we attempt to live it out – these are all important pieces of a faithful life. But none of that matters without first experiencing the healing touch of our Lord and friend. This nameless woman reminds us that faith shall make us well. But faith is not intellectual assent to propositional knowledge. Faith is not first in the realm of ideas or lists of dos and don’ts or any of the ways we so often speak about our faith. Faith is born in the desire, in the experience, in the reality of reaching out and touching the cloak of our Lord.

We put words to the world because doing so is one of the most basic ways to be human. But words mean nothing without presence. We talk and explore and question and write because these are the tools we have to capture and communicate the reality of our lives. But a million words can’t even begin to replace the power of a single well timed hug outside the doors of a hospital; the power of that reminder that no matter what tomorrow brings, we will be held, we are loved, we are not alone.

This nameless woman reminds us that at the heart of our faith is a God who looked upon the brokenness of the world; and rather than give a lecture, God gave his only Son. Rather than answer our questions, He lived our life. Rather than offer a list of do and don’ts, he offered to do the only thing that changes everything. God came so close that we can reach out and find a healing touch to carry us through all the seasons ahead. In the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal. Whatever importance or power there may be in the words of faith we say, those words only matter at all because God first came close enough for us to reach out and touch Him.

If I’m being honest, this should not be nearly as countercultural or controversial as it feels to say. We radically overemphasize words and arguments and statements of belief in the life of the church. But in every other part of my life, the power of a simple touch is obviously more meaningful, powerful, lasting, and important than anything anyone could ever say.

My wife Sallie is a marriage and family therapist. She has a few go-to exercises to help couples who are struggling to connect with each other. Quite often, one partner will express a problem or struggle they’re facing. And the other will be quick to offer the perfect fix to the problem – confront your boss; just ignore him; file a complaint! It’s amazing how easy it is to “fix” someone else’s problem. Only, a fix is not what the partner was asking for.

In one simple exercise, Sallie has the partner listening hold off on offering the perfect fix and instead they’re challenged to ask, “What do you need from me right now?” This gives the partner with the problem the opportunity to express their actual need and desire. And it gives the listening partner the opportunity to meet that need or desire rather than simply throw up a wall of advice or judgment. Quite often in most couples, the partner asks “What do you need from me right now?” and the other simply asks for a hug. Or to hold hands. They ask to be reminded that they are in this together and no one is looking for a way out and they just need to feel close to their loved one so they can find the strength to do whatever actually needs to be done.

When Sallie and I were in the height of our infertility struggles, I can’t tell you how often we leaned on each other in this way. There were no words that would help. There were no solutions to our problems, definitely none we were going to come up with that the specialists hadn’t already offered. What I needed from her time and time again was just to be held; to be reminded that no matter how hard this struggle became, it was never going to threaten the bond between us. The power of her healing touch meant more than words ever could.

The day after Hutch was born, we visited him in the hospital. Our adoption situation meant we couldn’t bring him home for a while, but we were able to go hold him. At the time, his birth mom hadn’t even signed away her rights. It would be 6 more weeks before we brought Hutch home with us. And it wasn’t until two days ago that the adoption became final and Hutch became legally, officially our son. But the moment we held him in the hospital we knew he is our son.

No legal status, no words no a page, no conversations with our agency could have possibly let us know that he is our son more than that very first touch, holding him in our arms. Holding him didn’t erase the previous years of pain, but one touch was more healing to our hearts than I could possibly put into words. Time and again in my life I am confronted with the obvious – in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal.

………

Today is Pentecost Sunday. It is the day we remember that the Holy Spirit of God came rushing into the world, giving birth to the church and sending the disciples out to the ends of the Earth to share the good news of Jesus Christ. But perhaps more importantly, Pentecost is the reminder that God came close enough so that we could reach out and touch Him. And in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal. One nameless woman in scripture offers a powerful witness; challenging us to embrace the nearness of our God.

At the heart of our faith is a God who would not be Lord above without also becoming a friend at our side. By the power and presence of the Spirit, even today we are held like a child. We are held in the hands that gave shape to our bodies and breath to our lungs. We are held no matter what tomorrow brings. We are held so that in the love of our God we will find health, and wholeness, and healing every day of our lives.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Punitive punishment in response to crime is perhaps the most compelling solution offered by a story of fear. It is also the least effective solution in the context of real life. Solutions that treat people as the problem only cause shame and cement brokenness, at best preventing further overt acts of harm. If we are to seek after the life that really is life, we must treat people as the point; we must put the vast majority of our effort into responses that empower, heal, educate, restore, equip, and otherwise bring to light the gifts of our greatest and most unique asset: us. Decentering the story of fear that has gripped us as a nation and a denomination may be the single most difficult but essential step toward ending the destructive cycles we seem so intent on perpetuating.