Monday, September 28, 2015

Anointed with Casseroles

MARK 9:38-50
38John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." 39But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

JAMES 5:13-20
13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

As we celebrate the Scottish heritage of the Presbyterian Church, we can trace a lot of our church history back to the Bible readings we have today. The passages emphasize that all people are called to be spiritual leaders. Rather than relying on people with titles and authority, we are all to be ministers to each other.

There’s a lot of history involved, but for us as Presbyterians, the main ideas are these: We are all sinful AND we are all called by God alone. Nobody gets to be “holier than thou” and nobody gets to say "I'm not qualified."

This means that Good News of the gospel is available to you, but it’s also needs to be available through you. We don’t have a religious hierarchy but believe in a universal priesthood.  This means God can use some pretty unlikely people. Even you.

I know what you’re thinking because I've thought it to. You think, I’m not qualified. I don’t have a degree. I’m not a leader or I’m not even a member.  But really what qualifications did Abraham or Moses have? What qualifications did Mary have when God called upon her to be the mother of the messiah? What qualifications did the disciples have when they started? None that we know about.

In the Bible, God appears to ordinary people like us and calls them into service. The list of unqualified people in the Old Testament is long: Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. Everyone had an excuse. Most of them tried to say no. But God persisted and gave them the tools they need along the way.

In the New Testament, Jesus calls upon a few averages Joes and says, “Hey come follow me.” And they do.  Jesus equips them along the way.

But it’s funny. Those same average Joe disciples that Jesus calls quickly form into a group with rules and expectations. They end up sure of themselves and confident in Jesus’ message. They have become the Jesus authorities. They come to Jesus complaining that other people are doing healings.

“Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”

Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”

The disciples go from average Joes to wanting to be large and in charge. In last week’s Bible reading the disciples were arguing about which one of them is the greatest.  Who should be on top of the religious hierarchy? This week they act as if they have some kind of copyright on Jesus. Nobody can do anything in the name of Jesus without the disciples’ consent.

Or maybe they are the Jesus brand police. Maybe the man doing the healings didn’t fit with the images and expectations about who they are. Maybe it was a rich person or a leper or a gentile doing that healing not an average Jewish Joe.

The disciples judge and condemn that man doing the healing because he wasn't one of them. They thought certain people were entitled to do things and others were not.

We Christians are really good telling other people what they can and cannot do, right?  It comes so naturally. He’s in charge of this. She’s in charge of that. We only allow elders to do this. We do it this way and this way only. Then we get annoyed with the very system we’ve created and try to start over.  We leave to start a new denomination or church.  This has happened over and over again throughout history.

That’s what the first Presbyterians did. Remember in the Protestant Reformation we were rebelling against the Catholic Church with its beautiful cathedrals and music and the hierarchy and rules that it had created. But make no mistake, we came up with a list of rules and regulations, too!

One of the main ideas of Presbyterianism is that everyone had equal access to God. Everyone was important to the church and everyone could read and pray and serve and hear each other’s confessions. We call this the priesthood of all believers or universal priesthood. We are equal in the eyes of God. You can see this in how Presbyterians have approached the Bible—emphasizing that it be presented in the language of the reader—and in our music.

Most of our hymns for Heritage Sunday are psalms sung without any instruments because the early Presbyterians believed we could only do what was commanded in the Bible. If it wasn’t in the Bible, you weren’t allowed to do it. No words that weren’t biblical could be sung. That means hymns like "How Great Thou Art" or even "Amazing Grace" were a no-no at that time.  

Unlike other church music, the early Presbyterian church generally had no soloists and everyone sang the same words at the same time. Some even debated whether harmony was appropriate.

Singing all together was a way of lifting up all the people in the congregation, regardless of ability and background. A way of saying we are all equal. Worship isn’t a top down experience with the best and the brightest and holiest in the spotlight. Everyone encounters God in worship.

Worship is a community experience.  It’s why we have regular people read the scriptures. It’s why we read some prayers together. It’s why we sing together. It’s also why so many of us have an aversion to clapping in church. We don’t want to emphasize one person over another.

This idea of equality is also why the Presbyterians introduced the idea of compulsory public education. Everyone needed to know how to read. Not to get ahead in life, but so that they could read and interpret the Bible on their own, without a higher authority telling them what it said and so that they could fully participate in worship.

We get this idea that everyone has access to God from the Bible. We get it from Jesus telling his disciples that they don’t have exclusive claim to do the healings. Anyone who wants to do good work in the name of Jesus is entitled to do so. They don’t have to be one of “us.”

We get this idea that we all have access to God from the reading from James, too. Anybody can go to God in prayer at any time. You can pray your suffering and your joy. You can pray your anger and fear. You can praise God and you can even yell at God. God is big enough for anything you can give. There isn’t anything that you can do that God hasn’t seen or heard before. The Gospel is good news for you. God is there for you in all the aspects of your life.

But, if you are here in the sanctuary, remember the Gospel is good news for other people through you. If you are an elder, James says, you anoint the sick with oil and and pray for them. Although I think that tradition has changed a bit. Presbyterians today anoint the sick with casseroles and pray for them with greeting cards!

You, as an ordinary person, can hear the confessions of people who’s hearts are breaking because of the mistakes they’ve made.  You can walk with people in their joy and in their pain.

James isn’t telling us to pat one another on the arm and say, " I’ll pray for you." He’s telling us to say the words right then and there. Feel awkward and vulnerable. You can’t anoint someone from afar, even with a casserole. You have to be there with them in the flesh. You can’t truly hear a confession over text or even over the phone. You need to be there with a person.

And this priestly work is the hard part of being called by Christ. This makes getting up on Sunday morning to go to church seem easy and fun. But being with people and caring for them is discipleship, the universal priesthood.

Perhaps the hardest part is believing that God is calling you to the hurting people of the world. Because you don’t know what to say. You don’t know what to do. You feel awkward and out of your league. You feel unqualified.

And that, my friends, is why you need to trust Jesus.

On your own, you are not qualified. Nor am I.

Every time I go into a hospital room to talk with someone about their eternal soul, I feel unqualified.

Every time I step into the pulpit to speak authoritatively about God’s Word, I am amazed that God trusts me to this.  And I never forget the words of one of my mentors—you are not there alone. Remember who has your back.

Every time I walk alongside someone in poverty or pain or addiction, I feel helpless because I can’t fix their problem.

Feeling inadequate and unqualified to do God’s work is natural because we are human. We are not Christ. We can’t save anybody or fix broken situations. But we can serve one another. We can walk with people and love them and help to make their life meaningful. 

We aren’t called to save, we are called to serve. 

Saving people is impossible. Serving people is doable. It's just not easy. Even just showing up for someone who is sick or broken can feel like a huge challenge. We worry about saying the right thing, being there for them in the right way. Sometimes we get so worried about doing it right we decide not to do it at all rather than take a risk. If we don't do it at all, we can't do it wrong.

So we pray for guidance. And in all honesty, sometimes I pray my inadequacy. I pray things like, “God, I have no clue what I’m doing, HELP!" or "This is all you, God, because I have no idea what to expect" or "God please give me the right words, the right attitude, the right tools.”

And I show up in faith and hope and with a little bit of fear. I show up and trust that the Holy Spirit will use me that way God intends. I show up knowing that I am part of the body of Christ. And do you know what?

God has not let me down. God is faithful. God shows up again and again and again.  Things don’t always go the way I hope or expect. Sometimes, I kick myself afterward for saying stupid and wrong things. But, God is still in the mix. 

That’s what Christianity is. It’s following Jesus in faith to strange places to do impossible tasks. It’s showing up and trusting and hoping that somehow Christ will work through you.

I don’t show up because I have a Master’s of Divinity degree –though it’s a great name for a degree. I don’t show up because the PCUSA says I’m qualified. I show up because I’m called by God to serve.  

I show up in difficult and unlikely places because that’s what God did. God showed up to serve our world and save it. God showed up as Jesus Christ, a carpenter not a high priest. Jesus showed up at dinner with sick and sinful people. 

God shows up time and time again. Working through common people like me and you.  

Go out into the world knowing that God has called you to show up somewhere and share Christ's love. Go, knowing that you may not feel qualified to be someone's priest or confessor, but God has your back anyway. Go and tell people the Good News that in Jesus Christ they are forgiven. 

You are called to share the news that God of the universe loves you, longs for you, desires you. Go with God and do just that.


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