The Message: The Power of an Interruption, Mark 5:31-45

Sermon:          The Power of an Interruption
Scripture:        Mark 5:31-45
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale
Date:                 July 1, 2018, Communion Sunday

You may listen or watch the service by clicking here.

This morning, we are picking up in the Story in a flurry of boat crossings for Jesus and the disciples. Last week, we noted how Jesus and the disciples encountered the powerful storm that almost swamped their boat and Jesus, who we thought was asleep at the wheel, in fact, had total control of the situation as well as nature.  Since that time, they have crossed back to the western side of Galilee to the area of the Gerasenes and Jesus has cast out demons into a herd of pigs who ran into the sea and drown. The townspeople there, upset and annoyed at the loss of income floating dead off the coast, begged Jesus to leave the area and so he has crossed over the Galilee yet again.  This is where we pick up in Mark 5:21-43. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Mark 5:21-43

                  21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet23and 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.”24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”     35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And 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. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.[1]

Interrumpitur vita. Life Interrupted. This is the type of life Jesus lived every single day.  In our text this morning, there are at least five interruptions that take place where poor Jesus can hardly get a word in edgewise.

Jesus no sooner gets off the boat and begins teaching when he is interrupted by Jairus, the synagogue ruler.  His daughter is deathly ill and begs Jesus to come and heal her. Interruption one (v.23).

While Jesus was making his way to heal the girl, a huge crowd follows him and is pressing in on him.  In the midst of this thronging mob, a woman whose life was interrupted for some twelve years with a non-stop menstrual condition risks her life and joins in the crowd to simply touch Jesus’ garments.  As the group makes it way to Jairus’ house, the bleeding, might I add – ceremonially unclean Jewish woman- in a last ditch-effort for life touches the hem of Jesus’ garment. Jesus feels the power leave him and he stops dead in his tracks and looks back around knowing someone with faith reached out to him (v. 28). Interruption two.

As Jesus is intently scanning the crowd for the person who touched them, the ever impatient and clueless disciples start riding Jesus about, “What do you mean, ‘Who touched me?’ Look around Jesus!  Who hasn’t touched you!” Now Jesus’ eyes were scanning the crowd and the disciples were trying to get Jesus back on schedule, back onto the itinerary to Jairus’ house (v. 31). Interruption three.

Ignoring the haranguing disciples, Jesus locates the woman who touched him and was in the middle of declaring her well and giving her a blessing of peace, when all of a sudden, people ran from Jairus’ house, interrupted his blessing of the woman to say that Jairus’ daughter had already died (v. 35). Interruption four.

Finally, Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house looking for the little girl when he runs into a mob of mourners who had already gathered at the home. Before Jesus can get to the little girl’s room, he first has to clear the house of all the people cramming into the place wailing and mourning; in the process of doing so, the people begin to laugh at Jesus and deride him as a fool (v. 40). Interruption five.

How well do you handle interruptions in your life? Jesus cannot walk two hundred yards without being interrupted some five times.  Everyone is pulling at and on him. Everyone is trying to get something from him. He focuses in on one thing and someone rips his attention away to someone or something else.  Have you ever felt that way in your life?  Think of a moment when you have been incessantly interrupted; what did you feel like?  What was your blood pressure doing?  How was your temper handling yet another knock on your door? How did you feel when you finally opened your mouth to respond?

A young couple finally puts the kids to sleep and they now have some alone time together.  They begin snuggling up and then they hear, “Mommy!”

You make it through the traumatizing efforts of going to the airport, dropping your car, checking your bags, being cavity searched by the TSA, and even got your coffee and sandwich at the deli. You board the plan and get the last overhead space for your carryon above your seat. You are now finally settling into your seat before take-off as you pull out your sandwich and take that first luscious bite of roast beef with heavy mayo and are in heaven. You’re about to take off when a member of the flight crew walks up and says, “Gee, Mr. Roberts, you’ve just been reassigned to another flight later tonight.”  How’s that blood pressure doing now?

Interruptions.  They are a part of life.  They can irritate you. They can snap you out of being zoned out. They can jolt you to see things or people you’ve never seen before. They can scare you. The question for us, though, is how do we handle them?

Years ago I was called to the hospital by a young couple I had married and the woman was in the midst of labor.  Things were not going well and I was asked to come to see them. Upon arriving, I was met by the mother’s daddy, the grandfather. He was a nice guy and a psychologist from Birmingham. His face was long when he met me and said, “Patrick, our grandson was born a few minutes ago. My daughter is doing fine but the baby has Down’s Syndrome.” I remained silent; what was I to say? Granddad continued, “We had dreams for what this little boy would grow up to be and do and now those dreams are gone. But you know what, Patrick, now is the time to dream new dreams!” He smiled. I was struck down and humbled at his wisdom.

Interruptions into our expected, ordinary routines are going to happen.  It’s how we respond to those interrupted expectations and routines that matter. If we are honest, most of life’s interruptions are mere inconveniences and annoyances. Yet, there are some interruptions in life that are life-changing.  What determines what we do when those moments come? It all depends if you and I are willing to dream new dreams and seek the Lord to redeem those interruptions!

Interruptions are those moments in our lives when you and I are given the chance to grow our character and spiritual depth. I love what the late C.S. Lewis wrote, “The great thing if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life.”[2]  So, I don’t place blame on God for the interruption of job loss, health tragedy or crisis, or death in the family; these are threads that make up the fabric of our life. God, however, takes the time to stop in the crowd and helps us redeem those interruptions and weaves those threads together to become healed and full of peace.

As you and I come to the Table this morning, I invite you to reflect on how you respond to the interruptions in your life. I’m talking about the little intrusions that are tossed at your throughout your day as well as those big, life-changing interruptions that change your world. The Good News is that God is in the thronging chaos with us and when he feels us reach out in hope and faith, the Lord stops and looks around for you and me to bring a word of healing and peace.  How we handle life’s large and small interruptions speak volumes about our spiritual depth and character.  As you come to the Table, think about, “What does my life speak?”  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

© 2018 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis. Accessed on 6/29/18 at https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/interruptions.

The Message: Does it Ever Feel Like Jesus is Asleep at the Wheel?, Mark 4.35-41

Sermon:        Does it ever feel like Jesus is asleep at the wheel?
Scripture:    Mark 4:35-41
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:     First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale
Date:             June 24, 2018

You may watch or listen to the sermon by clicking here.

Mark 4.35-41

 35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” [i]

It was Christmas break of my Freshman year at college and I returned home after a difficult semester.  I drove some 20 miles to go meet up with some old high school friends to catch up and catch up we did. The next thing we knew it was after 2 in the morning and I had some thirty minutes to get home.  I should’ve known better.  Leaving my friends, I got into my faded red 1962 VW Beetle with Sears red shag carpet tiles on the floorboards and curved roof.  I was tired.

I started off just fine. The roads were pretty empty and quiet as I traveled about fifteen miles before I fell asleep, ever so briefly, behind the wheel of my car.  I know I fell asleep because I was jolted awake when the right front tire went off the road and the old Beetle’s suspension, or lack thereof I should say, bounced my head against the roof and woke me up.  Being startled, I did the one thing you’re never supposed to do when you drift onto a road’s shoulder and that is to oversteer in the opposite direction to get back on the road.  I jerked the wheel hard to my left and the old faded red 1962 VW Beetle decked out with Sears red shag carpet squares begin spinning 360’s on Old Alabama Road and then flipped over three times before landing on its side forty feet off the road between two massive oak trees.  By this time, I was fully awake and realized what happened.  While in shock, I kicked the door open above me and slipped out the top of the car.  I grabbed the floorboard and somehow managed to flip the car back on its wheels, got in, turned the key and the now crushed faded red 1962 VW with Sears red shag carpet squares started!  I gently but very much awake drove the remaining 6 or so miles home and parked the car the last time.  It was totaled.

I learned so much that night.  I grew up that night. I learned that falling asleep at the wheel in the middle of nowhere at 2 in the morning is a very sobering and scary thing and place to be.  You feel totally out of control and your natural instinct is to oversteer and overcompensate in order to prevent an accident; it is just this particular instinct to overreact that actually causes the problem.  I learned that night that when confronted with a crisis, you will have better outcomes physically and emotionally if you remain calm.  I’ve learned that to be true when driving a car, riding a motorcycle or even getting through the day with challenging team meetings.

Have you ever felt that at times your life was in the midst of careening out of control in a flip and roll cycle?  If we are all honest, we would all say, ‘yes.’

You walk in one day and your boss lets you know your services are no longer needed.

You get a routine physical and discover certain levels within your body are out of whack and new tests need to be ordered.

You arrive home one afternoon to discover that your spouse has had a heart attack out back in the garden.

Your retirement funds have been absconded and lost in a Ponzi scheme.

You feel like life is spinning out of control.  You feel as though wave after wave of trouble and problems are breaking upon you one after the other.  Like the disciples, you look heavenward and desperately cry out, “Jesus, don’t you care that we are perishing?!”  Sometimes we feel as though Jesus fell asleep at the wheel, and in our Story today, we realize that he literally did!

The Sea of Galilee is circled with mountainous regions that rise up on its eastern, northern, and western sides.  The hot air from the deserts come up and over the hills and mix with the colder air from the high mountainous regions of the north and nasty squalls come out of nowhere.  Living in Florida, we know what that is like, don’t we?  One minute we are playing in the water at the beach and the next minute from out of nowhere a thunderstorm develops and lightening knocks an entire building’s cooling tower and AC like what happened to the Neumann Center yesterday. In a blink of an eye, your world gets turned upside down and inside out. And at that moment, we cry out to God, “Don’t you care we are perishing down here!?”

Jesus has been having an extended teaching and preaching tour among the villages of the northwestern and northern parts of Galilee near the town of Capernaum.  It’s late in the day and he hops into a boat with the disciples and we read in Mark how an armada of Jesus seekers follow them. The fact is, Jesus and the others set out at night to cross over to the far eastern shore of the Galilee from the north.  If you read the scriptures long enough, you begin to understand that in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments, good things don’t typically happen at night.  For our ancient brothers and sisters, the night was a time of shadows and foggy vision.  Furthermore, Jesus and the others went out into the night on the chaotic and unpredictable waters of the Sea of Galilee. Mark has painted a verbal picture setting up the first-century perfect storm! Like a Greek chorus who shouts instructions to the actors, we want to yell, “Wait till morning Jesus!  There’s no rush to cross the sea at night!  We’ve heard of the weather forecast and we’re telling you to please wait ‘till morning!”  But Jesus is tired.  He’s had a full day and he feels the need to be alone and quiet.  He needs rest and gets in the boat and off he goes.

Now at this point, I want us to notice where Jesus was on the boat. Excavations on the Galilee have found boats of his time that he would’ve used was some 27 feet long and Jesus was situated in a strategic place. Well, back in Jesus’ day, the boat was steered from the back or the stern.  This is where the rudder is but it is also where the one steering, the helmsman, would be.  So where is it we find Jesus in our Story this morning?  Jesus is fast asleep at the wheel and seems to be doing a poor job with his divine cruise control!  The boat is sinking!  The storm is brewing, and water is slamming into and over the sides!  This story of Jesus on the water, with shades of the Jonah Story all along the edges, looks as though the boat is going down. Things are spinning out of control.  All seems desperate and lost.  In the midst of the watery chaos, the disciples collapse into a full-blown panic and start yelling at Jesus to wake up and do something!

And he does.  In fact, he does that which only God can do: He exercises control over the perilous realms of nature.  Just as God, whose Spirit hovered over Creation’s watery chaos and brought forth order and beauty, so Jesus wakes up and commands the watery chaos to be still; one can even translate it as Jesus telling the chaos and storm to literally “Shut-up!” [2]  And it does. And so too do the disciples in the boat.

Jesus’ outburst is one that calmed two things that night.  First, it calmed the storm and crashing waves.  Second and perhaps more importantly, Jesus drastically shut the disciples up in order for them to stop and realize how far they had to go in their faith development.  There are two types of fear described in our Story today.  There is a cowardly fear for losing one’s skin that describes the disciples’ response to the storm, and then, there is flat out terrorizing run for your life fear. The disciples realize Jesus has a spiritual gift set that extends way beyond being pretty good in the pulpit! You see, the disciples were scared of the storm and swamping boat however they were lose-control-of-your-bodily-functions terrified at what Jesus just did! Jesus’ abrupt demand for silence is to jar the disciples’ out of a worldly based hopelessness and complacency and snap them back into the present reality of God’s providential care and concern.  As Episcopal priest, Mark Edington says, “Here is the conundrum: Jesus has godlike authority over the primordial chaos; he is king of the created order. Yet the immediate response to this demonstration of kingly power is not joy, not praise, not acclaim, but fear.”[3]

Friends, fear is not necessarily a bad thing as it reminds us to pay attention. Fear can either incapacitate you or it can be a dynamic catalyst for change. The key to handling and encountering fear is that once it gets our attention, we then have to decide how we are going to relate to that which is creating the fear. Do we relate with spiritual hopelessness and fear as the disciples did and complain to God, “Don’t you care we are perishing?” Or perhaps, do we relate with Jesus with the confidence that indeed, he’s got the whole, wide world in his hands?  Fear is not a bad thing; how we relate to it determines how it will affect us. Is it hopeless fear that God has abandoned us or is it faithful confidence that indeed nothing can separate us from the love of God, not job losses, cancer, knee replacements, divorces, strokes, nor overdue taxes and bills!  We may get the feeling Jesus is asleep at the wheel and life is spinning out of control, but the reality is he is situated in the stern of our life’s ship and has the wheel firmly in hand! Let’s remind ourselves, shall we?  Join me in this!

“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”

He’s got the whole world in his hands he’s got the whole wild world in his hands
He’s got the whole wild world in his hands he’s got the whole world in his hands

He’s got the little bitty baby in his hands he’s got the little bitty baby in his hands
He’s got the little bitty baby in his hands he’s got the whole world in his hands
He’s got the whole world in his hands…

He’s got you and me brother in his hands he’s got you and me sister in his hands
He’s got you and me brother in his hands he’s got the whole world in his hands
He’s got the whole world in his hands…

He’s got everybody here in his hands he’s got everybody here in his hands
He’s got everybody here in his hands he’s got the whole world in his hands
He’s got the whole world in his hands…

What are your fears sisters and brothers?  Believe the Good News:  Jesus is not asleep at the wheel, but he is what?  He’s got the whole world in his hands!  Sometimes my friends, we just need to be reminded of this fact that we often forget when life gets a little swirly. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
www.firstpres.cc
patrickw@firstpres.cc

© 2018 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[i] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Joel Marcus, Mark I-VIII, from the Anchor Bible Commentary Volume 27 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 339.

[3] Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown (2011-05-31). Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 5887-5889). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Christmas was different this year

Christmas was different this year.

This Christmas was void of any trappings from the cultural myth of Christmas this year.  There were no lights strung or stockings hung with care.  The ornaments we have been collecting throughout our now adult daughters’ lives were not unwrapped from last year and the Christmas boxes remained in the garage. There was one small candle a friend from Fort Lauderdale sent; it was a silent sentinel on the television stand.

A Facebook post I placed on my page this year garnered only three responses once it was put up.  It depicts a contemporary version of Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem whereupon “Jose’ and Maria” are standing out in the rain in front of a closed 7-11 using a pay phone. Maria is sitting side-saddle on a muted pink horse that requires quarters to be deposited in it before it will ‘give her a ride.’  Behind them is the neon sign from Dave’s City Motel.  The look on their faces is desperate. Entitled, “Jose’ y Maria” and sketched by Everett Patterson, it serves as a dramatic foil to the cultural myths and Western projections on what Christmas is all about in our own time; we easily forget, for example, that Joseph and Mary were really “people of color” who were refugees following the decrees of an oppressive political ruler. I personally loved this portrayal of the Holy Family because it is so raw and real.  Yet, people on Facebook did not appreciate either its rawness nor realness; give us instead a happy, sterile understanding of Christmas because Jesus is the reason for the season, right? Well…

25396251_10155761603935999_4142545185293627808_n

We tend to have lost our way and have bought into the cultural trappings of Christmas.  But what if we were to pause a moment during these 12 Days of Christmas and truly ponder what the original Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were like.  Unlike our westernized, consumer-tinged view of these special days, the first Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were not all glorious and festive as we like to think they were.

We forget that a young girl who could’ve won your high school Sophomore class’s homecoming winner was nine-months pregnant on a seventy-mile donkey ride from up north and was about to burst. Water breaking and screaming in labor is not usually in our sterile Christmas memories. Aside from a shepherd or two, there were no farm hands hanging outside the manger’s windows like Dorothy’s friends in Kansas when she wakes up from Oz. A small fire is more likely than strung lights and lanterns which is probably just as well; it’s horrible enough to be relegated to deliver your baby in a dirty manger but to see the manure piles and molting animals as well would be too much for the Holy Couple to bear. Contrary to our Christmas pageants, the misnomered Three Kings do not even show up until two years later.  But we like the Christmas dramas we portray today!  They are pretty and adorable.  They are clean and marketed. And it’s high time we pause to remember this is not what it was like for this teenaged girl and the young man whose fiancee’ was about to gush forth new life.  We tend to forget about the pains and trauma of birth.  We somehow neglect to remember that Mary’s birth in that stall was just as a bloody mess as anyone’s would be today. But it’s Christmas.  We’re supposed to be happy.  We’re supposed to be all giddy and joyful. We are to look our best and enjoy our presents and holiday food and drink.

This Christmas was different than former years.  I left my current position as a pastor of a church on December 3 in order to gear up for a new call and placement in south Florida after the first of the year.  When a pastor leaves his or her church, they really have to leave it and break ties in hard and painful ways.  A good pastor knows the church she just left is not her church but is God’s.  A caring pastor knows that he cannot preach one Sunday and then sit in the pews of the same church next week as though nothing has happened.  When a pastor and their family leaves a church, there needs to be a clean break. The breaks are not easy nor are they comfortable but necessary they are. The break was made. Hoping to use this downtime as a way for me and my bride to take a breath and look towards making our move, Reality intervened.

One of the strongest women I have known became ill.  We have spent three and half decades together besting the odds of life and her health.  We first met in our junior year of college.  I asked her twin sister out for a date a few months prior to her arrival and was shot down.  “But I have a twin sister you might like!” my now sister-in-law said.  I married a twin.

While sister Kathy was away at college, Kelly stayed back in Atlanta undertaking a dual vocation of going to college while also spending full-time fighting for her life.  Late in her senior year in high school, she developed a cough the doctors thought was related to post-nasal drip or mono.  The problem is, it never went away.  An x-ray showed a fist-sized, inoperable tumor in her chest that was closing up the bronchial passage; further tests indicated she had full blown non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  After she fought the illness for two years at Emory Hospital with thousands of rads of chest radiation and chemotherapy protocol that would be considered inhumane today, she left to join her sister at college whereupon we soon met and fell in love.

Kelly was different from other girls I had gone out with before. She cried at the sight of beautiful sunsets and treated each day by gloating over it like a woman admiring a rose for the first time. Waves of young hopefulness lifted us to marriage but to be honest, I never thought we would be married that long. Throughout the rest of college and into our early years as a couple, she often developed lumps in her neck or other parts of her body that we would have to go through weeks of testing and waiting to see if the lumps were benign. She had minor surgeries here and there to pull hyperactive lymph nodes out and by Grace, they always came back from the lab “negative.”  At least until she was 35.

The call came one morning at home. She answered the phone and the longer the conversation went on, the more somber her tone became.  She hung the phone back up on the wall, looked at me and said, “I’ve got breast cancer.” My fears were becoming realized.  The cause?  Radiation to her chest 18 years earlier.  Her job was to overcome cancer again and she did.  Following a double mastectomy and brutal reconstructive surgery and several months of healing, Kelly returned to her healthy self.  This whole incident taught us something, though: Even cures for healing have consequences. What helped to save her before was mounting to rise up and try to kill her when she was not looking.  For the next ten years life went on with all of its family ups and downs but we began to notice Kelly was getting fatigued more easily.  Back to the doctor she went, and this time, we learned the radiation from 28 years earlier that caused the breast cancer also has caused heart damage: Her aortal valve was closing up.  So, at the young age of 45, the strongest woman I have ever known had open heart surgery and got a new cow valve that had a shelf-life of 12 to 15 years.

In case you ever wanted to know, a cow valve lasted about 11 years in Kelly.  So, for the last year, we have been slowly monitoring her health as the valve she replaced years ago was closing up again.  The atrophying cow valve mooed loudly just a week after I gave my last sermon at the church.  The ties had been broken. Kelly’s heart began to become more broken, too; she went into congestive heart failure.

Christmas was different this year. We did not have a church community we could throw ourselves in as we were in between calls. The power of fellowship from a community of faith cannot be understated; one of the glaring differences this year was the lack of community we could lean into and draw strength from.  It is not that our old church meant to neglect us; they simply did not know as the necessary cut in ties was made.  Our new church family four hours away was, well, four hours away. They were eager to be present for us but the distance was a factor. The spiritual strength of the tangible, gathered community was absent this year and its absence was a huge presence in our lives.

Christmas was different this year as well because I wondered if Kelly was going to get through this.  Even the medical community went on hiatus over the holidays and it was hard to get medical advice and assistance.  She was not sleeping well.  She coughed and hacked and got to the point she could not catch her breath.  Her energy was nil and her chest raced at any amount of exertion.  Shopping for gifts and merrymaking was the furthest thing in our minds; I was wondering whether to check in on her if she slept past 8:30 to see if she was still breathing. This Christmas the issues of life and mortality took center stage. There was no tree. There were no presents exchanged.  For the first time in over 35 years, I was not in church or leading the Christmas Eve service.  Yes, Christmas was different this year. There were no lights or glitter but a simple daily step-by-step through Advent wondering if there really was Christmas hope.

The absence of all the traditional trappings of Christmas this Advent and Christmas made Christmas different this year.  It forced me to think about what it means to wait for the Child to be born or if my wife was going to live another day. It forced me to reflect during Advent on what it was like to live in a darkened Christmas like Mary and Joseph when all they could cling to were some promises from an angel and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit that the little child born among the dung and straw would rewire and reboot the Cosmic System.

Christmas was different this year because I learned that Advent and Christmas are not about lights, glitz, parties and booze and gift exchanges. It is not about spending money or buying obligatory gifts for people you really would rather not to recognize but feel socially obligated to do so.  Christmas is about the rawness of life and all of life’s challenges.  It’s about the scream of the anguish of a mother giving birth and an anxious baby crying as it catches his breath for the very first time. Christmas is not about God coming in a parade but about coming and dwelling among very ordinary people like Joseph and Mary in a small barn. The spectacular power of Christmas is that God chose to live among us in a rather unspectacular way in a world where life is tenuous, health is precarious, and having a roof over your head is a gift indeed.  It makes me wonder if Charles Dickens messed up the ending of his infamous, A Christmas Carol; as it is, the ending is too neatly tied up and satisfying.  Perhaps it might have a more powerful impact if the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge had to be the Christ to Bob Cratchit and his family while they come to grips with where God was in the midst of the darkest moments of humanity’s frailness on Christmas morning at the death of Tiny Tim. Then perhaps, we might truly understand and comprehend the profundity of gift giving on Christmas day.

The only Christmas decoration we had up this year was a little candle placed on the TV console a friend from Fort Lauderdale sent us.  The little candle’s Light was all that we needed. Christmas was different this year and I am glad; I got back to its gritty roots once more and saw the penetrating Light in a world of doubt, hopelessness and darkness.

Copyright 2017 by Patrick H. Wrisley

Have you ever felt like you are staring at the back of God’s head? (Feeling forgotten by God), Psalm 13

Sermon:        Have you ever felt like you are staring at the back of God’s head?
Scripture:     Psalm 13
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              July 2, 2017, Communion

You may listen to the sermon here:

This morning’s preaching text is printed in your bulletin. I encourage you to read it from your devotional Bible later today and note the differences in how it is presented.[1] Today we will read Psalm 13 from Peterson’s The Message.  Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Psalm 13, The Message

1-2 Long enough, God—ic-ma173-icon-holy-seraphim-sarov-deathyou’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.
Long enough my arrogant enemies
have looked down their noses at me.

3-4 Take a good look at me, God, my God;
I want to look life in the eye,
So no enemy can get the best of me
or laugh when I fall on my face.

5-6 I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
I’m so full of answered prayers.[2]

“Long enough, God, long enough!”  Have you ever uttered that flavor of a prayer beforeGod?

Long enough, God, you’re ignoring me!

Long enough, God, people are speaking all kinds of lies about me at work!

Long enough, God, I’m tired of the gossip spoken about me and my family all the time!

Long enough, God, I’m anxious about not being able to pay my bills on time!

Long enough, God, my body cannot go through any more tests, procedures, or pain anymore!

Long enough, God, the anguish of my beloved’s death bitingly stings my soul to the point of no relief.

Long enough, God…hey God, are you even listening to me?

Long enough, God, are you even there?

Long enough, God, I’m tired of staring at the back of your head; turn around and look me in the eye face-to-face!

All of us at one time or another has had, is, or will have these types of prayers escape our lips.  It doesn’t mean we are faith-less people or bad people; feelings of abandonment by the Ultimate Source of Life is endemic to our human condition. Even Atheists and Agnostics, those who don’t believe in any Higher Power or those who do not know what Higher Power to be in relationship with at all will at some point in their life encounter one of Life’s realities, drop their hands, droop their shoulders, and lift their faces heavenward and cry, “Long enough, God.  This is too much for me to bear!  If you’re out there, I’m talking to you so this is a good opportunity to prove yourself to me!”  Today’s psalm is a song of lament, a prayer of beseeching God’s presence and care when life feels overwhelming.  It’s in the Scriptures because it’s a universal cry that even the biggest, roughest, toughest spiritual giants among us have even prayed. I love what the great Reformer, John Calvin wrote about the psalms. He says, “The Psalms are an anatomy of all parts of the soul.”[3]  Oh what comfort that brings us!

There’s comfort as a person of faith to be able to approach the Lord so honestly with raw fear and emotion in times of uncertainty in our life. There’s comfort knowing that God is big enough to absorb those flashes of doubt in what is normally a solid faith in our life. There’s comfort in the fact that like the psalmist, there are those moments we feel we are looking at God’s backside and are desperate for Him to turn around and look at us; just imagine what it is like for those who don’t even think or consider God is in the same room; at least we see God’s backside!

The psalmist is pouring their heart out to God to please take notice of them, acknowledge them, and rescue them.  He or she is demanding that God pay attention to their plight. But then there is a shift in the song and prayer. At the very end of the lament the worshipper cries with celebratory tones in verses 5 and 6:

I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—
I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
I’m so full of answered prayers.

I like to refer to this as the “even though but still aspect” of a follower’s spiritual journey. This aspect is all throughout the Bible, too.  For example, Even though I failed my exam, I still know that you are in control of my life!  Even though the bank account is almost overdrawn, I still thank you for providing for me out of your provisions from only you know where that will see me through.  Even though the chemo stings and the radiation burns or causes me gross fatigue, I still know Whose I am and will not waiver.  Even though the shadows of depression are overwhelming me, I still know that you have been to the depths of that hell yourself in Jesus and I get the privilege of feeling the depth of feeling you feel.  The psalmist, even though in the waves of those most desperate times and situations, still knows that God is bigger than any obstacle or problem he or she will ever face. We must note that the psalmist does not say how God specifically answers their prayers but only that they are answered.  We do not know if the psalmist got what they wanted from their prayers or whether God granted them what they needed in their prayers; all we know is that the psalmist, even though in the moans and deepest cries for help, they still had confidence and assurance the Lord is in the process of answering those prayers.

Beloved, what are the “Even though but still” moments in your life right now? Think about a moment. Think to yourself of a dire or less than positive situation you are in now and turn it into a prayer. Pray, “even though such-and-such is happening, I still know in the end you will look at me in the eyes and answer my prayer according to your glorious riches and purposes!”

How can you or I even dare think we can pray to God like that? We dare to pray and believe it because our Jesus prayed the same thing in Gethsemane and on the Cross. “Even though I am scared to death, I still pray not my will but Thine be done!”  “Even though they have beat me, spit on me, and taunt me, I still believe you will not hold this against them.”

How can you or I even dare think in those moments when we feel God has turned his back on us God will still answer our prayer and make good on His promise to restore our lives and restore the light in our eyes to look at life again? Because even though, while we were yet sinners and alienated from God and one another, God still came down to live, walk, and to die among us in Jesus Christ.

We know that in the middle of our doubts, Jesus sits at the Table of God and says, “Beloved, even though battered by life, come and sit with me now.”

We know that when we feel the Lord has his back to us, he smiles lovingly and says, “Beloved, my back was turned just a moment to prepare your meal and banquet that we may dine together and celebrate the Light in your Life! I didn’t leave; I was getting something prepared just for you!”

I invite you to eat of the Lord’s Table this day, my friends. Come scared and leave assured. Come broken and leave being whole. Come with your doubts and leave with assurance.  Listen to the Christ as he says to you, “Silly one, come up here and sit next to me and tell me what’s going on in your day; I want to hear it from you.”

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley,org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See, for example, how the NRSV translates it: How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord,  because he has dealt bountifully with me.
[2] The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson.
[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Preface on the introduction of Community.