Monday, January 18, 2016

Sermon: Glimpses of Grace in Healing

Glimpses of Grace: A Sermon Series
Grace in Healing
Mark 5: 25-34, by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2016

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ – Mark 5: 25-34

Her story of healing has long been an inspiration to me. Through the course of twelve long years she searched for healing. She not only searched but she persevered through great suffering and tough challenges. She had a deep strength but she was growing tired as her illness caused her to feel great isolation. She spent all of her resources and endured much under a number of physicians. Then she heard Jesus was nearby. We do not know if she was desperate for any means to be healed or if hearing the stories about Jesus’ restorative power shifted her trust in God as healer and redeemer. Whatever caused the shift, she then persevered once more and pushed through a large crowd of people with the hope that just touching Jesus’ clothes would bring healing.

The search for healing whether it is physical, emotional, or spiritual is common to our shared human story. And the search itself always brings questions: What will healing look like? How long will this pain endure? How can a loving God allow suffering in the world? These are questions with no easy answers, if any answers.

I want to assure you that God does not cause suffering in the world. There are the sufferings we experience in natural disasters and the sufferings we experience physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We do not fully understand why suffering, pain, and death are a part of the human experience. Many theologians believe our sufferings evidence the broken world we live in. The Christian faith does not protect us from sufferings and hardships. Instead faith shapes our ability to persevere through them with hope.

The whole of Scripture reveals God is working to heal the brokenhearted and bind up our wounds. Reconciliation and restoration are always God’s intentions. Through Jesus Christ and the Spirit’s power God promises to take our broken bodies, our broken relationships, our broken spirits and restore them into a mosaic of healing, wholeness, and new life. The broken pieces of our lives are mended by trust and grace; trust in God’s power and grace that fosters peace. And that peace makes a path towards wholeness.

In my limited human understanding I have to lean into the wise faith and stories that others have shared about the journey of healing.

The Rev. Dr. Steve Hayner was the ninth President of Columbia Theological Seminary, my alma mater. Steve was also one of my professors, a mentor, and friend. His wife Sharol is also a pastor and friend of mine. This couple has inspired many over the past forty years of their ministries. It was near Easter of 2014 that Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was 66 years young at the diagnosis. Steve and Sharol shared their journey of perseverance and healing through Caring Bridge journal entries which were published into a book last year, entitled “Joy in the Journey.” Steve’s healing ultimately came through God’s eternal wholeness. He entered the Church Triumphant January 31, 2015. I have found Sharol’s and Steve’s words so authentic and inspiring and feel they speak into our shared search for healing – not just cancer.

Sharol – One word that describes my inner life is quiet. I’ve experienced amazing peace and the ability to take one day at a time. I’ve felt sheltered (even hindered) from looking ahead and have had a profound sense of the importance of each day. This could only be a gift from God – that ‘surpasses human understanding’ kind of peace described in Philippians 4.

In the midst of quiet, I’ve thought about so many things. I’ve pondered the ways we talk about hope. We hope for this and we hope for that as if the fulfillment of our hopes will be a positive outcome or the measure of our contentment or success.
I’ve wondered what to hope for. Complete healing? Long life? A few more months or years? But I’m newly aware of the many places in Scripture, especially in the Psalms, where hope is centered in God alone. God is the one secure place for my hope because it’s not dependent on my changing circumstances. God is so much bigger and more powerful than my circumstances. How very freeing
(Joy in the Journey, p. 39-40).

Steve – One person told me how disturbing it is to her to watch so many prayers on my behalf and yet (so far) to see minimal physical evidence of healing. Does God really heal?

Honestly, while I understand the importance and logic of questions like this, most of these questions are not ones that are important to me.

I truly don’t know what God has planned. I could receive “healing” through whatever means, or I could continue to deteriorate. Of course, what we would love to see is significant healing. With God, nothing is impossible and I would certainly welcome a miraculous intervention.

But life is a lot more than physical health. It is measured by a lot more than medical tests and vital signs.
More important than the more particular aspects of God’s work with us (in the physical, social, psychological, spiritual, mental realms of life) is God’s overall presence with us, nourishing, equipping, transforming, empowering and sustaining us for whatever might be God’s call for us today.

Today my call might be to learn something new about rest.
Today my call might be to encourage another person in some very tangible way.
Today my call might be to learn something new about patience, endurance, and identification with those who suffer.
Today my call might be to mull through a new insight about God’s truth or character.

The prayers and support of people along the way are also about God’s call to each of them (and me!) today. As people pray, we are all changed, and we are all called to focus in a new way. We are all changed as individuals and as a community
(Joy in the Journey, p. 61-62).

And in listening to many stories in this congregation I have been inspired by a common thread among your many voices that gives me hope. As we search for healing and wholeness, there is a liberating truth that enters our brokenness – whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual. That liberating truth is that God loves us just as we are. It is the knowledge of God’s love for us that causes a shift in our spirit to grow in our trust of God’s presence and promises. God’s love nurtures a growing trust in God as our healer and redeemer.

It is God’s love that breaks the isolation we feel in our times of need. We are assured that we are a beloved child of God, that we are valued, and that we are never alone. We experience God’s love in profound ways in the community of faith. We sense Christ is drawing near to us through cards and phone calls of concern, casseroles of care, and prayers lifted on our behalf.

The gift of faith is a never-failing resource for us as we search for healing. And we cannot spend it all. Our trust is in God alone – the one we belong to in body and soul, in life and in death. And in the moments when our faith feels depleted then God’s gift of faith and trust upholds us by the grace of community. The sisters and brothers in our community of faith trust God’s power for us when our questions and doubts overpower us. The gift of faith and prayer changes us as it creates a space to be held in God’s grace.

In our search for healing we are ultimately changed knowing that Christ embodies the full measure of God’s love for humanity. Christ also identifies with our suffering. Christ knows the isolation that is common to our brokenness. Christ knows the full endurance of our pain for it is by his wounds that we know the full measure of God’s healing. Christ’s death and resurrection point to God’s sure and certain promise of hope that God is making all things new.

As we wait for healing…waiting for the cast to come off, waiting for the last chemo treatment, waiting for the broken relationship to be more fully mended, waiting for surgical recovery… as we wait for healing we trust that God desires healing for us. Always.

When I have the privilege to pray with someone who is in need of healing I have found myself praying two specific blessings over their hearts and time of need. I always pray that this individual and family may lean into a deeper trust of God. And I always pray that this individual and family may feel God’s deep embrace in the journey ahead. In every story of healing that I have heard so far in this privilege of ministry, the ability to trust God and the knowledge of God’s intimate presence are two of the most important things in the life of faith.

While we trust and pray for God’s healing to bring a sense of peace and restored health, mended hearts and renewed spirits, we do acknowledge the limitations in our human understanding. We may not know what healing will fully look like, what the journey will entail tomorrow, or when healing will become fully realized. We trust in receiving glimpses of healing in our earthly home and we confess our certain hope to fully experience God’s healing and wholeness in our heavenly home.

May we receive glimpses of grace knowing that God goes ahead of us and hems us behind. May we lean into a deeper trust that God is with us every step of the journey and may we feel God’s deep embrace in the journey ahead.

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

Monday, January 11, 2016

Sermon Glimpses of Grace in Grief

Grace in Grief
John 11: 17-35, by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2016

The next five weeks we will journey together to catch glimpses of God’s grace in the healing stories of the gospels:
January 10 –Glimpses of Grace in Grief: John 11: 28-35
January 17 – Glimpses of Grace in Healing: Mark 5: 25-34
January 24 –Glimpses of Grace in Forgiveness: Luke 15: 11-32
January 31 – Glimpses of Grace in Worry: Matthew 6: 25-34
February 7 Glimpses of Grace in Anointing: John 12: 1-8

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.
- John 11: 17-35

Many of you know how much I love poetry. I recently received Mary Oliver’s newest book, “Felicity.” A podcast interview with Oliver revealed that she writes poetry as she listens to the stillness of nature. Her poem, “The Gift,” has had a long conversation in my heart this past week:

Be still, my soul, and steadfast.
Earth and heaven both are still watching
though time is draining from the clock
and your walk, that was confident and quick,
has become slow.

So, be slow if you must, but let
the heart still play its true part.
Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful.
That the gift has been given.

Our journey of faith is one that encourages us to find moments of stillness to search for whispers of God gift among us. One of the greatest gifts we have been given is God’s grace. Our hearts and minds are touched by the full measure of God’s grace as we celebrated the coming of the Christ Child anew into the world. We certainly experienced that last month with the Lighting of the Way and our Christmas Eve candle light services. God’s grace breathes sighs of new life, new beginnings, and new hope into all of life’s impossibilities. But as the holidays fade and the barrenness of winter surrounds us, our walk that was once confident and quick becomes a little slower as Mary Oliver says.

Our spirits long to find the full measure of God’s gift as we search for ways to navigate the brokenness that still lingers – and today we are considering that of grief and loss for it touches all of us. From the onset of birth the human journey entails a process of learning how to cope with loss. Our first experience of loss is leaving the womb of our mother to enter an uncertain world.

Loss continues to take on many different shapes throughout our lifetime. Two best friends are separated when one has to move to another location or state with family. Major life transitions and even illnesses unsettle family life or work and often bring about depression. The death of a beloved family member creates an indescribable void in life. Old regrets hold us captive as we ask “What if?” into the unanswerable questions that still haunt us. Our health shifts in the aging process and the slow losses of independence cause us to feel isolated and alone.

We all encounter loss in life. It is a part of the human story of faith which points all the way back to our first biblical loss; humanity’s exile from the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Loss is painful because it reveals our created connectiveness to God and one another. Loss hurts because it seems to steal a part of our identity. “[Loss] is an affirmation of our linkage with the whole of creation that God has given us as a sacred trust. To be human is to be a griever of all kinds of losses” (All Our Losses, p. 52).

John’s Gospel captures a poignant moment of loss and grief in Martha’s and Mary’s experience. The language is rich with meaning for us and transcends to all experiences of loss. John helps us to see three spiritual needs as we navigate through grief and loss.

The first spiritual need is community. Martha and Mary are surrounded by family and friends to console them in their loss. The extension and receiving of comfort and sympathy is so important when life is altered. We each have an innate need to feel care, love, and support whether it is from just one trusted friend or the community at large.

While each of us experiences loss and grief differently, it is the hardest to navigate alone. We are created to live in relationship with God and one another. We all need to have someone in our lives that not only consoles us when loss occurs, but is also willing to be a supportive presence as time moves on.

If you are a friend to one who is grieving, then give a glimpse of grace.

Send a card acknowledging your friend’s loss and prayers for healing. Remember anniversaries of loss.
Sit in silence with your friend when there are no words to offer. Solidarity speaks volumes.
Inquire how your friend’s heart feels today. This helps him/her to put words around their emotional landscape.
Be honest that you can only imagine how this loss hurts. None of us can truly identify with another’s pain. But our compassion allows us to suffer with another.
Find opportunities to laugh and go outdoors when your friend is up to it. Let your friend take the lead.

If you are the one who is grieving, then receive a glimpse of grace.

Remember your grief is your own. It is not identical to anyone else’s. We all have different families of origin, personality types, and life experiences that shape the way we engage grief.
Be gentle on yourself and give yourself permission to grieve in your own way. Engaging our emotions allows us to gain new perspectives to dispel our fear of grief.
Find ways to remember the story of your loss through journaling, prayer, or talking with a trusted friend. Learn to tell your story of this treasured person or situation that you lost. Telling our stories is a powerful thing.
Allow the ones in your circle of family and community to offer support while recognizing when you need to be alone.
When grief becomes too hard consider talking with a pastor or counselor.

The second spiritual need is naming our emotions. Both Martha and Mary are very real in naming their hurts to Jesus. As we dig deeper into Scripture so many texts empower us to be real to our Creator about the breadth and width of lament in times of loss and grief. Just think back to Job and even throughout the Psalms.

Now grief is not a linear experience. We do share common emotions such as shock, denial, anger, regret, depression, and acceptance which can be quite powerful. However, we cannot check off these grief emotions as one and done. These emotions have an ebb and flow throughout time. And these emotions can visit us in unpredictable and cyclical ways as we do our grief work.

A colleague in ministry talks about grief work in this way: As time moves forward, we begin to dread naming our grief. Many times we feel pressured to move past grief and just move on. But navigating through our losses takes good grief work. When grief knocks at the door, we can take courage to invite grief to come inside our spiritual house. Pull up a chair and let grief sit with us for a spell as with an old friend to see what we might learn today.

That kind of self-awareness is a gift of grace for it creates an opportunity for deeper understanding and hope. We become more empowered to look back and to look forward. We have a little more courage to take another step towards the “new normal” we are nudging towards. This “new normal” is integrating our loss into the story of our lives. This is how God’s amazing grace claims that we are not defined by our loss. God’s grace weaves through our story to mend us towards God’s story of healing and wholeness.

The third spiritual need is remembering that God meets us where we are. Both Martha and Mary ran to meet Jesus Christ. Martha and Mary knew Jesus as the Messiah, Savior, the resurrection, new life, and as trusted friend. Jesus met the sisters where they were. Jesus listened to the sisters’ struggle. Jesus held Martha’s and Mary’s brokenness and was deeply moved in holding the fullness of their heartache. And Jesus wept.

When no one else knows the full measure of our loss, Christ does. Our faith in a God who is willing to come alongside us in our human vulnerability and in Christ’s vulnerability on the cross is a powerful thing. “The relevance of faith lies not in the power of faith as such, but in the fact that faith creates a communion with Jesus and that through Jesus believers receive the gift of life” (New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, p. 591). That gift of life is none other than God’s divine love and grace. And there is nothing that can separate us from the love and grace of God. As Paul says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height or depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

“The hope that nothing will separate us from the love of God is the hope that endures; it is the hope that encourages us to bring our angry, clamoring, hurt, guilty selves to the throne of grace. Because of that hope, we are free to grieve more rather than less. It is a hope that makes grieving possible” (All Our Losses, p. 103).

My prayer is that if you are walking more slowly in this New Year to navigate through loss and grief then claim the truth of where you stand in the journey of life and faith. Let your soul be still and steadfast. Take each slow step with hope to find and savor God’s great gift so that “the heart may still play its true part” – that is living in assurance and gratitude for all that the grace of God has done, is doing, and will do in the future. However small or large your loss is, may you find glimpses of God’s grace.

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

Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, “All Our Losses, All Our Griefs” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), p. 52
New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume 13, Luke and John ( Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 591.
“All Our Losses, All Our Griefs,” p. 103.