Monday, June 29, 2009

Touch, touch, touch, feel

Have you seen the recent commercial for Kleenex? It has a woman going about her day and all the things she touches “touch snooze, touch cold, touch water, touch banana, touch, touch, touch, feel.” She eventually grabs a Kleenex and actually stops to feel the item. Here she is touching thousands of items everyday and only once takes the time to feel any of those items.

I think that is kinda how the hemorrhaging woman felt in our gospel text today. Yes she wanted to touch Jesus’ robe, but she also wanted to feel her body healed. For here she was, bleeding for 12 years, had gone to see every doctor, spent all of her money and probably had tried every cure known to man at that time. And yet nothing worked. Maybe there was some glimmers of hope during that time, the bleeding slowed or maybe even stopped for a day or two only to return again.

But yet because of her bleeding, this disease that she had tried time and again to cure but failed, she is now an outsider in society. The culture in which this woman lived there was a huge emphasis placed on being ritually clean, being right before the Lord. Being clean did not mean not being dirty, it meant being of a purified state in order to worship God and be part of the community. And there was different levels of uncleanness. You could be minorly unclean by say going to the bathroom or touching raw meat while cooking, but these minor offensives only took a washing of the hands to be made clean. There were however three offenses to cleanliness that were major enough to exclude a person from the community – leprosy, bodily discharge, and touching a dead body. In order to become ritually clean after one experienced such act, one needed to purify oneself for multiple days and prove that the offense had ended. In the meantime, if you were unclean you were excluded from the community, often cast out to the perimeter of the city, unable to participate in daily life and mostly ignored or avoided by the rest of the community for fear that they too would become unclean.

So here is this woman who for twelve years has been bleeding. And regardless of what she has done, the bleeding just will not stop. And as a result she has been shunned by society, cast off as an outside, as someone to avoid in case she is contagious, in case she get them ill as well. For twelve years she has been hardly touched, by family, friends or strangers. She is longing to be healed, both physically and socially. She is longing to be part of the human race again, to be someone who is able to fully interact with others. She longs to actually have some one feel her and to feel someone else. She longs for more than just touch.

For there is healing power in touch, Jarius knew this when he asked Jesus to come and lay hands on his ailing daughter. He begged Jesus to touch her, to feel her. And Jesus does just that. Jesus touches a dead girl (something that would have made him highly unclean) he takes the girl by the hand and he allows himself to be touched by the woman. And Jesus heals though his touch and others touching him. The woman is healed after twelve years of bleeding and the young girl is brought back to life. Both females have felt Jesus, they have felt his healing power, they have been healed by his touch.

And it is human nature to want to be touch, to want to held, and to feel yourself holding someone else. This is why babies enjoy being swaddled, they want to feel embraced. We receive a lot of information though the sense of touch. This is why young children like to feel different textures, why it is hard to walk when our foot has fallen asleep, since we cannot feel it touching the ground. But there is something magical, something spiritual in human touch. It can be a life source, it can give us energy when we are tired, break the down wall of emotion we have built up or even make us laugh if we are ticklish. Human touch can convey hate or anger through a slap, panic or terror through a tight grip of the arm, desire and passion through a gentle caress or sympathy and kindness through a hand on the shoulder. How long have you ever gone without human touch?

I asked this question to my bible study group and all of us could remember an occasion within recent history where we has gone a long time without a hug, a firm handshake or a hand on our shoulder. For me it was about a month after moving to New Haven. Yes I had Bob and I hug him multiple times daily, but when I came from the seminary community where I could not walk across campus without giving and receiving multiple hugs, to have only one person to hug was a huge change. After about a week of not hugging anyone I noticed and started to sort of kept track. No one at worked hugged me or even really touched me, which granted would have been a little odd since I had only worked there a week or two. I had no friends yet in the area so no hugs there, and our families live halfway across the country, so again no hugs. But then we went to church on Sunday, and this woman who I had only met a few times gave me this great big bear hug and it was in that hug that I felt God hugging me, I felt like I was hugging all the people that I wished to hug and couldn’t due to distance.

I believe we all have those moments in our lives when we just want to feel, we want to stop touching things and start feeling the warmth, the embrace, the power that is experienced through human touch. Even if you are a macho man and would never admit to needing a hug, I believe there are still moments when you want a hug. We want to feel that human connection, we do not want to feel alone.

But how does God touch us? I personally have never seen God or Jesus in the flesh and had heavenly arms wrapped around me. But yet I have felt God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I have felt God, and I do mean physically, during moments of prayer, during joyful songs, during times of feeling at rock bottom. For God touches us in many ways. We are touched with the waters of baptism when it was poured out upon us. And when we dip our hands into the font to remember our baptism God is touching us with God’s presence. In the bread and wine of communion we not only taste but we touch, we feel Christ presence in our lives (even if that feeling is of the wafer being stuck to the roof of our mouth). And in the sharing of the peace as we shake the hands and hug our fellow worshipers we feel the Body of Christ. We are hugging and shaking hands both with ____, ____, and ____ but also with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So how do you feel Christ? Physically and emotionally?

“Touch in Church” By Ann Weems

What is all this touching in church?
It used to be a person could come to church and sit in the pew
and not be bothered by all this friendliness
and certainly not by touching.
I used to come to church and leave untouched.
Now I have to be nervous about what's expected of me.
I have to worry about responding to the person sitting next to me.
Oh, I wish it could be the way it used to be;
I could just ask the person next to me: How are you?
And the person could answer: Oh, just fine,
And we'd both go home . . . strangers who have known each other
for twenty years.
But now the minister asks us to look at each other.
I'm worried about that hurt look I saw in that woman's eyes.
Now I'm concerned,
because when the minister asks us to pass the peace,
The man next to me held my hand so tightly
I wondered if he had been touched in years.
Now I'm upset because the lady next to me cried and then apologized
And said it was because I was so kind and that she needed
A friend right now.
Now I have to get involved.
Now I have to suffer when this community suffers.
Now I have to be more than a person coming to observe a service.
That man last week told me I'd never know how much I'd touched his life.
All I did was smile and tell him I understood what it was to be lonely.
Lord, I'm not big enough to touch and be touched!
The stretching scares me.
What if I disappoint somebody?
What if I'm too pushy?
What if I cling too much?
What if somebody ignores me?
"Pass the peace."
"The peace of God be with you." "And with you."
And mean it.
Lord, I can't resist meaning it!
I'm touched by it, I'm enveloped by it!
I find I do care about that person next to me!
I find I am involved!
And I'm scared.
O Lord, be here beside me.
You touch me, Lord, so that I can touch and be touched!
So that I can care and be cared for!
So that I can share my life with all those others that belong to you!
All this touching in church -- Lord, it's changing me!

Monday, June 22, 2009

First Sunday

Yesterday was my first Sunday as Pastor Becca and what a wonderful Sunday it was. The former music director, Susan, who is a member of the church and currently a music director at a different congregation did a bench exchange (instead of a pulpit exchange) with Bethlehem's music director. Susan brought her band "The Kapella Band" with her and they rocked! The band lead us in music during the prelude, most hymns, offertory, communion and postlude.

There were also many visitors on Sunday, many were band groupies but also two former members who came up from North Carolina and Florida respectively. I believe they were already planning the trip north to visit with friends and family, but they made sure they made it to worship in order to surprise Susan.

After worship, because we are Lutheran, there was a coffee hour, and not just one of those coffee and doughnuts coffeehours but a full spread with salads, quiches, and multiple desserts.

The only bad part of the entire morning was unfortunately my chanting. I'm not a strong singer, I'll sing in a crowd and even kinda loudly, but I don't really sing well and I hardly ever sing by myself. Even if I'm singing along with the radio while walking down the street I'll sing quietly. Well yesterday I thought after hearing many poor singers chant the Great Thanksgiving (the Lord be with you, and also with you, lift up your hearts part) I thought I would give it a shot. Bad idea. Between being nervous since it was my first time presiding at communion (elements were already pre-blessed since I'm not ordained yet) and then added nerves of chanting in front of others and I was slightly stuffy from allergies that I sounded horrible, even to me. But the wonderful people of Bethlehem said nothing to me afterwords about how horrible I sounded. I'm sure the look of disgust on my face at hearing myself made them realize that I knew I sounded bad. So for now, no more chanting. Maybe after a few months of getting comfortable at the altar and practice with the music director I might take another stab at it. Or maybe my chanting voice will forever be retired.

Calm during the storm

Below is my sermon from my first official Sunday as pastor. Just a quick note about my sermons. They are meant to be preach out-loud. This means that I do not always follow the script, that there are run-on and horribly grammatically incorrect sentences and typos. Please do not be offended by such and if you are then you should stop reading now. For those of you not offended, I hope you enjoy!

There they were tossing and turning, the waves were getting higher and higher, the boat rocking harder and harder, tipping at greater angles. Even the professional fishermen were afraid of the storm, afraid of capsizing, afraid for their lives. And if the fisherman were afraid, we can only imagine how terrified the accountants and doctors among them were.

But there was one man who was not afraid, he wasn’t even aware of the danger of the seas. In fact he was asleep in the back of the boat. And he wasn’t an experienced fisherman or sailor. Instead he was a carpenter from the land-lock town of Nazareth. He did not grow up playing on the lake shore, going on multi-day fishing trips with his dad. But yet there he was asleep, oblivious to the raging waters, the howling wind, and the chaos around him.

But misery loves company and if you are going to die, you might as well be awake for it. So the disciples, the ones terrified and afraid for their lives wake up the sleeping Jesus. And I’m sure they didn’t wake him up gently with a slight nudging and a whisper “Jesus, Jesus it is time to wake up…Jesus you need to get up now so you can calm the storm because well, we are all worried and after you are done, we will have pancakes and eggs for breakfast.” No this wake up call was the full out onslaught, the jump on the bed, rip the covers away and kick him out of the bed kind of wake up call. And as Jesus laid on the floor next to the bed confused and dazed since 10 seconds ago he was having the best dream about healing a man of demons and a mustard tree, the disciples yell, no scream at him “Don’t you care that we are all going to die!!”

These men who Jesus had just had a private confirmation lesson with (for in verses 33 & 34, just before our gospel reading today it says “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”). These disciples who just had the secrets of the kingdom reveled to them are now a few hours later afraid for their lives. And not just afraid that the Romans or Jewish leaders will kill them for heresy, blasphemy or political unrest, but they are afraid of nature, of the storm, of the water.

Now growing up in part of tornado alley, I have seen the sky turn green before and no matter how many times one sees a green sky, it is a terrifying sight. The sky turning what would normally be considered an unnatural color and rain and hail plummeting the ground. So I can understand the disciples fear. They are on a boat, there is nowhere to hide, no shelters to run to. But I also wonder how much of the disciples fear is not just about the storm, but about where and what God is leading them to do.

Here they were embarking on a journey, not just across the lake, but to a new uncharted territory. They were defying both religious and political leaders. They were putting themselves and their families at risk for prosecution, ridicule and harassment from both leaders of the country and religious authorities but also friends and neighbors. They were going to be leaders of a rebellion, of a revelation and why, they were all gun-ho and eager while on dry land, but now on the sea faced with physical harm or even death, they were doubting, they were losing their faith. Was this really what they wanted to do? Why couldn’t they just remain simple fishermen, accountant and doctors, not doing anything revolutionary but yet content with their lives? The disciples were both asking Jesus to care about their lives presently on the boat but also in their future. Ten of the twelve disciples were martyred according to tradition – the exceptions being Judas who committed suicide after Jesus’ crucifixion and John who died of old age in exile. But in the midst of adversity, in the midst of the storm, the disciples’ faith starts to weaken.

And aren’t we exactly like the disciples? We face many storms in our lives and our faith in ourselves, in each other and in God starts to weaken. What are some of the storms in your lives?

Sickness, death of a loved one, lost jobs, difficulties with children or parents, being under employed, fights with spouses, friends or other loved ones. These are just a few of the trials and tribulations in our lives. These things cause us fear, they cause us to worry to become stressed, to start to doubt, and we lose our faith. We lose our faith in ourselves, in our abilities to persevere, in our ability to overcome the adversity. We lose faith in others, we begin to no longer trust them in our lives, to no longer trust that they will do the right thing, that they will be a good spouse, parent, child, or friend. We lose our faith in God. We question why God hasn’t done something in order to stop the bad things from happening. We doubt our faith, we begin to bargain with God…if only this will happen, then I will go to church every week, or I will be a better person, or I will give X number of dollars to the church. We lose our faith because we have always been a good person, we have always gone to church, but yet, these bad things have still happened to us. If we have faith and bad still happens then maybe we don’t need faith. Maybe Jesus doesn’t care that we are all going to die!

Oh we are exactly like those disciples – maybe not as panic stricken but we are right there with them in the boat, afraid and wondering why Jesus isn’t doing anything. But Jesus does do something! He rebukes the sea and calms the wind, the storm stops, all is still!

Jesus did not lead the disciples into danger. He doesn’t have them perish on the sea. He knows there is much more for the disciples to learn, much more for them to do in their lives. Much more life for them to live. His action doesn’t meant that there won’t be more storms in their lives, both physical and metaphorical (again 10 disciples were martyred) but that Jesus will be there, someone to turn to when they are afraid. Jesus is there as a calming presence in their lives.

And that is true for us too. Being Christian, believing that Jesus is our lord and savior does not mean that we will not have storms in our lives. We all have those times of trial, those times of hardship, those moments of despair. But we can turn to Jesus to be a calming presence in our lives, to give us moments of clarity when our boat, our life, is rocking. When the clouds are thundering. Jesus did not die for our sins so that our lives may be perfect, so that we can live in perfect bliss. Jesus died so that our sins may be forgiven, so that we may live in perfect bliss and harmony with him in heaven. But sin is still in this world. Our lives are still going to be plagued with the powers of sin and death. We are still going to have moments of trail, of disbelief. But God is still there, Jesus is right beside us, a calming presence.

I think of the words to the song Thy Word “When I feel afraid and I think I’ve lost my way, still you’re there right beside me. Nothing shall I fear as long as you are near, you’ll be with me to the end.” We are all afraid at times, like the disciples, afraid that we are all going to die, but Jesus is with us, right beside us and Jesus will not leave us, he will be with us throughout all the storms of our lives, he will be with us till the end. Jesus is with us today and always!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Finally Called

It has been over a year since I graduated from seminary. During this year, my husband and I have moved to New Haven, he has started grad school, and I have had a few adventures. I often thought that I should have started a blog entitled "Adventures of the (un)called" since most of my seminary pals were now called to churches and I was sitting around waiting for a call and having some adventures. But I never got around to it.

But starting tomorrow is my first day as pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Georgetown CT. So I thought I would finally get around to starting that blog. And here is goes.

I'm hoping to have this place to post sermons, biblical reflections and other thoughts, update the congregation on upcoming events and otherwise journal on some of my experiences as a first-call pastor in a small congregation in Connecticut.