Sermon from June 6, 2010

June 10, 2010

The Intersection of Life
Luke 7:11-17

I want us all to turn the left sides of our brains off, and let’s run with this story for a while. I don’t want any logical or analytical thinking to be going on for the next few minutes. We’ve got a good story here, and I don’t want anyone to get tangled up in the science of the situation. This is the language of spiritual truth – which is not as accessible as a video on youtube.

Now I’m not one of those people who easily turns off my objective rational sequential thinking mode, but I’ve decided not to get caught up in questioning the details of this story. I’m looking for some of that truth that isn’t easily captured on film, but it is experienced when you rub up against some grace after you’ve had a run-in with the hard facts of surface reality.

This is the story of what happens when the power of life intersects the forces of death. Jesus and his people were walking into town as those who were accompanying a dead man were heading out of town. It’s a simple story about what happens when people who are experiencing the harshness of life encounter people who have the love of God in their hearts.

This is not the kind of exchange that’s easy to capture on youtube. The emergence of life in the midst of death is not an easy thing to document and prove, but the imagery of this story reveals something we can still trust and pursue. I don’t say this because I take everything I read in the Bible to be the scientific truth. I say this because I’ve experienced grace from common people in the midst of trouble, and I can’t believe Jesus would have done anything less for the grieving people he encountered as he went from place to place.

I’ve told you before how much I used to ride a bicycle. I’ve become dependent on engines for the last 25 years, but there was a 10 or 12 year stretch where a bicycle was always my first choice for transportation. And I was not so much a recreational bicycle rider, I used a bicycle to get where I wanted to go. I loved travelling by bicycle and one of my trips was to ride from my hometown of Wynne to Fayetteville (where I was going to school) and back to Wynne. It was my first extended trip, and my mother’s request was to call home each night and let them know where I was.

This was in the summer of 1978, and cell phones were unimaginable to most of us at the time. It generally wasn’t hard to find a public telephone at the time, but you didn’t just call from anywhere.

So I rode from Wynne to Heber Springs the first day, and I stayed at the home of some relatives that first night and I reported in as I had agreed to do. I struck out for Blanchard Springs the next day, and I was somewhere between Drasco and Mountain View when I heard this panting sound just before I looked down and saw this large dog preparing to bite me in the thigh – which he did and then he retreated.

I’ve been bitten by two dogs in my lifetime, and neither one of them barked before they bit me – which makes sense if your intention is to actually attack instead of frighten. So I’m in the middle of nowhere, and my skin has been broken by a dog bite. I didn’t really want to stop in that dog’s neighborhood so I kept riding until I got to Mountain View. I stopped at a store and went in for some food, and I happened to mention to the storekeeper that I had been bitten by a dog a few miles out of town. She suggested I go to the local emergency room, which I did, and they did a nice job of dressing my wound – for free – which is also unimaginable, and they said I would be fine as long as the dog had been vaccinated for rabies.

I didn’t know if the dog had been vaccinated, so they suggested I go to the sheriff and see if he would take me to go find the dog. So I rode to the sheriff’s office and told him my story. I remember very distinctly that he was sitting behind his desk eating popcorn, and you might say he wasn’t anxious to get involved in this situation. It wasn’t obvious to him that I was on course for ordination in the United Methodist Church, and his response to me was that it sounded like I had plenty of time on my hands and I should just ride back down the road and find the dog’s owner myself. He said it probably wasn’t in his county anyway.

I didn’t know what to say, so I walked outside and I leaned up against a tree right outside his window. About five minutes later he walked outside and told me to get in the car. I was about to get in the front seat when he said, back seat. Somebody else got in the car with us and we tore down the road faster than I had ever driven. It was hard for me to tell where we were at that speed, but I identified where I thought the dog had come from and he drove up someone’s driveway. He went and spoke to the homeowner, and I thought I recognized the dog, and it turns out the homeowner said he had vaccinated the dog himself.

He also mentioned that there were some boys nearby who had thrown rocks at the dog from their bicycles, and it all made sense at that point.

So we tore back to town, I thanked him, and I took off for Blanchard Springs State Park. It was actually pretty late in the day as I got to the entrance to the park, and if you’ve ever been there you know that you go down a really long hill to get there. I wasn’t looking forward to the ride out, but it was a really nice long downhill cruise, and when I got to the bottom of the hill and made my way to the bathhouse where the one payphone was located I found it to be out of order.

Now not only was I wanting to tell my parents about my day’s adventure, I also knew that if my mother didn’t hear from me that sheriff was probably going to get a phone call from an anxious woman about a boy on a bicycle, and I didn’t want to put any of us through that. I also dreaded the thought of riding my bicycle back up that hill with all my stuff and my dog-bit leg and all.

I’m not sure how I was expressing my despair, but a man was nearby, he noticed my distress and he asked me if there was something he could do. I gave him the abridged version of what was going on, and he offered to give me a ride up the hill to find a phone, which we did, and then he let me pitch my tent on the edge of his family’s camping area because every campsite had been taken.

The events of that day happened over thirty years ago, but it’s not hard for me to remember those details. Now I’ve told that story on several occasions, so I’ve sort of embedded it in my mind, but the main reason it sticks with me is the drama I experienced on that day. I don’t think I had ever felt as vulnerable on many different levels. I don’t think I had ever been as dependent on the goodwill of other people as I had been on that day, and I was treated with compassion. Clearly nothing supernatural had happened that day, but it felt like I had experienced a miracle on some level.

And the truth is we don’t have to be capable of doing supernatural acts to have profound impacts on the lives of other people. I don’t doubt that Jesus had the capacity to do things that would seem impossible to most of us, but I also believe that Jesus reached out to people with some ordinary means that had extra-ordinary impacts. Resurrection doesn’t have to involve the revival of a pulse. There are people who’s lives need to be restored who’s hearts have never stopped. Resurrection is what occurs when people who are compassionate brush up against people who are suffering.

I was having a conversation with a friend on the phone the other day who is also in the United Methodist ministry business. We’re always trying to figure out what our jobs are and how to best do our jobs, and he used a line that meant a lot to me. He said he believed ministry happens at the intersections of life.

What that meant to me was that there are these moments in our lives when we become needy and vulnerable, and if there is someone there to provide some care and concern those moments of misery become opportunities for God’s grace to abound in significant and seemingly miraculous ways. This is what happened when Jesus and his life giving entourage encountered that grieving mother, and this is what continues to happen when we join with Jesus in noticing who is hurting and we seek to see how we can help.

This business of Christianity really isn’t about having superior understanding or supernatural capabilities – it’s about noticing who’s hurting and offering to do what we can. This is the formula for the miracle of resurrection. People who are feeling overwhelmed by death can experience the life-giving grace of God when other people pause to notice and do what they can to make it better. We don’t have to understand how it happens or calculate if it will happen, we just need to remember that a remarkable thing happened when Jesus exercised some compassion as he was entering an out of the way place, and we are invited to do the same.


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