Proper 11B, July 19, 2015

July 20, 2015

The Economics of Grace
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

6:30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

You get in to trouble whenever you try to start measuring spiritual matters. We just don’t know how to graph the activity of the Holy Spirit or to determine the exact way God influences the events of our lives. Suffering isn’t a sign of God’s disapproval nor is great success a clear sign of God’s favor. It’s much more mysterious than that. I know too many good hearted people who have experienced terrible circumstances to believe that. I also know that God can feel the most present when we are the most vulnerable. Blessings come to us in the midst of disaster, and we can feel terribly isolated and alone when things appear to be going well for us. Spiritual matters are hard to measure.

As soon as you start thinking you are deserving of a little something special from God you are probably entering in to dangerous territory, but I don’t believe the course of our lives are disconnected from the way we choose to live our lives or from the efforts of others to influence our lives. In my way of thinking it’s hard to define the way God interacts with our lives, but I do believe that genuine spiritual investments reap good dividends. I feel like I am the beneficiary of the investments of others and every now and then I feel like I get blessed by something I’ve played a part in planting. Of course I also suspect that I’ve had some ill-advised investments of my time and energy come back and bite me, but I don’t want to talk about that this morning.

What I want to talk about is the way God’s grace gets distributed among us. And it seems to me that God generally uses plain old people and everyday situations to deliver this divine gift of redeeming grace.

Of course there are occasions of extraordinary circumstances. We have this story this morning of people coming from everywhere by any means possible to get near enough to Jesus to simply touch the fringe of his cloak in order to be healed, and I can believe there are these situations in which the grace of God is so palpable you can touch it, but that’s not life as we usually know it. It’s not hard for me to believe that Jesus had this incredible presence that was totally transformational and miraculously healing. I don’t think we’d be talking about him today if he didn’t, but most of us don’t have such dramatic encounters with the living presence of God.

This story of people pouring out of the woodwork to get to Jesus is perfectly believable to me, and I have no doubt that their lives were never the same after that. It’s easy for me to imagine that he had this deeply moving presence, but what I also know is that there were a lot of people who showed up a day late, and all they got was the story of what he had done. In fact it’s easy for me to think that I would likely have been with that group of people who got there in time to hear about the amazing things that Jesus had done the day before.

You might say this is where we all find ourselves right now. None of us were on hand for that first-hand encounter with Jesus, and that’s ok. The truly important work that Jesus did was not to provide for the immediate needs of the people who were able to get close enough to touch him – they all ended up getting terminally sick or injured all over again. Their bodies and minds weren’t rendered invincible, but they did gain something that never grows old – which is the good news of God’s eternal love for us all.

Because before Jesus came along, desperate people weren’t just tortured by all the ways in which life can become unbearably painful – their pain was compounded by the message that came with their suffering which was that they were somehow deserving of God’s wrath and punishment.

The faith of Abraham had taken some bad turns along the way. The people Jesus encountered were desperate because they didn’t know the Lord was their shepherd. They were being told that the Lord was their tormentor. The leaders of Israel had distorted God’s message in a terrible way. The message that God had sought to provide through Moses and the prophets was the message that God heard the cry of people who were oppressed, but the scribes and Pharisees portrayed God’s love and providential care as being very conditional. They maintained that it was reserved for those who deserved it according to their narrow understanding of God. And so when Jesus came along he had compassion for all of the people who were considered undeserving of God’s love because of their infirmities and occupations and stations in life. There were all of these people who were living like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus literally touched everyone that he could, but he didn’t get to touch everyone in person, and that’s ok because it was the message that needed to be spread. And the message is that we are all deserving of God’s love and compassion. Jesus taught us the truth about how God sees us and he wanted us to see each other in the same way. Jesus couldn’t touch us all, but his abiding spirit empowers us to touch each other in healing and transforming ways. The healing may not be as instantaneous as it was for the desperate people who were healed when they touched his cloak, but we are to continue to share this powerfully healing message of God’s unbounded love for us all, and we are to treat each other in this lovingly unbounded way.

The message is that no-one is excluded from the love and concern of God, and this reminds me of how odd the household of God is managed. The origins of the word, economy, go back to two Greek words that mean household management. And the household of God is managed in a really unusual way. In the household of God, it’s the people who have the greatest struggles that get the most attention.

This is not to say that any of us are of little concern to God, but Jesus transformed the faith of Israel by being willing to touch the untouchables of his day. Jesus showed us how important it is to live with compassion for one another, and the beautiful thing is that God’s grace continues to flow through this divine network of compassion. It’s not instantly miraculous, but you just never know how a kind word or act will play out in someone else’s life.

I had the good fortune of being exposed to a good number of kind hearted and God loving people when I was growing up. The First United Methodist Church in Wynne wasn’t a perfect example of the kingdom of God, but they got some things right over there, and I also enjoyed fellowship with people beyond our local church. One of the great experiences of my life was when I went on a week-long backpacking trip that was organized by the Forrest City District of the old North Arkansas Conference of the UMC during the summer of 1974. That was the summer after I finished the 9th grade and it was led by Rev. Jim & Mauzel Beal – in whose footsteps I literally am standing today.

I had Shirley look up the dates of when various pastors served this church, and Jim Beal was appointed here the very same summer that he and Mauzel led that trip. And it was a great trip. It was a group of about 20 youth and adults and we spent a week backpacking over near Mt. View along the Sylamore Creek. It was a great experience. It sort of hooked me in to joy of outdoor adventure, but it was also an experience of intentional Christian fellowship. I think my love for Jesus was comingled with some young romance, but as I say, I think God’s grace comes to us through some ordinary avenues.

I’m honestly really honored to be serving in a place where I have direct connections with several of your former pastors. Jim Beal, Sam Teague, Jim Meadors, Herschel McClurkin, and Ben Jordan are all people who have touched me in significant ways. I could say a lot about the way all of them influenced me, and most of it would be good! I feel that these are people who helped shape my life, and I also feel like maybe God is using me to continue the good work that they began.

I know you’ve had other good pastors as well, but I am the old guy compared to Brad and Charlie.

Of course the strangest things God seems to have done in my life is to put me back in the same town with Lam Huynh, who along with his wife, Julie, run LT’s Nails and Tanning here in Newport. And this is a really interesting turn of events for me.

I met Lam in 1975, when he came to live in Wynne by way of Ft. Chaffee in the wake of the fall of Saigon. I know this church sponsored a Vietnamese family during that time, and I know of the tragic events that transpired after they arrived. I’m sure most of you know that sad story. If you don’t you can read about it in the fine book that documents the history of this church, or you can ask someone who has been around here for a while.

But First United Methodist in Wynne also stepped up to the crisis of the day and sponsored these four young men. The good hearted people of our church helped them start a new life in this new world. I was a senior in high school at the time, and I remember feeling pretty bad for them. As a kid with a car and a lot of friends and family and a lot of options for directions I could go, I was struck by how little they had. I got acquainted with them, and provided some transportation for them, and I found them to be fascinating. I was struck by how resourceful and resilient they were in the face of such a difficult situation. There are a lot of things I’ve forgotten about my senior year in high school, but I’ve never forgotten how exotic it felt to eat their homemade fried rice. They would also let me have a Budweiser which was an equally exotic experience for me, but it was such a good experience for me to step out of my world and in to theirs.

After I graduated from high school I didn’t have much contact with Lam, Be, Sang & Sung, but I was so shocked when Barbara Clark told me that my friend Lam was living here in Newport and was wanting to see me. I’ve heard a little bit about how that connection got made, but I think it’s safe to say that if you want to know what’s going on in a small town you can probably hear it first at a nail salon. I think it’s also accurate to say that you could never ask for a better public relations person than the person who does the nails for so many church members. I’ve felt so welcomed to Newport, and I am certain that it has a lot to do with having Lam as a character reference. I’m actually sort of intimidated by the good reputations that he’s created for me.

I don’t know how God manages to move us here and there. I don’t exactly know how the Holy Spirit works within our midst, but I trust that it does. And I know that any effort any of us ever makes to help someone else feel loved and cared for is never a fruitless act. I believe God uses our feeble efforts to touch one another in gracious ways to do miraculous things.

God’s economy is managed in a far different way than it is in any of our homes or nations or corporations. God watches out for us in ways that we could never predict or expect, and I give thanks for this beautiful truth. Desperation can come to any of us at any time – and so can the good news of God’s enduring and eternal love.
Thanks be to God – Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: