That I've preached (I preached at our Wednesday night service on April 13. Very low-key). Mac has been traveling a bunch the past few weeks due to continuing education and annual conference stuff, so he asked me (well, actually, our worship staff person, who I'll call Lizzie, asked me) to preach at the monthly healing service, which was last night. Here's my sermon. I think the service went very well, and I was delighted to have the opportunity. As always, feedback is welcome and appreciated. Sermon is after the jump..
Rev. Patti W&H
May 4, 2011
Three years ago today, I stood in the pulpit of the small, United Methodist church I had been serving for the past two years, and announced that after that day, I would not be their pastor. I had been planning to move to a new appointment at the end of June (in the United Methodist Church, pastoral appointments are made from July 1 to June 30), but had made the difficult decision to take a leave of absence, effective immediately, because things with the congregation had gotten so bad that I feared for my emotional and spiritual health, and that of my family. I had my District Superintendent's (the pastor who supervises all the pastors in an area) full support and my husband's support, but it was, and still is, the hardest decision I've ever made. However, the six months prior to my departure, during which I had received countless emotional and spiritual wounds (and, to be honest, I had probably wounded people, too), had been the worst of my life, and I do not make that statement lightly. I hoped that removing me from that situation would allow myself, my family, and the congregation, to begin healing. And indeed, the healing process did begin for all of us involved. We moved here to C_________, I worked as a chaplain and focused on my family, I gave birth to our second child, and I was able to process and grieve and think through some of what I had experienced. However, what I didn't realize was how difficult the healing process would be and how long it would take. In some ways, healing from the wounds I received was a more painful process, emotionally and spiritually, than the wounds themselves. It involved forgiving people in the congregation, forgiving myself, forgiving the church as an institution, asking God to forgive me…and even, as incredibly backward as this sounds…forgiving God and renewing that relationship. The healing process took a long time: as I mentioned, it was three years ago that I left that congregation, and it's only been in the last few months that I've been able to declare myself fully healed from that experience.
I'm not going to go into any more detail about either my experience as a pastor or my healing process for two reasons. First, it would take far too long; we’d be here until 9:30 or 10:00, and you all have better things to do. If you're really dying to hear my story, give me a call, shoot me an e-mail, and I'll happily share it with you. We can get together and I'll tell you the whole story. Second, I'm not going into detail because this service is not about me: it's about all of us, and most importantly, it's about our God, whose healing love, grace, power, and presence in the world is the reason we're here tonight.
I shared my own experience with you for one main reason: because you don’t know me very well, and I want you to know that as I use the terms “we” and “us”, as I talk about wounds and healing and hope, and as I share good news, that I have experienced wounds and needed God’s healing, too. It helps to know that the person giving you good news has “been there” in a manner of speaking.
The apostle Paul found himself in a similar situation when he wrote the letter to the Roman church. We see it in the book of Romans, which is in the New Testament. Paul had never visited this church, so while they were surely familiar with him, they had never met him and only knew him by reputation. However, since Paul was probably a household name in the first-century Christian world, the Romans probably had heard a decent amount about him. This passage I’m about to read comes from Romans 8:35-39:
Romans 8:35 -395 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The apostle Paul, who wrote the passage I just read, had experienced, or would experience, every situation mentioned in verse 35: he had been beaten, he had been imprisoned, he had been stranded on an island, and he would lose his life by being beheaded for his faith in Jesus. Paul endured incredible persecution; his life had been extremely difficult since becoming a Christian, and the Romans knew it. So, when they read these verses about nothing being able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, the message rang true. If Paul, who had endured so much suffering in his life, could believe and proclaim such assurance and faith, so could they, even as they endured hardships and trials and persecution and even as they were wounded emotionally, physically and spiritually.
We are here because we are a broken people who live in a broken world, and we have wounds that are hurting us, and we need healing. Whatever those wounds may be: physical, emotional, spiritual, or a combination, we come here because we need the healing that only God can provide.
Healing can take a very long time…it can be a long process, with two steps forward and one step back, or even one step forward and two steps back. There can be periods of time when it seems like no progress is being made, and then periods of time when it seems total healing is just around the corner. It can take months. It can take years. It can even take a lifetime. And it can be frustrating, infuriating, agonizing, painful…any or all of the above. I can speak from my own experience that when we are in the midst of suffering and when we are healing from our wounds, it can be hard to believe that God loves us, that God is present with us, that God is not punishing us. Sometimes these feelings come from others, who hint that we’re “getting what we deserve”, that this ordeal is “God’s way of teaching us a lesson or making us stronger”. Sometimes these feelings come from inside of us, from our own sense of unworthiness, our own frustration with our prayer life, our feeling that God is distant, and our fear that we’re not doing something “right.”
This passage I just read from Romans 8 speaks to those feelings in a real and powerful way. It says that nothing and no one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord…not the forces of darkness, not physical suffering, not unemployment, not poverty, not anything we do, or anything anyone else does to us, not the future and not the past…not even death can separate us from God’s love. We can be assured that no matter what we are going through, what suffering we are enduring, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, that God is present with us, and will never leave us. In the midst of our struggles, in the midst of our pain, in the midst of our healing, that God’s love for us will never change, that God will always be present with us, God will always work in our lives, and that God will never give up on us or stop loving us. That is good news indeed.