The following is a sermon from my last full service in my summer placement at Orchardhill Parish Church, Giffnock. As it was a communion service, there is also quite a lot of additional liturgy that I wrote for the occasion. You can download the full service here.
Our reading today consists of two quite unusual stories from the life of Jesus. We start with Jesus attempting to get away from the crowds - just a handful of verses beforehand he feeds 5,000, and the passage after our reading he feeds another 4,000! He is in high demand, so he heads out to the region of Tyre and Sidon - a Gentile region - and tries to avoid everyone. But even with all these precautions, a Gentile woman comes forward and begs him to heal her daughter.
The exchange that follows is probably a whole sermon’s worth in its own right, but suffice to say that Jesus heals her daughter and the women goes home again.
After this, Jesus returns to the sea of Galilee and they - it never really explains who “they” are here. It could just be the disciples, but I think it’s more likely that the crowds have returned. Anyway, “they” bring him a man who is deaf and with a speech impediment.
Consider, for a moment, what this would mean in this period of history. Most likely he would be regarded as someone who it was impossible to educate - his physical disability would be seen as an indicator of mental disability. It would be an extremely difficult life, and I would imagine extremely lonely too. That’s not to say that he was not necessarily cared for or looked after, but his quality of life would be one of the worst possible.
And I think there’s a good chance that this was someone who didn’t really know anything about Jesus. He’s just brought before this strange man, who proceeds to put his fingers in his ears, and then touches his tongue with spitty hands. He sees the man’s lips move, and suddenly he is healed. He can hear, and he can speak plainly.
The contrast between these two accounts is quite interesting. In the first we have an non-Jewish woman - an unbeliever - who comes on her own to ask Jesus to heal her daughter, which he does without even visiting her house. In the other, we have a Jewish man - although he may know nothing about Jesus, so we don’t know his state of belief either - who is pushed forward through a crowd to Jesus, and Jesus physically touches him in order to heal.
One of the techniques that I’ve been taught at University when it comes to close reading is what Doug Gay calls “verbing the text”. All you do is read through a text and simply write down every verb that occurs. It can be a really fascinating way of thinking about a passage like this. And, if you were to do it with this passage, you would find that one of the verbs that is common to both stories is the verb “beg.” In the first, the Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. In the second, “they” beg Jesus to lay His hands on the afflicted man.
As I was considering this recurring verb, it made me think about begging today. Not the begging that we see in the city centre, although that’s another extremely important sermon. But the fact that we don’t often beg Jesus for anything anymore, and I began to wonder why this is.
I concluded that there are probably 2 main underlying reasons why we don’t.
Firstly, we live in a time and culture where there is much less need for most of us. Yes, there are concerns about the widening wealth gap, and there are still real issues with poverty in our country and around the world. But we, as individuals, rarely have any great pressing needs. We have sufficient income. We have a great healthcare service, and medical advancements mean that we’re less at risk from disease and illness, and we live longer than ever before. Yes, there are times when we need things, but our needs are rarely desperate needs - rarely things that we would consider begging for.
Secondly, I think we live in a time and a culture where we no longer expect God to engage with the world. We don’t actually expect God to do anything - certainly not anything dramatic. We do not beg, because we do not expect.
I want to share 2 more stories this morning of people who encountered Jesus in ways they did not expect. Neither of them begged, but both encountered the risen Lord.
The first story is of a women who attended an event being run in Ruchazie. My home church in Whiteinch is involved in a sort of hub church development work in Ruchazie, and at one event they were offering people prayer. I wasn’t there that particular evening, although my wife was and my home minister shared this particular story a few weeks later.
One woman came and asked for prayer, although she did not specify what she needed prayer for. So she was prayed for, and went on her way. But later that week she returned to tell more of her story, which I now tell to you.
5 years prior she had suffered a heart attack. She was so scared by this event in her life, and so afraid in particular that she would die in her sleep, that she would wake up every 60-90 minutes through the night, every night, for the past 5 years. After she attended this event and received prayer, she went home. The following day she was woken by her alarm clock. She had slept through the night for the first time in 5 years. She was supposed to take her grandchildren to school, but they all had to rush because none of them were used to her sleeping until the alarm clock went off! And all that morning at the school gates, she was telling all those around her about the crazy people at the church who had prayed for her.
Now - I’ve not heard any more over the last few months, but certainly for the first month afterwards there were regular reports that she was still sleeping through.
The second story comes from my friend Chris. Chris is a baptist minister who works as a city centre chaplain in Peterborough. One of things that he does is that he has permission from the Wetherspoon’s pub to leave beer mats around the tables on which people can write down things they would like prayer for. Here are Chris’ words about one of the occasions he was in the pub:
Bill was drinking Rosé wine in the pub. Alone. Perched on one of those high bar-stools with elbows rested on the high table. Chin in hand. It wasn’t the fact that it was just after ten in the morning that made it unusual, it was that most blokes in the pub at that time of the day drink real ale. He looked somewhat strange and out of place with his large glass of pink wine sparkling proudly in the middle of the table.
I went around the tables as usual, placing our prayer beer mats on them, a job I did most Fridays, and when I eventually got to Bill’s table, I asked him what he was up to. He explained how he was waiting to get a bus and see his son and grandchild for the weekend. He looked nervous and it turned out he hadn’t seen them for a little bit. As he lifted the glass to his lips I noticed that his hand had a black brace on it, the kind with velcro straps and metal bits. I asked him about it and he told me how, six months previously, he had dropped a heavy garden ornament on his fingers and they had been crushed. He said he was in a great deal of pain with them.
I found myself explaining to him that I prayed for people to be healed in the name of Jesus and asked whether he wanted me to pray for his hand. He agreed and held his hand up towards me. I was somewhat surprised by his eagerness and asked if he wanted me to pray there and then. He said that he was happy for me to.
While I was praying he said that a warm sensation had gone through his hand and with that he started moving his fingers. He explained that he hadn’t been able to bring his thumb up to touch his fingers before being prayed for, and now he had all the flexibility back!
He kept moving and wriggling his fingers and appeared to be in some kind of shock. I explained to him that it was a sign that God knew him and loved him.
A few minutes later I introduced him to Dave, who is one of my amazing chaplaincy team who hang out with me most Fridays in the pub to show and tell good news. The man explained to Dave what had happened and that he was now able to move his hand, and was freely showing him his new hand movements!
Two weeks later, Bill came back to say thank you with his new and improved hand. He had travelled some distance to come back so that he could express his thanks to us. He also wanted to know more about Jesus. He explained that the hospital had dismissed him from their care and were “perplexed.” His wife thought it wonderful and was amazed at how her husband’s hand had been made 100% completely better – and was very happy that he could now help around the house!
Why do I share these stories? I share them because I hope that they might raise within you an expectation that God might move in us and in our community today. There is not much I can do to create a desperate need in your life, and, indeed, I would not wish that upon you. But what I can do is bring you stories such as these so that your levels of faith and expectation in what God is willing to do here and now are raised. So that you too, in your own way, may come to call upon God - to beg - to move.
We are gathered here today to celebrate communion. Part of this sacrament is a remembrance of what Christ has done. Here we recognise our desperate need of a Saviour - that we ourselves have done nothing to be deserving of God’s mercy, but that Jesus himself did everything that was required, and took our punishment upon himself on the cross.
But if we simply treat communion as a remembrance, we miss much of its significance. In sharing communion, we also declare our unity with Christ - it is this union with Christ that gives us the word “communion.” Celebrating communion here today is a bold proclamation that Jesus is alive! That we do not just share in stories and remembrance of things that are past, but we have a Lord who is living today, who moves today, whose impact is felt in the world today, who makes a difference in our lives today.
Lastly, when we share in communion, we are also sharing in the hope of the feast to come. Paul, when he tells the Corinthian church about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, reminds them that in doing so they “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” So when we share communion, it is a reminder of the “not yet” of Jesus. That he has not yet come again. But he will. And on that day we will cease to share communion together, because we will live in full communion with him, and share instead in the wedding feast of Jesus.
We do not beg, because we have no need, and yet we need Jesus more than ever. We do not beg, because we do not expect, and yet Jesus is alive!
As I was preparing for this morning, thinking about what it was to come to the Lord’s table, thinking about these people who begged Jesus for healing, the phrase that kept on rolling around my head was “Run, don’t walk.” Now - we don’t come forward to the table here in Orchardhill, so this is perhaps more metaphorical than literal. But I urge you today - run, don’t walk. Come in expectation that just one touch from Jesus is all that you need. Come in desperation. As you eat and drink of this bread and wine, do so not just as a ritual, not merely a remembrance, but a declaration of the risen Lord who is alive today and is coming back in glory.
Run, don’t walk. I want us to listen to a song just now, which I think captures some of this picture of what it can be to share in communion. The lyrics will also come up on the screen, in case anyone struggles to hear them. And once we’ve listened for a moment, we will also take up our offering.
The song is called “O come to the altar”.