The Hope Business

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June 3, 2018. Our sermon today is from Jim Bennett, who is a hospital chaplain. He preaches on the metaphor of earthen vessels, healing, and how leaving the hospital is like leaving church on a Sunday morning: you come out better than when you went in.


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Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


Now, some of you may be thinking to yourselves, “What is he doing up there?” I have to tell you that’s a question that’s gone through my mind a few times this week too. I’m a pastor. I’m a Lutheran Pastor who’s served congregations for about ten years, before I responded to what I felt was God’s call for me to move into chaplaincy ministry, and eventually education. And so it’s been many years since I’ve preached a sermon, contrary to what my wife tells me every now and then.


But when I was contacted and asked to preach today, I was a little nervous because I’m out of practice. And so that’s why I’m going to stay up here in the pulpit. The pulpit’s nice and protective. But I was also really excited when I read the lessons for today, because the lessons are just filled with great preaching themes. You know, we have the gospel lesson where Jesus heals the withered hand of a man in the temple. We have the Old Testament lesson that depicts God bringing God’s people out of slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand. And in our second lesson, God has bestowed a treasure in earthen vessels. And the psalm, “You called out in distress and I delivered you.” Great preaching themes. But there’s an overarching theme that I really want to focus on today, and it follows what I said with the children this morning about the people of God being the church, and how God cares for his people.


That ought to be reassuring, right? It is for me, most of the time. Yet if we read the entire second lesson that Paul was sharing with the people in the Corinthian Church, he goes on to write as servants for Jesus’ sake we are afflicted, but not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are persecuted, but not forsaken. We are struck down, but not forgotten. So even as we may be reassured that God cares for us, we may not always feel that care in a way that we expected or hoped. And that is exactly where a lot of my ministry comes into play.


I try to show people that God cares, when they don’t really feel that God cares, when they feel perplexed or afflicted, when they feel struck down or when they’re persecuted. Because you and I and many of the people that I minister to, we are these earthen vessels.


Earthen vessels. I noticed in the lesson today that the version of this translation said we are clay jars. And you know, I was thinking about earthen vessels and clay jars, and which would be a better metaphor today. Last evening my wife and I and some friends went to the Webster art show at Webster University in Eden Seminary. And my wife and I are always drawn to the artists that do clay jars. They have earthen vessels there, and they’re beautiful. And we always think about perhaps buying a piece or two. And as I was there I remembered the second lesson for today, that we are like earthen vessels. You know that earthenware is very durable, but sometimes it gets cracked. Sometimes it may get broken, chipped. And it wears out over time. That’s like the metaphor of our bodies as earthen vessels, that sometimes we abuse our bodies, or over time they’re worn out. And we are breakable. So when those parts wear out or we break, we need to be fixed.


And it’s amazing to me. I think about when those body parts wear out or we need a new part. (I myself have had a knee replacement. And I know of others here who’ve had the same, or a hip replacement. Some of you may even have had an organ transplant.) I’m simply amazed that when our bodies are broken, they can be repaired.


There are times when I converse with others and the topic of vocation comes up and people say, “What is it that you do?” And I say I’m a hospital chaplain. And they look at me and say that must be a really tough job. And I say to them, sometimes it is. But you have to keep in mind that many more people leave the hospital in better shape than they arrived in, than otherwise.


And you know, I feel kind of the same way about church on Sunday morning. When I come here to worship, sometimes I’m still a little bit asleep and I’m not too sure about things. But I always leave church better than when I first arrived.


More often than not, when I see people in the hospital they are hoping for healing. Some of them may even hope for a miracle. But healing miracles today are more often performed by modern medicine. We place our trust in the wisdom and knowledge of God as bestowed on physicians. Yet healing is a process that even modern medicine is not an exact science. So I have found that people of God may be challenged when those purveyors of modern miracles acknowledge that nothing more can be done to heal or to make one whole.


Now, there are times when people then turn to God and they want a miracle more like what occurred in our gospel lesson today. The section of Mark. If you had read earlier portions of Mark you might realize that our gospel lesson today comes at a time after Jesus had performed many healing miracles. He had cast out demons. He had healed the leper and a paralytic. And you may remember that one of the titles that Jesus was known by was the Great Physician, because he healed people. Jesus was God. But today, even though we have some very talented physicians whose work sometimes seems miraculous, they are not God.


We wait for the Good News to come to us from God to proclaim a miracle like Jesus did. Healing a withered hand. Or, as the writer of Deuteronomy says, God brought you out of the land of Egypt. Or the psalmist, “In distress you called and I delivered you.” A responsive God that seems to answer our every need.


But then I’m reminded of an old tune as a child that I became familiar with. It’s about Humpty Dumpty. And it says Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.


So where is God when we need God most? Jesus taught us that, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there with you.” I didn’t ask the children today in the children’s sermon where they thought God was. It might have been interesting to hear some of those responses. It might have been a bit too confusing, but I can ask you: where is God?


If you think about it, maybe you’ll come to the conclusion that it’s not as confusing as one might first think. Where is God? Actually God is right here. When I’m doing my other job as an usher here on a Sunday morning, or when I’m reading the lessons, or when I’m taking up the collection — you know ushers have the responsibility of counting the number of worshippers on a Sunday morning, and I’m in the practice when I’m doing that at the end — I always add the number three. Why would I do that? I add the father. Why would I do that? Yes, because of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. I’m not just padding the attendance record. It’s theologically sound!


Just think about it: God is with us on Sunday morning. And God is not with us just on Sunday morning. God is with us wherever two or more are gathered in God’s name. A few weeks ago the church celebrated the holy day of the Ascension of the Lord. It’s when Jesus was taken up into heaven. The disciples were worried that when Jesus would go away they would be left alone. But Jesus told his disciples not to worry because he would be sending them the Holy Spirit.


Another name for the holy spirit is the Great Comforter. And the Great Comforter, the Holy Spirit, would be with them. Now, the Holy Spirit has a role in our lives as well. Just like it’s been a long time since I’ve preached, it’s also been a long time since I taught confirmation. So I may need some help from some of you. In terms of what we learn about the role of the Holy Spirit In our lives, any recent confirmations here who can name off the four or five things the Holy Spirit does for us? Uh oh, somebody in the back. Yell it out. What does the Holy Spirit do? Okay. The Holy Spirit calls us. The Holy Spirit gathers us. The Holy Spirit enlightens us. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us, and keeps us. The five things: calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps. All of you coming up for confirmation, remember. That’s a good thing to remember. It’s good Lutheran theology.


But I practice my ministry in a setting that is multi-faith or no faith at all. So I don’t serve just Lutherans anymore. So I practice what we call more of a practical theology. And there is, in practical theology, several roles that God serves. And that is to sustain us, and to guide us, and to reconcile us, and to heal us. These are actions that show that God cares. Now, I have to admit if my loved one was sick and they could not be made whole again, I would expect the function of God’s healing to take place. And if it didn’t I would be angry about that.


In our lesson today, Jesus was angry at the Pharisees. Well, I would expect I would be angry. Any one of you probably would as well. But once I could move past my anger, my hope and prayer would be that God would sustain me or God might guide me or God might in some way reconcile me to those I love. Those would be actions that God could show God’s care.


In my years of ministry, I have witnessed great resilience and courage, both in parishioners and patients who may be in pain or suffering for days and and weeks, and maybe even years, waiting for God’s healing. Or maybe knowing that that healing may not take place. And sometimes I talk with people who feel hopeless. Hopelessness can be a disease. It can be a disease almost as bad as many others that we are aware of. It can lead us to despair. So I sometimes tell people as sincerely as possible that as a pastor, my chief title is I’m in the hope business.


I’m in the Hope business.


Now, I don’t mean that I’m going to try to dispense some pie-in-the-sky hope. But what I try to do is to resurrect hope — that hope that is within us, the hope that is what Paul talks about in our second lesson, the treasure that is in earthen vessels. You know in Corinthians, Paul talks about faith, hope, and love. These are treasures that we possess within us as earthen vessels. We all have it but sometimes it needs to be resurrected. Those earthen vessels that may be afflicted but remember, Paul said, not crushed. May be perplexed but not driven to despair. May be persecuted but not forsaken. Or struck down but not forgotten. God will not leave us alone.


When we pray to God, we often want God to change things. And sometimes God does change things, but sometimes God changes people. And that’s what happens when I come here on Sunday morning. I am changed. I leave better than when I arrived.


I teach as part of my ministry. I just recently completed a class on pastoral care skills for community clergy, and one of the clergymen who was enrolled in the class, he was a pastor in the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee. That pastor’s denomination is known to have a rather conservative theology. And part of the training of these clergy who come to me, they are required to visit patients in the hospital. And six months ago when his training began, the pastor wrote that “I’ve always worked toward the goal of ministry where a person is brought to their knees to the point of asking Jesus into their heart so miracles can take place.”


Well, I want to reassure you, I would never allow him to do that to patients in the hospital. But that is the mindset in which he entered this training. But when he left just a few weeks ago, he wrote something very different that almost brought tears to my eyes. He wrote, “In the end, the most important things in life have been relationships with people.” In the end, the most important things in life have been relationships with people. And I believe if we look at our lessons again for today, God feels the same way. God cares for God’s people. God is with God’s people. And we are the church together.




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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jim Bennett