God, Our Healer
Scripture: Psalm 103:1-13,22; Mark 2:1-12
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Sep 3, 2017
Welcome to Labor Day weekend! Labor Day, in the United States, is a public holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September. It honors the American "labor movement" and celebrations that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws and well-being of the country. Aren't we glad we have Wikipedia? Here is a Labor Day Parade in New York City in 1892. Beginning in the late 19th century (according to Wikipedia) as the trade union and labor movement grew, trade unionists proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate labor, so the first parade was organized. In 1887 the first state to make Labor Day an offical public holiday was Oregon! And in 1894, 30 of the 44 states "officially" celebrated Labor Day.
This Labor Day, while we are enjoying Dodger games or the beach or our air conditioned homes, thousands are without homes in Texa,s and fires threaten here in SoCal. So as our President directed us, we will pray for victims of flood and fire, and we may give through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance by simply marking our checks and envelopes with "PDA." JR will lead us in those prayers later in today's worship. We continue our Summer Psalms sermon series.
We come today to the majestic psalm of "blessed healing," Psalm 103. I read this psalm of blessed healing to Elder Gary Pate last Thursday afternoon at Kaiser Permanente Hospital. I'll see him again today in fact. There are blank cards that you may write Gary (yes you may even write during my sermon, and I won't call you out!) You may also wish to write a second note to Bud and Gayle Fish. Gayle has been struggling with here health but this past week they lost their son, Christian, who had been for years battling personal issues. So from Psalm 103, "God, Our Healer," and then we'll look at a Gospel story that I loved as a little boy!
So here's an American Eagle, sometimes called a bald eagle, or sea eagle, our national symbol. It's a bird of prey. Its range includes most of Canada and Alaska and all of the contiguous United States and northern Mexico. Eagles are found near large bodies of open water with an abundant food supply and old growth trees for nesting. Did I mention they are birds of prey? Look at those claws! And of course, we're looking at this eagle for a few minutes to remind us that the psalmist reminds us that God renews our youth like the eagle's.
So three great affirmations. Three declarative truths that will encourage and, for me, even challenge our Christian faith. We are Christians, we have by our baptisms, been claimed as God's own people by the precious death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We seek to commit our lives and our fortunes to that same Jesus Christ daily.
So from this classic piece of Hebrew poetry in Psalm 103 our first declaration is that to bless God is to remember what God has done. We don't often think about blessing God. We ask God to often bless us or bless our loved ones or someone in need. As we know that Biblical blessing when the Bible talks about blessing, it is not merely best wishes or hope all goes well, but blessing is "God's presence" and "God's peace." Blessing is a spiritual, physical gift of God's wholeness, God's shalom upon us. I remember a friend of mine in a large Chicago church spent a half an hour in the pulpit, which I won't do here, preaching all about what blessing in all its riches and color and depth means in the Bible: that God blesses us, and we bless one another with peace, wholeness, justice. After that sermon, I felt blessed. So, in Psalm 103 we are summoned to "bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me - within us - bless God's holy name."
Blessing God is worshiping God, but the psalmist reminds us that in blessing God we must, in the same breath, remember what God has done. Memory, or in other words, tradition, is inextricably tied to worship and blessing of God. "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all God's benefits."
The people of Israel in the psalmist's day were people of memory. Each generation taught the next. The blessings of God remembered from parents to children and their children. The great and memorized exhortation of the people of Israel came to them from Deuteronomy 6, called the Shema, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your soul, with all your heart, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart and memory. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when your rise." Bless the Lord, and in blessing God we remember to remember, "do not forget," sings the 103rd Psalm, "Do not forget all God's benefits."
So we as Christians tied to our worship of God, our blessing God, are to remember the benefits of Christ. Worship is recitation of God's benefits. I remember in my home church we recited the Apostles' Creed, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker and creator of heaven and earth." And by saying that creed every week, we as a Christian community remembered the benefits of God. God made us and all the earth. Jesus died for us: crucified, died and buried. Christ rose for us on the third day. And the Holy Spirit brings to our lives today all God's benefits. Through the holy Catholic, or worldwide, church, we are connected with those who have died in faith - "communion of saints.' We remember the forgiveness of our sins that someday we will be given new bodies in the resurrection, - some of us need that more than others - and we recited that "life everlasting" is ours, not only someday but today.
To bless God is to remember what God has done for us, "God made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel." So this communion table is a visible, touchable, expression of the blessing and benefit of God, remembering what God has done.
The second affirmation of Psalm 103 is this: To bless God is to affirm that "God is a God that seeks, desires, and accomplishes our wholeness." God is a God of two sides of the same coin in our wholeness. God forgives, and God heals. "Bless the Lord, O my soul, who forgives all your sins and who heals all your diseases."
So one of my favorite Sunday School stories is found in Mark 2, our New Testament lesson today. Jesus was healing folks up in Galilee, and he returned to his home in Capernaum. Ruins of that village are still there on the western shore of the sea. So many people found out that Jesus was back in Capernaum that they packed the house where he was preaching and teaching. Four friends of a paralyzed man were trying to get him to Jesus. The front door was impassable so they dug a hole in the roof and let down their friend with ropes. Curiously, the first thing Jesus said to the paralyzed man was, "Son, your sins are forgiven." You would think Jesus would have first said, "You are healed, stand up, take your mat and walk." His crippled state was his obvious problem, yet Jesus first chose to forgive. Why? I'd like to believe that forgiveness was the paralytic's spiritual need, just as real, just as important as his physical need. So the story goes on that the scribes in attendance that day began to grumble, "Why does Jesus speak like that? Who can forgive sins? Only God alone!" It's blasphemy to say, "Your sins are forgiven." And Jesus perceived in his spirit, says Mark, he perceived their thoughts, looked around, and to the man said, "Now stand up and take your mat and walk home." The man stood up immediately, one of Mark's favorite words, "immediately," he took his mat and walked out for all to see. And all were amazed, and they glorified God and said, "We have never seen anything like this."
Forgiveness and healing are indeed two sides of the same coin of wholeness. In our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, we have two services of wholeness. "A Service for Wholeness for an Individual," which is used for people in hospitals or nursing homes, and "A Service for Wholeness" for a congregation. We have used both here at WPC, with scripture readings, prayers, the laying on of hands, and oil (an ancient symbol of healing). Services for wholeness are being recovered by our Presbyterian family. We have held services for wholeness once a month and during lent for individuals who simply are seeking not only physical but emotional ans spiritual peace as well. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me. Bless God's holy name and forget not all God's benefits. To bless God is to remember God's acts of love.
This week I met with a wonderful couple getting married, and the man said to me, "How do I know God will be good to me?" And my immediate response, because I was in the middle of this sermon, was, "God's going to be good to you in the years ahead of you because God has been good to you in years past." Forget not his benefits, and to bless God means that we affirm and believe that God loves us into wholeness, forgiving our sins in Christ, healing our diseases through Christ.
And finally, to bless God from Psalm 103 is to participate, to partner, with God who brings justice and vindication. The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. Years ago in Montreat, NC, we asked pastors who are currently serving interim churches, to bring up a recent sermon and preach that sermon to their peers. We were in small groups of six so these pastors preached in front of five of their colleagues and me, as part of the faculty for interim education. We called it "Stand and Deliver."
And this one retired pastor who was gentle and mild all week long preached a sermon that he had given the week before in a rural San Joaquin Valley Presbyterian Church. Now San Joaquin is not exactly San Francisco. The valley is conservative, but this interim pastor preached a courageous sermon on "immigration" using this very text in Psalm 103: "The Lord works vindication and justice for all the oppressed." And he cited the good work of Borderlinks Ministry, and he goes to Arizona and New Mexico on his vacation to advocate for and even cross borders with what we call illegal immigrants, maybe a better phrase is "undocumented workers." I sat there listening to this impassioned preacher and thought, will he even have a church job to go back to? By his sermon and, more importantly, by his life, this retired Presbyterian pastor, quiet and reserved, was engaging in "vindication and justice." Why? Because he was siding with God, the God who works vindication and justice for the oppressed.
I love Henri Nouwen. We often read his devotionals at staff meeting and many of us read him for our personal devotional time. This came in yesterday. The timing of these words are perfect for us: "The apostle Paul writes to the Romans: 'Bless your persecutors; never curse them, bless them. - Never pay back evil with evil. - Never try to get revenge. - If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink. - Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good'. These words cut to the heart of the spiritual life. They make it clear what it means to choose life, not death, to choose blessings not curses. But what is asked of us here goes against the grain of our human nature. We will only be able to act according to Paul's words by knowing with our whole beings that what we are asked to do for others is what God has done for us."
So the psalm concludes as it began, "Bless the Lord, all God's congregations and all God's servants that do God's will." We join in blessing God of all creation, all works, all places, all dominion. "Bless the Lord, O my soul."
Let us pray.
O God, make us a witness to your grace this week. In our Savior and Sovereign's name we offer our prayers and your worship.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable, be pleasing, to God, through Jesus Christ, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Westminster Presbyterian Church