Reaching Out

Reaching Out

Today welcomed the Rev. Tonya Arnesen to be our guest preacher as she led us in a service of renewal. Rev. Arnesen is our Vital Church Initiative coach, and is working with our Implementation Team to implement all of our VCI prescriptions.

Scripture: Luke 8:40-50

A letter to your church:

Dear people of Adrian First UMC, I’m one of your neighbors – and I need your help:

  • I am the mother of a teen-aged girl; she’s never given me a bit of trouble – she’s makes the honor roll every semester . . . and she’s pregnant.
  • I am a husband whose marriage is falling apart; no matter what I do I can’t seem to stop it.
  • I’m a wife whose husband gets drunk every night in front of the television. He rarely speaks to me; it’s like living with a ghost.
  • I’m a daughter who tries so hard to win the affection of my Dad, but all I hear from him is how many times I screw up.
  • I am single. . . again. After investing everything in my relationship, my lover walked out on me and never looked back.
  • I’m the father of three kids and the doctor just told me my wife has terminal cancer.
  • I’m the mother of a special needs child – I’m so tired and alone.
  • I am a child who goes to school hungry every morning – my Dad is incarcerated and Mom works two jobs just to keep a roof over our heads.
  • I’m a senior citizen who sees my life coming to a close…I’m tired of living – and afraid of dying.
  • I am a widow who sits alone all day – no one calls; no one visits; no one cares.
  • I am a child whose parents don’t have green cards and they don’t speak English. The neighbors call us “illegal aliens.” What does that mean?
  • I am a successful businessperson – I’ve worked hard and achieved everything I ever wanted, so why do I feel so anxious and empty?
  • I’m a high school student – my friends are Muslim, Jewish, Bhai, Buddhist and Wiccan – what’s the difference? And does it really matter?
  • I’m a young adult – trying to discover a greater purpose for my life and wondering what I can do to make a difference in the world.

My friends, the need in your community is so great! There are people out there – maybe even people in here – who live in quiet desperation; some lack the basic resources needed to live; many need someone, anyone – to ease the pain, reassure, comfort, console, encourage or teach them.

I’m here today to remind you that your hurting neighbors need to encounter the love of Jesus Christ. They need the unique kind of healing and hope that only Jesus can offer – and they need to experience it through YOU.

In Luke’s gospel, we meet two people who desperately need to encounter Jesus. They are very different people but have one thing in common: both are hurting – and both come to Jesus as their last and only hope.

First, there is Jairus. Who is he? Jairus is an “insider.” He’s a mover and shaker: a leader in the synagogue, he is highly esteemed, prominent, and important. He has prestige and resources – until now, he hasn’t lacked for anything. But when your child is sick and getting worse, you get desperate; you take action. So, when Jairus hears about the healing power of Jesus, he goes out to find him. Jesus is touched by Jairus’ need, so he heads immediately toward his home.

On the way, Jesus is met by the bleeding woman who is also desperate. According to Jewish law, she shouldn’t be mixing with this crowd at all. She is in every way, an “outsider.” In his commentary on this passage, Max Lucado says this woman’s chronic menstrual disorder would be difficult for any woman – but especially for a Jewish woman. Every aspect of her life is affected by her illness: she cannot be intimate with her husband; she cannot have children; everything she touches – even in her own home – is rendered unclean; she certainly can’t go to temple to worship. Physically, she is exhausted, and socially she is ostracized.

Who do you think Jesus is going to minister to? Clearly Jairus and his daughter – insiders – are vitally important to Jesus. Yet Jesus stops along the way to care for an outsider – the bleeding woman! Even in the press of the crowd, Jesus pauses long enough for the nameless, faceless, desperate woman to reach out and touch the hem of his robe. And that touch makes her whole again!

This morning, I invite you to consider this question: when people come to Adrian First United Methodist Church, are they finding ways to touch Jesus? Truth is, like every church, this congregation has created barriers which prevent people from experiencing a life-changing encounter with Jesus. In what ways might you have unwittingly created obstacles to health, growth and vitality?

First, there is the “insider mentality” – by that, I mean your comfort and ease with all things “church.” The “insider” attitude can be a major obstacle for those who feel like “outsiders.” Truth is, most “unchurched” people find church culture to be strange and mystifying, if not down-right foreign.

When it comes to church, I’m the ultimate “insider.” My Daddy was a Methodist preacher – I cut my teeth on a kneeling rail in Pembroke Kentucky. I know church language; I know the Sunday morning routine. I am at home in church and I’m confident I belong. It doesn’t matter which church, I’m at comfortable in any church. And while I am grateful and proud of my heritage, if I’m not mindful, I forget there are folks who are terrified to step foot into a sanctuary – either because it is so foreign, or because they have painful memories of church in the past.

Most unchurched people in this community might be compared to the woman in our story. She’s an outsider: she doesn’t belong in the crowd of Jesus followers and she knows it. She takes a huge risk to leave her home and she’s scared to death. I imagine she just wants to touch Jesus, get healed, then get out of there and go home.

Unfortunately, our comfort and familiarity with one another can make newcomers feel excluded. Sometimes our greatest asset – a warm, loving fellowship – can be a barrier for newcomers. If a church is not intentionally “outwardly focused,” we can become so self-absorbed that we overlook or neglect people beyond our immediate circle of relationships. A wise woman in another congregation I coached put it this way: “We’ve been loving one another to death around here.” To be sure, our close-knit church groups make us feel like we belong – and that’s a good thing. But as we care for one another, we must also take care not to exclude newcomers.

When the Vital Church Initiative (VCI) Consultation Team was here in 2015, we learned from the Mystery Guest Report that while this congregation did a great job with your initial welcome, you were inconsistent when it came to reaching out and befriending newcomers. And while a number of your Mystery Guests left contact information, there was no follow up – nothing to acknowledge and thank your guests for visiting. And no encouragement to return again. How might that feel to your guests?

There are other obstacles the church places before people who need to encounter Jesus. Sometimes it’s our long-held traditions. (“We’ve never done it that way before”); our personal preferences (“Excuse me, Sir – but you’re sitting in MY pew”); or our judgmental attitudes (“Would you look at those piercings and tattoos?” or “Why can’t those parents control their children?”). All these things can make guests and newcomers feel unwelcome.

Then there’s our secret church-y language – in our denomination, we’ve got the UMW, UMM, UMYF, VIM and UMCOR. While our acronyms and church-speak may be understood by “insiders” – they can prevent guests from feeling “at home” in our midst.

I’m quite certain the Bleeding Woman in Luke’s story knows she doesn’t belong in the crowd. The looks she gets, the comments she receives—everything tells her she is unworthy to be near, let alone touch Jesus. Can you imagine what desperation and courage it must have taken for her to venture out of the safety of her home to seek him out?

And yet, she is willing to overcome every obstacle because of the hope she has in Jesus. She overcomes her shame and fear and musters the courage to reach out to him. She trusts in him so strongly that she risks breaking all the ritual and societal rules about cleanness to reach out to Jesus.

And Jesus says, “Who touched me?” He takes time to listen to her story, then says, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”) Note what happens next: Jesus gives her a new name. “Daughter,” he says. With that one word, Jesus tells her she is a valued, accepted, and a beloved part of his intimate family. And with this new identity – daughter – the woman’s whole life takes on a new direction.

Now, I want you to notice something: Jesus is confronted by “competing needs” in this story: the needs of the “insider” and the needs of the “outsider.” Jesus doesn’t neglect Jairus and his daughter’s need – but he does defer those needs long enough to minister to the bleeding woman first. It only takes a few precious moments – and the encounter with Jesus changes the woman’s life.

I hope the application is clear: if any church is to thrive and grow, they must be willing to set aside their own needs long enough to understand and respond to the needs of every “outsider” who comes to them. On any given Sunday, what would happen if you made it your priority to welcome and get to know your guests FIRST – before you conducted church business or connected with your friends?

This morning, Jesus invites you to join him in a new direction—– to re-boot your commitment to fulfil your Vital Church Initiative prescriptions – and thus become a healthier, growing congregation with a more significant impact in your community. Jesus invites you to become more intentional about living into God’s vision for your future.

Jesus may also be challenging Adrian First to remember the past and move on. That may mean you must let go of some heavy baggage that burdens your heart. Perhaps you need to let go of the pain of the past – a pastor who disappointed you, a harsh word from a friend, a broken promise – you may even need to acknowledge your own personal need for healing this morning.

Then to avoid remaining stuck where you are, you may need to acknowledge those time when you’ve focused your time, attention and resources on yourselves instead of reaching out to your community. You may need to repent of those times you have made your gatherings, your tight knit fellowship a barrier to those on the outside. Friends, Jesus is calling you to stop, listen and invite people who are hurting, to come and touch the hem of Jesus’ robe.

So this morning I invite you to consider these questions:

  1. What personal and communal obstacles have been preventing this church from reaching out?
  2. In what way do you personally need the healing touch of Jesus?
  3. What painful issues or events in this congregation’s past need to be healed – so you can move forward together?
  4. What attitudes and behaviors within these walls have become obstacles to those outside the church?
  5. What will you let go of, so you can turn your focus outward – and invite those who are hurting to come, touch the hem of Jesus and be healed?

At this point in the worship service, participants were invited to write their responses to these questions on a slip of paper provided. When finished, they brought them forward and laid them in a basket. Then they pick up a piece of muslin cloth as a reminder of their need – and their neighbor’s need – to be healed by the touch of Jesus. Pastor Drew anointed and prayed with those who wished to receive that ministry.

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