April 27, 2008
"A Bethany Blessing"
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
This morning as we begin, I want you to think about those special places in your life. Those sacred places, those holy places, those places of significance that shaped your life and your faith. It might have been at your grandmother's or mother's kitchen table where over milk and cookies questions of faith were answered or the reality of God became clear in a way it never had before.
It may have been a particular Vacation Bible School Or a sermon. It may have the moment one of your children was baptized or accepted Christ for themselves. It may have been the altar rail or the lake or just a picnic table at summer camp. But I want you to think about those sacred spaces and sacred places in your life.
For me, it's hard to nail down just a few. There's a cliff top overlooking the beach and the crashing waves of the ocean in Japan. There's First United Methodist Church, in West Plains, Missouri where I gave my life to Christ and was baptized. There's the parsonage in West Plains where Mary and I renewed our wedding vows and made a Christian commitment to one another. There's the spot in the hay field on the farm in West Plains where I surrendered to the call to preach.
But then there are all those other places, like the hospital rooms where I held each of my grandsons shortly after they were born. Or the sanctuary at St. Andrews UMC, in Arlington where my grandsons Zach and Nate were baptized. And where Evan will be baptized.
Then there's Glen Lake Camp where I've encountered God in so many different ways both through my own experiences like the Walk to Emmaus and through seeing God encounter campers and pilgrims and others in powerful ways.
There's a room on the second floor of the Glee Cree Center for Reconciliation and Peace outside of Dublin, Ireland, which became a powerful place of prayer during the Dublin Walks to Emmaus 1 & 2.
And then there's this place. This is sacred territory. The heritage of this congregation. And just this space. We claimed this ground for God and we built this building for God. And for many of us, it holds deep significance. And while we are engaged in the work and ministry of this place, it is, in a sense, a home away from home. A safe haven and a place of rest and renewal.
Jesus, who had no home of his own, had one of those places which he could call a safe haven and a place of rest in his life. It's mentioned in the passage for this morning. Let me read it and see if you can identify that safe haven and place of rest in Jesus' life. Luke 24:44-53 (NRSV)
 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."
 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,
 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
 You are witnesses of these things.
 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.
 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;
 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The place I'm talking about is Bethany. Bethany is about two miles from Jerusalem. But for Jesus, Bethany wasn't just some place close to Jerusalem. Bethany was a safe haven, a place of rest, renewal and refreshment. A place of relaxation. A home away from home.
A. Back in January, Mary and I had the privilege of attending the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism in Savannah, GA and hearing Rev. Grace Imathiu lead our daily Bible Study. Rev. Grace Imathiu was born in Kenya, grew up in the city of Nairobi and is an elder in the Methodist Church in Kenya. She is currently working on her PHD and is the lead pastor of Brown Deer United Methodist Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Being from Kenya, she brings a unique insight into the Scripture.
Rev. Imathiu pointed out the importance of Bethany to Jesus and just how it was as a safe haven, a place of rest and refreshment. A place of relaxation. A home away from home. So, let's look a little at Bethany and what took place there in Jesus' life and ministry.
B. Bethany was the home of some of Jesus' closest friends. They play significant parts in Jesus' ministry but they are not listed amongst the Disciples. Bethany was the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And in the course of Jesus' ministry, he spent considerable time in their home.
The conversations and interactions of Jesus with this family shows that there was a close, intimate, almost family like relationship. That didn't just spring up overnight. Jesus spent lots of time in this home. It was, for him, a home away from home. And for someone without a home, it was special.
C. Matthew records that after Jesus cleansed the Temple by driving out the money changers he then went to Bethany "and spent the night there."
It was in Bethany, that Jesus' friend, Lazarus died. Martha sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick but Jesus decided to delay his trip to Bethany for two more days. In the meantime Lazarus died, they held the funeral and he was buried. Death and grief were trying to show Jesus who was boss. They had the power. They were in control. Lazarus was dead, what could Jesus do about it.
Jesus stayed away an extra two days. But then, four days after Lazarus was buried, Jesus showed up in Bethany. One sister was upset with him. The other met him expectantly. And Jesus wept. Death is death. Grief always accompanies death even if you know there's a resurrection. Grief and death still grip your heart and soul and ring the tears out of you.
Jesus wept. Both for his friend and for His own future. Jesus wept. But tears and grief weren't the end. Jesus came to show death and grief and the whole world who was really in charge. "Roll away the stone!" he said.
He's been dead four days. "Roll away the stone!" Jesus said.
But what about the smell? "Roll away the stone!" Jesus said.
After all the objections had been raised, there was only one thing to do. They rolled away the stone.
Jesus stood at the entrance of the tomb and called to his friend in a voice loud enough to wake the dead, "Lazarus, come out." And he did. Jesus had them unbind Lazarus. All this took place in Bethany.
D. In Matthew we also have the story of Jesus visiting in the house of Simon the Leper, who also lived in Bethany. This took place six days before Passover. Simon had been a leper but Jesus had healed him. Somehow the name stuck. It was in Simon the Leper's home, while Jesus was eating supper and talking with a group of Pharisees, that Mary, the sister of Lazarus came, knelt at Jesus' feet and anointed them with costly perfume. Then dried Jesus' feet with her hair.
There were objections about the extravagance of the gesture by Judas Iscariot but we know what kind of character he was. Jesus hushes him and reminds everyone that Mary purchased the perfume for the day of his burial. Of course, nobody knew what he was really talking about, but that's beside the point, Mary did. Or she sensed that this was the right time to use the perfume, which, of course, it was.
Because shortly after this event, still in Bethany, Jesus begins his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Maybe the donkey belonged to Lazarus, who knows. But Jesus initiated the very first Palm Sunday parade there in Bethany. He made the ride down Palm Sunday road on the Mount of Olives which ended with His entrance into the Temple. We know that was the first step toward his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion.
So many significant events took place in Jerusalem. And so many of those events either took place or had their beginnings in Bethany. For Jesus, Bethany was a safe haven, a place of rest and refreshment. A place of relaxation and renewal. A home away from home.
A. For the Disciples, Bethany became a place of blessing. A holy place. A Sacred place. A place that would forever live in their hearts like the sacred places of our lives.
It was to Bethany that Jesus returned after the resurrection. He took the disciples with him and Luke says, Jesus "lifting up his hands, blessed them." This is where I'm told we get the notion of a benediction being a blessing. We lift our hands just like Jesus did. We lift our hands and pass on the blessing of Christ which has been passed from the disciples down through the centuries to each of us.
Bethany, a safe haven, a sacred place, a holy place, a place of blessing.
This morning I want to take a trip to Bethany, to that place of blessing and I want each of you to go to Bethany with me. You won't need a passport. There aren't any buses pulling up to take us to the airport for that 14 hour flight. No, this morning we can go to Bethany in another way.
B. This morning I hope we'll make that trip in our hearts. And I hope as you go, you will pass and remember all the holy places, all the sacred places in your life. Because sometimes it's good to just go visit those safe havens. It's good to visit the place of our beginnings and the places of deep nourishment. So, think about those places.
But I also want you to experience the blessing like the disciples experienced. So, I want you to do something. You don't have to stand but I would like you to reach out to the person in front of you or beside you. And I'd like you to gently lay your hand on their shoulder. This is a sign of the laying on of hands which in itself is a sign of blessing. You may have to move around a bit but I'd like everyone to be touching someone else for this blessing.
Now, I want you to pray a prayer of blessing on your friends, families, neighbors, and members of the church with me. I'll pray and you repeat. As I pray, remember those sacred places and those holy places in your life. They are a part of your Bethany. Let those blessings flow through your memory and your heart and allow them to touch the lives of those you are touching. Let us pray.
A Bethany Blessing Prayer
God of Wonder, God of Grace,
Hear our prayer today.
Pour out your blessing
On this your precious child,
Pour out your unconditional love
And your soul deep forgiveness.
Take whatever binds them
Take whatever holds them in uncertainty
Take whatever holds them in bitterness
Take whatever anxiety grips them
Take whatever fear defines them
Take whatever holds them captive
And set them free.
God of Power, God of Might,
Fill them with your Holy Spirit
Renew both their soul and their faith.
Lord, Hear our prayer today.
Pour out your Blessing
On this your faithful servant
Saved by Christ's death on the cross
And raised to new life.
May their spirit soar
With the knowledge of Your love.
Through the waters of their Baptism
Empower them to live faithfully
To love their neighbor as themselves
To reach out to the needy
To help feed the hungry
To help those who are hurting
Lord, Hear our prayer today.
Bless them with Your presence,
Your wisdom and your guidance,
Let them be a sermon others can see.
Bless their family both near and far.
Bless their skills, talents and abilities
May they be used to bring you glory.
Lord hear our prayer today
Fill them with faith and hope
In the face of doubt and discouragement.
Remind them daily they belong to you.
God of Wonder, God of Grace
Bless them with a Bethany Blessing
To share the Good News with a hurting world
Help them share the love of Christ
Help them lead others to this safe haven
Help them find this a home away from home
God of Wonder, God of Grace
Bless them with a Bethany Blessing
In the name of Christ our Savior, Amen. (1)
1. Written specifically for this sermon.
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