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May 14, 2017

Pastor Fowler’s Sermon for May 14, 2017

“A Remedy for a Troubled Heart” John 14:1-14

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4NNcygKatM

 I had an interesting and revealing experience happen to me last Monday night. I decided it was time to get rid of some of the pictures I had on my cell phone, which go back to about four years ago. My phone was slowing down and I wondered if that was due in part to the more than 1,000 images I had sitting in its memory.

So I started scrolling through photos. I had photos from when I needed to do a home repair and took pictures of a toilet, or a valve, or needed to order a part for our refrigerator. I had pictures of the sound system at my last church, when we were having some problems with the sound and I had to send photos to the person who put the new system in, who lived about 300 miles away from the church. I also had pictures of items that I took for my sermons on power point- pictures of things I didn’t really need to hold onto. Those pictures were easy to delete.

But then I saw other pictures- pictures of our old house decorated at Christmas, and at Halloween. I saw vacation photos with my family, videos of Abby singing in choir, of Sam graduating from high school, images of church life, and for the first time since I left Fort Bragg, I began to miss the community there. It isn’t that I don’t love and enjoy my life now in Ashland.- don’t worry! But for some reason, up until that Monday night, I hadn’t really mourned the memories of what life had been at our last call. I found myself feeling a bit overwhelmed and went to bed with a troubled heart, tossing and turning most of the night.

The disciples in today’s passage also had troubled hearts, and for good reason. It wasn’t past memories that troubled them; it was a series of current events and future predictions. They had just been through a tumultuous scene of the last supper, when Jesus told the 12 that he must suffer so that God might be glorified, that where he is going, none of them can yet come, that one of them would betray him, and that Peter would personally deny him three times before the cock crowed. Their hearts were troubled indeed.

 

What are the symptoms of a troubled heart? Doubt, fear, worry, and despair are some symptoms.  We have doubt about our lives and whether or not God is acting in such a violent, destructive world. We fear we will lose those who are important to us. We worry about those situations in our own personal lives and in our family’s lives. We despair over our struggles and lose all hope. So we try to run from those symptoms- we ignore them, or try to numb them through excess. But the symptoms are still there, and if not treated, our lives can spiral out of control into bleak hopelessness.

Perhaps you suffer from a troubled heart. Perhaps you have lost someone you love very recently or a long time ago. Perhaps your relationship with your partner or spouse is going through a rough stretch.  Perhaps your marriage has broken apart.   Perhaps your health is in decline, or your spouse’s health is in decline. Perhaps your finances are a mess and you wonder how you are going to make ends meet. Perhaps you’ve watched the news about the firing of the FBI director and are worried about cover ups and Russian interference with our government and connections with our president.(I confess I tossed and turned a bit last Tuesday night over this issue) Or you are worried about a nuclear North Korea,  an escalation of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Syrian refugees, deportation of Hispanic immigrants from this country, the rising temperature of our planet due to climate change, and polar ice caps melting, just to name a few …It isn’t difficult to have a troubled heart in times such as these!

But there is good news! Jesus has the cure for a troubled heart, and it is a threefold prescription written by the great physician outlined in John’s gospel, 14:1-14. The first treatment has to do with remembering that there is more than this life we see and know- Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.” This is once again emphasized in verses 8-10, as Jesus answers Phillip’s question to show them God. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Despite how difficult our lives may get, despite how bleak and tragic things are in this world, belief in God and in Jesus Christ can help us with our troubles. This kind of belief can help us to find hope in our struggles, find meaning in our sufferings, find solace in the midst of bleak world and national news, and find purpose to help others in God’s name. How? By believing that there really is a God who loves us unconditionally, who brings light and hope in the midst of darkness, who is present in world conflicts and struggles. We can find hope in God sending the world Jesus Christ, God’s only Son to teach us to act upon his behalf in the world, and to love us enough to die for us. In short, we can know this Creator of the universe through Jesus the Son of God; we can be in relationship with God who tells us in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Belief in God can help cure a troubled heart.

The second part of this prescription is to remember the promises of heaven and of life eternal. Jesus tells us, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. And if it were not true, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you in that house? And I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, you may also be.”  If you have lost someone you love, or have lost several family members or friends over the years, or if you are facing your own mortality, belief in heaven can help. For Jesus also tells us later in John, that “although we may be sad, we will see each other again, and our joy, no one will be able to take from us”(John 16:22). French philosopher and Jesuit priest Theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote the following about loved ones we have lost-“If they are with Christ and Christ is with us, then they cannot be very far away.”  And no matter how bad things seem to get in our world, we like Paul, with the perspective of a belief in heaven can say, “I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will one day be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) If we can live from the perspective that Heaven is indeed for real, we can find healing for a troubled heart. Our troubles are unlikely to go away if we have no hope of heaven. Theologian C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the heavenly world that they have become so ineffective in this world. Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

This is particularly poignant for me as the anniversary of my father, Olen’s death is coming up. He died in May of 2013. I think in part I am thinking more about him due to the book we are reading in the men’s book club at church, Big Russ & Me, by the late Tim Russert. The book is all about his relationship with his Dad and what he taught him in life.  My heart isn’t troubled over my father’s death now, although I do miss him. But I remember having a troubled heart as we were approaching the one year anniversary of his death, which also happened to be the last time I preached on this passage. Those first and second anniversaries of someone dying can be so difficult. Initially, I really thought I was doing all right with his death. Dad and I had a great conversation a few days before he died about life, death, about faith and heaven. It was one of the deepest conversations I ever had with my Dad, and it brought me peace the morning he died. But as the one year anniversary approached, I remember coming home from work one day in a dark mood. I made dinner for the kids, and fixed myself something to drink. Before too long I fixed myself another drink. Then after dinner, where I kind of stuffed myself, I ate some cereal, an English muffin with melted cheese and then topped the night off with some chocolate. I watched some questionable entertainment full of special effects and violence.  I was stuffing myself and over, indulging to numb the pain of my grief, but didn’t know it at the time. When I woke up the next morning, I beat myself up over my behavior from the previous night. I weighed myself on the scale and had gained two pounds in just one day. I came to work, prayed for help to get my life back, and then sat down at my desk to begin work on the same passage I am preaching upon today. I had already chosen the title for the sermon, but had done little research on the passage yet. Then I saw the title, “A Remedy for a Troubled Heart,” and thought to myself, “THAT’S ME! I have a troubled heart!” My grief over my Father and nearing the anniversary of his death derailed me and troubled me deep within my heart. There’s a great saying regarding grief that was originally said by Martin Luther regarding sin- “You cannot keep the birds of grief from flying overhead, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” Those birds of grief weren’t just building a nest in my hair- they were building a high-rise apartment complex!

I read this passage for the first time for myself instead of for sermon prep., and was reminded of those promises in this passage- “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places…And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself…” “I will do whatever you ask in my name” I was reminded of the promises of heaven, that God is present with me, and that Jesus will help me if I ask him. I went back into the sanctuary, prayed and asked Jesus for help to deal with my grief, and to help me restrain my desires to numb the pain of my loss. My prayers were answered.

God tells us that when we go through the Valley of the Shadow, God’s rod and staff will comfort us- How true! I suddenly found my hope again, and was lifted from the pit of despair.

The third and final part of the prescription for healing a troubled heart is found at the end of our passage for today. Jesus tells us, “Whatever you ask for in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”(13-14) Now this does not mean that we can ask Jesus for anything at all- It has to be something within his will- something that is holy and within God’s purposes. For example, I doubt that you can pray to Christ and ask for and then receive a red Ferrari. Discerning God’s will in our lives and in the world can be tricky. Yet there is this promise that Jesus will do what we ask if it is in his name and in his will. This is a promise that Jesus will be active in our lives. All we need to do is but ask for help.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled”, says Jesus. If we can just hold onto this threefold prescription- belief in God, belief in heaven and belief that Jesus will be active in our lives, we too can have untroubled hearts. But there’s the rub- holding onto these passages of scripture can be difficult, especially in difficult times. 

Back to my restless Monday night, after seeing so many photos of our life in Fort Bragg. The next day I was blessed to be able to spend an hour with my Spiritual Director- Many pastors have spiritual directors, whose purpose is to point out those moments when God has been active in your life, and to find moments of spiritual retreat through practicing certain prayer exercises.

After our initial greeting, I told my spiritual director about my troubled heart, and that for the first time I was mourning the memories of our lives from the last 14 years in Fort Bragg. I told her that up until that night, I hadn’t really felt any loss or missed anyone back at my church, etc. She told me that made sense spiritually- that I had been so busy getting out of town and up to Ashland, trying to get my ministry established and our family settled, that I had shut down that part of me…until now. Over the course of our hour together, she led me through an extended prayer time. She asked me to close my eyes and remember certain photos that were meaningful to me. She helped me to work through my grief and to give thanks for those wonderful memories and relationships I had at my last call. She helped me to see God’s hand in the life that was, and the life that is now. She helped me to understand that Christ was indeed present, and active in my life and could help if asked. In time the heaviness I felt inside was replaced with a lightness, a joy a thankfulness- And my troubled heart was gone.

Sisters and brothers, If your heart is troubled for any reason, my prayer is that you also find hope as I have in this threefold formula for a troubled heart- hope in heaven, hope in a God who loves us and who will not abandon us, and hope in Jesus who offers to help us whenever we ask. Alleluia! Amen.

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