Shaped by Prayer

Luke 11:1-13 – A Lesson on Prayer

There are a couple of “take-aways” from today’s text on prayer. The first comes in the sentence: “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened”.  We hear these words, and yet I’m not sure we know quite what to do with them. I mean, those of us who tend to pray for our own self-interest find in this statement a promise that all our wishes will be granted. Others, who’s most ardent prayers went unanswered, find nothing but disappointment in this text, and perhaps even disregard it all together. Now, to be sure, both of these positions are on the far ends of the spectrum. But perhaps the lesson or the “take-way” here lays somewhere in-between.

A number of years ago I attended a small UCC church in Green Island Iowa for a short time. In that congregation there was a mentally challenged man who fell victim to this kind of quid-pro-quo thinking. In theological terms we call it “prosperity gospel.” In other words, if your rich it’s because you’ve been faithful and if your poor it’s because you haven’t been faithful enough. Now, to be fair, that’s really an over-simplification of this type of theology, but you get the idea. Anyway, this particular man came to my door one day despondent because he thought he wasn’t faithful enough. You see, he had watched a famous televangelist who claimed that if anyone just prayed hard enough, had enough faith, all of their bills would be paid off in three days. Well, three days came and went, and lo and behold, this man’s bills remained unpaid. So, in his mind, he wasn’t praying properly, or he wasn’t somehow being faithful enough. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the very real consequences of thinking of prayer like a genie-in-a-bottle waiting to grant your every wish. It can be damaging to individuals and it’s been my experience that a literal understand of “ask and you shall receive” has driven many people away from the church; away from God.

So, here’s the question for us today: “What do we do with a text like this? How do we understand it?” Well, I think the gospel lesson gives us some clues here.  For example, it’s important to note that this passage on prayer begins with the Lord’s Prayer and ends with the words “everyone who asks receives, seeks-find, knocks and the door is opened” This makes it clear to me that Jesus was teaching his disciples, and by extension, us, to pray for a recognition or an understanding of the present Reign of God.

What is it we say in the Lord’s Prayer? “Thy Kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The first clue to understanding “everyone who asks receives” is that all of our praying must be an expression of seeking first God’s vision of a global community of faith.[i] My friends, prayer isn’t intended to be a list of “I wants” but rather, prayer is a vehicle or a vessel that moves us a little closer to the Sacred reality of the Divine by aligning our ethics, our values, our compassion for one another with God’s ethic, values, and compassion for all things created. Do you see what I’m driving at here? When we say, “thy Kingdom come” we’re not praying for some pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by individual futuristic safe-zone. “Thy Kingdom come” means finding a way to be in tune with the presence of the Sacred reality that is within, around, and through all living things; the spark of the divine; the very breath of God that permeates all of creation.

And what’s more, Jesus’ approach to prayer suggests that the desires of our hearts ought to be shaped not by the values of our culture, nor our own self-interest, but by the principles that Jesus expresses over and over again in the gospels; mercy and compassion, peace and justice, freedom and new life.[ii] These are the attributes of faith that lead to recognizing the present Reign of God and the process of building a global community that consists of many faith perspectives, but that holds these values in common. [iii]

So, prayer as a global community building process is the first “take-away” from this text and the second is this: Jesus models prayer as an intimate conversation with God. It’s a both/and situation. While we are to pray for the advancement of peace and justice for all people and the earth, we must also tend to our own, personal sense of peace and wholeness.

But how do we marry these two concepts? Well, there are many references in the Gospel of Luke to Jesus spending time in prayer, and I suspect that he listened just as much as he spoke. In any case, he tells the disciples, and again, that includes us too, that we should talk with God as we would to a loving parent, a parent who listens to us, cares for us, forgives us, provides for us, protects us. Jesus doesn’t speak in obscure theological language. He brings the reality of God’s love home to the people in terms they (we) can understand, the language of everyday relationships at their best and their not so best.

But even when human relationships fall short, whether those relationships are personal or a communal, whether they’re intimate or global in nature, Jesus offers us a story to help us understand the meaning of relationship within the context of grace. He says, in essence, if those who are limited or weak have sense enough to answer the door and help a neighbor, or to give our children good things, not bad ones, well, then, of course, God, who is infinitely greater, more loving, more generous than we are, will give us even more. And that more, according to Luke is the Holy Spirit around and within us.[iv] So, even when the world seems like it’s falling apart, even when the powers-that-be abuse and imprison the innocent, even when we asked but didn’t receive, even in the midst of all of these disappointments, God continues speak in the world and in our lives. How? How is this possible? It’s possible, my friends, because prayer, whether it be personal or global, isn’t about miraculously altering the circumstance of reality or changing God’s mind. Rather it’s about changing our perception of God and of the world around us; it’s about changing our perception of reality. Perhaps my prayer shouldn’t be to change the reality of the situation, no matter how much I would like things to be different. Maybe my prayer should be to change something within me to either accept the reality of the situation; to activity to change my actions or attitudes to align with present reality. All this kind of reminds me of the serenity prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”[v]

My friends, as we go from this place today, may we all continue to offer our prayers of petition and intercession, our prayers of faith and confession, and our prayers of thanksgiving and praise for the on-going creation of a global community and for a deep inner peace that comes when we align ourselves with reality of life and death, of presence and mystery. And may we continue pray for justice and for courage to be a voice change in this broken and hurting nation and world; may we pray for the grace to be kind, civil, and respectful of all people and races; and finally, may we pray for this earth, for the changing eco-systems and climate, and the disappearing bio-diversity that supports all life on this earth. And finally, may we all pray for a deeper connection to all that is Sacred, all the interconnectedness of life, and may we all work toward that day when all of God’s people, all people, are one.

May it be so. Amen and the people of God said, Amen!

—————————–

[i] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.4.76, where he says, “the whole of the Christian life is a form of this petition.”  See also N. T. Wright, “Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord’s Prayer,” in The Christian Century (March 12,1997) 269: “We are praying, as Jesus was praying and acting, for the redemption of the world; for the radical defeat and uprooting of evil; and for heaven and earth to be married at last, for God to be all in all. And if we pray this way, we must of course be prepared to live this way.”

[ii] It might be easy to miss, but there’s another clue here that our praying is to be informed by the principles of the Lord’s prayer, and above all is to be an expression of seeking first the Kingdom.  Matthew’s version of this saying says, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).  But Luke’s version says, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13).  Luke presupposes that Jesus’ disciples are praying for Kingdom matters–like peace, and justice, and compassion, and new life.  And Jesus promises that God will freely give us the Spirit so that we can not only pray for the Kingdom but also work for its realization in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 154.

[iii] Alan Brehm Everyone Who Asks (www.thewakingdremer.com) 2013

[iv] Katheryn Matthews Prayerful Disciples (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds) 2019

[v] Reinhold Niebuhr The Serenity Prayer (www.thevoiceforlove.com)

Word & Work

Luke 10:38-42

As I said before, if we keep in mind that the story of the Good Samaritan teaches us what it means to love our neighbor, we can better understand the meaning of this week’s story about Mary and Martha.

What do I mean by that? Well, first, let’s think about all the wonderful people who work in the kitchen during our fellowship time. Think about what the church would do and be without these folks, if they suddenly decided to take this story at face value and sit down, right when they’re needed to be pouring the coffee and putting out the goodies. What would happen to church dinners and, by extension, the gathering of food items for the food pantry, our work to combat hunger and feed the world? And what about greeting our guests, when we stand by the door, and made sure that everyone has received a warm greeting and a welcome to our worship? Is that what this story of Mary and Martha means, that sitting and listening and praying and learning are more important, more valuable, more holy than cooking the meal or laying out the welcome mat? Probably not.

So, how do we interpret this text especially in light of the Good Samaritan narrative? Well, one way might be to think of these passages as a two-part story; a two-part story that gets to the very heart of faithfulness. In Luke’s version of the gospel, Jesus begins by affirming the Great Commandment as the most important element, the very foundation, the very heart of faith. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, being, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” He then follows it with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that teaches us about loving our neighbor. And he then immediately follows that parable with a narrative about two sisters, Mary and Martha, which is a story about loving God.

Do you see Luke’s progression here? But part of the irony in the progression comes when the lawyer asked what he needed to “do” to “inherit eternal life.” But in this little story, Jesus says that all our efforts and deeds are to be balanced, and even nourished, by times of doing absolutely nothing, except sitting and being with God.

What a radically counter-cultural message this is for us! We live in a multi-tasking world that seems to equate busyness with importance; with a long to-do list, which, especially when it’s finally completed, gives us a sense of satisfaction and even security…at least, that is, until we start on a new list of tasks to be completed. For many people, the days are packed with many things, and minds full to overflowing, worried and distracted, like Martha, by many things.

Last week there was a massive power failure in New York City. Time Square went dark, it was eerie to say the least. But as I watched coverage of the black out the next day, I realized that some of the people of New York did something extraordinary: they sat on their porches and front steps, and they walked up and down the streets and they actually talked to one another, about the power failure, about what folks needed; they checked on one another and we got to know one another better; a couple of citizens even directed traffic because the stop light were out. In other words, they made room and time for community.

What if we were to create such a community with God? What if we stopped spent some time being with God, abiding with God, what if we were to spend some of our valuable time tending our relationship with God, listening to the quiet voice of God speaking to us, deep within our hearts?

Now, in our congregation, I’ve has some visitors express surprise at how much time we spend in silence; our centering time and in silent reflection during the pastoral prayer. One woman said to me, “that’s my favorite part of your service; it’s the only quiet time I got in this whole week, and I wish it would have lasted even longer.” The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once wrote that our lives, while full, are often unfulfilled. “Our occupations and preoccupations,” he said, “fill our external and internal lives to the brim. They prevent the Spirit of God from breathing freely in us and thus renewing our lives.”

Friends, making room for the Spirit of God to breathe freely in us renews our spirits, and our lives as well, when we walk out the door of our church. Now, I realize that we, and by we, I mean “I”, do a lot of talking in church, we have a very “word” centered style of worship. That’s why worship on Sunday morning should only be a part of our relationship with God. We must also cultivate a daily routine of faithful listening. We simply can’t hear God speaking if we don’t regularly stop and just sit and listen, faithfully, like Mary at the feet of Jesus. Not sporadically, or randomly, or when there’s nothing else to do: But faithfully listen.

How indeed can the Still-Speaking God get a word in edgewise over the beepers, smart phones, texts and tweets, social media and even old-fashioned television and radio messages that bombard us 24/7?  How can we tend to our internal lives like careful gardeners who spend time nurturing new growth, pulling weeds when necessary, and gently showering the thirsty green plants with refreshing water? It has to be intentional. We must find balance. We have to create a time and a space in the midst of doing the work of justice and peace to simple be in the presence of the Divine.

As we continue our worship service today, I invite you to “faithfully listen” to the words of our Hymn of Response. “You are the seed,” the composer writes, “you are the seed that will grow a new sprout.” May each of us, as we go from this place today, find that balance between faith and works, between doing and being, between faithfully listening and faithfully serving. May we indeed be that seed that grows a new sprout.

Amen and the people of God said, Amen

Surprising Prophets

Luke 10:1-11

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

—————————————

There’s something about faith that simply has to be lived to be understood. I mean, sometimes the gospel only make sense in the homeless shelter, or on the steps of the capitol, or beside a hospital bed; the places where people cry out for mercy, for bread, for justice, for compassion. Perhaps that’s why Jesus sent his followers out carrying only a simple message: the message that the Kingdom of God has come near.

I read a story this week about a woman who came to understand the gospel in these terms. Sara was working with an organization called No More Deaths along the United States-Mexico border. No More Deaths exists to provide humanitarian aid to asylum seekers crossing the Arizona desert. So, Sara spent the summer handing out bottles of water and granola bars, binding feet, and seeking medical attention for those who had the greatest need. But the most interesting thing about Sara’s experience is how she described the benefit to her faith. She said that she never felt closer to God as when she worked with those men, women, and children who had been forced to leave everything behind in search of a new life for their families. She said, “I don’t think it’s because I am praying more or reading the Bible any more carefully-there is just something about being here and doing this that makes it all seem so real to me.”[I]

Our gospel lesson for today moves in this same current.  Jesus sent out seventy-two disciples, two by two, to do what he had already been doing. But he didn’t pull any punches about the importance or the demands of this task. Jesus said, “I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way.” In other words, like last weeks lesson, he was calling these shares of the good news to focus solely on the task at hand. So, what was the task? Jesus was sending these out to demonstrate the love of God by healing, teaching, and inviting people to experience the present Kingdom of God. In essence, he was saying, “God’s kingdom is right here on your doorstep, go and share it!”[ii]

But there’s a deeper current flowing here as well. Notice that in this text Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come to you.’ [But] whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’”

Isn’t that interesting? Those who welcomed the disciples received the Kingdom and those who declined to host the disciples also received the Kingdom of God. Far too often, I think we tend to view a text like this as exclusive. By exclusive I mean we tend to think that the Kingdom of God is only for those who are worthy. But that’s not the case here. Instead, this text is radically inclusive!

Walter Rauschenbusch understood this deeper undercurrent of the gospel as well. Rauschenbusch was a theologian and a social reformer who’s considered by many to be the voice of the Social Gospel Movement in early 20th-century America. At a young age, Rauschenbusch became pastor of a German Baptist Church in New York City which was located in a part of the city called Hell’s Kitchen, a depressed area in which poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, disease, and crime were rampant. It was precisely in this setting, not within the ivory towers of scholarship, that Rauschenbusch began to develop his theology of the Kingdom of God. Later, he would write, “The kingdom of God is always coming, but we can never say it has arrived. It is always on the way.”[iii]

And that’s the key to all this! The Kingdom of God isn’t complete! As long as those who have much continue to turn a blind eye to those with little or nothing, as long as our society is divided by race, by gender, or by religion, as long as children are being put in cages, the Kingdom will continue to be incomplete.

So, Jesus was speaking just as much to us as he was to the seventy-two, when he said, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” We are the workers! We are the hands and feet, the heart and voice of Christ in the world today. And a part of our task, an important part of our task, is to invite others to join in this Kingdom work of sharing the love of God with all people. We are to invite others to become fellow harvesters as we move toward a Kingdom that includes all, lifts all, and restores all.

And this is where we reconnect with Mary Oliver and the poem I read earlier. When she wrote, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” she was exposing this same notion of Kingdom. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,” she wrote, “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

The family of things. That’s where all this is leading us today. When we come to realize that Jesus was, and is still, calling all of us into a single family; all people, all creation, into a single family of things; this is how the Kingdom of God advances, how it grows, and how it begins to move toward completion.

My fellow sojourners, as we continue to work toward a just world for all, as we continue to invite and welcome all people into our congregation, and as we continue to do the hard, long work of creation justice, may we do so with joyous hearts. I say joyous, because the light of the Kingdom is beginning to shine through, beginning to break through the darkness, beginning to be lived-out in the world today through us and our fellow harvesters, those who are among us and those who are yet to come.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

——————————————-

[i] Christopher Henry The Nearness of the Kingdom (Day1.org) 2007

[ii] Fred Craddock, Luke, 145: “the message to those who accept and to those who reject is the same: ‘The Kingdom of God has come near’”

[iii] Walter Rauschenbusch Theology and the Social Gospel Westminster John Knox Press, 1997 (first published 1917) pg. 227

A Just World for All

A vision of a just world for all people will guide and shape the future work of the United Church of Christ. It’s a vision that the denomination’s General Minister and President and unified Board of Directors are prepared to own as part of a refreshed set of Purpose, Vision and Mission statements. “I can’t even begin to express how proud I am of our beloved United Church of Christ for articulating not just a purpose, vision and mission —but this purpose, vision and mission,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “Every week I travel the globe witnessing what it looks like when the United Church of Christ commits itself to love and justice,” Dorhauer said. “I call upon every covenant partner to embrace fully this call to love and justice; and to share with leaders in the church what that expression of love looks like in their ministry setting.”

The UCC purpose statement comes from the Gospel of Matthew: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

The vision: United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.

The Mission statement: United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all

 In response to this call from the national setting of the United Church of Christ, and with the blessing of the church board, we will be starting a “social action group.” This will not be a committee nor will it be a sub-committee, but rather a group of people passionate about addressing current social issues such as mental health care in Bayfield County, Creation Justice, Immigration, or the rise of opioid addiction in our area, just to name a few. It’s important to note that the work of this group won’t be to set policy for the congregation, rather to do the “spade work” of each of these issues and then bring recommendations to the board. All are welcome to join. The date and time of our first gathering will be announced within the next few weeks. Many Blessings, Pastor Phil