Thursday, July 28, 2016

Teach Us to Pray...with Our Lives

(Preached at Nazareth Lutheran Church on July 24)
Luke 11:1-13
  There is the story of a devout old monk, the abbot of a monastery,
who was a powerful pray-er, a man of great faith who had a deep
relationship with God through his prayer life. Now, it seemed that
he was often bothered by mice playing around him when he prayed,
which he found very distracting. And so, he got a cat and kept it in
his prayer room to scare the mice away. Interestingly, he never saw
the need to explain to his fellow-monks why he had the cat, so one
day as he walked down the monastery corridors, he was surprised to
realized that each of the other monks had a cat in their prayer rooms.
It seems that after seeing the abbot with a cat, the others thought
that having a cat was the secret to powerful praying.
  Amusing story, it’s true. But there are many Christians who seem to
believe that they have to do something special in order for God to
hear them, in order for them to have their prayers answered. So
there is book after book on prayer on the shelves of every bookstore…
there are seminars and retreats on teaching people how to pray. In
fact, there are speakers and preachers and gurus of every sort telling
us how to believe and how to pray and how to make it “work” for us…
all of which seems to indicate that prayer is some kind of magic lamp or
vending machine. Say the right words, put in the right requests, and
you will get the result you want.
  Jesus seems to indicate to us in Luke’s gospel that prayer is intimate
communication with God, like speaking to a caring friend or a loving
parent…Abba, Daddy. And it is also being quiet, still, and listening to
God, being willing to be transformed by what is being communicated to
us…perhaps in ways both unexpected and yet, everyday…the advice of a
friend, the request for help from a neighbor, the inner nudge to make a
phone call or a visit to someone, the sudden recollection of the face of
someone you haven’t thought of in ages.
  Jesus taught us by his example that relationship with God could only
happen by being in communication with God…not like putting a message
in a bottle or in an envelope or email…but more like the regular conver-
sation we have with others with whom we are in relationship. In reading
through Luke’s gospel, we find Jesus praying at every turn of his life…as
he senses God’s call in his life; as he prepares to call his disciples; as he
serves and heals other people; as he feels the demands and pressures of
ministry; as he faces the cross; as he finishes his life on the cross. Jesus
is continually praying, prayer as vital for him as taking his next breath.
Jesus knew that in order for him to be able to be able to live out the life
God had called him to live, he needed to be continually connected to God
in prayer, for God was the source of his power- and peace.
  And so we come to today’s story. The disciples notice- have noticed-
that Jesus prays, seemingly all the time, and they finally ask him to teach
them to pray. Of course, this request is accompanied by the disclaimer-
“as John taught his disciples”, seeming to say that this is something
Jesus should have been doing all along as their teacher, their leader,
since this is what John had been doing for his followers. But he had been
teaching them- by his example, though they seemed to want…to need…
more than that. They wanted words. And so do we…words that “work”…
that result in an answer that will satisfy us, that will make us feel that our
prayers have been answered. Because unanswered prayer makes us feel-
at least sometimes- “well, why bother?”
  But prayer is not about how to persuade God to give us what we want
when we want it. It is not about right technique or the right words. It is
about connection and trust- trusting and believing that we will receive
generously from God rather than get what we want from God…two
entirely different things. Prayer is not about manipulating the Divine to
see things the way we do, but rather is about opening ourselves to
being transformed to seeing the world and the people in it with the eyes
and heart of God…which means no one is left out, no one is not
welcome, no one is seen as “less than”, as an outsider, but every
person is seen as a child of God with inestimable value by our incredibly
open, inclusive, welcoming God.
  So, what about when we pray and it doesn’t seem like we’re getting an
answer? Praying for healing for ourselves or someone else, and it’s not
happening. Praying for that job which just doesn’t materialize. Praying for
relief from financial worries, even as we sink deeper into debt. Praying for
a grown child who is behaving in self-destructive ways and turning his or
her back on family and friends. Praying about all of the many heart-
breaking things which have been and are happening in our nation and
our world. Doesn’t Jesus say in this passage that we’re to ask and it will
be given? Well, I’ve been asking, Jesus, but so far, nada, we may be
thinking. So, what do we make of this? Was Jesus mistaken about our
prayers being answered?
  Someone once said that God always answers prayer in one of four ways:
Yes, No, Not Yet, and You’ve Got to Be Kidding! In fact, there is even a
country song by Garth Brooks which says, “Some of God’s greatest gifts
are unanswered prayers.” Part of our human arrogance is thinking and
believing that we know what is best for us, and that we must surely
tell God what that is. And so we are like the man in the parable who
receives an unexpected guest in the middle of the night and awakens
his neighbor, asking for bread to feed the guest. When the neighbor
says NO at first, the man keeps pounding on the door and asking,
imploring, until finally the neighbor acquiesces in order to get the guy
to be quiet and go away. We believe that we have to keep bombarding
God with our requests- as if God doesn’t already know what we
need…what will be most beneficial for our wholeness as children of God.
  Ask, Jesus tells us, and it will be given...what you need, really need, in
the eyes of God- perhaps a change of heart, a change of perspective;
perhaps a change of life, of focus, even of career. Because, as the old
saying goes, “Prayer Changes Things”. And it does indeed. First and
foremost, prayer changes US. It opens us to a willingness to be remade
in the image of Jesus Christ, the one who came to show us who and how
God is. Prayer is not to change or persuade God; it is, instead, one of
the ways we are formed into disciples of Christ, living and walking the
Jesus Way.
   When we pray continually, persistently, something happens inside of
us. St. Paul exhorted to Timothy, “Pray without ceasing”…which doesn’t
mean spending all day sitting with your hands folded and eyes closed.
I think Paul imagined our whole lives- our thinking and acting and our
very being- offered to God as a prayer. And as we engage in this kind
of prayer, we become open to the spirit of the Living Christ, the Holy
Spirit, alive and active within us, drawing us into a closer relationship
with God, reshaping us, reforming us into the person God has created
us to be all along.
   So ponder this question: how would we act- individually and collectively-
if our prayers were offered to God confidently, trusting that God will
respond so much more generously than any earthly parent. Perhaps we
wouldn’t just sit back and wait for God to answer, at least in the way we
expect, but instead would start moving, getting to work, actually start
living into the reality of what we pray for. We say together each Sunday,
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”, and that
coming of the kingdom needs to begin with each of us. So, rather than
simply pray for someone who is lonely, maybe I’ll go visit. Rather than
simply pray for an end to violence, maybe I’ll campaign against the
legality of military-grade semi-automatic weapons, or protest when police
use unnecessary force, or go visit the police station to tell officers that
I’m grateful for their service and pray with them for their safety. Just
think of all the ways in which we can translate our prayers into action,
by living the Jesus Way, by following in the steps of the Master we say
we love.
  All of life is prayer- someone wise once said that. ALL OF LIFE…which
means it’s not about whether or not our prayers are answered but rather
about living into our prayers, helping to create the future we pray for. As
we do this, we ARE in fact, praying. As we work for the dignity and rights
of others, we are praying- WITH OUR LIVES. As we comfort those in
need, visit those who are imprisoned, feed those who are hungry, sit
lovingly with those who mourn, we are praying- WITH OUR LIVES. And
perhaps, just perhaps, we are being used by God as an answer to
another person’s- or even our own- prayers.
   There are so many people who need our prayers- prayers understood
as words, as actions, as our very lives. People who are dying and don’t
need to. People who are lonely and would welcome friendship. People
who are excluded and waiting to be invited in. People whose lives are
being destroyed by war. People who have been forced from their homes.
All kinds of people. So, let’s get praying…and doing…and being…all we
have been called by our God to be. And in that spirit, I share with you
The lyrics of one of my favorite songs:
      Let peace begin with me
      Let this be the moment now.
      With every step I take
      Let this be my solemn vow.
      To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally,
      Let there be peace on earth
      And let it begin with me.  Amen and amen

Monday, July 4, 2016

Good News! the Kingdom of God Has Come Near!

(Preached on July 3rd at Nazareth Lutheran Church, Rural Hall, NC)
Once again, in this Sunday’s reading from Luke, we are presented with
a vision of discipleship, one which presents following Jesus as, well, not
at all easy to do. We meet Jesus sending out the seventy…people he had
chosen and appointed…and how significant that must have made them
feel…sending them out two-by-two…okay, so far so good, at least they
won’t have to go it alone. But then he gives them their instructions, and
what should have been a kind of pep talk, a motivational speech, went
something like this…”I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of
wolves.” Now wait just a minute, Jesus,” can’t you hear them saying- or
at least, thinking? But he doesn’t stop there: “Carry no purse (which
means no money), no bag (you mean we won’t have a change of
clothes?), no sandals (Hold on there, Jesus. We’re supposed to go bare-
footed? On this hot, hard, dusty ground?)
    And he doesn’t stop there: “Stay wherever they take you in, and
offer a blessing of peace. Don’t move from house to house, trying to
better your situation, but eat and drink whatever they offer you. Then go
about your mission: heal the sick, preach the presence of the kingdom
of God among them. And even if they are not welcoming, let them know
that the kingdom of God has still come near to them.” By this time,
there can be no doubt in the minds of these seventy that this is serious
work, challenging work they will be undertaking. And whether they feel
prepared or not, Jesus is sending them to BE his presence wherever they
go. Talk about feeling overwhelmed! For these are ordinary people,
people like you and me.
    I thought of this passage from Luke’s gospel on Tuesday evening
when I heard a knock on my front door and saw, upon opening it, two
people standing on my front walk: a lovely African-American woman and
her adorable little girl. The little girl handed me a tract and asked me
(with some coaching from Mom), “How do you view the future?” She
pointed to the questions on the folder and her mother and I engaged in
what turned out to be a deep conversation, beginning with both of us
introducing ourselves, me asking the little girl’s name AND her age
(Tanika and she was 5!), and then talking about how we both had hope
for and faith in the future because we each see it firmly in God’s hands.
She pointed me to a passage in Revelation 21:3: God will wipe away
every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will
mourning nor weeping nor pain be anymore. And I told her that these
words had been such a comfort to me when my sister died earlier this
     Tanika (the little girl) asked me if I belonged to a church and when
I assured her that I did, she looked up at her mother and asked, in a
kind of semi-whisper, “Then should we still invite her?” The mom and
I both laughed and Francine (the mom) said that everyone is always
welcome at their church, and perhaps they would see me again in the
neighborhood sometime. It was a lovely encounter and as they left my
place with my blessing, they joined two other  young people who had
been visiting down the block, Jehovah’s Witnesses all, and as I waved
goodbye to Tanika, many things crossed my mind: about how I have
usually found these “visitors” both annoying and pushy, and these
two hadn’t been- not at all…but was this perhaps that my own
attitude had been more hospitable, charmed as I was by that adorable
5-year-old and the quiet smile of her mom? About how these
“witnesses” always go out in pairs, following the mandate of Jesus to
the seventy, who he sent out by twos, knowing that going it alone is
difficult, but together, we can accomplish so much more. About how
these visitors were just ordinary people…a mother and daughter…who
were giving up an evening to knock on the doors of strangers, not
knowing how they would be received. Would they be welcomed or
rejected? They had no way of knowing but just took the risk because
this was their call, their mission.
    And I thought about taking- at long last taking the personal care
bags we had packed to the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter, where
they were received with enthusiastic thanks by the people there, and
where I was “gifted” by a beautiful smile and a “thank you, sister,
thank you for stopping” from the gentle man who was emptying the
trash bins, humming as he did this less-than-lovely task, doing it with
an open and gracious heart. Just who was being blessed here? I
thought as I drove away. And I recalled us filling those bags together
last December, many hands making light work of a task whose benefits
we will never know or experience ourselves.
    There was a reason Jesus sent out the seventy two-by-two…that he
sent them without any provisions except the clothes on their backs.
Risky? Indeed…but he knew that they could support and uplift one
another, that together they would be witnesses to the love of God by
their unity and cooperation. No guarantees about how they would be
received… no assurances about where they would stay or what they
would eat or- well, anything, except that they had the promise of Jesus
to be with them and bring them home again safely. That was their
only security, their only safety net.
     I have a pillow in my living room which says: WHEN IS THE LAST
years ago to serve as a reminder to me that life is a daring adventure
or nothing at all, in the words of Helen Keller…a reminder that security
is an illusion and that stepping out in faith, without the safety net of
material possessions or wealth is often to what we are being called.
But, wow, isn’t it difficult to believe that? To believe that our needs will
be met…that our only true security is in God- NOT in our possessions
or our jobs or our security systems or our weapons or our reputations,
but simply in the fact that we are each and all God’s beloveds.
    We have sadly become a fear-feared people…afraid of so many
things…of not having enough, whether it is money or food or housing
or our job. We have become afraid of anything or anyone which is
outside of the realm of our usual, everyday experience, pulling the
walls of our lives in tightly to keep out whatever we perceive poses a
risk to us. And yet, and yet…we have this Jesus…this one who sends
us out and says, “Take nothing for the journey. Only trust. Only believe.
I will be with you.”
    How can we convey that message of trust and hope and love and
inclusion to the world if we, ourselves, don’t believe it? Don’t live it?
Those seventy were armed with only one thing: the proclamation and
promise that the kingdom of God has come near. They were to speak
these words to those who offered them hospitality as well as to those
who did not. They were to be ambassadors for Christ; they were to
LIVE into God’s vision for the world, God’s dream of one-ness and
welcome and inclusivity. They were to practice peace, not just speak
it…because after what they had been seeing and experiencing while
following Jesus, after witnessing both pain and joy, both sadness and
wonder, these followers were being sent out to be “doers of the word”.
    There is something about the Christian faith that simply has to be
lived to be understood, some gospel truths that only make sense
while serving meals at the homeless shelter, or marching at the steps
of the capital, or visiting someone in the hospital, or holding the hand
of a dying person in a hospice house. There is something about the
Christian faith that calls us to any and all of the many places in this
world where people cry out for mercy, for bread, for justice, for
acceptance, for compassion.
     Now, I know how difficult it can be to both believe and share the
message, “the kingdom of God has come near.” Just think of the news
over the last several weeks…shootings in Orlando and Dhaka,
Bangladesh…suicide bombings in Istanbul, Turkey and Baghdad, Iraq…
tornados in many parts of the United States…flooding in West Virginia…
raging wildfires in California…crippling heat in the southwest…the Zika
outbreak continuing in South America. Worldwide, wars rage on with
little sign of stopping. Poverty and hunger daily claim countless lives,
while others live lives of excessive abundance. These are not the signs
of the kingdom we would expect, are they? And we certainly don’t
expect the harbingers of the kingdom to be people knocking at our
door with no sandals, no food, no money…in fact, we might be
tempted to tell them to leave us alone.
    Walter Rauschenbush was a theologian and social reformer who is
considered by many to be the voice of the Social Gospel Movement in
early 20th-century America. At a young age, Rauschenbush became
pastor of a German Baptist church in New York City, located in the part
of the city known as Hell’s Kitchen, a depressed, rough area in which
poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, disease, and crime were rampant.
It was in this setting, this setting of deprivation, as well as an
awareness of the needs of the people in his everyday life that he began
developing his theology of the kingdom of God which came to be
known as The Social Gospel. 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, always coming.”
     There is something about the Christian faith that must be lived to
be understood. Jesus knew this, and so he sent his disciples into the
world with only the message of the kingdom of God to guide and
support them. And this is true for us today, those of us who call
ourselves by the name of “Christian”. Oh, yes, we can use our theology
to bludgeon others who believe differently or who do not yet believe
at all. We can out-shout, out-speak, out-preach anyone and everyone.
We can be absolutely certain that we have the right answers and
condemn others who do not share our beliefs. We can stay firmly in
our comfort zones, eschewing those who are different from us in
order to feel safe and secure.
     But if we do…if we refuse to get our hands dirty and allow our
hearts to be changed, then we may miss the in-breaking of the
kingdom of God that has already happened, that is continuing to
happen, in our world…in the people we encounter…in us, if we let it.
We risk missing the terrifying and transformational journey that
requires only faith in the God who creates and calls, comforts and
sustains, welcomes and loves, the One we have come to know in
Jesus the Christ. We risk missing getting to know the countless and
varied fellow-travelers on this journey of life who can enrich and
enliven our path with their love and support and welcome.
    My own life was enriched this week by the presence of two lovely
African-American sisters who came to my door to show me that the
kingdom God has come near. Over the years, I have been blessed to
travel in Kenya and Rwanda, where countless poor- truly poor- people
have shown me, with their hospitality and welcome, in the sharing of
their meagre food, that the kingdom of God has come near. And a
gentle man emptying the trash at the Salvation Army Emergency
Shelter, with his loving greeting, showed me that the kingdom of God
has come near. Each and every day, if we are paying attention, the
Christ is showing us the reality of the kingdom of God, telling us that
this is the message we are meant to be sharing- with our words, yes,
but most of all, with our lives. It is a terrifying and truly transformational
journey- are you willing to take the risk? Amen