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Monday, July 25, 2016

July 24, 2016

Gospel: Luke 11:1-13 
1st Reading: Genesis 18:20-32
2nd Reading: Colossians 2:6-19

My dad was not much of a churchgoer in his adult life. He got enough church as a kid to more than make up for it. However, he did love to play church league softball. He was the coach of the Good Shepherd softball team for many years. As coach, though, he was expected to pray before games. He believed in God and he believed in softball, but praying out loud in front of a group was out of his comfort zone. So this is what he did. He wrote his prayer on an index card—I remember the card being that coral color, I think he always used the same one—and he'd tuck it in the inside of his baseball cap. When he took off his hat to pray, he'd have it right there in front of him and no one would be the wiser. It worked for him. And probably he could have prayed that prayer without the help of the card, but it gave him the confidence to lead the team in that spiritual part of the game.

Maybe some of you feel similarly about prayer. I know I even sometimes feel uncomfortable when I'm put on the spot and asked to pray, especially if I think the other person knows how to pray “better” than me! Is there anyone else who sometimes feels uncomfortable praying out loud? Whoever doesn't have their hand raised will be leading the prayers of the people today!
Today, we're talking about prayer, what it is, why we do it, what it says about who God is, and why we feel so nervous when the pastor asks us to pray out loud in front of a group. 

The disciples ask Jesus in the Gospel reading this morning to teach them to pray. I picture the disciples gathered around saying, “Yeah Jesus, we're already in the 11th chapter of Luke! Maybe it is about time you taught us to pray!” So Jesus teaches them the Lord's Prayer. This is great for Lutherans because we like to know what words to say. I can't tell you how happy I was years ago. I had a dream and the earth was shaking and all the buildings were falling down around me and in my dream I started praying the Lord's Prayer. I thought to myself, here is proof that I could stay calm, that I would know what to do. It was kind of like when you're learning a new language and you start dreaming in that language, you know you are really immersed in it. Praying the Lord's Prayer meant that I had internalized my faith so much that it was showing up in my dreams.

Jesus gives us these words of the Lord's Prayer. These are the words we say every Sunday. We say them after council meetings and other church meetings. This is our go-to prayer. Jesus said to pray like this. The concern is that we start to recite this prayer out of habit and we stop thinking about what it means. So let's take a closer look. The prayer starts with God, not as someone distant and inaccessible, but as a daddy, our abba. And this prayer says something about God, that God is Holy, that God is different from others we know. Our prayer is best focused on who God is. It reminds us of our powerlessness, and maybe helps us to let go of situations that we have no control over. But to remember that God is in that position of incorruptible power and love, means hope.

Then Jesus prays, your kingdom come. “This is about you God and your plan. We don't know how to fix this world. We know it doesn't work very well. We're asking for your Kingdom to come and we're preparing ourselves so when it does, we don't push it away and say, nevermind!” This is also about the big picture. We can't see what is best in any situation, so we remind ourselves to let God be God.

Jesus says, give us each day our daily bread. This is about basic needs. Not “Give us this day a Cadillac car or marble countertops,” but something we need for survival. However, this isn't just about me getting my daily bread, this is about each person having enough, and each animal, each creature in balance and health.

The prayer goes on to address how God treats us, that God forgives us, and that God's forgiveness impacts how we behave toward others. That forgiveness and love doesn't end with us, but goes on and is shared. The way God loves us, changes us for the better. We behave differently out of gratefulness for the way God behaves toward us.

The two stories that follow about asking for help from a neighbor and a child asking for food, put us in the right mindset when we pray. We can address God as beloved children, unafraid, familiar, knowing God is kind and wants to provide for us. 

The first reading from Genesis is also about prayer. For us there is a lot of baggage with this reading, because other Christians have tried to tell us what this reading is about and what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was. However, if we go on to read Ezekiel 16:49 it is clearly explained that “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Sodom's sin was that of inhospitality and indifference. So now that we've removed that first distraction, I think there is only one other, and that is the idea that God might be destructive. This is another case of explaining something after the fact. Scholars agree that fire did rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah at one point, and this is scientifically attributed to a volcano. So people wanted to explain in the Bible why Sodom and Gomorrah would be so completely destroyed and this was their best explanation. 

However if we look at this story as a description of prayer, we can learn a lot. We have a lot of hymns about God never changing. “Built on a rock, the church shall stand.” “The wise man built his house upon the rock.” “Which wert, and art, and ever more shall be.” However, I don't find the thought of such a God very warm or comforting, not like the Abba that Jesus would have us pray to, not really the picture we get from these stories of Jesus about a responsive neighbor or a parent tending to the needs of his or her children. This story and many others from the Old Testament do show God changing God's mind, really listening to people. Remember Noah's ark? God regretted destroying all creatures and vowed not to do it again, even hanging his weapon, his bow, up in the sky and vowing not to go that route again. Then there is the story about Jonah and when the people of Ninevah listened to him and repented, God changed his mind about the destruction he was planning to visit upon them. In these stories, God seems to listen and respond.

In this story of Abraham and Sodom, Abraham is learning how to pray. He is practicing communication with God. This prayer has Abraham in his proper place. He's communicating with God. He's being humble, rather than demanding. He's speaking on behalf of others, hoping for the best for them, showing them mercy and appealing to God's mercy. This is a prayer about who God is, forgiving, careful, judging rightly, kind, accessible, and relenting. This isn't a God who just swoops down in anger at a few ruffians and gets rid of them. This is God who carefully considers each person and will spare even people who are inhospitable if there a few good ones sprinkled among them. And when we hear the story, of course, we know for the sake of one, Jesus Christ, we are not destroyed, although we might deserve it, but we are given new life and forgiveness and claimed as Children of God. We can almost hear Abraham saying to God, “But what if there were one who is righteous?” And God saying, “There is one, my son, and I am sending him to make you all my children, so that even if a volcano destroys you, you will still have life, and even if you are inhospitable, you will find another chance to show love, and even if you break the commandments, God will be with you to help you to find a more life-giving way.”

And one other important part of this stoy is that Abraham is persistent. Prayer is something that will come more naturally to us, like many things in life, if we practice it often. Be persistent. Set aside time. Set aside a space that is conducive to prayer. Make prayer a priority and it will become more a part of you.

Finally, our reading from Colossians is about prayer. It speaks of the church as one body, with Jesus Christ as our head. A body has many ways of communicating so it can work together in unity. When we communicate with God, when we pray, we are keeping the body working in unity. And when we act in ways that are consistent with God's love and with our faith, isn't that another form of prayer that builds up the body? 

When we think of prayer, we often think of the right words. But prayer is communication with God. Prayer is about listening to God and being open to what God's will might be, apart from our own desires. Prayer is about how we live our lives. Prayer is about our thoughts. Prayer is about finding our proper place in God's Kingdom. They say that words only make up about 10% of communication. Most of communication is nonverbal. That's why they say, “Actions are louder than words.” So let our whole lives be a prayer, of gratefulness, of hospitality, of openness, of generosity and may prayer transform us to reflect our loving God.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

July 17, 2016

Gospel: Luke 10:38-42 
1st Reading: Genesis 18:1-10a
2nd Reading: Colossians 1:15-28

In last week's Gospel reading, a man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what it says in the Bible. The man responds, “ You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then gives the man an example of what this looks like in the parable of the Good Samaritan. I love the Gospel of Luke, because whenever there is a story about men, you can bet there will be a corresponding story with women as primary characters, and I have to respect Luke for doing that. So today we have the corresponding story of how to love God and neighbor with women as the primary characters, the story of Mary and Martha and their hospitality welcoming Jesus into their home. 

I'll go into this story in a minute, but first I want to go back to the story from Genesis that we heard this morning about Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three visitors. This tradition of hospitality and loving God and neighbor goes a long way back. Jesus isn't just inventing this from no where. It is part of the way the Israelites have done things even back to Abraham, the father of their faith, the father of monotheism. Abraham and Sarah extend hospitality to three visitors and to God. Some have likened these three visitors to the Holy Trinity, or to angels, but most scholars agree these aren't just men, but God or messengers of God. It is pretty exciting that not just Abraham, but also Sarah are seen as providing hospitality and that the three visitors also recognized that and asked after Sarah and gave a blessing to her. It is one thing to say that Abraham will have a son and many offspring. Big deal, he doesn't carry a child for 9 months at age 90. In those days, men were blessed with a child through a woman, but nobody cared what the woman thought. She was just the vessel. It was highly unusual in those days to say that a woman would be blessed with a son. So for the visitors to say that this child will be a blessing to Sarah—to bless a woman, who is normally hardly even acknowledged as a person, is really a step forward. How she responds to it is her business, I guess. She outright laughs at the prospect, but who wouldn't at her age, in her situation?

Abraham and Sarah are extending hospitality. In this case it is strangers, visitors, or is it? It is God. But how soon do they recognize that it is God in their midst? I know I am usually slow to catch on, and only after someone has left, does it hit me that I learned something about myself, that the other person shared something so profound. So they are extending hospitality to those whom they perceive as strangers. In that time, there was a code. You welcome strangers because you were lonely, out there in the desert, and because survival depended on it. It might be a long way between sources of water or food. And you extended hospitality because you need more allies—as many as possible. Whenever a stranger approaches, we have the choice to think of them as allies or enemies. Certainly three men could have overpowered Abraham and Sarah and stolen everything they had. But they chose to treat them as friends and by doing so entertained angels unawares.

The reading from Colossians, shows us a view of cosmic hospitality. First, that in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. A human body was a host for the fullness of God. That God became fully human and united heaven and earth in one person for all people, that heaven and earth co-mingled in Jesus and made room for one another, welcomed one another. Then that in Christ all things hold together in hospitality, so that Christ unites us all, humankind and all creation. And then that Christ is the head of the church and the church is Christ's body. 

The reading goes on to accurately name our divisions, that we were estranged and hostile in mind. Paul hits the nail on the head, except he makes it past tense. This is the reality we feel we live in. Wherever we look we are suspicious. We are on the lookout for enemies, for danger. I see all the finger pointing in the news media and the campaign trail, blaming cops, blaming people of different races, blaming immigrants, always looking for a way to divide and separate, inventing fears. We get so divided, but that is not the way God made us and not the way God intends the world to be organized.

We invent divisions, but that can't stop God's love. In the person of Christ, God absorbed all the hatred and anger and divisions that we have to throw at him and that violence killed him. But God is life, and by definition, cannot be killed, so he rose again to show us another way to live that is fulfilling and loving and uniting and welcoming.

Even families divide themselves and create enemies of people of our own flesh and blood. Mary and Martha both welcomed Jesus into their home. Yes, Martha gets chastised later, but at the beginning of the Gospel it says, “Martha welcomed him into her home.” Martha always gets such a bad rap. Let's give Martha a break. She did well. She welcomed Jesus.

Shall we take a poll. Who here identifies with Martha—busy, making sure the guests have what they need, worker-bee? Who here identifies with Mary—listening, taking it all in, carefree? 

I know there are a lot of Marthas, out here, because I see how much you do around here, and you've got your own lives at home, and then helping grandchildren, going to their games, and looking after them, and some of you still caregiving for parents or elderly family members or neighbors. We all do so much. Many of you volunteer in the community and give so much. So why doesn't Jesus appreciate us?!

I don't think Jesus is saying, as we may think, that sitting is better than working. Jesus points out some things that Martha could improve on and it doesn't mean that Mary can't improve, she just didn't put herself in the position of complaining to Jesus or asking his input on her situation. 

Maybe the problem is that, Martha was distracted and worried by many things. Mary was focussed on Jesus. Martha was focused on whether her sister was contributing in the way she thought she should. She missed out on the wonder of entertaining God in her home, because she was mad at her sister.

Maybe the problem is that Martha complained to Jesus. Martha was unhappy with Mary. Why didn't she take Mary aside and try to work it out with her? Maybe she had. Who knows how long this disagreement had gone on, or what the history was between them. I think we can take away from this that if we have a problem with someone, we should go to them and try to work it out. It often works out so much better than just complaining about it, but it takes courage and a willingness to have more than a superficial relationship, to be willing to see another side.

Maybe the problem is a lack of balance in life. Mary and Martha represent two aspects of life, faith and good works. You can't have one with out the other. Faith without works is dead, we read in scriptures, and good works without a chance to sit and reflect and restock the storehouse can be exhausting and damaging.

Maybe the problem is that Martha made her sister her enemy. So often when we have a problem with someone we forget to look deep inside to see what's going on with us and where these feelings are coming from. Maybe Martha was unhappy because she wanted to sit at Jesus' feet, too. Who was keeping her there in the kitchen? Her sister wasn't keeping her there. She was doing this to herself. Maybe she could have been creative and left the dishes until after Jesus had left. Martha had the choice to see her sister as a friend, to be happy for her that she could spend time with Jesus. Instead, Martha blamed her sister and saw her as an enemy, as we all do sometimes. 

God has created this world in unity, from all the same stardust, to work together in cooperation for the mutual benefit of all. God came as Christ to reinforce that concept, that God is with us and that we are one with each other. Jesus treated each person with dignity as an example to us of how to foster unity between us rather than divisions. And even his enemies, he forgives and saves, because we are all brothers and sister, children of God.

The enemies seem to be all around us, but really they are few. Friends are truly all around us. Jesus is all around us. Jesus is in the lines of hundred standing in line to give blood. Jesus is in all the many peace officers who do their job well because they want to make a difference. Jesus is in all the people who encourage and help. Jesus is in all the people who give selflessly. 

If we look, we can see friends to extend hospitality to. We can see Christ. I invite you to see a congregation united in Christ, willing to reach out to those with different opinions and find out why that person acts the way they do, a congregation open to all the gifts that God has given us even when they are unfamiliar and a little frightening, a congregation with a view toward the future, willing to take risks and try new things in order to be relevant and approachable, a congregation able to let go of human habits that are getting in the way and dividing people, keeping others from Christ.

I invite you to look for and see a community united in Christ, getting to know each other more and more, extending hospitality to newcomers, caring for one another as life circumstances change, learning new languages to accommodate those from other lands, teaching one another and learning from one another, tearing down fences and sharing all things in common. 

I invite you to see a nation where the least are cared for, the hungry are fed, and the sad are tended to, in which every person is known and valued, where no one feels afraid, where dialogue between groups is standard practice, where the people most affected make the decisions about their own lives, where people are treasured because of intrinsic value rather than the money they have or the car they drive, where each person can contribute out of their gifts and talents.

We might, like Sarah, laugh at the prospect! It seems so far away. We've heard it all before. But to God, this is no laughing matter. This is what God is bringing to us, so we'd better get ready to be part of it, to let it happen through us. And I know when it does, I will be laughing in a whole new way, without cynicism, but with joy.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July 10, 2016

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 30:9-14
2nd Reading: Colossians 1:1-14

This has just been one of those weeks. It just felt like bad news heaped on bad news. The news this week was in some ways unsurprising, after all that has gone on this year and year after year. I felt numb. I felt helpless. Two unarmed black men had been killed by police in 24 hours and it seemed like more of the same. Are we ever going to learn? Are we ever going to do better, or are we doomed to continue this violence in our country? And then I heard the tape of the girlfriend of Philando Castille, shot by police as he reached for the ID the police had asked for. I heard her calm voice, pleading, “Please don't tell me my boyfriend is dead.” And I heard the panicked voice of the police officer telling her to keep her hands where he could see her. And I heard later that a 4 year old girl was in that car, trying to calm down her mom from the back seat. And then her mom was arrested. Of course it is hard to stay numb and distant, when I think of my own son witnessing such horrors. For a few minutes I felt like I was in the car with them and I couldn't hold back my emotions. And then I didn't hear until Friday morning about the 5 police men in Dallas, and on the radio, the recordings of gunshots and shouts of “Officer down!” Sometimes it is hard to find hope.

It used to be, we'd read about this stories in the paper or see a 30 second clip on the evening news. Now, people are taking video. There are police body cameras and there are cell phone cameras recording all this. These videos bring us right into the action and emotion of the moment. They let us see and hear almost as if we are there. They bring us near.

The point of the readings this morning is that the word of God has come near, that God is making God's words and commandments and way of doing things our way of doing things. In the reading from the book of Deuteronomy, God is talking to the people, reminding them that God's word is very near and asking them to turn toward it, to face it. For Paul and Timothy, they are far away from the people in the church of Colossae, but through this letter, through their prayers, and through their faith, they are near to each other and to God. And finally in the story of the Good Samaritan, we all walk along the same road and encounter each other there and God walks on that road with us. We are near to each other and near to God. We can see who is in the ditch. The question is whether we will let that affect us and whether we will allow ourselves to see a person there that we can care for and help, or whether we will walk with our eyes averted and do nothing. How do we make the leap from just loving ourselves, to loving our neighbor? How do we change from the one who walks by to the one who stops to help? How do we let God's words penetrate our hearts so that we are transformed, so that our world can be transformed into a more compassionate, loving place where people find relationship and healing?

The first inclination I have when I hear this story is to go directly to guilt, because I can think of a thousand times I walked right by someone who could have used my help. I have ignored my neighbor. I have failed to have compassion and take pity on countless people. However, I don't know that feeling guilty really helps any of us. None of us can go back and change the past. That's part of the reason we started with a confession this morning. We are honest about how we have not lived up to our potential, how we have let God down, turned our back on our neighbor. And we let that go. We receive forgiveness and the chance to move ahead in a new way.

The truth is, we can't become the Samaritan who helps, until we recognize that we are the one in the ditch who is helpless. I have been in the ditch many thousands of times, with illnesses, with fears, with my own failures, and with sin—separation from God and separation from my fellow human beings. We've all been there and we are still there in one way or another. But there is hope. This story is not called the bad Priest and Levite or the robbers who beat up some poor guy. The story is called “The Good Samaritan.” Someone stopped to help, and that person is Jesus. For all the times I've been in the ditch, I may be a little groggy from a head wound, but I know what and who saved me. Jesus, the great healer, brought me back to life. Jesus, my savior, long ago took me from having no purpose to my life, no reason to live, no hope, and got down in that ditch with me to lift me up and heal me. Jesus has brought me out of the ditch every single time I've failed him, every single time I've failed any of you, every single time I wasn't even sure if I could move, if I would live to see another day, if I could ever find a way to go on. And I know Jesus has saved you, too.

Once we acknowledge that we don't get ourselves out of ditches, that we don't heal ourselves, that we don't bring ourselves to full life, that it is Jesus who makes our paths straight, lifts every valley and makes the mountains level, Jesus lifts up the ditches so we all stand on level ground, when we admit that it is Jesus, the one we rejected, the one we betrayed and denied, that reaches into the ditch and hauls us out, who cleans our wounds and gives us food and shelter and everything we need, we see that person in the ditch in a new way. That could be me. 

That could be me, sitting in a car with my kid in the backseat, pleading for medical attention for my partner. That could be me afraid every time my son leaves the house that he won't be treated fairly that I might never see him again. That could be me, there to protect a crowd of peaceful protesters, fired upon by a maniac, that could be me desperate, and alone and helpless, acting out of anger instead of love. To each person, Jesus reaches out a hand of love and understanding and forgiveness. And because of what he did for us, we don't have to get stuck in the guilt of all that we should have done and didn't. We can be thankful for the times he helped us.

We live in a world where people get robbed and beaten and left in a ditch by the side of the road. We live in a violent and cruel world. And we live in a world where people help each other, where they pull each other up out of the ditch, share of what they have, bring healing to one another, are generous and loving to people it seems they have nothing in common with. The question is, what kind of world do we want to live in and then to take action. Every time we do reach out with compassion, God is working through us to make a Good Samaritan world. 

We can also let go of the guilt of not responding every time. It is easy to get fatigued by all the people in the ditches. We start with those close to home, situations we know personally, right here in our neighborhood. And we also know that I am not the only one. Yes, Jesus works through me, but he also works through neighborhood organizations, and nonprofits, and thousands of other people who are also close to the situation and perhaps more prepared to handle it. 

Share a time you were the one in the ditch. Who helped you get out and come to healing?