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Following Jesus: The Prayer List

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For

there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all

—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  ( I Timothy 2:1-7 NRSV)

Trouble happens.  Good people can turn on each other.  What was once a thriving organization can turn into a cutthroat existence.

Even in churches.  Especially in churches.

Timothy is serving in the First Church of Ephesus.  There are divisions in the congregation.  We’ll read later in this letter about those divisions, but suffice it to say, the writer is an experienced leader passing along his best advice to a young Timothy.

When a new leader enters a troubled organization, he or she will often and wisely go to the heart of things.  In this case, worship.  Worship is where a congregation remembers who it is and to whom it belongs.  Worship reminds us of our sinful ways and affirms our forgiven status.  Worship is a place for learning and prayer. 

In fact, worship IS prayer.  An intentional order of worship includes adoration to God, admission and forgiveness of sin, supplication, intercession and moments to hear the Word of God.

And that’s where the author of this letter begins.  “First of all…” he writes.  Get worship in order.  We’ll talk about the issues later.  First things first.

Since prayer is worship, he explains the Prayer List: Everyone.  Everyone, including the Emperor — the man who holds power of this tiny congregation in his ruthless hands.

Why should we pray for our leaders?  Perhaps to keep in the Emperor’s good graces?  Perhaps in a vain hope to remain under the radar?  Maybe, if we’re really good and do the right thing, God will protect us from the cruelties of the Roman Empire.

That’s not what the author has in mind.  He writes two things that may seem less than straight-forward: “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” and ” God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved…”

Prayer transforms us.  It changes us; it gives us understanding; it convicts us of our biases and affirms our belief.  Prayer deepens our faith.

So, back to the prayer list.  Who should we pray for?  The author begins the list with those in power.  So, who will you pray for, President Donald Trump or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi?  Why?  Will you pray for the President because you think he’s your President and you’ll vote for him again next year?  Then add Nancy Pelosi to your list?

Why?  Because she opposes many things that the President is doing.  Pray for her as well as the President. 

Are you a Pelosi supporter?  Pray for the President, as well as her, for the same reason.  It’s easy to pray for those of “us” who think alike.  Praying for those with whom we disagree helps us understand politics and the issues in a new light.

Prayer changes our attitude.  Try praying for someone you absolutely detest for a week.  You probably won’t fall in love with her, but maybe you’ll feel less angry and a bit more forgiving.  Will it help her?  Possibly.  Will it help you?  Absolutely.  Does it mean she’s an okay person?  Not necessarily.  If she’s done bad things, she still needs to be held accountable.

The Old Testament is filled with references to pray for those in power.  Both those who hold great power and local people who hold only a small amount of power. 

Pray for your President and your local city council. 

Pray for those both within the faith and outside.  I have Jewish friends.  I wish them good and pray for them often.  I have friends who don’t attend Church.  It’s not up to me to decide who’s a Christian and who’s not.  It is up to me to pray for them when they’re ill, in distress or to celebrate with them in prayer when things go well for them.

Got your prayer list started, yet?  So far, we have our President, Congress and Senate.  Might as well add our Supreme Court.  And how about the Fourth Estate — the news media?  Do we pray for North Korea?  Iran?  Russia?  How about our friends, Great Britain and the European Union?  You decide who to pray for.  God alone is Lord of the conscious. 

We can pray for our State, for the issues that upset us the most, for the people we feel have let us down or hurt us.  We can pray for the neighbor who has been a good friend when you needed it most.  Pray for those who don’t have anyone to lean on.  Pray for the sick and medical community.  Pray for other nations who have issues of their own.

Once again, we can ask, why?  Why such a varied list?  Do I have to pray for politicians, especially the ones I don’t like?  What does any of this have to do with my life of faith?

The Church at Ephesus was probably worn out.  Jesus had died and resurrected at least 40 years earlier and his return was delayed.  The early Christians had sold their land and pooled their assets after his ascension.  They were convinced that they wouldn’t need anything of value because he would return soon.

Time marched on and there was no return.  Conversations became divisive on what had happened.  The issues in the world were every bit as important in that day as ours are today.  The arguments continued, divisions were occurring and everyone seemed to have the “Truth.” 

Like us, they were called by Christ to live in a complex world with all of its difficulties and “truths” and false news and rumors.  Therefore, they were called to pray FOR the Emperor, not TO the Emperor.  We pray to God on behalf of the rulers.  We pray that they do their job which is to bring shalom into our society. 

We pray for everyone.  I like to say we do it to be an inclusive community.  But, there’s more to it than that.  God desires all to be saved.  God offers salvation to all.  It’s up to us to pray for them, to keep the conversation going.

The thing about it is, we get something huge out of this kind of prayer.  We are changed and transformed.  We learn from unexpected people; we experience what others experience and we come to understand oppression and justice; grace and mercy. 

In short, we are better for our prayers.  We are better when we pray for those we wouldn’t normally pray for. 

Watch what happens around you.  Who is changing, you or the one you’re praying for?  How are you seeing things differently?  How have you become a teacher to others?  How have you opened up to new ideas?

God hopes that all are saved.  God’s plan is for all to receive salvation.  We resist this concept when we refuse to pray for those with whom we disagree or dislike.  We resist Christ’s transformative power when we shrink into our safe place of closed mind and heart. 

Pray early.  Pray often. Pray as you move through the day.  Pray as you watch the news.  Pray when you wake up and go to bed.  Pray for our world and our nation.  Pray for friends and enemies.  Pray for your neighbor, even if they are Samaritan.

It takes great courage.  Christ who went to the cross and sought forgiveness for his killers, will help us.  It leads to an openness and a change in heart that comes from wisdom.

Now, it’s your turn.  What’s your Prayer List look like?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

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Following Jesus: All Are Welcome

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins,[a] if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  (Luke 15:1-10 NRSV)

When the congregation pulled into the church parking lot to meet the new minister and worship with him, they immediately noticed a change.  The sign in front of the church had the usual times for Sunday school and worship.  Added below that in large letters was the statement, “All Are Welcome.”

The congregation would spend the next thirteen years learning from this preacher what the word “All” meant.

There are so many outcasts in this set of parables that it boggles the mind.

First we have the tax collectors, those who have sold themselves to the Romans in order to collect taxes from their fellow Jews.  Then we have sinners.  They are religiously careless, staying home on the Sabbath to catch up on their sleep.  Both of these groups stand outside the Jewish culture and are considered unclean.  The religious leaders understood them as “unholy” and “godless.”

Jesus eats with them, meeting them where they are.  He breaks religious and cultural laws, hoping to bring them back into the fold.

Next we have the religious elite.  They are so easy to vilify, aren’t they?  We see them as judgemental and legalistic.  They protect us from slippery slopes.  At times, they are us.

Of course, the real surprise is the parables.  God is seen as a vulgar, sidelined shepherd.  God is portrayed as a woman.

A shepherd leaves 99 sheep, stopping at nothing to find the one missing animal.  He scours the underbrush, scrapes his shins, sprains an ankle, stubs a toe.  He falls, gets back up and continues the search.

This one lost lamb is as important as the other 99.  His “sin” is that he wandered from one tuft of grass to another, and he lost track of where he was. Sound familiar?

Now he cowers under a bush afraid of being heard by the animals that would have him for their dinner.  He sees the feet of the shepherd walk towards him, kneel down and lift the branch of the bush.  The look of joy on the shepherd’s face brings the lamb to his feet and into the shepherd’s arms.

The other 99 sheep stand in the open field, raising eyebrows at each other.  “That lamb is dead meat.”  Literally.

“That shepherd has lost his mind.”

And then he returns to the fold with the lamb wrapped around his neck.  It’s time for a party.

God scours the world looking for you and me and legalists and wanderers.  God doesn’t give up.

How about that woman?  She has ten coins.  A sizable savings for sure.  One coin goes missing.  She starts in one corner of her home, searching high and low for that coin.  She sneezes when a dust ball lands on her face, cleans out the corner kitchen cabinet that’s long overdue, finds her favorite earrings under a side table.  But, no coin.

On go the lights and out come the flash lights.  She stoves a finger, and burns herself on the stove.  At last, she sees it glistening in the light.  She picks it up, puts it with the other nine and calls in her friends and neighbors.  It’s time for a celebration!

The crowd who follows Jesus is astounded.  This God that Jesus speaks of is an inclusive God.  Could it be that God loves even me?

There was a time when the Hebrews lived in the wilderness, being molded and shaped into God’s Chosen.  They had to have boundaries to live by.  They needed to be protected.  The sick had to live outside the community in order to protect the others from a contagious disease.  Once they were healed, they could return.

If you didn’t follow they rules, there were consequences.  Live within God’s law and you lived well.  Live outside the law and you would be asked to leave, in one way or another.  The law was important and had to be followed.  It protected the community.  The problem is, they often forgot the reason for the law.  That God is love and God provided the law out of love.  God didn’t want anyone of his children to be sidelined.  He wanted them back in the fold.  All too often, we leave the other on the outside far too long.

The religious leaders had to follow the law; it was their job.  I believe some of them saw a bigger picture and those are the ones who became friends of Jesus.  Others hung onto the law for dear life.  It was their security.  Anyone not following the rules had to be put out.  They were unholy and un-redeemable.

These are the lost who Jesus spent time with:  tax collectors, sinners, religious leaders, shepherds, women, naysayers.  He ate with them.  Taught them.  Offered them healing.  Most of all, he offered them a place in the fold, back in the arms of a loving God.

Where have you seen evidence of the lost being found?  When have you been the lost?  How and where did God find you?  What makes us lost?

Recently, I found myself in an area of town where the homeless hang out.  One young woman had a full shopping cart and a dog.  I love animals and before I knew it, I was talking to her dog.  I told her how beautiful she was and what a nice dog she was.  I told her to continue taking care of her “mama.”  Then I looked over at the woman and her eyes gleamed, her smile was radiant.  And in a split second, I thought I saw Jesus in her eyes.

For a moment, she wasn’t a homeless victim, but a child of God.  She wasn’t a vagrant that I should be wary of, but a fellow human being.  I’d like to think that in that moment of finding this young woman, God found me. Again.

The good news is God seeks out the lost in order to bring them back into the fold with God.  God seeks out those who strayed, those who aren’t like us.  God disturbs our sense of propriety.  Sometimes we’re the lost, having strayed into privilege or threats to our sense of security.

We resist good news because we’ve worked hard and we’ve earned our place at the table.  It’s not fair when God finds a lost soul.  We allow jealousy in, feeling as we’ve been displaced, our power diminished.  Yet, Christ finds us at the table where ALL are welcome.  There’s plenty of room.  It’s a table of grace and transformation.

The minister who began his ministry with the words, “All Are Welcome,” continued for 13 years with a congregation who learned to accept those that didn’t look quite like them:  a bi-racial couple and a gay musician found a welcome home even among people who didn’t understand them.

It took a sincere effort and honest reflection to reach out a hand and say, “welcome.”  Those in the congregation who set aside their biases, discovered that the wife of the bi-racial couple had breast cancer.  And a voice of an angel.  She sang her way into their hearts; they laughed when she cracked wise about her illness; they literally held her husband in their arms during worship while he cried out his lament at her death.

The gay musician was brought into earnest conversation.  They learned what his life was like.  And though some still felt his homosexuality was a sin, they loved him as beloved child of God.

It’s easy to see the lost in others, but not ourselves.  It’s easy to welcome all people until someone walks in who isn’t like us.  Getting to know them can take a lot of hard work.  Trying to find common ground requires prayer and patience.

Yet, if we want to approach the table and take the body and blood of Christ; if we want to call ourselves a disciple of Christ; then it seems to me that we  have to look to Jesus’ life and teachings and actions and ask:

What is Christ calling me to do and to be?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Following Jesus: Give This a Lot of Thought”

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.  (Luke 14:25-33 NRSV)

That’s disturbing.

Jesus spends his life on earth teaching and preaching love and kindness and peace.  He heals, even on the Sabbath because all of God’s beloved children are included in the kingdom.  He preaches that the kingdom of God is more inclusive than some of us are prepared to admit.

He talks about all this good stuff and the crowds are growing.  He’s a success and can begin that new building campaign.  Instead, he stops, turns around and says to the crowd that they must hate family, take up the cross and give up possessions.  Can’t you just see half the crowd turning around and heading for home?

This is a difficult text.  It leaves me squirming in my chair, wondering if I’m good enough for Jesus.  After all the work I’ve done for him, am I still not going to get “in”?

Yes, this is a difficult text, but don’t go astray with thoughts about being good enough or pious enough.  That’s not what this is about.  You’re already saved by grace through faith.

The crowd that gathered that day probably expecting material benefits.  Others hoped to be a part of an “army” who would overthrow the Roman Empire.  Jesus may be headed to Jerusalem, but not to wage war on Rome.

He tells the crowd to count the cost.  Following Jesus may be costly.  What will it cost your family?  The first century Christians understood that they could easily experience literal loss and be plunged into poverty and suffering.  Today we could face conflicting loyalties.

What Jesus is saying is, God comes first.  Way first.  Loving family isn’t on the same level as love of God.  It doesn’t even compare.

What Jesus is saying is, God in Christ comes first.  When we give up our possessions we give up the need to acquire, petty jealousies, ugly stereotypes of others, prejudice and yearning for success.

Taking up the cross is how we establish our priories. It’s identifying when God takes second chair to something or someone else.  It’s giving up something because it’s getting in the way of serving God.  You’re carrying the cross whenever you’re doing the hard work of struggling with God.

But.  Yes, there’s a but.  Jesus clearly tells the crowd, before you sign on the dotted line, consider the cost.  Contractors and Generals need plans and supplies before they can begin the job.  Are you going to start out and quit when it gets hard?

So, what does discipleship look like?

Frederick Buechner says that, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”  (https://www.passiton.com/inspirational-quotes/5539-your-vocation-in-life-is-wh-)

It begins with scripture and prayer.  Do you struggle with scripture?  Good.  The Bible often appears to contradict itself, so in prayer and study you find God in the words speaking to you.

When we allow ourselves to go deep, we find our heart’s desire.

And that’s when we look outside ourselves and find the world’s greatest needs.  It changes how we behave, how we love; it radically shifts our sense of what is the right thing to do.

And when our greatest joy is met with the greatest need, we discover that our priorities are realigned.  Family falls into place where it belongs.  Not hated and set aside, but also, not so important that it takes over our lives.  Acquiring possessions or success or any number of things no longer brings any kind of happiness or satisfaction.  Mercy and compassion take on whole new dimensions.

What’s Jesus up to?  He’s trying to help us go deep in our faith because he knows when we do that we know a deep joy and satisfaction that comes from serving God and allowing the rest of life to fall into its proper place.

I suspect you’ve already discovered this in some large or small way.  The cost may seem high, but the reward is transformation to new life, joy beyond measure and a sense of satisfaction and peace in your life.

And that’s when you discover your vocation: because your joy has met great need.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


The Way Things Have Always Been

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.  (Luke 13:10-17 NRSV)

Whenever Jesus stands up to authority, we cheer.  We’re delighted, perhaps because we’re the one he’s defending.  Or we love to see the bullies and the rich and the powerful get their comeuppance.

Today, I wonder.  What was so wrong about the synagogue leader speaking out on a matter of law.  The bent-over woman made no request of Jesus; despite her disability, she wasn’t as death’s door; no one made a request in her name.  She showed up for worship and Jesus picked her out and healed her.

The synagogue leader had a strong sense of Sabbath rest.  In fact, he used scripture: it’s in the commandments.  Exodus 20:8 clearly states that we’re to remember the sabbath.  We have six days to work and go to the grocery store and clean the house.  On the seventh day we rest along with our livestock, our family and even our servants.

The commandment is so important that there’s an explanation for why we should rest on the sabbath: because God took six days to create the earth and rested on the seventh day.  God liked that concept so much that God blessed that day and made it holy.

Again, the woman wasn’t dying, she didn’t even make a request for healing.  Jesus called on her, laid on hands and declared her healed.

In a world where the Jews were trying to hang on to their temple and their religious practice, Jesus turned the tables and broke the law.

Let’s go back to his “mission statement.”  When he began his ministry he went to his hometown of Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)

  • Bring good news to the poor
  • Proclaim release to the captives
  • Recovery of sight to the blind
  • Let the oppressed go free

Wasn’t that what he was doing?  He taught in the synagogue and I think we can assume it was good news he preached.  He proclaimed release to the captives.  And at that moment this bent-over woman walks in.  Jesus calls her forward and “looses” her from her ailment.  Then he touches this untouchable woman, uncaring of the law.  His touch brings this woman who was denied human contact for 18 years into fellowship.  His touch welcomes her back.

He brought good news, he proclaimed released to a captive and then he helped those present that day recover their sight.  Not physical sight but spiritual sight.

He begins by reminding them that they don’t allow their animals to go thirsty on the sabbath.  They need to be nourished while they, too, rest from their work.  Jesus then points out that this woman isn’t a mere animal, but a daughter of Abraham.  Wasn’t she entitled to be loosed from her bondage to the evils of illness?

You can almost hear the crowd saying, “Ah-ha!”  When they left that day, they along with the formerly bent-over woman, had been released from their captivity to the law.

Yes, Exodus does speak to sabbath rest and keeping it holy.  There’s another version, though, in Deuteronomy.  The reason for keeping the sabbath holy was because those who inherited the law had once been slaves and God brought them out of slavery into a land of their own.  The sabbath is a time for everyone from farm animal to servant to resident aliens to family to rest and remember.

And that’s what Jesus did that day.  He broke the bonds of slavery to illness for that bent-over woman and he opened eyes to a new way of viewing the law.

When do you follow rules?  When do you break them?  I learned a long time ago that in leadership sometimes you ask for permission while other times you seek forgiveness.  Rules and laws are made for a reason.  They grant us boundaries within which we can live and move and have our being.  Yet, our laws are created by human beings who can’t consider every eventuality.  Our courts argue these laws every day, because sometimes a law binds someone up from living and moving and having their being.

God’s law is sacred and good.  It is demeaned when we use it to keep power over people.  The synagogue leader was guilty of trying to hang onto his power.  He was guilty of keeping the bent-over woman in “her place.”  Every time someone is healed, they can take their place in society and that changes everything. 

We are the synagogue leader when we insist on rules being followed even when the innocent suffer harm.  We are that leader when we see the law as more important than a child of Abraham. We are that leader when we use the law to keep the oppressed powerless.

When we shatter the notion that we’ve always done it this way, then we open ourselves up to the teachings of Jesus.  We open ourselves up to more inclusive viewpoints.  We open ourselves up to reaching out a helping hand to the oppressed and powerless and offering them grace.

The bent-over woman was a human being.  She was oppressed.  She was in bondage.  Perhaps Jesus could have waited until the next day to heal her.  But, the teaching moment would not have existed.  And more than that needed to happen.

Because if we use the law to keep ourselves holy, then it seems to me that the most holy thing we can do is to release a captive from the power of Satan.  Even on the sabbath.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 


Fighting Words

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.  (Hebrews 11:1-3;8-16 NRSV)

We memorized it in Sunday school.  Some of us carry it in our wallets and billfolds.  As we read it, the words come quickly to our tongues.  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (verse 1)

So, what does it mean? 

“The assurance of things hoped for.”  “The conviction of things not seen.”

The New Living Translation reads, “Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.

We believe because of what we have seen. 

The author of Hebrews points immediately to Creation.  God spoke creation into being.  Let there be light.  Let there be fishes and animals.  Let us create humanity in our image.  God spoke and it happened. 

Think about it.  I couldn’t get my teenage son to mow the lawn, but God speaks and things happen.  The preacher in Hebrews is just beginning with this example.  He continues by reminding us of those who have gone before us.  This morning we look at Abraham.

Abraham heard God call him out of his homeland.  He and Sarah were to leave family, friends and all that was familiar to them for a land of promise.  They answered the call and wandered in that land all their lives.  They lived in tents.  Sarah gave birth to Isaac.  Isaac married in that land and gave birth to Jacob and Esau.  They lived in the land understanding the promise from God.

But, here’s the thing.  Neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob ever owned the land.  Abraham purchased a small cave so that Sarah and he could be buried, but they never owned the land.  Hundreds of years later the land would belong to the great nation founded on Abraham. 

They understood themselves to be aliens.  They could have returned to their homeland, but they chose to follow the promise and the vision.  They ultimate promise of the future kingdom.

Abraham made lots of mistakes in judgements.  Yet, he never gave up on the vision.  He kept his faith by looking to the future as promised by God.  Abraham saw beyond today to tomorrow — even a tomorrow that he would never see. 

He lived in tents, a mere earthly existence.  He looked forward to the permanent security of being with God. 

Faith is what we hang onto because we’ve seen over and over and over again how good and wise and strong God is.  Faith is what we cling to when life today is fraught with fighting: fighting words that lead to disharmony and acrimony; fighting words that lead to shootings and death of humanity; fighting words that deepen chasms of opinion; fighting words that get us nowhere.

Red vs. Blue.  Democrats vs Republicans. The loudest voice gets heard.  The most offensive are looked upon with admiration.

Bigotry. Racism. White supremacy. Ku Klux Klan. White Nationalism. White privilege.

We’re scared to death.  The white majority will sink below 50% by 2045.  Change is occurring at the speed of light.  We can’t keep up with the information age, the twenty-four/seven news cycle.  We barely have time for friends and family.  

We’re scared to death.  It’s no different than it’s been in the past.  Every age has its own fears.  Today we have terrorism.  I grew up with Communism.  Some of you fought a war against Fascism on three fronts. 

Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians who were being martyred, abused.  They even dealt with “plundering of their possessions.”  Now, they’re tired.  They’re lagging.  Some have quit attending worship.  They’re losing their faith.

We aren’t being killed for our faith today, but there are some who seek to kill our faith.  We aren’t being martyred, but we feel so much alone, wondering if anyone else out there believes as we do?  Many have given up going to church and reading scripture.  They feel as if they’ve been let down and that nobody cares.  They’re tired of speaking peace in a world that strikes terror and seeks out war.

No human being, no matter how powerful, has spoken this world into being.  No human being is powerful enough to wipe out your faith.  Unless  you allow them.   

Faith is what we have today because of what we’ve witnessed in the past.  Faith is what we have today because of those who have gone before us.  Faith is what we have when all hell is breaking out around us.  Faith is an inner sight, a vision.  God has made the promise and we can count on it.  We live in that promise as a response to God.

God can be trusted.  God is reliable.  Look for moments of grace in your own life.  Look back on those you have admired and see how their faith held them in the tough times.  Look at scripture.  The preacher in Hebrews turned to the books of Genesis, Exodus, Judges and I & II Samuel.

Abel knew suffering, being murdered by his own brother.  He gave God the sacrifice that he deserved and even today, his blood cries out for justice for all human suffering.

Enoch walked with God, trusting in his word.  His inner vision gave him confidence that God really exists.  

Noah trusted God when everyone else said he was being ridiculous.  It made no sense to build that ark, but he did it anyway.  He made the right choice and lived to tell the story.

Abraham and Sarah needed the trust demonstrated by Noah to travel into the unknown.  They didn’t know where they were going, but their destination was clear.

While all hell breaks loose in the world who will listen to?  There are many intriguing choices.  But, before you listen to the world view, on whom do you place your trust?  In whom do you live and breathe and have your being?  

With faith, the inner vision, and trust in what we haven’t seen, enter the world as a resident alien and look around you.  Where are the words of Jesus being spoken?  

Jesus himself gave us his mission statement in the Gospel of Luke:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV Italics mine.))

To bring good news to the poor.  What would be good news to the poor?  Food.  A sense of purpose in all aspects of their lives.  Where do you see this good news in the world?  How do you embody that purpose in your life?

To proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.  Who is being held back from what gives life?  Where are the blind stumbling around in the darkness?  Where do you see release and recovery of sight?  How do you embody that purpose in your life?

To let the oppressed go free.  To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  Who are the oppressed?  How can they be set free?  Where do you see God’s favor in the world?  How do you embody that purpose in your life?

Wherever you see good news and release and recovery of sight and freedom in the world, you see God at work.  You see people of faith with that inner vision that allows them to see beyond this life into a new reality when God will ultimately fulfill God’s purposes.

It’s a tall order.  Keeping the faith in a broken world is hard in any era.  Truth be known we have a choice.  We can endure the suffering by keeping faith and holding God’s vision in our sights.

Or we can become overwhelmed by the pain we’re experiencing or witnessing in others.  When it’s simply too much, we can avoid the risk and lose hope.  We can give up.  And what will that accomplish?

We can trust God and we can trust ourselves.  We can listen carefully to the worldview through the lens of Jesus’ words.  We can speak out courageously on the wrongs in this world, keeping Jesus’ words in mind.    Yes, we live in difficult times.  Look to God and then to the saints who have gone before us. 

A quotation from the books, “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, comes to mind:  “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Little_Prince)

What they lived for was the vision given them in faith by God and they lived for the future, living out God’s purposes in the now.  Faith is the very being of God’s promise. Faith, not in the powers of this world, but in God’s kingdom in the yet and not yet.

On that we live and breathe and have our being.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


It All Depends

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  ( Luke 12:13-21 NRSV)

What’s in your wallet?

No, really.   Take a look inside your wallet and see what’s in it.  Probably credit cards, cash, medical id’s, driver’s license.  What else?

Recently, I turned out a closet of “stuff” I was storing.  In one box I found my deceased father-in-law’s wallet.  Yes, most of the above were in it: his Medicare Card, driver’s license, credit cards.  In another pocket I found what were probably far more important to him: pictures of his family; the printer make and model for the next time he needed ink cartridges; even his Army Pocket Orders (he fought in World War II.)

This was the pocket that moved me the most.  It reminded me of his injury at the Battle of the Bulge, of the many pictures he printed out of family and friends, of the great love he held for my husband and me, our son and our grandsons.  In that wallet were representations of what mattered to him.

What’s in your wallet?  I’m afraid mine is not the least bit interesting.  Only what I need.  No pictures, nothing to remind me of the past, nothing that indicates what’s important to me.  Hm.

Today’s scripture passage speaks to a decision: to whom am I rich, God or myself?

We’re the wealthiest nation in the world, financially.  We’re the poorest in the world, spiritually.  Church membership is down so low, that churches are closing.  There’s a rise in the “spiritual but not religious” population.  Perhaps this has been brought on by our polarized religious beliefs.

What’s wrong with the farmer’s decision?  He’s obviously a good farmer (and a lucky one.)  He knows how to save and he’s astute.  What’s wrong with that?  If he gives it all away, he’ll be out on the streets begging with the rest of them.

It reminds me of Joseph.  Jacob had 12 sons and a daughter.  Joseph was born to his beloved wife Rachel and was his favorite.  All the elder brothers knew it and were jealous.  Joseph was well aware of it and, in the way that teenagers can rub the truth in, he made sure that he was the special one at every turn.  Finally, his brothers could take no more and through a series of foibles, he was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt.

After several years in the local prison, it came to Pharaoh’s attention that this Hebrew man was an interpreter of dreams.  Joseph was brought into his presence and heard the dream.  Joseph explained that Egypt would enjoy the next seven years of plenty.  The crops would be bumper crops and everyone would eat well.  But, following that would be an additional seven years of famine.

Then he proposed a plan.  Assign someone the job of building barns (ring a bell?) and storing the grain during the first seven years.  When the famine arrived there would be plenty of grain for everyone.  Pharaoh jumped on the idea and assigned Joseph the task.

What’s the problem with the man in Jesus’ parable?  His problem is that he forgot to give thanks to the One who grows the seed.  He didn’t say thank you to God for the bumper crop.  He neglected look around and see his neighbors — all of them: the poor, the alien, the children.  And he failed to find balance between looking out for his future, giving thanks and caring for the neighbor in need.

How then should we live?  Save more?  Spend less?  Give more?  That’s not really very helpful, is it?  How much more should we save?  How much less should we spend?  How much more should we give?  We need boundaries on our decisions and we need to understand our values, our ethics and our love for God and God’s people.

How then should we live?  It all depends.

First, what are your priorities?  Is it to save everything in fear of a coming need?  Or is it to turn to God and care for the neighbor?

Next, look at your faith and trust in God.  Is life only good if others see your abundance?  Do you spend more because you want others to see your wealth?  Or do you make your money work for you instead of allowing it to use and control you?

The Good News is that God has already set our old self aside.  When we turn to God and away from fear of insecurity, we become people with new life in Christ.  We resist this good news because it’s hard to believe that God loves us warts and all.  We resist because this new self who looks upward and outward feels vulnerable and afraid.  What if I give too much?  What if I don’t save enough?  Will God love me is I say no?

Yet, Christ stands there looking on as we look up and outward.  Holy Spirit stands willing to guide our decisions and create appropriate boundaries of spending and giving and saving.

We can’t turn on the news, pick up a newspaper or our smart phones without seeing the poor, the alien, the disenfranchised struggling for food and health and education.  The task is insurmountable.

Feeling guilty will do little.  Prayer and conversation and identifying what bugs you the most is the first step to take action.  What is needed?  Your money, your time and talents?

We can be rich towards God because we set our minds on God by looking upward and outward.  The farmer in the parable could only look inward.  It was all about himself and his own security.  If God is seeing the person in you that has been moved and transformed by Christ, then how can we not live as if that is the best and truest part of you?

After all, it is.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Teach Us to Pray

11 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father,[a] hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.[b]
Give us each day our daily bread.[c]
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”[d]

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for[e] a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit[f] to those who ask him!”  ( Luke 11:1-13 NRSV)

I’m not sure what Jesus did the most: eat or pray.  He certainly understood sustenance gained from a good meal with good friends.  And he spent much time in sustaining prayer.

When he taught his disciples to pray, he kept it simple.  He told them not to fear intimacy with God while remembering that God is holy.  Seek basic needs.  That while God releases us from our sins, we pay it forward and show our gratitude to God when we forgive others.  Most of all, we pray for God to keep us near when we feel ourselves entering trials that have the potential to damage our faith rather than build it.

Jesus encouraged persistence.  In persistent prayer we can gain understanding about our situation.  We can ask questions over and over again: “Why are you silent?” “Why are you saying no?” “I don’t understand what’s happening.”  Jesus prayed like this from the cross when he cried out the words from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Persistence in prayer isn’t nagging God until God relents.  Persistence in prayer offers you opportunity to understand your particular situation.  It’s a place where you can go to dig deeper and see the bigger picture.

Perhaps you’ve experienced prayer and almost missed God’s comforting presence.  Perhaps you’ve realized the help you’ve received from others.  Even, grace in the darkness.

Keep asking.  Keep seeking.  Keep pounding on the door.  The light of wisdom will eventually shine.

What’s on your mind right now?  What keeps you awake at night?  What wonderful things occur in your life?  What questions do you have?  Take them all to God.

Don’t worry if you think you’re being too intimate with God or not intimate enough.  Go ahead and express your anger, wrestle, listen, wrestle some more.  As you repeat your petitions listen for wisdom to slip in and enlighten you.  Your prayer will change or become more focused.

This prayer that Jesus taught his disciples is loaded.  It reminds us of the transcendence of God, the holy otherness of God; that God is sovereign;  that we are human in need of this God over all other gods in our lives.

It points us to our human needs: give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.  We are wonderful creations of God.  We’re in need of of God’s sustenance and we fall short all too often.  We get lost at times and our vulnerability leads us to places we don’t want to go.

We pray for what we need and get what we really need.  We pray for sustenance and find it unusual places.  We pray and God says, “no.”  We pray and get what we prayed for.  The deeper we go in prayer, the more we realize how hard it is to be human.  The deeper we go in prayer, the closer we are to God.  The more we pray, the more time we spend in prayer.

God takes you seriously.  God can be depended upon.  God takes care of you.  But, let’s be very clear: God isn’t Santa Claus or the tooth fairy.  Perhaps the reason God appears to be silent is that you need time in prayer to understand that need.  We don’t simply bang on the door until God gives us what we ask for.  We ask and seek for wisdom and understanding.  We knock on the door because we know that what’s behind the door is more valuable than anything else in this world.

It’s okay to be presumptuous in prayer.  It’s okay to be yourself in prayer.  Pray that God’s ultimate reign will come.  Know that God is eager to be in relationship with you.  Yes, even you!  Pray for what breaks your heart.  Give thanks for what brings you joy.  Seek forgiveness for falling into the enticements of evil.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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