Sunday, July 28, 2019

Asking for a Friend

July 28, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 11:1-13


What comes to mind when you think of prayer? Do you pray the rosary? Do you recite The Lord’s Prayer? Do you simply whisper “God, help me!”? Prayer is often thought of as speaking words to God, asking for what we need, and, usually, in lofty, poetic language. But that definition of prayer is, I think, too narrow. I think of prayer as anything that nurtures our relationship with God. If taking a walk in a forest nurtures your relationship with God, that is prayer. If reading scripture deepens your connection with the holy, that is prayer. If sharing a meal with a friend brings you closer to the sacred, that is prayer. Caring for others, listening to music, watching a sunset – all these can be prayer.

The disciples of Jesus were devout Jews, so they knew how to pray, and likely prayed often. But when they watched Jesus at prayer, and saw the consistency between his prayer life and all that he was doing and saying, they saw something deeper and more powerful than they had ever experienced in their own lives. They have been following Jesus for some time now, learning the lessons of the parables, watching the way he interacts with a wide range of people, and they are trying to be disciples – to follow their teacher and mold their lives to his model. Now they begin to see the deep and intimate relationship that Jesus has with God through prayer, and they long for that relationship themselves.

They ask Jesus to teach them to pray, as John the Baptizer taught his disciples. The distinctive prayers of a group in those days would have identified them as disciples of their leader. So, Jesus gives them a simple prayer that becomes characteristic of the Christian community; that is, it expresses the identity and longings of the church in all places and times, from its earliest days in the ancient Mediterranean world to this very Sunday, right here. This prayer, known as The Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of Our Savior, has been spoken by every follower of Jesus since the first twelve.

All of us seek a better world that will come with God’s kingdom. We all need bread to eat, forgiveness from the wrongs we have done, and we all want to be saved from the trials we cannot bear. And we all yearn for that intimate relationship with God that is like that between a parent and child. It is a simple prayer, a bit less varnished here that the version we have memorized, which reaches into the core of our being and touches our deep needs, both those of our individual selves and those of our community. This is, after all, a communal prayer for our needs, all of us children of the one parent God.

We start by hallowing God’s name. Hallowed means “to be made sacred.” In the ancient world, a name expressed the nature of a person or place. The name of God is considered sacred by the Jews, so sacred that it is never pronounced. In ancient Hebrew manuscripts God’s name never contains the vowels. When it is read aloud, it is replaced with Adonai meaning “Lord” or Hashem meaning “the name.” In English translations it is indicated by the word Lord rendered in small capital letters. But when Jesus said that we should pray that the name of God be made sacred, we are really asking that the nature of God be made sacred or complete. God is the creator of the universe, and is holiness itself. God, may the holiness of all creation be made complete.

There is one focus for all the parables of Jesus – the kingdom of God. What is it like? The land of a rich man produced abundantly… A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho… A sower went out to sow… There was a man who had two sons… The reign of God is about forgiveness, liberation, justice, grace, starting over, good news for the poor, bread for the hungry, release for the captives. God, “Your kingdom come” and make all things new.

And speaking of bread for the hungry: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Not all the bread we can eat. Not everything that we desire. “Daily bread” means enough food to sustain life for today. In ancient times this was a challenge for most, and it remains so today for billions of people around the world, in our own nation, and even here in Union. Give us, every one of us children of the one parent God, the food we need to make it through today.

Forgive us, God. As we read through the ancient texts and our history books, we can’t seem to stop messing everything up. Sometimes we mess things up so badly that there is no going back to what once was, only the facing of a new and changed reality. And yet, as often as we are forgiven, as much as we take for granted the endless mercy and forgiveness of God, in the same breath we challenge ourselves to give the same grace to others. God, help us to forgive. Help us to let go of our own anger, hurt, fear, and resentment at the wrongs that have been done to us, and help us to embrace the freedom that comes from offering forgiveness.

“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Honestly, God, we’re not ready. We didn’t study. We’re unprepared. We’re not ready to answer for what we have done. We’re not ready to face half of what the early Christians faced at the hands of the Romans. And we’re definitely not ready to take our own walk up Calvary. We know the trials will come, God, just… please, not yet.

And that’s it. Simple and to the point. But there is something more to this prayer that catches the imagination of the disciples. It starts with the very first word. Jesus addresses God as “father.” In Aramaic the word is abba, more closely translated as “daddy” or “papa”. This is not a distant, disinterested God who does not care for the little people, but rather the close and comfortable parent, who knows our needs before they are spoken and gives the good gifts that meet our deepest needs.

This intimate connection and dialogue with God was quite unusual in those days. Prayer and supplication to the gods was done in the high places, before the altar, in the Temple. To simply converse with God, to speak directly to God wherever and whenever you pleased, would have been striking. The disciples learned from Jesus that prayer is a conversation between us and a loving parent, a parent who listens to us, cares for us, forgives us, provides for us, and protects us. The disciples learned that no matter who you are, or where you are, right now God is listening, and perhaps, if we are patient, is speaking too.

There is an old John Denver song that touches on the two-way conversation that prayer is meant to be. “Talk to God and listen to the casual reply.”[1] It is not explicit in the biblical text, but I’m pretty sure Jesus listened to God as much as he spoke. How often do we listen when we pray? How long do we wait for an answer? We are more likely to simply say, “God, thank you for all the good things. Please help me with the bad things. OK, thanks for listening.” And then we go on to try working things out depending only on our own devices. We hardly stop to breathe when we pray, it seems.

Maybe it’s about trust. Do we really trust that there will be an answer? Or maybe, we already know the answer, and we don’t really want to hear it. After all, it is God we’re praying to. God knows what is on our hearts and minds, and all the ways in which we try to avoid doing what we know we should do.

Jesus gets at this issue of waiting for an answer by telling the story of the friend at midnight. Persistence is the method that will get the friend up out of bed to open the door. There will be an answer to your prayer, Jesus is saying, but you may need to keep asking and listening until you get that answer. Prayer is a faith practice, and practice means repetition, diligence, perseverance, and patience. And, of course, the answer may not be what you were expecting.
Ask, and it will be given you;
search, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you

As Luke tells it, God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. Now, this may not be the answer we were looking for. Neither was Jesus the messiah that people were expecting. But the Holy Spirit may be the answer we need. Remember, this is the prayer of the community – OUR Father, give US. This prayer is not a personal prayer but the prayer of a people waiting for the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and stir up new life in them. This prayer is our community calling out to God together, preparing ourselves to be transformed by the answer. So, when we pray The Lord’s Prayer, we should be prepared that what we have asked for will be given to us. There will be an answer. Is it just me, or is it a little warm in here? Amen.

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[1] John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High.”

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Better Part

July 21, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 10:38-42

Among the first followers of Jesus, there was already disagreement about the “the role of women,” a phrase that marginalizes women and keeps them from sharing their God-given gifts of leadership in the church, and in society. Even today, two thousand years later, there are denominations of Christians where women’s voices are still excluded from the pulpit. You may not know that it wasn’t until 1853 that the first woman was ordained to the Christian ministry. Her name was Antoinette Brown Blackwell, and it was the Congregational Church, a forebear of the UCC, that honored her call to ministry.

The story of Mary and Martha invites us into the conversation about roles, not just the role of women but of any disciple, about listening and doing the work. It’s important to take the time to talk, and to listen. It’s important to focus on the person right in front of you. And it’s important to get the work done, to take care of your responsibilities.

Martha was probably used to maintaining a good impression in her village. Her family was well-to-do; people who would help finance the itinerant ministry of Jesus and his disciples. This gathering was the kind of thing she was good at, hosting a large group for a dinner party. As any good host knows, there is much to be done when visitors come over.

Mary – who is probably better designated as Mary of Bethany so as to differentiate her from the other Marys in the gospels – she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” Rather than help her sister prepare and serve the guests, she is focused on being present with the guests, particularly Jesus.

Now, I’ve been Martha. I have hosted gatherings where I floated between the kitchen, the barbecue, the dining room, and the living room, making sure everyone has what they need, keeping an eye on the food in the oven and on the stovetop, setting the table, checking the lighting and music. I’m often able to chat with people while I do all this, especially if they follow me around or offer to help out. But those are mostly five-minute chats.

Sometimes I have been Mary at the party, sitting with one person and focusing on them at length. The small group of two or three sitting apart, or standing out on the porch, engaged in an intense conversation that goes on for hours, that is something I love. But it’s really hard to do the work of the host and be the listener.

The listening is something that you almost have to plan, to seek out that one person you really want to talk with, and carve out a space and time for a longer, deeper conversation. Last summer I went to a reunion in Colorado of people I had done camps with. There were many faces I had not seen in a long time, and a thousand five-minute conversations. It was both fulfilling and exhausting. But over the course of the weekend I was able to seek out and sit one-on-one with a few dear old friends. Those long, deep conversations are what I remember most clearly, and value profoundly.

The thing is, I was also in charge of certain aspects of the event, since I was once a director of that camp. I had to take care to not lose myself in the conversation with one person that I forgot my responsibility to everyone else. I had to coordinate with other leaders, prepare a space, help lead a workshop, engage with each of the participants, and, when all was done, to clean up. I remember all of that, but perhaps not so vividly.

It’s interesting to juxtapose this story with the one we heard last week about the Good Samaritan. In that story the lawyer asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Martha would resonate with that question. It's not enough to just listen to Jesus; faithful listeners respond, we do. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Show mercy and compassion. Pick up the beaten man by the side of the road and help him. There’s a lot that needs doing, in the kitchens and fellowship halls of churches, the gathering of food items for food pantries, the work to combat hunger and feed the world.

The writer Katherine Matthews[1] asks us to think about what might happen without these folks, the doers, if they suddenly decided to take this story at face value and sit down, right when they're supposed to be pouring the coffee and putting out the baked goods. Isn’t our hospitality ministry important, when we stand by the door, and made sure that everyone has received a warm greeting and a welcome to our worship? Is that what this story of Mary and Martha means, that sitting and listening is more important than doing the work of hospitality?

Yet the very next story is about these two women, both of whom loved Jesus, and Jesus saying that the better part is not the doing, but the being, just sitting and being with God. Perhaps, because we are so easily lured into busyness, we need to be reminded that “all our efforts and deeds are to be balanced and even nourished by times of doing absolutely nothing but sitting and being with God.”[2] And in this moment, when Mary joins the disciples who sit at the feet of Jesus, he upends the idea that a woman could not sit at the feet of the master and learn from him just as any male disciple could.

We live in a culture today that equates busyness with importance. For many of us the days are packed with tasks to perform, our minds worried and distracted, like Martha, by many things. Can you imagine just sitting and being with God, listening to the quiet voice of God speaking to us, deep within our hearts? Can you imagine what a gift it would be to just sit and listen with someone who is lonely, perhaps, or longing for companionship and meaning, an opportunity to share their gifts or simply a conversation?

Henri Nouwen once wrote that our lives, while full, are often unfulfilled. “Our occupations and preoccupations,” he said, “fill our external and internal lives to the brim. They prevent the Spirit of God from breathing freely in us and thus renewing our lives.”[3] If we don’t take time to just sit and listen, to pray, to breathe deeply in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are unable to be as we are meant to be, to do as we are meant to do.

Stop and just sit and listen, faithfully, like Mary at the feet of Jesus. Not sporadically, or randomly, or when there's nothing else to do: faithfully. Jesus taught us the importance of doing good things. Don’t just pass by on the other side, but do something to offer peace, kindness, hope, help. But Jesus also taught that the fulfillment of the promises of God has already begun, and that we can taste and feel those promises in our own lives, even here, even now. The better part is a life full of word and work, hearing and doing, and faithfully resting in the presence of God.  Amen.



[1] Kathryn M. Matthews, “Faithful Listeners,” in Sermon Seeds: https://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_21_2019.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Spiritual Life.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Who Is My Neighbor?

July 14, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 10:25-37

What is a “Good Samaritan?”

The term is so common that you can find it everywhere. The Good Sam Club is the largest organization of RV owners in the world. I’m not sure that has much to do with the parable, except the traveling part. There are charities, hospitals, and other organizations designed to help people in need based on this parable in the bible. In Illinois, there is a Good Samaritan law which says that any licensed medical professional who provides emergency care without fee to a person shall not be liable for civil damages.

There are stories in the news all the time about Good Samaritans. For example, here is a story from the Good News Network.[i] The Melrose family had been in the middle of a 2,500-mile road trip across Australia last week when their car broke down in the middle of the Northern Territories. They had left their home with two boats in tow so they could compete in the national minnow sailing championships in Darwin. Darwin resident Rodney Sims saw the plea for help on social media, hopped in his truck, and drove to where the family was staying in a motel. After hitching up their boats to his vehicle, he brought the Melrose Family all the way back to Darwin, a staggering 1,200-mile round-trip journey. Needless to say, they were incredibly touched by the stranger’s act of kindness.

Not all the stories have such a happy ending, however. Two summers ago, Todd Surta says, he tried to help a woman badly injured when a boat collided with a personal watercraft on the Fox River. He ended up in police custody, facing criminal charges and a sullied reputation.

The term “Good Samaritan” seems to mean a stranger helping someone. But there is an aspect of the parable that is missed in this description. To the people in the first century hearing this story, Samaritans were “those” people, on the wrong side of the river. We don’t get along with them.

The Jews and the Samaritans had shared ancestors, like Jacob, but they were alienated from each other. There are probably many different, complicated reasons for it, but suffice it to say, there were long-standing hostilities between them.

Things are not so different today between different groups of people. We are constantly tempted to focus on what divides us – the Muslims and the Jews, the rich and the poor, the women and the men, the red states and the blue states, the gays and the straights, the whites and the blacks. It is so easy to fall into “us” versus “them”, to focus on who is “out” and who is “in”. By our words and our deeds we exclude others, we cast them out of our community.

I am often given opportunities to emulate the Samaritan — although the neighbors I help are generally not in the same life-threatening circumstances as the man in the parable, nor are they likely to be enemies or others I can’t get along with. My good deeds tend to be of the helping-out-a-stranger type rather than caring-for-an-enemy type. And no matter my good intentions most of the time, there are occasions when I have excluded others, or put a person in my mental category of “other.”

Luke tells the story of a lawyer who wants to inherit eternal life. Jesus gives him the textbook answer, “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” He might have really meant, “Who is not my neighbor?” It was a lawyer, after all, who probably liked specifics, clear lines. Are these people next door, at the edges of my neighborhood? You’re not talking about outsiders, right, just neighbors?

Jesus replied with a story about a Samaritan, someone who would definitely have been seen as an outsider by the Jewish community. Using that story Jesus redefines the meaning of neighbor. You think that person over there is an outsider, a stranger, an enemy? That person is your neighbor, a child of God, a member of your heavenly family!

Now when we hear a story, we identify with particular characters. Maybe, as I often do on a busy day, you identify with the priest or the Levite. You see something that needs to be done, a person in need, and you pass it by because you’re too busy or preoccupied, too afraid, overwhelmed, or exhausted to do anything about it. On a good day I strive to be the Good Samaritan That is the ideal. I stop to help, I give what I can out of my pocket, I take the time to be kind.

But what if that is not the character who we are meant to identify with? Not the robbers, surely. We can’t be the bad guys in the story. We’re not the religious leaders, who we secretly judge for their neglectful behavior. But we can’t be the Samaritan, either; the whole point of choosing the Samaritan as a character is that he is not us. If we too easily and comfortably identify with the Good Samaritan in this parable, maybe we're missing the point.

Remember, he was the Other. An enemy of the people hearing this story. He was the object of their condescension, their hatred, and their judgment. He was the outcast.

Think about it this way: An Israeli man is robbed, and a Good Palestinian man saves his life. A Democrat is robbed, and a Good Republican saves her life.  A white supremacist is robbed, and a Good Black Teenager saves his life.  A transgender woman is robbed, and a Good Christian Fundamentalist saves her life.

The differences which divide people in our world are not trivial, and have real consequences. The same can be said of the differences between the Jews and the Samaritans in Jesus’ time. Each was fully convinced that the other was wrong. So, when Jesus made the Samaritan a central figure in the story, it was radical and risky; it stunned his listeners.

A writer named Debie Thomas suggests, “He was asking them to dream of a different kind of kingdom. He was inviting them to consider the possibility that a person might add up to more than the sum of her political, racial, cultural, and economic identities. He was calling them to put aside the history they knew, and the prejudices they nursed. He was asking them to leave room for divine and world-altering surprises.”[ii]

So, if we can’t identify ourselves with the priest, the Levite, OR the Samaritan, who are we left with? “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” The beaten man, half-dead on the side of the road is the only character left. He is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief. He has no identity except that he is in need. This is the character Jesus means for us to identify with – the one in need of mercy.

You see, when you’re lying in a ditch, it doesn’t matter who helps you, whether or not you agree with their politics or religion. What matters is that someone, anyone, stops to show you mercy before you die. What matters is how quickly you swallow your pride and grab hold of that hand.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. Your neighbor is the one who has compassion. Your neighbor is the one who unexpectedly smiles on you with a fresh image of God. Your neighbor is “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Lambs and Wolves

July 7, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

In my sermon last week, I talked about people making excuses for not following Jesus. And he reminded them that this was hard work, not a fun adventure. It can be a difficult life sometimes, being a Christian. There is no simple way to be a disciple. And yet, here we have this account of Jesus sending seventy disciples out to the villages with simple instructions and a simple task.

Carry no purse or bag or even sandals. Speak peace when you enter a house. Eat what is placed before you. Invest your time and energy in one home, one family, one town. Remember that the kingdom of God comes near whether you are accepted or rejected.

It seems so easy, though it might make us feel nervous, uncomfortable, or awkward. It is a simple task, and difficult to undertake, to live simply and vulnerably. Their task is to rely on the grace and hospitality of others. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”, goes the line from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). We abhor being vulnerable. We’re better at putting up walls and showing our toughness than we are at letting others know where it hurts, where we ache inside, what we long for. We don’t trust in the grace of strangers.

The task is to stay in one place — to encounter, to engage, and to go deep. Jesus didn’t send them home where they wouldn’t see anything new. He sent them out to new places, where they would encounter different people, people with a story that is not the same as theirs. They were sent to engage with others, to listen to what ails them and offer the living water. They were sent to go deep, like the conversation that lasts until the last candle goes out and the dawn begins to creep in. It is a rare thing for us to share time without limits with one another.

The task is to live as guests, to trust ourselves with others as if they are the people we depend on for sustenance and shelter. They come with peace and they go in love. They offer kindness, healing, and hope. And even though they go as lambs among the wolves, they never fail to point out that the kingdom of God is near.

There are plenty of wolves in our world that claw at our peace, our hope, and our trust in the goodness of God. There are many reasons to be angry, to fear, to want to defend what we have against those others who might take from us. Even so, Jesus doesn’t send us out to be wolves.

The seventy that Jesus sent, they lived in a terrible time – under the brutal oppression of a foreign power, with local government that was corrupt, food insecurity, and the fragility of life in a time when infection most often meant death. “Why send me?” they probably thought. Jesus warned them that they might face rejection, thirst, hunger, or the forces of evil. “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”

But they came back, all seventy of them, with joy. They were amazed at what they had seen and done. “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” And Jesus, presumably smiling says, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Don’t you see? When you walk in love, and you sow peace in every field, when you allow yourselves to be vulnerable, to trust in the grace of God, evil trembles. Demons fall. The world changes. The kingdom of God comes.

There are heroes who draw their weapons and fight to the last, who stand on the ramparts to fight off the wolves. There are heroines who rush into the burning buildings, and dive into the frigid waters. There are heroes who wield the scalpel, even when the operating room is a tent in a field and the bombs are getting closer. There are heroines who walk the darkened hallways of the hospital at night. There are heroes who bring a cup of cold water, a piece of bread, a touch on the arm, the gentle stroke of a hand on your forehead as you lie in pain.

We are sent as lambs amidst the wolfishness of war, greed, drought, violence, and starvation, using hope, peace, and love as our only weapons against greed, power, ignorance, and complacency. The instructions are simple. Don’t take with you more than you need. Speak peace when you enter a house. Eat what is placed before you. Invest your time and energy wherever you are. Remember that the kingdom of God comes near whether you are accepted or rejected.

When we go about the business of God’s work, we recognize God’s presence all around us. When we are vulnerable and open, trusting in the grace of others, we find God is working alongside us. Accepting hospitality and kindness from others empowers others to do the work as well. We must not simply help others, but also allow ourselves to be helped, for we are all in this together. We can all be heroes for one another, find that others can be heroes to us, and together find that the kingdom of God has come near.  Amen.

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With thanks to Debie Thomas, “Choosing What is Easy” posted on www.journeywithjesus.net, and Suzanne Guthrie, “Sent Out in Love” posted on www.edgeofenclosure.org.