Sunday, July 28, 2013

Learning to Pray

July 28, 2013 –– 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 11:1–13
Learning to Pray

Almost all people naturally pray. Yet it is not natural or easy to pray well.

Not all people pray often. Prayer can be the desperate last resort of the distressed.

Many people are skeptical about prayer. They come to prayer with the theological sophistication of Huck Finn:

Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing came of it. She told me to pray everyday, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fishline, but no hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work. I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn't make it out no way.

Most of us have likely felt that way at times. We ask God, praying quite sincerely for something, and it doesn’t happen. Prayer becomes a big mystery. Like Huck, we can't "make it out no way." Maybe this was part of the disciples’ motivation when one of them asked, Lord, teach us to pray....

Luke especially portrays Jesus as a man of prayer. He stays up all night, praying (Lu 5:16). He chose the Twelve after a night of prayer (Lu 6:12-13). The Transfiguration happened as he was praying (Lu 9:29).  It is no wonder the disciples wanted Jesus to teach us to pray.

So Luke presents Jesus giving these words as a response to the disciples. This prayer is at its simplest, which only emphasizes how profound it really is. Volumes have been written on what is called both The Lord’s Prayer and the Our Father. Back in 1988 I preached a sermon on this text that was seven pages long––about 25-30 minutes. In 1992 I did a series of nine sermons on The Lord’s Prayer that was 82 pages. My point is that I cannot cover this prayer in a 10-minute homily. Instead, I want to stress the one point that undergirds the whole thirteen verses of this reading.

Jesus would have given this prayer in Aramaic (or maybe Hebrew). Luke uses the Greek, pater (father)––which would not have been revolutionary, but behind the translation is the word abba (Mark actually uses this in his Gospel, 14:36), and the implication is revolutionary: God is our papa––Daddy! There is an intimacy here that matches exactly what the disciples saw in Jesus’ prayer life. Jesus says this intimacy with God is for all of us. Because God loves us like a good daddy loves his children, our Heavenly Father is always helping us to know him and his great love.

We were created to pray––to be in conversation with God. We are invited to pray. Peter writes in his first letter: Cast all your anxiety on [the Lord] because he cares for you (1Pet 5:7). Jesus himself invites: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Lu 11:9). The Psalmist gives the same reason as Jesus that we can have confidence to pray: As a father has compassion on his children / so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; / for he knows how we are formed, / he remembers that we are dust (Psa 103:13–14). Jesus says it this way: If you then, though you are [in comparison to God] evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Lu 11:13).

Now, I’ve said all this to make one point: God is always at work for us to know him (because to know God is eternal life––salvation). There is no prayer that is not answered. 

Earthly fathers love their children and delight in giving good gifts to them. Good human fathers do not give their children “bad” things even if they foolishly ask for them. Neither does our Heavenly Father give us things which will be harmful to us. In our shortsightedness.... our weakness.... our stubbornness, we can find ourselves asking God for “snakes” and “scorpions” instead of “fish” and “eggs.” I may ask for a snake thinking it’s what I want, but God gives me a fish. I may wish for a scorpion believing it’s the right thing at the time (because the world can make harmful things look so good), but God still gives me eggs. God does not give us evil gifts when we ask for the good, but he does give us good gifts even when we seek what is harmful to us. When God answers our prayers the way we wish, it is because it fits with the way God wants us to know him. When God does not answer our prayers as we wish, it is because, if he did so, it would interfere with the way God wants us to know him. We need to understand that every true prayer we pray is actually our cry for God’s Spirit, and that is what the Father is always positively answering.

Jesus invites us to pray. He tells us how to pray. His Spirit is always drawing us to pray. Let’s not focus so much on what we think we want. Let’s renew each day the hunger and thirst of those first disciples and ask our Lord, teach us to pray.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ready For God’s Work

Wednesday: 17 July, 2013 –– 15th Week in Ordinary Time
Exodus 3:1–6, 9–12 / Matthew 11:25–27
Ready For God’s Work

There was a time when Moses thought he could help his people. He had been raised in Pharaoh’s household, yet had an empathy for the Hebrews. One day he intervened between an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave and killed the Egyptian. He had to run for his life (Exodus 2:1–15).

Moses had forty years of exile, tending his father-in-law’s sheep. It seems he had resigned himself to obscurity. Any grandiose ideas were long gone.

Then there was a burning bush––only it was not consumed. God, the Consuming Fire (Hebrews12:29), was manifesting himself. It was time for Moses to fulfill his calling.

It was then that Moses expressed one of the most important characteristics of godly leadership: Who am I....?  In other words, “I am not adequate for the job.” 

Whenever we think we are capable of doing God’s work, we are not. It is when we know that I can’t do this unless God helps me that we can be effective. If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor (Psalm 127).

This is one way to understand Jesus in today’s Gospel: Father.... you have hidden these things from the wise and learned [but] revealed them to the childlike.

We come to the Lord as little children, knowing we are helpless apart from his mercy, wisdom and power. Each day we pray, “I’m yours––do in me and through me what you will.”  Then we are ready for God’s work.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sodom Had No Bible

Tuesday: 16 July, 2013 –– 15th Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 11:20–24
Sodom Had No Bible

In today’s Gospel Jesus proclaims some bad news about the Good News. We like to hear from the Jesus who talks about love and models mercy, but the same Jesus said some hard things which are not popular and do not get much attention in “popular” Christianity.

We would like to dismiss the holiness and judgment of God. There seems to be a disconnect, even among some Christians, so that when the cross of Christ is in view we do not think immediately of God’s attitude toward sin.

Woe to you.... It’s not that God doesn’t love, but rather that there are people who will not receive the love of God. There were communities that rejected Jesus when he came among them. Jesus says the same witness among pagan Gentiles would have brought repentance. 

Then Jesus raises the Old Testament story of Sodom, one of the cities that was wiped out by literal fire and brimstone because of its wickedness. Jesus says that if Sodom had been given the same witness it would not have been destroyed, and that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for those who have been given explicit Truth and rejected it.

When I was a teenager in my mostly fundamentalist childhood church, the British evangelist Leonard Ravenhill came for a 10-day “revival meeting.” I was spellbound by his wonderful accent and found it easy to listen to his 90-minute sermons. One thing he said has stayed with me for the past 50 years: Sodom had no Bible.... and the judgment of a holy God fell upon its wicked depravity. We live in a land where biblical truth has been proclaimed again and again, and yet our society is increasingly rejecting God’s truth and embracing selfish pleasures that mirror the immorality and disregard for the poor that Scripture attributes to the fiery judgment on Sodom (see Genesis 18:20 & 19:4–6; Ezekiel 16:49,50; Jude 7).

Sodom had no Bible––no special revelation from God––but we have been entrusted with the oracles of God (Romans 3:2). May God have mercy on us.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Asking Right Questions

July 14, 2013 –– 15th Week in Ordinary Time
Luke 10:25-37
Asking Right Questions

It would be interesting to list all the questions asked in the Gospels. People asked Jesus questions. People asked questions about Jesus. Jesus asked questions. Sometimes the questions were sincere. Sometimes the questions were intended as a trap. Sometimes the questions were an avoidance technique––a ploy to avoid the real issue. Sometimes a question was used to take an issue deeper.

The man in this story was an expert in Old Testament law, and he thought he would "check Jesus out" (he stood up to test Jesus–v25).  He was not interested in finding out the answer to his question (which is the most important question there is: What must I do to inherit eternal life?); he was sure he already knew it. We in the Church can be like this Old Testament scholar. We have a faith tradition that is important to us. We need to be careful that we do not make the same mistake this man made: he thought the essence of religious truth was knowing right answers.

There is no disputing that he did know the right answer––he was orthodox. His answer was straight from Scripture: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Yet it is not enough merely to give right answers. There's a difference between words and deeds, and both have to ring true for our faith to be valid and worthwhile. If you and I are going to give good answers to life's questions, those who hear our answers are going to expect good actions to go along with our good words. That's why the secular world goes crazy when a church leader breaks moral integrity; it's such a discrepancy of words and actions. Our words and our deeds need to match.

Identifying with God's ways brings certain expectations. There are two ways to respond to the expectations that come out of an outward profession of faith. The first is illustrated by this “expert.” It is a calculated response. It is a self-justifying response. It is a response where a person wants to appear good, competent, and in control. A key disclosure in this story tells us: But he wanted to justify himself.... (v29). So he asked what he thought was an unanswerable question, Who is my neighbor?

Questions are good things when asked by people who are open to learn, but questions can also be a ploy used by devious people as an avoidance technique.  When questions are asked for the purpose of avoiding truth rather than seeking truth, no amount of intellectual brilliance can make up the deficit of a moral twist. St Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, referred to depraved people who are always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth (3:7). Putting on a facade of orthodoxy and piety does not absolve a person from the absence of inner graces. Raising question after question to avoid the implications of truth is a maneuver of deceit. "‘Struggling’ [with an issue] can sometimes be a nice word for postponed obedience" (Elisabeth Elliot).

This scholar, in spite of all his right (and very biblical) answers, was living by a minimalist standard. It's an attitude of heart that asks, "How little is good enough?" It's the attitude that turned the Old Testament into legalism. A person could do just enough not to break the Sabbath. Murder and adultery were carefully defined. An offended person meticulously counted the seven times forgiveness was required. And that same calculating attitude is with us today. How much of the truth can we withhold before it's a lie? What is the loosest boundary for sexual activity? How honest does a Christian business man need to be in a dog-eat-dog world? Do I have to go to church every week? If not, how frequently is enough? And how about money? Must I give a tenth? If I do, can I spend the rest the way I want to?

This scholar wanted a faith that was legitimized through right answers and a nice outward appearance. Jesus' story shows the opposite. Jesus never really answers the scholar's question. What it all comes down to is a heart of obedience expressed through mercy. Saying we have trusted Jesus doesn't mean much apart from a life that seeks to follow Jesus.

Yet, there will be questions. A life of faith is a life of genuine struggle, but the struggle and the questions will not come from a motivation that seeks self-justification, nor an attitude that wants to avoid inconvenient obedience. Those are the characteristics of spiritual death. The struggles and questions that come out of spiritual life are marked by humility, and their fruit is love and mercy.

The scholar began with a good and most important question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? For those who truly want to know, eternal life is something that exists right now in the lives of those who will embrace love and mercy. It's a way of life that has not changed, even since the days of the Old Testament when Moses gave the commands the scholar quoted. It's a response to God expressed by the prophet Micah: He has showed you, O man, what is good. / And what does the Lord require of you? / To act justly and to love mercy / and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). 
Are you living in an awareness of eternal life? If you are like “the Good Samaritan,” you love mercy; you act justly; you walk humbly. No, we don’t do that perfectly––but we want to. Jesus has opened the way. One answer to What must I do to inherit eternal life? is our own answer to the question: are you––am I––a neighbor? In Christian Faith, it is Jesus who leads us into the mercy that is eternal life.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Word of Peace

Tuesday: 2 July, 2013 –– 13th Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 8:23-27
The Word of Peace

When we face the various storms in life Jesus sometimes can seem "asleep in the boat" –– he is modeling his full trust fully in the Father and offering us the same opportunity. He wants us to “wake him” (i.e., turn to him) so he can answer our prayers. He wants us to ask him to calm the storms of our lives. So, like the apostles, we can turn to Jesus and pray, “Save us.” If we simply ask (and trust!), we find a peace that the world cannot give.

Jesus does this by his word because HE is the Word Incarnate. Sometimes this happens for us by a calming of the storm; other times Jesus gives us his peace in the midst of the storm as it rages. Either way, the result is the “peace that passes all understanding.”

Ask... Trust.... Find his peace....

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