Sunday, July 24, 2016

Regarding Prayer

July 24, 2106 –– 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Genesis 18:20–32 / Psalm 138 / Colossians 2:12–14 / Luke 11:1-13
Regarding Prayer

Today’s readings focus on prayer. Last Sunday’s Gospel told us the story about Mary choosing to spend time with Jesus instead of helping Martha with the serving.

What do you expect of prayer? Some people approach prayer with the theological sophistication of Huckleberry 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 fish-line, 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.

Haven't there been times when you felt that way? You asked God, praying quite sincerely for something, and it didn't happen. So prayer becomes a big mystery, and like Huck Finn, we can't "make it out no way."

The disciples recognized that Jesus was a man of prayer. Jesus once said, when fully trained, the disciple will be like his teacher (Lu 6:40). The disciples must have recognized that if they could follow Jesus in prayer, then they would grow to be like him. Jesus wants his disciples to follow him in prayer. So Jesus gives a story that, at the end, shows a contrast to the way we can easily think of prayer. There are three common misconceptions in this story Jesus gives.

The first is that prayer mainly rises out of desperation. The arrival of the late traveller caused the householder an embarrassing situation. Because the cupboard was bare he could not fulfill the sacred obligations of hospitality. He was desperate, so he went to a friend way past acceptable hours. Jesus is warning that it is easy to view prayer as begging and the last resort in a desperate situation.

That sets the stage for the second misconception about prayer, that prayer is an imposition on God. Certainly the request in Jesus’s story was an imposition on the friend.

In the east no one would knock on a shut door unless the need was imperative. In the morning the door was opened and remained open all day, for there was little privacy; but if the door was shut, that was a definite sign that the householder was not to be disturbed. But the seeking householder was not deterred. He knocked, and kept on knocking (William Barclay).

It was an imposition to go to the friend after bedtime. And sometimes we can feel that it's an imposition to go to God with our needs. We can feel guilty asking him for something, especially if we've allowed God to be distant and only go to him as a last-resort desperation.

Well, the man finally received what he wanted, but he did so on the basis of a third misconception about prayer, that earnest prayer is mostly persistent begging. We must be careful here because there is a legitimate persistency in praying––Jesus does say ask… seek… knock, but prayer is not just begging for something long enough to get it.

So what is prayer? Rather than a desperate last resort, prayer is the natural breath of a human spirit that was created to know God. Prayer is a way of always being in touch with our Father in heaven. Just as we breathe constantly, we are to pray without ceasing (1Thess 5:17). This is being persistent in prayer. We are have a standing invitation to confidently approach the throne of grace (Heb 4:16). We are given repeated assurance for coming to God: Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (Heb 10:22). Come near to God, and he will come near to you (Ja 4:8). The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer (1Pet 5:12a).

Jesus wants us to know that if an unwilling householder can finally be coerced by a friend's shameless persistence into giving him what he needs, how much more will God, who is a loving Father, supply all his children's needs? If human fathers know how to give their children good things, then how much more does our perfect Father in heaven know to give us good things! (But we must remember that God is the one who defines “good”.)

This brings up one other question about prayer: Why do we ask God for something when he is our perfect Father and already knows what we need? We do not pray because God needs to know. We pray because we need to have that kind of contact with our heavenly Father…. and he loves for his children to come to him. But, God has left the initiative up to us.

Yet our loving Lord has even provided for that initiative. The best gift from God is his Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus we are invited to believe that the Father gives us his Spirit so that we can both talk to him and know what to talk about. When that happens we are already on our way to being like Jesus–– being able to pray like Jesus prayed because we know the Father through the Spirit he has given us. So as we commit ourselves to have quiet time with God––to be like Mary with Jesus, and like Jesus with the Father––we come just as those first disciples when they said, Lord, teach us to pray…. If we ask that and mean it, we will be a praying people. We will become more and more like our Lord, and we will make a difference in our world.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Faith: Seeing Obstacle or Opportunity?

July 10, 2016 –– 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 30:10–14 / Psalm 69 / Colossians 1:15–20 / Luke 10:25–37
Faith: Seeing Obstacle or Opportunity?

There is a sense in which everyone is motivated by faith. Faith activates our will when we do anything. Reason usually provides a foundation, but then we take a step of faith. When we get into a car very few of us understand how the thing totally works, but we “believe” two things implicitly: we believe a car can actually transport us, and we believe––perhaps with greater faith––that we will actually arrive safely at our destination. If we did not believe those two things, we would not get into the car.

Sometimes people have warped perceptions that prevent them from taking a reasonable step of faith. When this happens, we call it a disorder. People who are afraid to go out into the “big world” often have agoraphobia. People who will not get in elevators can have claustrophobia. Acrophobia prevents many from flying or even going up into high-rise buildings.

This dynamic is true in the spiritual world. Faith is simply the way one sees and understands greater reality. When God’s revelation through Israel, and ultimately through Christ, is truly believed, the world and its issues are seen very differently in contrast to those who do not believe. Paul wrote to the Colossians, that in Christ Jesus all things were created through him and for him… and in him all things hold together. If we can’t “see” that, our lives will be disordered.

In C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia story, The Last Battle, the dwarfs are sitting inside a stable with all Narnia around them having just been renewed. They refuse to believe it. In their minds they are safely huddled inside a dingy stable and refuse to see anything else. They say, “The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. We won’t be taken in.” So Aslan (the lion King) explains: “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

We live in a world created by God. We are people who, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, have been loved and offered healing from all that hurts us. It is right here. The ancient words of Moses are even greater today than when he first gave them to Israel: this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off…. But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Christian Faith is a gift from God that is meant to open our eyes to an entirely new and different way of seeing. We are immersed in love and goodness. We are given every reason for hope.

Of course there is also pain, hatred, and evil. But it is important to understand that love and hate, goodness and evil are not equal competitors. Bad things exist because people, for now, are free to make choices in defiance of the love of God. God’s love is the ultimate reality. God’s love is what will endure. Faith is able to see this. That is why the greatest commandment is love.

Is it reasonable to have this kind of faith? Some say no, but two things support a reasonable Christian Faith. First, there is a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has not been able to be discredited or stamped out, despite intense effort, for almost two thousand years. Second, Christian Faith, rightly understand, best explains and answers the most basis issues and hardest questions of our existence. Those who are open to faith will increasingly “see” it.

When we exercise Christian faith, life begins to change. God’s kind of love starts to imprint our lives and affect the things we do. This is one way to understand Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan. Think about this contrast: Having or not having faith in God’s kind of love makes a difference between seeing either an obstacle or an opportunity. Luke tells us that the lawyer who questioned Jesus wished to justify himself. His world revolved around himself. He wasn’t really concerned with loving God; he wanted to look good. And so in Jesus’s story the priest and Levite, for all their outward stature as religious people, looked at the ravaged victim and saw an obstacle. Maybe helping would have made them late to an appointment they thought more important than giving love. Maybe they were afraid the same violence would happen to them if they tarried too long in the area in order to give love to the stricken man. Maybe they thought the wounded man just wasn’t worth it. All they saw was a situation that, if they got involved, would derail their own priorities. They saw an obstacle. 

The Samaritan, to put it simply, saw an opportunity to love. It’s relatively easy to talk about God’s kind of love. (And talk can be good IF if leads to appropriate action; that’s one reason we  have sermons and confess the Creed each week.) But truly choosing to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself will mean doing something…. something with two of the commodities we treasure most: our time and and our money. The Samaritan gave time and used his own money to help the man who had been assaulted.

If we choose to use our time and money to love in godly ways it is because our hearts are open to the reality of faith. We all make a choice of faith. We will either see the unpleasant things around us as obstacles which hinder our personal pleasure, or we will see them as opportunities to show the love of God. We all model a “faith” by what we do and how we do it.

Can we dare to believe, every day and all day, that we are immersed in love and goodness simply because God has given himself to us in Jesus Christ? Jesus is calling us to love like him and see the world around us as an opportunity to live in the love of God.

This past week our nation has been in shock at the recurring violence. What if all who profess faith in Jesus would simply choose to love like our Lord? Can you see it? It is not too hard for you, neither is it far off…. it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Keeping our hearts "above"

Thinking (and grieving) over the infiltration of "the world" into the way so many Christians today think, speak, and act. There is a loss of civility and a seeming ignorance of what was once basic morality.

Foul language is deemed common (and acceptable); nastiness toward others is justified by standing up for one's "rights". So much for the spirit of Jesus...

Perhaps a daily reading of Paul's exhortation to the Colossians would be helpful (this was written to CHRISTIANS):

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, when you lived in them.

But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator….

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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