Teach us to Pray – Luke 11:1-13

PastorSteveA few weeks ago a friend asked me one of those since-you’re-a-pastor kind of questions: “Do you pray every day?” My first answer was, prepare to be shocked here, “no.” Then I gave a second answer, “Actually yes, but it might not look like what you’re thinking.” I’ll explain that answer later.

John Shelby Spong told the story of his first wife’s battle with cancer. Because he was the Bishop of Newark, a lot of people knew of her struggle and as he travelled around to congregations he was frequently told that the people were praying for her. Once, after she had outlived her prognosis by several months, one member of a congregation assured him that his wife was alive because they had been praying for her. It made him wonder if anyone knew that the wife of his janitor also had cancer; would she die sooner because not as many people were praying for her?

Spong’s story got me thinking and reading a great deal about prayer. One thing I noticed in particular is that books about prayer often have the word “power” in the title, or at least as a chapter. Prayer must be about power. But then I looked at the prayers of Jesus and they seem to be about the surrender of power.

In this week’s gospel, one of Jesus’ disciples asks him to “teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” I, of course, want to know what John taught but all Luke gives me Jesus’ answer. You will note that it is not quite all and not quite the same words as “The Lord’s Prayer.” There is another version in Matthew, longer and also not quite the one you know. There is a whole lot of reasons why the one you know is not exactly like Luke or Matthew’s versions, but I’ll save that one for another time.

In his Large Catechism, Luther wrote that each individual portion of the prayer (he divided it into seven petitions followed by a conclusion) was an adequate prayer on its own. Author Anne Lamott characterized the essentials of prayer in only three words: help, thanks, and wow (she wrote a book by that title).

So back to my answer, “yes, but it might not look like what you’re thinking.” I have abandoned the idea of “Santa Claus God” (I don’t recite my wish list), I also do not feel the need to grovel (“I am not worthy”) or butter-up (“you are to be praised”), and as for power – not all that interested in it. Nonetheless, a lot of stuff runs through my mind, including that which worries me, and I wonder what I can do with the worry. And prayer takes place in more places than I imagined: reading, listening to music, playing music, enjoying a fine supper, floating in the pool late at night looking at the stars. What I have noticed, is that my actions tend to follow my thoughts and concerns, and maybe that is the whole point.

 

Here is a quote from 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard:

“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”

The Boat that will Never Sail – Colossians 1:15-29

PastorSteve   Perhaps you have seen something in the news about the Noah’s Arc park, located in Kentucky, a handful of miles south of Cincinnati. At 510 feet long and 85 feet wide, it is a big boat, but of course, barring a flood of biblical proportion, it is never going to float.

The arc has been a source of some controversy. The state of Kentucky offered an $18 million tax break and the small town where it is located approved a $65 million bond issue which raised separation of church and state issues. Its not something I particularly want to see, I like the boats that actually sail, but I don’t think I feel like shouting at someone for wanting to see it.

Unlike Ken Ham, who started the whole project, however, I do not think it will be “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era of history.” The arc in Kentucky is called a replica, and indeed it is proportioned roughly the same as the measurements in the book of Genesis, but given that no original exists how could it be a replica? As a naval architecture novice, I am not sure it is sea-worthy and I wonder how it could contain 2 of each of the 8.7 billion known species of the world (emphasis on the word “known,” more are being discovered). That’s a lot of critters.

And that brings me to the question: why? What you focus on determines what you miss. By building a big boat, the flood story (which by the way has variants in multiple ancient cultures) ceases to be a poetic metaphor for the relationship of creator and creature and the interdependency of it all and becomes a “proof,” or a replica if you will of something that likely never existed beyond the imagination.

And that brings me to why St. Paul was so focused on the cross. In his time and place, the cross was a symbol of Roman torture technology and imperial domination theology. It was Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome in lumber that stood as a warning to anyone foolish enough to challenge the total control of the empire. It was like a billboard on the road into every major city that read, “Fear This.”

What Paul and the early Christian movement did was turn the cross on its head. The peace of Christ comes on that very same cross, and boldly declares that even death, let alone the empire, does not get the final word. The kingdom of God is not about domination, intimidation and scapegoating, it is about vulnerability, forgiveness and acceptance. What you focus on determines what you miss. Do you focus on the cross as an instrument of death or a liberation to more abundant life?

 

Here is a quote from 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together:

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.”

Thoughts and Prayers – Colossians 1:1-14

PastorSteveWay back in 1966, Stephen Stills – then part of Buffalo Springfield – wrote “For What it’s Worth.” “There’s something happenin’ here/what it is ain’t exactly clear/there’s a man with a gun over there/tellin’ me I got to beware.” It has been another week of troubling violence in our country; something is definitely happening.

In Baton Rouge, a suspect who was apparently pinned by two police officers was shot 6 times and died at the scene. In St. Paul a car was pulled over for a faulty taillight and as the passenger was reaching for his driver’s license, he was shot a killed. Both incidents were videoed and both involved young, African American men and white police officers.

During a protest in Dallas related to police shootings, at least one sniper shot 11 police officers, five of them died. Something is definitely happening, and it is disturbing all around. I will make no effort to offer a simple solution because it does not exist. Unfortunately, the internet has become the tool of those who want to generalize to entire populations: all cops are racists, the reason young men of color are 21 time more likely to be shot by police than white young men is that they commit more crimes. Neither of those things is true, not even remotely.

The Internet is also lighting up once again with commitments of “thoughts and prayers.” I suppose these things are sincere expressions from those who at very least, want to do something. But I also wonder if thoughts and prayers have simply become the instant conditioned response to events that really should disturb us deeply.

There’s something happening here, and while I imagine the problem has multiple causalities and the solutions are equally complex, at the core of it is a breakdown of community. Far from loving our neighbors, we are conditioned to be suspicious and fearful of them, and that is no way to live. We need more than just thought and prayer, we must strive to live in a way that draws us to one another rather than keeping the other at arm’s length. Paul encourages the Colossians to “lead lives worthy of the Lord.”

It is easily said, not so easily done. It is not so easily done because it demands that we make ourselves vulnerable, less insulated, and more available to each other as a way of building community. It is so much easier to point fingers, identify the culprit and then distance us from it all as someone else’s problem. It is so much harder to accept that all of the victims are us; all of the shooters are us; these things are happening in our family, we do not have the luxury of ignoring it. “There’s battle lines being drawn/nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

 

Here are words of peace from Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu, 6th Century BCE:

If there is to be peace in the world,

There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,

There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,

There must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,

There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,

There must be peace in the heart.

Are you willing to become sound? – John 5:1-9

PastorSteveI probably do this too often and I am far from a Greek scholar, but this is one of those weeks that I really have to quibble with the translation. The location is the Sheep Gate, the point of entry into the temple of livestock being brought for sacrifice. It is also the location of a swimming pool called Bethesda that was believed to have curative properties. Because of that, it was a gathering place for the sick and disabled.

It was also a place for the culture’s disposable people. Because illness and disability were viewed as a form of divine punishment, those that gathered at Bethesda were unclean and thus cut off from community. One could argue that being cut off from community was the definition of illness rather than the result of it.

Jesus encounters a man lying there who has been ill for 38 years and he asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” Here is where I quibble. First of all, what person who had been ill for 38 years and trying to get to the front of the queue for the healing pool would not give an eager “yes” to that question? If you have ever dealt with chronic illness, you know that there is a difference between wanting to be well and doing the things that can optimize your health.

And that is why I would translate Jesus’ question, “Are you willing to be made sound?” There are two big reasons why I like my translation better. The first is about the word “sound.” Sometimes we get too caught up in the “miraculous healing” part of these stories. Sound implies a larger kind of restoration; more than his physical well-being, sound restores him to his place in the community.

The second reason has to do with, “are you willing?” Being made well makes the man a passive recipient. Jesus wants to know if he is willing to be made sound; to be restored; to do the things he will have to do to return to his place, especially after so many years.

Years ago, I was the family therapist at a chemical dependency hospital. Part of my job was working with clients and their families as discharge was approaching. It sounds counterintuitive, but a big challenge facing people in recovery is fitting in with family and friends as a sober person. Often there was pressure to return to using because that was the more predictable (or predictably unpredictable) person they were used to.

Did they want to be made well? Certainly. Were they willing to become sound? That is an entirely different and difficult question to answer. And to put the punctuation point on it, Jesus tells the man to take up his mat and walk. Can we me made whole? Can we be restored? Yes, but are we willing to become sound?

 

In honor of all those who face the daily challenge of becoming sound, here is a prayer attributed to 20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

For Doubters and Dreamers – The Great Three Days

PastorSteveOn summer evenings at my grandparents’ lake cottage, there was terrible televisions reception and too many mosquitoes to go outside so card games were the usual fare. Sometimes it was Hearts with two decks of cards because there were so many players and sometimes it was just the kids playing Spoons or I Doubt It.

The latter of the three, as I think back, probably helped develop a terrible skill for children because to be successful you had to become a pretty convincing liar. The object of the game is to run out of cards first laying down your cards in sequence, or drawing from the deck if you don’t have a card to play. Or, you could lie. Play a card and declare it to be the one to play. Another player could challenge you: “I doubt it.” If caught, you had to pick up all the cards on the table. But if you told the truth, the doubter had to pick up the cards.

Each year at Holy Week, we tell the same story. It is filled with intrigue. There is love and betrayal, schemes and hidden agendas, cruelty and compassion and it ends with one of the great plot twists of all time. And each year, at least in my lifetime, there has been a movie or two designed to “prove” that the story is more than story: it is history.

I like to think that it is more than history: it is a story. And frankly, I really don’t care what bits of the story actually happened and what bits of the story were told because words could not actually describe what happened. In his book, “Zealot,” Reza Aslan writes of many religious leaders that came and went in the same period as Jesus. He writes of the ones who at least made it into a historical footnote, who knows how many didn’t even get that far?

So what is it about this story that has endured so many years and is still told today? Esperanza’s Thursday Bible Study group took a look at historical creeds earlier this year, and then we wrote our own: “The Thursday Creed.” I like a lot f things about it, so did our Confirmation class who compared it to the Apostle’s Creed last week.

The part I like the most is the description of God: “We believe that God is eternal and everlasting and cannot be contained by words.” Something happened long ago that was life changing, history changing and world changing. Many tried, and did the best they could, but language was simply not able to describe it, explain it, contain it. It is an experience for doubters and dreamers. Perhaps we can capture just a bit of it this week.

 

Here is a prayer for doubters and dreamers from 20th Century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

Provoke and Encourage – Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25

PastorSteveFor most of us, the word provoke carries a negative connotation. It is what I used to do, often in very subtle ways, to irritate my brother until he would finally haul off and slug me. Then of course, I would run to my mother: “he hit me!” That was the way the game of little brother was played.

            The writer of Hebrews had something very different in mind. Provoke does mean to do something that results in a responsive action from another but it is not the kind of action my brother took. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” It is definitely a different kind of provocation.

Furthermore, it isn’t just provocation, it is also encouragement. I got news this week that one of my favorite teachers died. He had a long teaching career that was marked by both provocation and encouragement. He had said that the job of a teacher is not to teach people what to think but rather to teach them how to think.

One of the things we had to do in his classes was write a research paper. It was how I learned to navigate through the card file in the library (those of you who do not know that a card file is should ask your parents). He really didn’t care what the topic was; the rumor was that he liked unusual or offbeat topics. What he did expect is that you would defend your thesis and thoroughly document your sources.

I still have my term paper on the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, and a wider conspiracy to take over the government to derail Lincoln’s reconstruction plans in favor of punishing the south for the war. I kept it because my teacher loved it. He had provoked and encouraged.

I sometimes wonder why congregations have mission statements. I can not imagine a better one: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

 

Here are some provocative and encouraging words from 20th Century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

Oreos and Manna – Numbers 11:4-29

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

This week the satirical website “The Onion” posted a photo of Pope Francis holding a package of Oreos in each hand with the headline, “Pope Francis Reverses Position on Capitalism After Seeing Wide Variety of American Oreos.” It caused me to remember complaining to my mother about the home made cookies in my lunch and wondering why I couldn’t have store bought like the other kids.

In our culture, the word “blessing” almost always means something good, and usually in abundance. That may not be the biblical meaning of the word. The Israelites seemed to have quickly forgotten about slave labor and captivity because it didn’t take long for them to start complaining about the lack of food during the Exodus. Even when they got all the manna they could eat, the complaining went on: fond remembrances of fish and cucumbers and leeks and garlic.

The people complained about their abundance to Moses and Moses passed it on to God. “Why have you treated your servant so badly?” he moaned. “Let me die.” Moses had been reluctant to be in charge in the first place. Perhaps he knew just how whiney people get, even when they are being led to freedom. God responded with sarcasm. They want meat they will get meat, “until it comes out your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.”

Touring Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood as a first year seminarian in the late 1970’s, I was shocked at the shabby conditions and the widespread poverty. My teacher, Rev. Roberto Navarro told me that God does not always judge with scarcity, sometimes God judges with abundance.

One does wonder sometimes if our abundance is a blessing or a curse or if it has the potential to be both. For his part, the Pope decided not to have lunch with leaders on Capital Hill. Instead he blessed a meal for needy and homeless people at Washington’s Saint Maria Meals. They had brownies for desert, but he was too busy talking with the people to sit down to lunch.

 

Martin Luther said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” Pope Francis blessed the meal in Washington with only two: “Buon appetito.”

Pardon our Mess(iah) – Mark 8:27-38

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he is asking them what they tell others about him. Peter chimes up, “You are the Messiah.” Of course, two seconds later he tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” Change of heart? I don’t think so. What I think is that Jesus wasn’t entirely comfortable with Peter’s answer. I think that because he sternly tells the disciples not to tell anyone.

The word messiah comes from the Hebrew word meaning “anointed.” In ancient Judaism the word tended only to apply to the Davidic kings and the High Priest. Following the exile however, new ideas emerged about what a messiah would be like. Having endured generations of exile and ruin, an image of a vindicating king who would smite Israel’s oppressors and restore a never-ending kingdom began to emerge.

While I don’t think Jesus rejected Peter’s answer, I also don’t think he wanted to create the expectation that he was that kind of messiah. His announcement that the Son of Man would have to be rejected, suffer, die and be resurrected was intended to indicate what kind of a messiah he was. Peter’s disappointment was just the sort of thing Jesus sought to avoid.

In fact, Jesus is pretty much the opposite of the conquering king messiah; his power does not come from armies and weapons. He pushes the disciples to think beyond this world’s vision of power and authority, to gain the things that can only be gained by giving them away.

 

As we observe the 14th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, here is the familiar prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226):

 

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

 

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Yes the Cart Goes In Front of the Horse – Mark 7:1-23

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

I don’t know how many Pharisees there were in the first century. And I don’t know how many how many went around kvetching about the stuff Jesus did and said but I think it was probably just a few. There were others who were probably kvetching about the stuff that other non-authorized leaders were doing and saying and then there were some, maybe even most, who found nothing to kvetch about.

In Mark’s story, the ones with Jesus were upset that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands. But let’s be clear, this story was not about dirty hands. No one was concerned about the spread of the common cold. This was about tradition. The hand washing had long since ceased to be about hygiene. And if those grumbling Pharisees demonstrate Jesus’ cavalier attitude toward “the way it’s always been,” maybe others would stop paying him attention.

And really, it wasn’t so much about the law and tradition so much as it was the way he was always leaning toward the culture’s most disagreeable sorts. The long-standing tradition was clear: if there was to be any kind of forgiveness at all, there first had to be repentance. All those rules (and there’s 613 of them) were there to show you just how messed up you really were and just what you had to do to get un-messed.

Jesus went and put the cart before the horse. The Pharisees were like the demonic schoolmaster in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” screaming, “You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat.” You have to follow the rules before you can be part of the community. Jesus turns it on its head, and all the wrong sorts are welcome to the table, even those with dirty hands.

Sadly, much of Christianity has yet to get that message. “Repent and be saved” they shout. Jesus did the salvation part first. We are invited to the table of grace with dirty hands, and nourished by the bread and wine we are finally freed to seek to be what we were created to be.

 

Amelia Boynton Robinson died this week at the age of 104. She was nearly beaten to death as she marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma Alabama in support of the Voting Rights Act in what has been called “Bloody Sunday.” Last March, she crossed the bridge again, 50 years later, this time in a wheel chair, holding the hand of the United States’ first black President. In an interview last December she said, “Only until all human beings begin to recognize themselves as human beings will prejudice be gone forever. People ask me what race I am, but there is no such thing as race. I just answer: ‘I’m a member of the human race.’ ”

The Whole Megillah – John 6:56-69

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

The jazz standard, “Body and Soul” has been around since 1930. It has been recorded by legends such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, and as recently as 2011 as a duet by Tony Bennett and the late Amy Winehouse. The titular phrase, body and soul meant everything, completely in, the whole megillah. In case you’re not familiar with that last one, megillah is the Hebrew word for scroll. On Purim, the entire scroll of the book of Esther is read. The whole megillah.

And since we’re on the subject of Hebrew, there is a Hebrew idiom, flesh and blood, that means the entire person, the whole megillah. As much as you wanted to strangle a member of your family, you couldn’t because they were your own flesh and blood. They were part of you. You were a part of them, flesh and blood, the whole megillah.

For five weeks now we have been in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John in which Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as the bread of life. The setting for chapter six is the Passover and the people were no doubt thinking about the story of the Exodus. Jesus is portrayed parallel to Moses, and something more than Moses. Both go to the wilderness, both go up a mountain, both attract large crowds. Most of all, both see to it that the crowds are fed. In the Exodus story, Moses prays and after the dew burns off, a flaky sweet bread-like substance called manna appears (I like to think it was baklava, but I digress).

Jesus takes the comparison further: he not only provides the bread, he claims that he is the bread. He doesn’t just encourage the people to eat the bread that is him, he tells them to devour it, wolf it down, consume the whole megillah. flesh and blood, body and soul. Is it a metaphor? Yes, certainly, but it is also more than a metaphor.

Years ago, I had a parishioner comment that I wore “clunky” shoes.” When I asked her to repeat, she told me that when she knelt for communion all she could see was my clunky shoes. I told her that she needed to accept the challenge of thinking about something other than my footwear at the Lord’s Supper.

So what do you think about? Is it just another thing that we do because we have always done it? Or are you fully consuming the whole megillah? Do you take communion and then are done with it for another week, or are you devouring every morsel of who and what the Christ of God is; does he become a part of you? As for that everlasting life, it isn’t something you have to die to experience, it is happening right now.

 

Here is a prayer of St. Basil of Caessarea, a bishop in Asia Monir in the fourth century:

O Master, Christ our God, King of the ages, and maker of all things: I thank thee for all the good things which thou hast bestowed upon me, and for this partaking of thine immaculate and life-giving Mysteries. Wherefore I pray thee, who art good and lovest mankind: Keep me under thy protection, and in the shadow of thy wings; and grant unto me with a pure conscience and even unto my last breath, to partake of thy holy Mysteries, unto remission of sins and unto life everlasting. For thou art the Bread of Life, the Fountain of holiness, the Giver of good things, and unto thee we ascribe Glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

 

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