Sunday, July 28, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 11:1-13

Luke 11:1-13
1 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.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5 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; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 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.’ 8 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. 9 “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 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 to those who ask him!”

The late Leonard Bernstein is one of the greatest American composers of the 20th Century. He is probably most famous for composing the music for the well-know musical West Side Story. But Bernstein did not just have some thoughts on music. He had some thoughts on faith too. Bernstein once said that the most troubling and disheartening language in the church, the hardest words to say during worship were not from the creed, “I believe in God…” I mean, even now when church membership and church attendance are on a downward slope, most people can say that they believe in something. No, the most difficult words are not “I believe…” says Bernstein. The most difficult words are…”Let us pray…”

And I don’t think Bernstein is alone. As I have said in recent weeks, I would bet most of us struggle with prayer at some point during our life time. And we struggle for any number of reasons…

One struggle is that there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day for prayer. Time is of the essence and there simply isn’t enough free time in the day. Therefore, prayer for many has been relegated to that time while waiting for the red light to change or for the drive-thru to move ahead. I can still remember in college being the busy student that I was, I would leave my prayer life for that time right before I would fall asleep at night. It seems that was the only time I could find to pray. However, each morning, I would wake up realizing that I had fallen asleep in the middle of my prayer. I hated that. A friend of mine reassured me that it was okay because I was falling asleep in the arms of God. The truth is, while that sounds nice, it never made me feel any better. I still fall asleep during my prayers. And I still hate it. Sometimes, the problem with prayer is that it can be hard to have enough time in the day to give it the attention it deserves.

But I suppose that is a rather simple problem. Other times, the problems with prayer are more complex. Sometimes we aren’t sure what kind of prayer the situation calls for. What do you do when the diagnosis is bad and the cancer has spread – do you pray for more time together, or do you pray that the end come quickly and painlessly?

And other time, when it comes to prayer, some of us are left wondering, why did I not get what I prayed for? Why couldn’t we have children? Why did I lose my job so close to retirement? Why can’t I control my anger? How come my child is making the same mistakes over and over again and risking his life? Did God not hear my request? Or was the answer simply, “No.” Does God care or is God a jerk?

There are all kinds of problems with prayer. If we spent enough time together, I’m sure we could come up with a much longer list than that.

But the truth is these problems with prayer are not new. In fact, they are old. Old enough to be found in Luke’s gospel, when the disciples were also struggling with how to pray. For it is in Luke’s text for us today where the disciples, who have been following Jesus around for the past 10 chapters or so, ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” The disciples. The ones who have been called to follow Jesus didn’t know how to pray! Which tells us you don’t have to know how to pray in order to be a follower of Jesus. The ability to pray is not a prerequisite to this whole Christian thing. Which is good news, because when it comes time for you to pray and you’re not sure what to say…then you are no different than Jesus’ closest friends. “Lord, teach us to pray.” they ask. And so do we. Lord, teach us to pray because we don’t always know how. Luke knows that there are problems with prayer.

And so it is out of this that the disciples, us included, are taught the Lord’s Prayer. And we are reminded that the Lord’s prayer doesn’t come from the catechism or from the hymnal. No, it comes from the Lord. Hence the name.

If you didn’t notice, the version of the Lord’s prayer found in Luke is a little different than we are used to. You and I are more likely familiar with the version found in Matthew’s gospel. To emphasize this, I’d like for us to say together the Lord’s prayer from our reading. So would you please begin reading with me in vs. 3, beginning with the word “Father” all the way through vs. 4. Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial. Amen.

These are the words that Jesus gives us to pray when we don’t know how to pray. And from the start, the prayer teaches us about who God is. Father, Jesus begins. God is a father, a loving parent. In fact, the Aramaic word abba, meaning dad or daddy. Contrary to popular opinion, the God found in Jesus is not a final judge who sits behind the bench, but rather God is father. God is mother. God is a loving parent. Whom we need not fear.

And then Jesus goes on, Father, hallowed be your name. And what I love about this is that it isn’t that we are supposed to keep God’s name holy. But that God is supposed to keep God’s name holy. Father, hallowed be your name. Hey dad, make your name holy. Live up to your name. Be who you are. Be a dad. Be a parent to us, Jesus teaches us to pray.

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. God, be who you are and your kingdom come. Make your kingdom come. Come here. What this prayer is saying is that the kingdom of God is not something that we go to when we die, but it is something that comes here to earth. When we pray your kingdom come, we pray not that we would go to God, but that God would come to us. To join us here. In this place and time, amidst all of our toils and troubles. That God would meet us here amidst car accidents and skin disease. Amidst empty crop fields and burned down homes. Amidst miscarriages and crushing debt. Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your kingdom come here. To be with us.

And what does it look like when God’s kingdom comes? The rest of the prayer tells us. It looks like hungry people being fed. Or as Jesus puts it, when people are given their daily bread. It looks like forgiveness being offered between people who are at war with each other. Or Jesus says, when our sins are forgiven, as we forgive those indebted to us. The coming of God’s kingdom will look those who are burdened under the great weight of suffering being rescued from their pain. Or in the words of Jesus, when the people of God are saved the time of trial.

Lord, teach us to pray, the people of God ask. And he does. Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.

That is the prayer that Jesus – the one we call Immanuel, the one who is “God with us” – would have us pray. Now, about once a month, I lead worship at the nursing home in Blooming Prairie. I always enjoy going over there. They are lovely people. However, it can be hard to lead worship, because almost every month, by the end of the service, at least half of the congregation is asleep. Which is okay. Because let’s be honest, sometimes some of you fall asleep in church too. And so do I. Or at least I used to, when I wasn’t the one leading worship.

But what never ceases to amaze me is the power of the Lord’s prayer to wake up just about anybody. At the nursing home, all I have to say is “Our Father, who art in Heaven…” and suddenly, everyone stirs to life. The whole room comes alive again and they all are speaking it with me. I have been with hospital patients who haven’t spoken a word for days and who are nearing death, but when the Lord’s Prayer is spoken, they mumble along. They can speak this prayer that sits deep within them, even when they can’t seem to speak anything else. That is the power of this prayer. This prayer that the Lord would have us pray. In the midst of our toils and troubles, it can remind us of who God is. It reminds God who God is to be. And in the right moment, it can bring us back to life. Amen.

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Sunday, July 21st, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 10:38-42

Luke 10:38-42

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Our gospel reading for today, if you didn’t notice, is quite short. Just five verses. Which is nice, I think. I can remember as a teenager grabbing the bulletin when I first got to church and immediately checking the length of the scripture readings. Any reading longer than 9 verses got a groan and an eye roll from me. So this one, just 5 short verses would have past the teenage angst test.

The problem is, though, now that I have the opportunity to preach on a short text, I don’t have a clue what to do with it. It seems so ordinary, so unimpressive that I am not sure what kind of blessing and good news can be squeezed out of such a small piece of fruit.

It is a story many of us have heard before. But even if we haven’t heard it before, we have likely lived it before. It is the story of two bickering siblings and their seemingly opposite nature.

Just after Jesus has finished telling the lawyer to go and show mercy to his neighbors, like the despised Samaritan showed to the man in the ditch, Jesus hits the road again. And along the way he is invited into Martha’s home. Almost immediately, we learn that Martha’s sister, Mary, is there as well. And almost immediately, she sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to every word he says like the disciple she will come to be.  Whatever Jesus was saying couldn’t have been that interesting or else Luke would have told us what it was. But he doesn’t. Instead the story turns quickly to Martha. Busy and hurried Martha, scrambling around the house pushing the dirty laundry out of sight, throwing away any rotten food that might be still sitting on the counter, and pulling together the nicest meal she can on such short notice. This wasn’t unusual. It was just the way of being hospitable. Not unlike it is today.

In fact, I can still feel the tightness in my chest that comes over me whenever someone makes a surprise visit to our home and we are terribly unprepared. You know, when it’s 2:00pm on a Tuesday and you are still in your pajamas. The doorbell rings and you just know it is a parishioner. And then as you are running around trying to find something to put on, stepping over piles of laundry while avoiding being seen in the windows, you begin justifying yourself – big deal if I am still in my pajamas. I didn’t have any meetings today and I am working from home. There is nothing wrong with this…now , jeans, jeans, jeans…where are my jeans?

Anyways. I digress. Back to Martha. Martha is simply trying to do what was expected of her, which was to offer hospitality to her guest. To offer a respectable home. But then her sister, Mary, is just sitting there not doing anything to help. But rather than speak directly to her sister, Martha decides to drag Jesus into this mess. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” We do that, don’t we? Rather than speak to the person we are actually angry with, we get others involved and on our side. And Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

As I said, even if this is the first time you’ve heard this story, I imagine it isn’t the first time you’ve experienced this story. Sibling rivalries simply brought on because one is not like the other. We know the Marthas and the Marys in our own life, don’t we? We are the Marthas and Marys!

Martha is the one who likes to be organized and well-planned out. Martha is the one who brings printed out copies of the driving directions for wherever you are going, or at least she already has it pulled up on her phone before departure. Martha is the one who is studying weeks before the test and is always getting straight A’s in school. But she’s also the one who has trouble sleeping at night because there is so much to do. She’s the one who for years has always responded to the question “How’s it going?” with, “Ugh. It’s such a busy time right now.”

Mary, on the other hand, is the dreamer. She is the one who stares out the car window for hours on a road trip without making a sound. She is the one who can’t seem to do any better than a B- in school, but she also knows how a lilac bush smells. Mary is the one who when told to clean up her room, takes three days to do it, because there are too many other things that are more interesting. Like the new birds nest being build behind the gutter on the back of the house.

We know the Marys and the Marthas. Which is what amazes me about this story. Just how ordinary it is. It is about people like us. There are no miracles in it. There is no great teaching that gets woven into church banners and hung on the walls. No demons are cast out. No sins are forgiven. It is simply about an ordinary family with problems just like everyone else. A family that doesn’t have it all together. A family that doesn’t always get along.

And so maybe that is the first piece of good news in this text. Jesus comes to visit ordinary families. Bickering families. Broken families. That we don’t have to have it all together before God will show up in our lives.

While that alone is enough good news for one day, the truth is some have had a very hard time with how Jesus responds to Martha in this story. They have said that Jesus scolds Martha. That he rebukes her. And since almost every single person I know (person, not just woman) seems to relate more with busy Martha than with lazy Mary, it is no wonder people have not liked Jesus’ response. No one wants to be scolded about how they are too busy and they just need to relax a little more. Especially not when you work the night shift followed by caring for your crying newborn as soon as you get home. Especially not when you are working two jobs, one in town and one in the cities, just to pay the rent. Especially not when your father is in the hospital and your kid has an away basketball game that she cannot miss or else she’s off the team.

Some have even argued that Luke must have something against active, working women with power. “(Because of this) he tells this story in which Jesus criticizes Martha, who is active and doing and working and in charge, and he praises Mary, who is passive and silent. What Luke is trying to do, these folk charge, is to put women back in their quiet and obedient places. But this view doesn’t really hold any water. Not only does it not square with Jesus’ view of women, it doesn’t even square with the rest of Luke’s Gospel either. Throughout Luke, women are not passive and silent; they are prominent, powerful, worthy, articulate, and celebrated.”[1] So I don’t think this story is about women, or anyone for that matter, needing to be less busy (even though we all could probably use it).

What interests me is that Jesus never tells Martha to come and sit down. He never says that she needs to stop doing what she is doing and to come and be like Mary. All Jesus does is point out to Martha that she is worried. And distracted in her work. There is only need for one thing, he says.  And Mary has chosen the better part.

What is the better part? I suspect it has something to do with being distracted and worried while in the very presence of God. Jesus knows that when we are distracted and constantly worried, we tend to miss the very God that is standing right in front of us. Let’s be honest, when we are distracted and worried, we are more likely to snap at a co-worker over nothing. When we are distracted and worried, we forget to call that very special person on their birthday. Again. When we are worried and distracted, we begin to think that’s all there is to this life – worry and distractions.

But if you can find a way to shake off those distractions and those worries, then you know what a gift it can bring. How you suddenly feel like you can breath deeper and like your eyes have just been opened for the first time in years. For it is when you are not distracted that you finally notice that the very fruit you are stacking at the local grocery store is not simply a tedious task, but is rather crucial to the feeding of hungry people. When you are not overly worried, your ears buzz when that person whose hair you are trimming says that she is going for a job interview later in the week. Which then leads you to do your best work of the day. When you are not worried or distracted, you can see for the very first time the person who sits alone at lunch every single day. And then choose to go sit with them. Those things, those experiences, are priceless. And can never be taken away from you.

Jesus is not telling Martha or us to quit all of our busy, busy, busy schedules. I think he is asking us to have a different perspective on them. To see them differently. To not be so worried and distracted by them, but rather to see how buried within them is the kingdom of God coming near.

How do you become less worried and distracted? I have no idea. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself. All I can say is, sometimes I think it begins by just trying it. Trying not to be worried. Trying not to be distracted. Sometimes, to make the work seem less like work, to make the worries go away, you have to start seeing differently. Sometimes you have to start seeing what you do, busy though it may be, as infused with the presence of God. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus proclaimed to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.” Blessed are your eyes. That see what you see! Because what you see contains the very kingdom of God coming near to this world.

Though it is short and perhaps not all that interesting, maybe there is good reason for why this story is in Luke’s gospel and in our cycle of readings. Because it is our much needed alarm clock. Our set reminder that goes off at least every three years to alert us to the fact that worry and distraction can be the very cause of spiritual blindness. Blindness to the very presence of God that will always, always, always be sitting right in front of you. AMEN

Sunday, July 14th, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 10:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

Luke 10:25-37

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

In the winter of 2007, an astonishing thing happened in New York City. A construction worker named Wesley Autrey was standing on a subway platform with his two young daughters, ages four and six, waiting on a train. Suddenly another man on the platform, apparently suffering from a seizure, stumbled and fell off the platform down onto the subway tracks. Just at that moment the headlights of a rapidly approaching train appeared in the subway tunnel. Acting quickly, and with no thought for himself, Wesley Autrey jumped down onto the tracks and he pressed the man into the hollowed-out space between the rails and spread his own body over him to protect him as the train passed over the two of them. The train cleared Wesley by mere inches, coming close enough to leave grease marks on his knit cap.

Almost immediately, and for good reason, Wesley Autrey became a national hero. People were deeply moved by his selflessness, and they marveled at his bravery. What Wesley had done was a remarkable deed of concern for another person. He had no obvious reason to help this stranger. He didn’t know the man. He had his young daughters to think about. What he did was at severe risk to his own life. But a human being was in desperate need, and Wesley saw it and, moved with compassion, did what he could to save him. “The Subway Superman”-that’s what the press called him, the “Harlem Hero.” But the headline in one newspaper described Wesley Autrey in biblical terms. It read, “Good Samaritan Saves Man on Subway Tracks.”[1]

This is a remarkable story, but when you think about it, to hear someone referred to as a Good Samaritan is not all that uncommon in our culture. Whether it is the person who stops for someone stranded on the highway or someone who chases down a purse thief, we all seem to have heard at least one story of a modern day Good Samaritan.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is certainly one of the most well-know stories from the Bible.  Virtually everyone knows it, or at least knows what it means to be a Good Samaritan. In fact, I would venture to say that we know this parable too well. Sometimes, when you become comfortable with a story, you can take it for granted. You can forget the details that make is so great to begin with. And the story can lose its punch. I think that is what’s happened with this story. It has lost its punch. It’s shock value.  And I think, it has lost the heart of its message.

Preachers will often turn this story into a moralistic tale about how we simply ought to go and help people.  “Will you be a Good Samaritan today?” they ask.  It becomes about how we should be polite and nice, and if someone seems in need of help, well then, we ought to help.  But the problem is…we all already know this.  We all are readily aware of what we should and shouldn’t do.  So I am not sure this story is simply about getting someone to be better a person and to do more good.

Thomas Long, a famous preacher, makes a good point.  If this story were really about simply being good and taking care of people, Jesus would have told the story differently.  He would have left out all of the business about the Samaritan.  He would have simply said, “A guy was lying in the ditch and three men passed by.  The first two didn’t do a thing and the third one did.  Which one was the neighbor to the man in the ditch?  That’s right, the third one.  Be like him.”  No need to say anything about the Samaritan at all and we can all go home.

But Jesus doesn’t tell us the story that way, does he?

Just after Jesus tells the lawyer that the way to life is to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself, the lawyer asks Jesus another question, “But who is my neighbor?”  It seems like the lawyer is trying to qualify the law.  As if what the lawyer is really asking is, “Who isn’t my neighbor?  Who don’t I have to love?” We do that, don’t we? Sometime we want to know the minimum amount of love we are asked to give.

And so Jesus tells him story about a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  The man is given no race, no religion, no regional distinction, and no indication of occupation, which means he could be any of us.   And on this road to Jericho, the man is stripped beaten and left for dead.  Then by chance, along comes a priest, an expert in the law of the Scriptures.  The priest sees the half dead man, and crosses to the other side of the road. Along comes a Levite, another expert in the law, who also sees the half dead man, and then crosses to the other side of the road, leaving him there.  And then….Jesus says, came a Samaritan. If you listen closely enough, you can hear everyone’s back straighten and their jaws clench.  Along comes a Samaritan – the enemy of the Jews, the hated, unclean one.  The ending of Jesus’ story is clear.  The Samaritan would be the one to help, the one to truly see the man in the ditch.  And not only would he help, but he would go above and beyond the call, by paying for this man’s lodging and other expenses, and even coming back to check on him.  A Samaritan becomes the hero of the story.  There is no way around it.  And yet, to combine hero and Samaritan would be like mixing oil with water.  They don’t go together.  It shatters the Jews moral universe because suddenly that which was bad is now good.

And then Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of the three was a neighbor?” The lawyer couldn’t muster the word Samaritan out of his mouth, so he resorted to, “The one who showed him mercy.”  The lawyer asked a question that would build walls – “Tell me who my neighbor is.  Define it for me, give me parameters.”  And in response, Jesus told a story that tore down all the walls.  A story in which the enemy becomes the hero, a story in which those listening are forced to see a different landscape.  A different view…a reality without walls.

So, do you know who your Samaritan is? Can you name the person or type of person whom you would never in your life want to receive help from? The person you would never want to help? And can you see them as a beloved child of God.

Can you see the people in this room, in this community as children of God and as your neighbor, whom you are called to love? The single mother living on welfare. The handsome man driving the Mercedes. The boring science teacher. The latino man working here illegally so he can send money home to his family. The woman in the rusted out 2-door sedan with bumper stickers that prove she is a socialist. Or the man in the truck with decals all about guns and loving America. Or the Muslim woman in her headdress who is weak in the knees from fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Can you see them? Can you see them as children of God?

But you see, I don’t think our eyesight is something easily changed. The kind of seeing Jesus asks of us can’t be changed with a new pair glasses. Rather it calls for a whole new set of eyes.[2] And sometimes the only thing that can give us just such a transplant is an experience in our own life of gracious and unexpected love.

For example, there is the story of Jack Casey. When looking at his life, Jack Casey had little reason to be a Good Samaritan. Casey was raised in a tough home, the child of an alcoholic father. He once said, “All my father ever taught me is that I didn’t want to grow up to be like him.”

But something happened to Jack when he was a child that changed his life, changed his heart. He was having surgery one day, and he was frightened. He remembers the surgical nurse standing there and compassionately reassuring him. “Don’t worry,” she said to Jack. “I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” And when Jack woke up again, she was true to her word and still there.

Years later, Jack Casey became a paramedic. One day he was sent to the scene of a highway accident. A man was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and as Jack was trying to get him out of the wreckage, gasoline was dripping down on both of them. The rescuers were using power tools to cut the metal, so one spark could have caused everything to go up in flames. The driver was frightened, crying out how scared he was of dying. Jack remembered what had happened to him long ago on the operating table, how that nurse had spoken tenderly to him and stayed with him, and he said and did the same thing for the truck driver, “Look, don’t worry,” he said, “I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” When I said that, Jack remembered later, I was reminded of how that nurse had said the same thing and she never left me. Days later, the rescued truck driver said to Jack, “You know, you were an idiot, the thing could have exploded and we’d both have been burned up!”

“I just couldn’t leave you,” Jack said.[3]

My prayer today is that each one of us might have just such an experience. An experience of being loved by an unlikely stranger when we’ve been beaten and stripped and robbed by this world, so that when we are walking on the dangerous road of life and we come across a stranger who is broken down and broken hearted, we too might be able to proclaim to them…”I just couldn’t leave you.”

Sunday, Jun 30, 2013 – Creation Untamed Sermon Series: God, Faith, and the Practice of Prayer

Friends, today, we move into our final session on God, the Bible, and Natural Disasters. We’ve been thinking about who God is and how God is active when it comes to natural disasters.

I think it is important for us to keep in mind, that we are not alone in our questions. Take a look at our first Scripture reading from Judges. Judges 6:12-13The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” Isn’t this the very same question that we have been asking? Again and again we learn, the Bible is not so much the book with the answers as it is the book with the questions.

Which is why we keep coming back to Scripture and as a result, we’ve come away with some things that we can hold on to. In the creation stories, we learned that creation is a messy process. It’s not perfect. But it is good. We also discovered that God likes to share power. God doesn’t want to be the one with all the power in the room. As a result, creation is given power to create along with God. Then and now we are partners with God in creating this world.

From the story of Noah and the Ark, we found that God is not a cold-hearted judge behind a bench, but a grieving parent of an unruly and wild creation. Additionally, God promises that God will never destroy creation again – because it is better to live with a good but imperfect world than no world at all. In Job’s story, we learned that while we are co-creators with God, creation is beyond human understanding. That we can never fully understand its power and thus we can be hurt by it. We also came away with the understanding that much like a parent, God allows for the possibility of suffering to also make room for the possibility of life. Remember, so many of the things that give us life (water, gravity) can also harm us.

Finally last week, we learned that God is not unaffected by the world. For the sake of the relationship with creation, when creation suffers God suffers. Because God has chosen to suffer with others, as a way of bringing about healing, perhaps we are called to suffering alongside others as well.

Today, we turn to the topic of prayer. It seems to be that whenever something disastrous happens, especially a natural disaster, almost everyone is moved to pray. Even those who do not claim to be people of faith. Some of these prayers are prayers of lament or sadness over what has just happened, others are prayers for God to act and intervene for those who are involved. To deliver the people from their suffering.

I would say that sometimes our understanding of prayer can be like that of a vending machine. Whenever we want something, we go up to the God-machine, put in our prayer money, and expect to have what we want come out (parking space, sunny day for a baseball game, our sports team to win) and when we don’t get what we want, we kick and shake the God-machine and say it is broken.

Which then leads us to ask: What effects do our prayers have? Can they prevent a disaster from happening? Can prayer change the direction of a tornado? It has been reported that the people on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center were praying. “Were their prayers not answered because they didn’t have enough faith? Was it God’s will and desire that these people die in such a way? Or was God’s will resisted by the hijackers of the planes?”(Fretheim, p. 127)

One critic of prayer once said prayer is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.

Because of all of these questions, when it comes to prayer, I think we are often unsure of what to say. And often times I think that leads many of us to not pray. Have you ever been in this situation, where someone asks if someone would pray before dinner, say at Thanksgiving, and NOBODY speaks up. I get the sense that it is usually because we don’t feel comfortable praying. Certainly not in front of others. Why? Because we think there is a right way to pray and we don’t want to get it wrong. Or we are not sure how it works. I still feel that. I always get nervous to pray in front of people. In fact, I was asked a couple of times by the cast of our musical to pray before a performance. I’ll be honest, I was more nervous to pray in front of the cast than to walk out and sing in front of the audience.

Throughout Scripture we can see that the basic understanding of prayer is that it is communication between God and the people of God. It is part of the relationship. Yet, it can be important to ask: how would you define your relationship with God? Because that’s going to impact how you talk to God, just like it impacts how you speak to a teacher, your mother, your best friend, a stranger. What is important about prayer is the kind of God you are praying to. How you imagine God will affect how you pray. For example, you may imagine God as the absent father. Calls are seldom returned and not much gets done. Or what if God is like your buddy, whose always happy and never has anything negative to say to you? Or what if God is like superman/superwoman who hears the prayers of those in trouble and, faster than a speeding bullet, is able to accomplish anything and everything.

Truth be told, scripture gives us a different image of God to work with than these.

We asked this earlier about power, but we will ask it again, only a little differently. What kind of a relationship would it be if only one person in the relationship was allowed to speak? If only one person had anything of value to say? Again, that would be an unequal, maybe even abusive, relationship. But with prayer, both God and the human are allowed to speak. “God so enters into relationships that God is not the only one who has something important to say. God knows that communication is key to a healthy relationship. And so prayer is God’s gift for the sake of meaningful interaction with human beings in relationship.”(p. 133) Whenever I do pre-marital counseling with a couple, we usually meet for about 12 hours over the course of 5 sessions or so. And I always think that we could talk the whole time about communication and it would be time well spent. Think about how hard communication is in every day relationships with those you love – your spouse, your sibling, etc. And so communication with God can be difficult as well. But it is still crucial to the relationship.

God has created a world in which we are all related. It has been said that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa, it can affect the weather in Kansas. So what happens if I pray for something to God and someone else prays the exact opposite? What if I am hoping to get a job and so is someone else? Both are praying to get the job? What is God to do? Even God is caught in this interconnected web of creation.

Now, when it comes to how God might respond to prayer, there is no one-answer. The Bible is quite varied in fact. The bible suggests remarkably different ways in which God responds to prayer: “through words spoken by certain people; words in the night, perhaps through dreams; words spoken more directly into a prophet’s mind, words that suddenly right there. Or more subtly, an individual may not hear a word or think a thought, but has a feeling, perhaps of agitation, or a sense of something wrong or out of place. Or perhaps a feeling of peace of calm.” (Ibid)

Have you ever had an extraordinarily vivid dream that seems to speak to your life at that moment? Might that be God speaking to you in response to prayer? Or have you ever heard someone say something that spoke to you in just such a way that it caught your attention? Might that be God speaking to you? Responding to prayer.

Now when it comes to prayer, the form of communication between God and the people of God, God is taking a risk. Because it is possible for us to give God the silent treatment.

Take a look at Isaiah 65:1-2: I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on my name. 2I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people.

Giving God the silent treatment can reduce God’s possibilities in communicating with you. It seems to be that God actually wants us to pray. Desires it. We might even be able to say that God accomplishes less if we don’t pray.

Now, the form of prayer that I think most of us are used to is called intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer. Prayer on behalf of others. Sometimes we think in order for this to make a difference, the other has to know we are praying for them. But not according to Scripture. When we pray for others, it has an effect on them and an effect on God. “God’s own future is changed in some ways because of the prayers of the intercessor. God will now do one thing rather than another that God has planned to do.” (p.143)

Let’s take a look at Exodus 32. Exodus 32:7-14
7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< 9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

In Exodus 32, Moses is arguing for God to be reasonable. Moses is reminding God of God’s promise to God’s people. And God changes God’s mind!

What is happening here “is that certain matters are being forcefully articulated by (Moses) with whom God has established a close relationship. Because God values the relationship with Moses, (Moses’) prayer changes the decision-making situation from what it was before the prayer…God is open and willing to change directions. Human prayer can help to shape the future. The possibilities for the future are more open-ended.” (pg. 143-144)

When thinking about the future of the world, we could say that prayer gives God new information with which to work. Information that God didn’t have before. In the case of Exodus 32, God didn’t have the insight and energy that Moses brought to the situation until Moses spoke, or prayed, them to God.

So what we have to say counts with God; what we have to say makes a difference in the situation with God.

Since we have a shared relationships with God, in which what we say and what we do matters to God. Where we also have power. We must take into account the possibility of human interruption of God’s hope for the world. Might we be able to interrupt God’s response to prayer. For example, I recently heard about a man who was very, very sick and it turns out he was prescribed all sorts of medicines he shouldn’t have been on. So could it be possible that a doctor made a mistake and as a result was preventing the healing that God was hoping to bring about? Or as we all are praying for a person before they go in for surgery, and yet the doctor had too much to drink the night before, could it be the decisions of the doctor prevent the prayers from taking root?

Sometimes there is more at work besides our prayer and God, and that can have an effect on a situation. There are actions of others that can disrupt our prayers.

What we learn about prayer is that what we have to say matters to God. Prayer is the way of communicating with God. And prayer is the way in which we can make a situation more open for God. To give God more room to work. “God is open to taking new directions in view of new times and places; God is open to changing course in view of the interaction within the relationship, including prayers. Yet, never changing will be God’s steadfast love for all, God’s saving will for everyone, and God’s faithfulness to promises made. God will keep promises.” (p. 147)

When it comes to natural disasters, our prayers may be the way in which God gets more done in bringing about healing in the world. We have learned that God so values creation. So values us that God invites us into the life of the world, where what we say and do matter for God and for the future of the world.

But in the end, God is not off the hook. When it comes to suffering in this world, especially with natural disasters, God holds the responsibility. No, I do not believe that God mapped out the path of those tornadoes in Oklahoma, killing some and sparing others. But because God created this world with the possibility for natural disasters, then God holds some responsiblity for the pain and suffering that the world has experienced. This is the risk that God takes in creating a world in which power and creativity is shared. God knows this. And as a result, God suffers too. Indeed, God’s heart is the first to break; God’s tears are the first to flow whenever creation suffers.

I find Jeremiah helpful at this point. Jeremiah 42:10 10If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.

God does not shy away from the responsibility. Rather God owns it. And God says, “I’m sorry. I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.” Such is the risk of the kind world that God has created; the kind of world that God loves so much. AMEN

 

*Note: Much of this sermon was influenced by the 5th chapter of Terry Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed.