Sunday, June 12th, 2016 – Sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3

If you find yourself on this blog, I encourage you to first spend your time reading Emmy Kegler’s blog post. Her voice and her words on this are much more important than mine.

Audio will be available soon.

Luke 7:36-8:3
7:36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 8:1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Early on in the gospel of Luke, during Jesus’ first sermon, quoting the book of Isaiah, he says this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.” In fact, just a few verses before our gospel reading today, Luke writes about what Jesus has be doing in his ministry and Luke says, “Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind.” Clearly, there is a theme here both in Luke and in Jesus’ life – that part of Jesus’ ministry in this world is to those who are blind, so that they may see again.

I want you to hold on to that as we enter into the gospel reading again.

Our reading begins this morning with Jesus accepting an invitation to a Pharisees’ house for dinner. Now, remember, the Pharisees were the ones who were always out to get Jesus. They were always trying to trap him with the law, and complaining about whom he eats with. And so the very fact that Jesus says yes to this dinner invitation is an act of remarkable grace.

But that’s just the beginning of the grace to found in this story. Because in the middle of dinner, a woman from the city, who was a sinner, interrupts the meal, and kneels at Jesus’ feet, weeping. She bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. And then she kisses his feet and anoints them with oil.

Now this act of extravagant love and affection and gratitude…well this greatly disturbs Jesus’ host – the Pharisee. Because he knows what kind of woman this is. And he discerns that Jesus must not be a prophet, because if he were, he would know exactly what kind of woman this person is and would never let himself be touched by her.

Sensing this dis-ease in the Pharisee, Jesus says, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And then Jesus tells him a parable. Two people are both in debt and they can’t repay it. One has a debt of $5,000, the other of $50,000. Both debts are forgiven. Who would be more grateful?

The Pharisee knows the answer –the one with the greater debt would be more grateful.

Jesus agrees and then he asks him a question. And this question, I think, is the heart of this story – Simon…do you see this woman? Do you see her?

Remember, part of Jesus’ ministry to restore sight to the blind.

Simon, do you see this woman?

Which, of course, the answer is….no. He can’t see her. And what we learn is that we can have fully functioning eyes and still be blind to what Jesus wants us to see. Simon was blind to this woman. He couldn’t see her. All he could see was her sin. All he could see was her history. All he could see was her past. He couldn’t see her. He couldn’t see her humanity. He couldn’t see her present reality. He couldn’t see that from the moment she walked in she was showing love and gratitude, which if you remember from the parable is the result of forgiveness. Which means maybe she didn’t enter this house as a sinner. Maybe she entered it as a new creation. As a new person with a new future, having already been forgiven by Jesus at an earlier encounter. But Simon the Blind Pharisee couldn’t that. He couldn’t see her because of his foggy lens of prejudice against her.

Notice that both people in the parable had debts that they could not pay. Which would suggest that while this woman may be a sinner, Simon the Pharisee was a sinner too. But Simon couldn’t see that. And notice that both people in the parable had their debts forgiven. Which would suggest that while this woman was forgiven, Simon the Pharisee was forgiven too. But Simon couldn’t see that.

These two people in this story who see so different, so far are apart, are in this moment the same. They are both debt free. They are both forgiven. But one of them couldn’t see that. And Jesus comes to bring sight to the blind. And the question becomes will this cataract surgery that Jesus is trying to perform on Simon work – and will he be able to actually see her for who she is – as a forgiven child of God, and not for what she’s done?

The text never tells us. The story remains open for us to finish.

And maybe that is exactly where this story is leading us today. To finish this story for ourselves. Will Simon the Blind Pharisee be converted to the Jesus way of seeing things? Of seeing people. Or better yet, we will be converted to the Jesus way of seeing?

Because that’s the real question – and it’s a bit more uncomfortable.

Can we see this woman in this story?

That’s the question theologian Barbara Reid wants us to ask. Can we see this woman? Or do we actually see her exactly as Simon did?

Someone open their bible page 840. What’s the heading for this story? A Sinful Woman Forgiven.

 If you look in other Bible translation, other section titles given to this story are just the same: The Pardon of a Sinful Woman, The woman who was a sinner.

In almost all biblical titles for this section, the sinfulness of the woman is the focus. Why do none of our Bibles title this story as Jesus would title it – “A Woman Who Shows Great Love.”?[1]

And why is it that for almost 1800 years, the interpretations of this text are nearly unanimous in saying that this woman’s sin is prostitution – as if that’s the only a first-century woman is capable of? Do we see her as a prostitute? The text never says it. All it says is that she was from the city and she had many sins.

It seems that we as readers of this story have become blinded by this woman’s sin and it’s all we can see, just like the Pharisee. When the question Jesus wants to ask us is – do you see her? And not her sin.

I can’t help but feel like this blindness of our is part of what we’re seeing in the case of this swimmer from Stanford who was convicted of sexual assault but only sentenced to six months in prison. Because too many of the articles have been focused on him and his remarkable swim times and his ruined career, rather than focused on this woman and what this means for her life.

Because of this news story, the gospel story has been under great scrutiny this week. Because many of my pastor friends who are women say that the way we see this woman and her sin in this story only continues to reflect the way we treat in women in our 21st Century society.

A friend of mine, Pastor Emmy Kegler, wrote a remarkable blog post in light of this news story and this story from Luke.[2]

“This is the pervasiveness of the way our culture looks at women — that we are sexual objects, and that our sin is likely to be sexual.  It is interesting, and not in the polite Midwestern usage, that the only sin we can ascribe to this woman is sexual promiscuity.  Interesting too, and not at all politely, that sexual sin — ahem — takes two to tango.  (If this woman was a prostitute, where are the men? And why are they not held accountable?)

 Emmy also wonders, if this woman was a prostitute, why for the past 1800 years has the church not been asking what kind of a society, what kind of a life leads someone into prostitution. Can we wonder more about that and less about her sin?

Do we see this woman? No because we miss the systems that put women into such situations.  Emmy continues, by saying, “We miss the culture that teaches women, from day one, to be pretty, to be quiet, to offer hugs and accept kisses from family and friends even if they don’t want it.  We miss how we tell little girls “He only pulls your hair because he likes you.”  We miss how we tell girls that their exposed shoulders are causing their male friends to have lustful thoughts, that they need to cover up so the boys won’t stare.  We miss how we laugh and say “It’s a compliment, don’t get so upset” when a woman rejects a stranger who tells her how great she looks in that dress.”

Do you see her? That’s what Jesus asks Simon. That’s what Jesus asks us.

Honestly, I’m not sure I do yet. I think I’m still a little blinded by my privilege, my culture. I need God to keep working on my eyes.

A little over a week ago, Pastor Pam and I were at a leadership conference, and one of the activities was to list people that our group saw as leaders. And by the end, there were all kinds of people listed up on these sheets of paper. And we were asked, “What do we notice about our list?” So we all shared some insights. But then someone finally saw it and said it – there’s not very many women up there.

And suddenly, we all got quite. This room of mostly men sat in embarrassment as we were shown our own sin of prejudice and how we perpetuated a male-dominated society. In fact, the very next day, one of the men in our group confessed how embarrassed he still was that he didn’t notice the few women on our leaders list, and had no one pointed it out, he would’ve never noticed it.

That was God working on our eye-sight, right then and there. That was God giving sight to the blind. So that we might be converted to the Jesus way of seeing.

And it hurt. But it was a good kind of hurt. And there was grace in it…forgiveness even.

And that’s just it. If Jesus comes to gives sight to those who are blind it means there is still hope for those of us who are blind.

Both this woman and Simon the Pharisee are forgiven in this text. Which can give us the assurance that we are forgiven too. So, know that whatever you carry with you here today. Whatever wrongdoing, whatever regret, whatever sin – it is forgiven in the eyes of God. But know that it doesn’t end there. Because forgiveness is never an end. It is always a beginning.[3] Because as the grateful woman of this story shows us, out of great forgiveness flows great love.

God forgives us in order to set us free to love more. And God shows us our sin and our blindness, because how can we love more if God doesn’t show us where we haven’t been loving? It is forgiveness that sets us free to do something about the hurt we’ve caused. To repair the relationship we damaged or to change the system we keep propped up.

May we all know the forgiveness of God. And, as a result, may we all have eyes to see her, our neighbor, in love.

Amen.

[1] Reid, Barbara, “Do You See This Woman”, from A Feminist Companion to Luke, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, pg. 112

[2] http://emmykegler.blogspot.com/2016/06/do-you-see-this-woman-preaching.html

[3] I’m indebted to both Emmy Kegler blogpost (see above) and Sam Well’s sermon ‘The Justice of God’ for this insight. http://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/sermons/June13TheJusticeofGod.pdf

Sunday, May 29th, 2016 – Sermon on 1 Kings 18:20-39

You can listen to this sermon here.

1 Kings 18:20-39
20 So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. 23 Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 27 At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29 As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response. 30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; 32 with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33 Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, 35 so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water. 36 At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Well, folks…it’s game day. On the one side, it’s the Canaanite God, Ba’al, the god of the thunder storm, vs. Yahweh, the god of Creation, of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. Over here, Ba’al has 450 prophets, and over here, Yahweh has….Elijah. One prophet. And Ba’al and Yahweh are about to duke it out in what I like to call the Dueling Altars.

Now, before we dive into this story from 1 Kings, we need a little background.

King Ahab is king of the Israelites. And King Ahab is the worst. He is remembered as one of the most evil king that Israel ever had. And here’s why: Ahab marries a woman named Jezebel. He builds a temple to her god, Ba’al – the god of the thunder storm, and together they put the worship of this god at the center of the Israelite people. Sure, they still worshipped Yahweh, but now they also worshipped Ba’al. And Ba’al is the kind of god that required human sacrifice.

So, Ahab, the king of Israel, is leading the people to worship this different god, Ba’al. And so what does God do? God sends the prophet Elijah to confront the king on his unfaithfulness to Yahweh in worshipping Ba’al and wants to put an end to it. To do so, Elijah sets up a contest between Ba’al and Yahweh. King Ahab accepts the challenge, and summons all of Israel to come and watch, along with the 450 prophets of Ba’al.

When everyone arrives, and before the contest, Elijah speaks to all the people who have gathered there. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” You see, the people of Israel have broken the 1st Commandment – that you shall have no other gods. They have turned their backs on Yahweh and have been unfaithful to God by putting one foot in Yahweh’s camp and one foot in Ba’al’s. And Elijah says, “Make up your mind already! Quit sitting on the fence and pick one.”

I think this is really important. Because, you see, it’s the people Elijah is after. He’s not trying to beat King Ahab in a duel. He knows that his God is God. His concern is the people and in whom they put their trust.

Which brings us to our reading for today. It’s game time – Ba’al vs. Yahweh. Here’s the task: Each group will call out to their god to bring fire in the form of lightning to the altar and which ever god does this is the true god. And Elijah is so confident in Yahweh that he gives Ba’al’s team all the advantages. They get home field advantage – they are all on Mount Carmel, which is Ba’al’s territory. The animal they sacrifice is a bull – which is the symbol for Ba’al. The weapon of choice is lightning, which is Ba’al’s weapon – Ba’al is the god of the thunder storm. And they have 450 of Ba’al prophets vs. Yahweh’s Elijah. Finally, Elijah lets them go first and gives them all day to make it happen.

So the prophets of Ba’al prepare the altar, put the bull on the altar and they cry out to Ba’al, from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. Nothing.

Now, at this point, Elijah doesn’t show the best sportsman like conduct. Elijah begins to mock them – Cry aloud! Surely he is a god. Aww. Is he not answering? Maybe he just got bad directions and is lost. Or maybe he had to stop for a bathroom break. Or maybe he’s just taking a little nap and you just need to wake him up.

So they cry out and cry out some more, until they are so desperate they start cutting themselves to get the attention of their god – but still….nothing. No voice. No answer.

And now it’s Elijah and Yahweh’s turn. Elijah calls everyone to come close. They draw near and Elijah prepares the altar. He gets the wood ready, he cuts up the bull and places it on top. And then he digs a big trench around the altar. And then, in what I think is kind of a cocky move, Elijah says, “See those four huge jars over there? Fill them with water and pour them all over the altar.” So they do. And then he says, “Do it again.” So they do. And then he says, “Do it one more time.” 12 jars full of water were dumped onto this altar until it was just soaking wet.

He is making this altar very difficult to catch fire. But that’s how confident Elijah is. That Yahweh will show up.

And then Elijah calls upon the Lord.

O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.

 And then…..BAM! Lightning, fire, woosh. Everything is burned up on the spot. Even the water. Even the stones of the altar.

And when everyone saw this, they fell on their faces and proclaimed, “The Lord indeed is God. The Lord indeed is God.” And that’s where our reading ends.

It’s a great story. It has drama, it has suspense, it has action.

But this week, the people I’ve talked to have said the same thing – it’s a great story. Underneath that, I think what they are saying is, “But what does it mean for us today?”

Because at first glance all it really seems to say is just a bumper sticker message of “Our God is better than your non-existent god.”

Or it could mean, “Wow! Look how powerful God is with His lightning and everything, so you better make sure you are faithful to the right god, or else.”

And here’s the thing: if that’s what this is about, I’m not sure that’s enough for me. As I’ve been reading this story all week and reflecting on the fact that God shows up in this story with amazing power and how Ba’al doesn’t show up at all, I’ve found myself identifying more with the worshippers of Ba’al.

I hear less stories about God showing up with amazing power and I hear way more stories about how people don’t see God showing up at all. No voice. No response to prayers. Nothing.

I can imagine people showing up to worship week in and week out, praying and praying, pleading with God to show up in their life, and then…nothing. Leaving worship feeling empty, feeling like God was a no-show again. Where is our God? Is our God sleeping? Just like the worshippers of Ba’al must have felt.

If this story is about God’s great power, then I fear that most of us don’t see or experience that great power. If all the message ends up to be is My God is stronger than your God, I don’t think that is going to take us very far.

So, what if this story isn’t about the supernatural power of God and the demand to be faithful to this God or else?

Let’s look at it another way. Yes, the people have broken the first commandment and started worshipping another god. And yes, Yahweh doesn’t like this. In fact, God gets angry and jealous. Many of us might bristle at the idea of an angry and jealous God. But know this, that throughout the Old Testament, God’s relationship with God’s people is portrayed as a marriage. A marriage in which both parties have made a covenant, a commitment to each other and to the relationship. To be faithful to each other. And then for God to see God’s people turn away and worship other gods, like Ba’al, it hurts God and it hurts the relationship. What we learn is that God’s covenant with God’s people is not an emotionless, formal business contract. This isn’t a Master-Servant relationship. This is a relationship that touches the deepest of divine-feelings.[1] The hurt felt here by God would be similar to the hurt felt by a spouse at the unfaithfulness of the partner. God cares about these people and therefore, God cares about God’s relationship with them. And if they are worshipping another god, some thing is wrong in the relationship.

And now that the Israelites have been unfaithful to God by worshipping Ba’al, the question becomes what will God do when God’s people are unfaithful. Will God be unfaithful in return? Will God abandon them as they have abandoned God?

Listen again to what Elijah says in calling out to God, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”

Answer me, Lord. So that these people may know you are God and that you have turned their hearts back. Answer me, Lord, so the people will know that you have not given up on them.

And that’s the moment that God shows up.

God could have not shown up and still been God. But God did show up.

Maybe this story isn’t about God’s great power to do supernatural things. Maybe this story is about God’s gracious power to remain faithful to God’s people, even when we are not faithful to God.

Here is the bad news and the truth about us we learn from this story. Yes, we have a tendency to put our faith in other gods. To find our value and our worth in other things – whether it is the success of our children or our money or our jobs or our own reputations, or our need to be right, or our precious time, or whatever, you know better than I what it is for you. But that’s what we do – we are more faithful (and often slaves) to other things. Other gods.

But here’s the good news. God’s faithfulness to you does not depend on your faithfulness to God. God will continue to be with you and part of your life, even when you put your trust in other things. You are precious in the sight of the Lord. You and your relationship with God matter to God. Deeply. So, yes, don’t put your trust in things that in the end cannot bring you life and have no claim over you. Put your trust in the Lord who has claimed you as God’s own. Who would die for you.

But when you fail to do that – which you will, we all will – know that God will remain faithful to you. Never turning away from you. Never giving up on you. But will continually pursuing and reaching out to you. Now and always.

Amen.

[1] This is a reference to something Terence Fretheim has said.

Sunday, May 8th, 2016 – Sermon on John 17:20-26

You can listen to this sermon here.

John 17:20-26
20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

In the television show Friday Night Lights, Lyla Garrity is a 17-year-old, high school cheerleader whose parents have recently decided to get a divorce. Now, in the midst of this turmoil and chaos, she has also recently found Jesus. You know the type. She was newly baptized and she’s on fire for the Lord. She spends her free time putting flyers for her church on people’s windshield and leading a prayer meeting before school.

As I said, her parents have recently decided to get a divorce, but Lyla’s mom has already started dating again. And on this particular night, her mother’s new boyfriend is over for dinner. Lyla’s younger brother and sister don’t seem to mind it, but to the viewer, there is no doubt about it. Lyla is not happy about what is happening between her mother and this new guy.

So after the food has been passed around and everyone is two spoonsful into their dinner, she arrogantly and rudely says, “Ahem, aren’t we forgetting something?” as she reaches out her hands for prayer. The family sets down their silverware, grabs hands, bows their heads, and Lyla begins to pray…

Thank you, Lord for this food we are about to receive. And for your wisdom, Lord. I pray that you will guide me and everyone at this table to help respect you and make good choices. For example to not take advantage of the vulnerability of a recently separated but not yet divorced woman. And in turn, to give others at this table the strength to remember that a mother of three should not be wearing skinny jeans. Amen.

Have you ever been in a situation like that? Where it felt like the one praying wasn’t so much praying to God as much as they were lecturing those listening to the prayer?

Now, even though Lyla was quite rude about it, she was making a pretty common mistake when it comes to prayer – praying to the people, rather than for the people. Her audience of the prayer wasn’t God – it was the people.

Now, this may seem obvious, but it really is a simple ditch to fall into. For example, in church, when praying for someone, it can sound more like making an announcement about them, rather than actually praying for them. Lord, we especially pray for Joe who has just recently had back surgery, and who will be in hospital room 226 through Thursday, but he would rather not have any visitors at this time.

Or a couple of years ago, Lauren and I were asked to say the prayer at our 10 year college reunion luncheon at St. Olaf. Immediately after being asked, my first thought was, “Okay, we had better make this an awesome prayer so that we can impress of our classmates.” My focus was not on praying to God and for my classmates. But rather praying to my classmates and impressing them.

It’s a common mistake. To lose “sight of the fact that the true audience of prayer is God and not the congregation overhearing and joining in the prayer. To forget that the audience is God. Not the people.[1]

I’m not sure if you noticed but there is a lot of praying going on in our scripture lessons this morning.

In the story from Acts, Paul and Silas are singing and praying in prison.

The Psalm was a prayer because the whole book of psalms is a prayer book.

In Revelation, John of Patmos, at the very end of his letter to the seven congregations, at the very end of the Bible, he is praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

But out of these prayers today, the only one to make the same mistake as Lyla Garrity is Jesus.

Did you catch that Jesus was praying today? Here’s the scene: it is the night before Jesus’ death – Maundy Thursday – and, as Pastor Pam said last week, Jesus is still in his long, drawn out, Minnesota goodbye with his disciples. The car is warming up, his coat is on, everyone is standing at the door, and then… he starts to pray.

Jesus prays with such high and lofty words, that twist and turn, and curve in on themselves, it’s hard to keep track of what he is trying to say. But if we listen closely, just like the disciples did, we can hear that not only is Jesus praying for them…he’s praying to them.

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

 He’s not simply praying for the disciples. He’s praying to them. Both He wants them to hear these words. That they are in God, and Jesus and God are in them. That they are called to be one just as God and Jesus are one. And most importantly, that God loves them, just as God loves Jesus. Like God’s very own child.

It’s a common mistake. To end up praying to someone. But it is a mistake that Jesus himself makes, so… maybe it is not such a bad thing after all. To not only pray for someone, but to pray to them and with them, with the intention that they overhear the words that are being spoken. Sure we don’t have to be as rude and passive aggressive as Lyla Garrity, but maybe it is not such a big deal after all.

In fact, it can be quite a powerful thing, to hear someone praying for you in that way. To hear the words they want you to hear.

Back in 2009, I spent three weeks in Los Angeles for a Spanish Immersion class through seminary. For those three weeks, fellow seminarians and I lived and breathed Spanish language and Latino culture. Now at the same time, Lauren was in Geneva, Switzerland, also for a seminary class. We were literally half a world apart for three weeks. As you can imagine, it was hard to stay connected. We did what we could with email and phone calls, but it was hard.

Now, every day, I drove to class with the same two guys, Tom and Olaf. Now Olaf was a big 300 pound intimidating German man. When he ordered coffee at Starbucks, it was like a drill sergeant giving commands on the front lines of war. Despite this, he was a soft hearted and deeply loving man. One day, in the car, I was lamenting about how hard it was to be so far away and disconnected from Lauren. When we arrived at the church where our class was being held, Olaf got of the car, and in his booming German voice said, “Well, let’s go pray about this.” I know I was a seminarian and all, committed to this whole pastor thing. In fact I was being trained to pray for others but the moment Olaf wanted to pray for me, I was uncomfortable. Olaf marched Tom and I into the chapel, stopped in front of the altar, and reach out his hands. And there, with hands clasped, Olaf and Tom prayed for Lauren and me. And you know what? It did something to me. I felt like something greater than me was holding me up that day. I didn’t realize how much I needed someone to not only pray for me, but pray with me. So that I could overhear their words.

It can be a powerful thing, not to just pray for someone, but to pray with them – right then and there – with them listening in.

It can be a powerful thing. But why is it so hard though, too? Most of us just aren’t that comfortable doing that. Such praying has easily been my greatest growing edge as a pastor.

A couple of months ago, Jo Franklin and I went to a Stephen Ministry training in California for a week. And on opening night, as part of the introductions, the leaders of the conference told us to find someone we did not know. So we did.

But then, the conference leader said, “This is your prayer partner for the week. We want you to meet three times this week and pray out loud with each other.” And Jo and I panic a little bit in that moment. The thought of praying out loud with a stranger multiple times throughout the week was not an easy pill to swallow.

Praying with and for someone is not easy. And sometimes, I think it is because just that act of praying is not always easy. Because most of us, if we’re honest, have questions when it comes to prayer.

Sometimes when we start to pray, faith questions start to sneak in. Is there a God? Is there a God who hears? Is there a god who answers?

Other time ethical questions become the intruder. If my grandfather is living with torturous pain and can hardly move his body on his own. When all signs point to the fact he needs to die…is it alright to pray for death?

And sometimes, it is theological questions that hijack our prayers. If I pray for my sick child and they don’t get better does that mean that God didn’t hear my prayer. Or, if I pray for my sick child and they do get better, does that mean God would not have healed her without my prayer? [2]

These are all important questions. Questions we should wrestle with. But as I’ve struggled to pray with people, even as a pastor, what I’ve come to learn is that if I can just set those questions aside for a moment, and take the risk to simply connect with this person and say in a prayer what I want this person to hear, then there is an encounter with God in that moment that is like no other. And I’ve never once regretted praying with someone. But more times than I care to remember, I’ve gone home regretting the times I didn’t pray with them.

It is one thing to say that you will pray for someone. It is an entirely different thing for you to hold their hands right then and there and pray with them.

In the end, Jo and I were both grateful for our prayer partners and the opportunity to pray with them. It stretched us both in a really good way.

So this morning, as Jesus prays for his disciples, so that they can over hear him, I want to encourage us to start risking to do the same.

What would it be like the next time someone tells you something that would lead you to say, “I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers,”…what would it be like if you said, “Well, can I pray with you right now?” I suspect that people long to be prayed with more than we know. And it is not just something the pastors can do. You can do it too.

And if you’re not sure what to say, say that. Begin by saying, “Dear God, I don’t know what to say…” And then go for it. Because it is a powerful thing to overhear someone praying for you. It can be an encounter with God.

With that, I invite you to close your eyes. And listen to Jesus’ prayer again. Because it isn’t just a prayer for his disicples in the past. It is prayer for you too. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

As we turn now in our hymnals to number 814, this hymn is meant to be sung in repetition so that it can be a prayer prayed. So, as we sing, I invite you to follow along for the first two times through. But then, as you are able, I invite you to just close your hymnal or your eyes and just sing it as your own prayer. Let us stand and pray.

Amen.

[1] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 121.

[2] I got this from a sermon by Tom Long.