Pray Shamelessly

Preached on 28 July 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, Year C (Thematic track)

Who is this God we pray to? And Why do we pray?

Let’s start there.  Why do you pray?  Of course at different times, we pray for different reasons.  Here are some I can think of.

We may pray to praise God, like the psalmist this morning.

Or to thank God or ask God for forgiveness.

We may pray for strength or fortitude to get us through trying times.

We may pray to change God’s mind, or to tell God what we want or need
or maybe it’s because we want to remind God.
Because we think God may not know or has forgotten?
Maybe it’s to let God know that we care, too, or to remind ourselves about what really matters, what’s important.

We may pray in order to Listen to God.
Or to align our heart and mind and will, with God’s.

We may pray because it gives us peace or
simply because we think God wants us to.

Who is this God we pray to?
What we pray and how we pray reveals our theology, what we truly believe deep in our souls, about the nature and character of God.

In the gospel reading, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they are asking him to show them God.  They are wondering how they can have the kind of relationship with God the kind of communion with God that Jesus so clearly has.

What does his prayer reveal to them?  What does it reveal to us?  Here is Matt skinner’s take on it:

  • God hears (and, I would add, God responds)
  • God provides
  • God forgives
  • God protects
  • God expects us to be generous to one another.

Jesus goes on, revealing more about God.  He tells a parable about a man who responds to his neighbor’s shameless plea for food to offer a guest.  (One commentary points out that shameless is a more accurate translation than the NRSV’s “persistent.”)

We see just how shameless the neighbor is; pounding on the man’s door after the whole family is in bed for the night, with no thought for his own honor or if he’s disturbing the whole neighborhood.  He needs help; he needs food to offer his unexpected, late-night visitor.  And the man responds, despite the neighbor’s shamelessness.

We hear Jesus compare how a parent responds to a child’s request, giving what is good, not harmful, to how God would respond. God is faithful and  good and desires our well-being.  God responds honorably and lovingly – even when we ask shamelessly.

God answers prayer, not based on how well we pray but based on God’s own goodness and love; because it is God’s nature to respond to prayer.

It’s always interesting to read the Old Testament stories where God speaks directly to individual people, like Abraham.  What does today’s story tell us that Abraham believes about God?

The story picks up almost where we left off last week; the lectionary leaves out about 10 verses, so I’ll fill you in.
The story continues about how old Abraham and Sarah are.  The text turns from the men and now it’s the Lord who speaks.  The Lord assures them that he will return next year and Sarah will have a son.

Then the men set out for Sodom, accompanied by Abraham.  We read that God wonders if he should tell Abraham of his intentions since God has chosen Abraham and his descendants to know God and to do what is right and Just.  He decides to tell him and that’s where we come in today.

The Lord has heard the outcry against Sodom and he’s going to go check it out.  They reach a spot near the city and the men go on ahead while the Lord stays behind with Abraham.  And the bargaining begins.  “Will you really destroy the upright along with the guilty?” Abraham asks.  “Is it just to slaughter innocent people because of the sin of others; even grievous sins?  Do not think of doing such a thing so that the upright and the guilty fare alike.  You are the Judge of the Universe; will you, then, act unjustly?”

And the bargaining continues.  Will God save the city for the sake of 50 innocent people?  For 45? 30? 20? Ten?  In the end, Sodom is destroyed, but the Lord does save the family of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who is living there, because he is, indeed, righteous.

In this story we hear of a God who responds to the outcry of people in distress.  We find a God who listens, engages, and is just.

Abraham believes:

  • that God will respond to his plea.
  • That God is just and righteous.
  • That God is trustworthy and faithful.

Now, here’s the thing.  And this is important.
If we can call Almighty God to account, the Creator of All Things, the Ruler of the Universe, and the countless other titles and images we have for God; if we can call even that God to account, there is no earthly power that we cannot call to account.  No matter how “high and mighty” they are perceived or think they are; no matter how revered or respected they are personally or publicly, they are not beyond challenge or critique.

That knowledge can embolden us.  To do what is right and just and to challenge that which isn’t and those who aren’t.

What do you believe about the nature and character of God?  What do your prayers reveal about that belief?
What are your prayers for yourself and your family?  Simple. Direct. Shameless – if you were to just put it out there before God.

What are your prayers for the community?
The nation?  The world?

What are your prayers at this point in the life of the parish as you embark on this journey with a new rector?  Here are my prayers for you.  They are prayers of blessing.

May you be blessed with the eager anticipation of a child waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve.

May you be blessed with a sense of Adventure and with Enthusiasm for the new; an enthusiasm that reaches beyond the sidewalk in front of the church.

May you be fully engaged in all that you undertake and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

May you be blessed with patience with one another as you get to know each other.  And may you be blessed with indulgent forgiveness because there will be missteps all around.

May you be blessed with a generosity of spirit.

And may you be filled with the peace of knowing that God is with you and all shall be well, no matter how it appears in the moment, all manner of things shall be well.

One day I stopped by to visit the parish administrator at another church where I did an interim.  She said they had come through their rookie year just fine.  They had weathered the new rector’s rookie mistakes and her rookie mistakes.  And I realized that in my job, I’m always a rookie.

So, as you go through this rookie year together, may you be carried and generously blessed with a hearty sense of humor.

And finally, I am so very grateful for my time here with you.  For the work you have done.  For your support of me and your patience with me and this community, especially when we have gone through difficult times.

For your willingness to try new things and to indulge my quirks and preferences.

For your forgiveness when I have stepped on toes and ruffled feathers or just generally messed up.

And I am grateful for all your prayers.  Thank you for a wonderful year and a half.

As we say goodbye,
May the Lord bless you and keep you and until we meet again, you are held in the palm of God’s hand.

Get Ready!

Preached on 21 July 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year C (Thematic track)

How do you express hospitality?  Or maybe I should ask, how do we express hospitality?  We have claimed hospitality as one of our core values, after all; as one of our charisms as a community.  You’re getting ready to welcome your new rector at the end of the summer.  And you are hoping to invite and welcome new people from the neighborhood and welcome back old parishioners who may have drifted away over the years.  In the meantime, you will welcome guest priests who will preach and preside at communion.

The Transition Committee is offering a lot of guidance about tasks to complete to get ready, including a work party next Saturday to prepare the buildings and grounds.

You know, though, that even more important than welcoming a new rector, each and every week we welcome the beloved children of God into this space – the Body of Christ.  Every week.  And sometimes, some of them have never been here before.

It seems to me, that now might be a good time to take a closer look at hospitality and how we express it.  And it just so happens that our lectionary helps us out.

In the reading from Genesis, we find Abraham resting in the shade of the trees during the heat of the day.  When three strangers show up, he springs into action, anticipating the needs of the travelers.  “Let me help you.  Here’s some water to wash your feet.  Rest in the shade, I’ll bring you something to eat.  You honor me if you allow me to serve you.”

Then he enlists the help of the whole household – Sarah is to use the finest flour to make cakes.  The servants are to slaughter a calf and prepare a feast!  Of course, the story doesn’t end where our reading does.  Abraham attends them as they eat and listens carefully to what they have to say; open to something new, to something impossible.

The gospel reading from Luke, also shows us aspects of hospitality.  A woman, Martha, welcomes Jesus into her home.  She expresses hospitality doing “many tasks.”  I have always assumed she’s preparing a meal.  Mary expresses hospitality by being present and listening, being open to what their guest has to offer them in his teaching.

In both stories, we find that hospitality is a group effort.  Some may see to the immediate needs of the guest: freshening up after a journey, rest, a meal.  Others may ready the space, the environment, ensuring everything is in place, ready to be used when needed.  In each case, there is someone to personally attend to the guest and to listen to them.  The guest is never left to fend for themselves.  In each case, they listen to what the guest has to say; there is an openness to what they have to offer; a recognition that they may be a bearer of God’s grace and blessing.

What can we learn from these stories?

In our society, we often think hospitality is a matter of good manners, of being nice; that it’s optional.  That hospitality is something we can buy – in fact, we refer to it as the hospitality industry! – and we expect to receive better treatment when we spend more money.  And when it doesn’t happen that way, well, we’re offended, irritated, maybe even angry.  We may post a low-rating and a poor review on TripAdvisor or Yelp.

This idea of hospitality as a commodity can influence our own expressions of hospitality.  We may find ourselves judging who is worthy of our hospitality or even rationing it – some deserve more and others less.  We may shrug it off completely, saying it’s not “our gift,” not our responsibility, assuming someone else will take care of it.

That is not the Hospitality that we claim as a core value.  It is not the Hospitality that is a Christian Virtue.

What do you think the Christian Virtue of Hospitality would look like here, at Ascension?

While to-do lists are extremely helpful, hospitality can’t be reduced to a check-list.  It’s not about how we look; it’s more than what we do.  Hospitality is a way of being.  It’s about who we are.

Now I’m going to turn this on its head.

We are in God’s house.  Here, Christ is the host.
We are all guests.  Each of us is invited here by Christ and welcomed as God’s beloved.  As fellow guests, hospitality makes some demands of us.  We have certain obligations to one another.

At the same time, it is up to us to embody the Hospitality of Christ to one another.  Remember, we are the Body of Christ in the world. How do we express the Hospitality of God?

Hospitality is, in part, about what we have to offer.  We share what we have with our guests.  Abraham offered his guests shelter from the sun, water for their feet, the finest cakes, and a feast.

But hospitality is more about sharing of ourselves.  Offering our presence, our attention, our ears, and even our vulnerability and our own story.  It includes an openness to our guests and what they have to offer us.  It’s an openness to the new, the different.  An openness to the transformation we may experience.  Think about how Abraham and Sarah’s lives were changed; how Mary and Martha were transformed.

Who knows?  The person who walks through the door, whether for the first time today or the person who has been sitting next to you for the past fifty years, they may be the bearers of God’s blessing and grace, today.  They may even be here to bring about the impossible.

 

 

 

We already know

Preached on Sunday, 14 July 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year C (thematic track)

I’m going to give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt.  I’m going to take him seriously when he calls Jesus, Teacher, and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I take him seriously; I think he’s sincere because isn’t that the heart of what we all ask, over and over?  Not “I want to live forever” eternal life, but “I want to live well” eternal life.  What should I do to live a life with purpose and meaning and integrity?  To be able to look in the mirror at the end of the day and to feel good about who we are and about all of our interactions during the day.  To know ourselves and feel comfortable in our own skin whether we’re home alone or with our family or at work or out in public; no matter who we’re with or what we’re doing.

I take him seriously because Jesus takes him seriously.  He doesn’t brush him off.  He engages him in conversation; deep conversation.

“You already know the answer,” Jesus says.  “What does Torah say?  How do you read it?”  And the lawyer proves Jesus right.  “Love God with all of your being and love your neighbor.”

Isn’t this what we hear in our Deuteronomy reading this morning?  The passage is taken from the author’s account of Moses’ final discourses before the Israelites enter the Promised Land after their 40-years in the desert.  Moses has reminded them of the law and the promise of a good life and prosperity in the land, but he has also warned them that they will disobey the law and be scattered amongst the nations.

Then the Lord will gather them again and return them to their home; the Lord who loves them; the Lord who gives them the Torah so that they can live and live well.  “This Torah, this teaching, this law, it is not too hard for you.  It is not hidden or obscure or too far away.  No, it is very near.  It is within you; it is written on your heart by the God who treasures you and wants you to prosper.”  You already know.

The lawyer presses further, though.  He asks who counts as a neighbor; who’s inside that sphere and who’s outside.  Jesus shows him that he already knows that answer, as well.  He responds with one of the most well-known stories in the whole Bible – the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It’s been said that the whole gospel can be summarized in two parables:  The Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.  One shows the nature of God; the other shows us the implication of God’s nature on how we live.

In his response to the lawyer, Jesus teaches, not who is his neighbor, but rather how to be a neighbor.  Since the Samaritan is never described as “good” within the text, perhaps a better title would be “The Neighborly Samaritan.”

Where do you find yourself in this parable?  Jesus holds up the Samaritan as the example of the neighbor, and we want to earn his praise, so it’s understandable to want to be like the Samaritan.  Except, of course, that the Samaritan is despised by everyone else.

Of course, there are the respectable folks, the priest and the Levite.  Then there’s the innkeeper who is paid to care for the man.  And there are the unmentioned characters.  Imagine being the parent of the man who was beaten and robbed and left for dead, or his spouse or his child.  What must they be going through, wondering why he hasn’t come home?  Wondering, where is he?  Is he ok or is he hurt or maybe even dead?

This is precisely the scenario my mother always told me she imagined when one of us stayed out late – that we were lying half-dead in a ditch somewhere.

And what about the man?  We know nothing about him.  How old is he?  Where is he from?  Who is his family?  What does he do for a living?  Is he a Jew? A Samaritan? A gentile?  A foreigner?  What is his social status?  Is he rich or poor?  An upstanding member of society or a scoundrel or a criminal?  Jesus tells us nothing about who he is because none of those details matter.  All that matters, is that he is a neighbor and needs help.

When have you been in that kind of situation?  Not robbed and beaten, maybe not even injured, but in need of help from a neighbor?

I remember the time when I was lying on the side of the road, a long way from home, bleeding from a gash on my face. I guess a mother’s fears aren’t always unfounded.  I was eighteen and on a bicycling road trip with a friend, riding along the Oregon coast on our way to California.
My wheel slipped off the edge of the pavement and down I went.  My glasses were broken, my bike bent and un-ridable.  I needed stitches.  My friend could offer first aid, but I needed transportation and an E.R.

I don’t know anything about the people who didn’t stop.  I don’t really even know much about those who did.  I do know that it seemed like a lot of people offered help.  One was a nurse who checked me out and said I should see a doctor.  Another said she was praying for me.  In the end, someone with a motor home drove us to a hospital and someone else loaded our bikes into the back of their truck and followed.  They stayed until the doctor finished taking care of me and then invited us to spend the night at their home and fed us some dinner.  In the morning we took very welcome showers before slowly heading off.

You know, I don’t remember even seeing any of their faces, but I will always remember their compassion; how eager they were to help, to do whatever they could for us.

They knew the answer to the lawyer’s question.
The lawyer already knows.
Jesus asks him, “who was a neighbor to the man?”
“The one who showed mercy.”
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus tells him.

What more is there to say?
We already know; it’s written on our hearts.
Go and do likewise; go and be merciful.

 

Be about God’s work

Preached on Sunday, 30 June, 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, Year C, (thematic track)

Be about God’s work.  I think that’s the message for today.

This gospel lesson is something of a pivot point, too.  Up to this point in his gospel, Luke has been focusing on Jesus in Galilee.  He has been preaching and teaching, using a lot of parables.  And there are many, many instances of healing and casting out demons.  Jesus raises the dead and feeds the multitudes.

Not long before we come in today, Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, where he is transfigured before their eyes. They see him talking to Elijah and Moses and they hear the voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”

When they come back down the mountain, Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem.  That’s where we are today, Jesus and the disciples have set out for Jerusalem.  For the next the next ten or eleven chapters, they’ll be traveling.  In these chapters, Luke focuses on Jesus’ teaching with only three stories of healing.

While it’s known as the travel narrative, it’s not like a journal or a diary.  The stories don’t come in sequential order, either geographically or chronologically.  In these chapters, Luke reveals the character of Jesus, the nature of God, and the mission of God.  He also demonstrates the shape of discipleship.

Today, we find that a few of the disciples have been sent ahead to make preparations for Jesus’ arrival with the rest of the group.  They have left the familiarity of Galilee and are entering Samaria.  One village refuses to receive him because he is bound for Jerusalem.  He’s an outsider, a stranger, the Other.

The response of James and John seems a bit extreme, though.  How dare they reject us!  Of course, we are bearers of the Truth.  They should be punished!   James and John were the ones who were with Jesus up on the mountain at the transfiguration.  I wonder if that makes them feel a little self-righteous?  In any case, they suggest that they call down fire from heaven to destroy the village!

Now, many commentaries draw a parallel to Elijah calling down fire on the prophets of Baal.  But, this reminds me of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah when they failed to extend hospitality to the angels of God who arrived as strangers.

Jesus rejects their suggestion.  Don’t worry about them, just move on.  Let go of needing to convince them that you’re right.

The next section shows us a series of potential disciples.  The first is a volunteer, so to speak.  Jesus’ response is odd, but I think he’s trying to convey that the life of a disciple may not be what they think; following Jesus is not an easy way of life.

The next two are invited by Jesus to follow him.  Each has a very reasonable request.  They have something to attend to before they can join him.  Each says, “yes, but first…”

In each case, Jesus’ response sounds like an admonishment, like he’s chastising them for doing what seems to be the right thing to do; for not instantly dropping everything, turning their backs on their family and their responsibilities, in order to follow him.

But I wonder if that’s what’s really happening.  Maybe Jesus is pointing out the nature of his own journey, his own calling.  He must be about the work God has given him to do.  He can’t lose focus.  He can’t be distracted or delayed, no matter how worthy it seems.  He can’t wait for them.

So, what is our takeaway?  What can we learn from this?  In one sentence:
Be about the work God has given you to do.
Don’t worry about those who reject it.  Let that go.  Move on.  It’s not about you.

Don’t be distracted or delayed by the million and one “but firsts…” in your life.  And that’s really hard.  How do you figure out what’s a distraction and what’s the mission?  Because the truth is, the distractions are also, often, good works.  Among clergy, there’s a saying that our ministry is in the interruptions.  Often we find that the real work God is calling us to is not in our plans or on our calendars, but in the unexpected.

What about the work God has given you to do though?  What is that work?

Scripture gives us a pretty clear overview in the Great Commandment: Love one another. Just as Jesus loves us.  Or a little more specifically:  Feed the hungry, Clothe the naked, House the homeless, Free the captive, Visit the sick.

The church articulates the work God gives us to do, as we have discerned it over the centuries, in our baptismal covenant:

  • Be part of a community of faith; pray and break bread together, study and learn from the scriptures and teachings together.
  • Persevere in resisting evil wherever we find it and when we sin, repent and turn back to God.
  • Proclaim the Good News through how we live our lives.
  • Seek and serve Christ in every person; love our neighbors.
  • Strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.

This is what it means to be about the work of God.
To be a disciple, a follower of Jesus.
To be a Christian.

We do the work of God right where we are.  Sometimes it’s in our interactions with another person.  Often, maybe most of the time, it’s in our homes, with our family or friends, or in our workplace.

And sometimes – probably more often that we like to acknowledge – it’s Public work.  Being about the work of God; resisting evil, loving our neighbor, respecting the dignity of every human being, striving for justice and peace is Public.

It’s speaking truth to power.  It’s advocating for and defending those whose dignity is not respected, those who are in need, those who are suffering from injustice.  It’s doing everything in our power to dismantle the structures of injustice in our society and in our world.  It’s not allowing the million and one “but firsts…” in our lives to distract us.

Does that seem just too overwhelming?  Well, here’s the thing.  We’re not doing it alone.  It’s not up to any one of us to do it all – just a manageable piece of it.  And what’s more, well, I’ll tell you a story.

I ran into an old friend the other day.  She told me about how her church is giving sanctuary to a refugee.  She told me about what it’s like to work for social justice in the holy space of a community of faithful people who are all motivated by the steadfast love of God.  She says it’s lifegiving!  And I have to tell you, she positively glowed as she spoke about it.

In a few minutes, we will baptize a new disciple and welcome her into the Body of Christ, the community of the faithful.  You will vow to do everything in your power to support her in her life in Christ; just as you vow to support one another.

It is up to all of you to tell her the stories of our faith.  More important, though, it is up to you to show her, through your lives, how to be a disciple of Christ; how to Be about the work of God.

Discipleship isn’t easy, it doesn’t shield us from hardship.
It is, however, the way of abundant, fullness of life.
It is the way of love.

 

 

Jesus and the Legion

Preached on Sunday, 23 June 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7 Year C  (thematic track)

There’s a lot of detail in this morning’s gospel.  It might be interesting to dive in and explore all the intricacies.  But it’s so easy to get lost in the details that we can miss the big picture.  So, I’m going to start by zooming out to see how this morning’s story fits in.

Luke tells four stories in quick succession, each demonstrating the power of God in Jesus.  The first comes immediately before the one we hear today; in fact, it could even be considered part of this story.

Jesus is in Galilee, it’s near the beginning of his ministry.  Late in the day, he says, “let’s get in the boat and go to the other side.”  So, they set out and there’s this terrible storm; they think they’re going to die.  Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves and storm is calmed; they’re saved.  The disciples are astonished and wonder who this could be whom even the forces of nature obey.

The second is today’s story.  I’ll come back to it in a bit.

The third is when they get back to Galilee and a woman who has suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years is healed by touching Jesus’ robe.

And finally, the president of the synagogue comes to Jesus for help because his daughter is at the point of death.  While still on the way, they learn she is, indeed, dead.  Jesus goes to her anyway, and raises her back to life.

So, we see this arc of demonstrations of God’s power through Jesus.  Power over the forces of nature.  Power over physical illness.  Power even over death itself.  And in today’s story, power over demons, the spiritual forces of evil.

Now, let’s go a little deeper into this story.

They cross the Sea to go to the land of the Gerasene’s; this is Gentile country.  And if you didn’t catch that earlier, the swine make it clear.  As soon as he steps out of the boat he is confronted by the demoniac.

Luke uses the language of military occupation to recount the story.  This man has lost everything, though he is “a man of the city.”  Now he has lost almost all sense of humanity.  He has no home and lives in the graveyard; no clothes; no dignity.

When speaking with Jesus, it seems that he can’t even use his own voice; it’s as if the occupying demons are speaking.  Even his name is lost.

He is chained, shackled, under guard.  The demons seize him, like a prisoner under arrest.  All of these words are usually used in relation to prisoners; those who have gone against the authority of Rome.

When Jesus asks his name, he says, “Legion.”  Now, to Luke’s audience, Legion has only one, very literal and fearful meaning.  A Legion is a unit of about 6,000 Roman soldiers – the occupying army.

The location, the land of the Gerasenes is the site where the Romans committed an atrocity during the Jewish revolt of just a short time before – families were slaughtered, towns destroyed.  The graveyard where the man lives contains the tombs of the slaughtered.

The language of this story accentuates the immense power that Jesus is facing.  Just as we see in the other stories, God has power over the spiritual powers of evil.  Jesus drives out the demons.

In this story, Jesus goes out of his way and at significant risk (remember the storm?) into Gentile country, apparently for one purpose: to seek out this man who has lost his identity, his humanity and to save him and restore him to himself and to his community.

Here we see a dramatic instance of what Paul is preaching in his letter to the Galatians.

Don’t get mired in the details.

All of you are beloved children of God.  All those details that you may use to describe yourselves and others, to distinguish one from another – they all fade in importance before the grace and love of God.

For the church in Galatia, those details are male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.  The details in today’s world may be different, but what Paul is teaching is still relevant.  All are beloved children of God…

Even those on the other side politically, the pundits on the other cable news channel.  People who labor physically for a living and those have lives of leisure.  Children, millennials, and retired folks – and folks who will never be able to retire.  PhDs and high school dropouts.  Those whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower and those whose ancestors arrived on slave ships. Those who arrived as immigrants and those who were here before the first boats ever arrived – and everyone in between.

Those whom you think should not even call themselves Christian – and those who never would; and those who don’t believe in any god at all.

Even they, all of the “theys,” are beloved of God.
And Jesus would go out of his way and risk everything to save even one of them.

Just as he would for you.

Thanks be to God.