Sunday, September 8, 2019

When All Out Commitment Is Needed (Luke 14:25-33)

Well, here we go again. Another group of shocking sayings from Jesus. I should have took off this Sunday and let Dr. Bailey preach this text. Now, it should be obvious that when Jesus talks about hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, he doesn’t really mean what we mean when we employ the word “hate” in reference to an emotional or psychological state of being. But we, too, use the word in different ways. When I hear some “not so” good news, like when a marriage breaks up, or a job opportunity falls through, or I hear about someone being sick, I will say, “O, I hate that” meaning, “I wish it wasn’t so.” Scholars tell us that in the ancient Semitic context “hate” was frequently used figuratively the way Jesus uses it here, to speak of a decisive, radical kind of renouncement or subordination or detachment. Jesus is talking about a kind of commitment here that take precedence over all other commitments – even family.

This is not the first set of stringent demands made by Jesus with regard to discipleship. In Luke 9 Jesus calls a man to follow him, and the man says, “Let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another person Jesus calls says, “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Now, once again, in the text today we face some hard sayings about discipleship.

Now, I personally think there are degrees of discipleship and levels of commitment, and we are not all called to the same degree or level of commitment, though all of us must be prepared for it. And I think we have to understand these sayings in the context of both Luke’s story/narrative and Jesus’ actual life. Keep in mind that Jesus knows he’s going to die and at this point in Luke’s narrative he has already told the disciples twice that he will undergo suffering from the powers that be and be killed. When Jesus first tells them he is going to suffer and be killed, he also tells them that they need to be prepared to die to. After he tells them a second time he is going to suffer and die, Luke says that the disciples did not understand what he was telling them. After, which, they argue about who is the greatest among them. The disciples are still in the dark, they still don’t understand the kind of kingdom Jesus has been proclaiming. And this is very contemporary. I’m convinced that there are many Christians today who have no clue regarding the kind of kingdom Jesus was about. I speak from experience. For the first part of my Christian life and ministry I had no clue either.

When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God they thought about the kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon when it was at the height of its power and glory. This is the kind of kingdom they envisioned the Messiah would usher in, either through human agency or by supernatural means. So when Jesus talks about his own suffering and death, this makes no sense to them. What they did not realize at this stage in their journey with Jesus is that God’s kingdom is really a kin-dom. It’s not like the kingdoms they were familiar with at all. God’s kingdom is about being the family of God and the focus is on how we live together as family, how we treat one another and care for one another and love one other. The kingdoms of the world operate by greed and force and violence and love of power. The kingdom of God is based on love of neighbor. It is grounded in an inclusive love that even includes love of enemy. It is a completely different kind of kingdom, an alternative kingdom. It is a kin-dom that is pervaded by love.

Now Jesus knows that if the kingdom of God is to make any headway at all, if it is to have any effect or influence in a world dominated by kingdoms that operate by a completely different set of values, then he will need help. Jesus is going to die. He needs disciples, he needs followers who will continue to embody and incarnate the values of God’s kingdom after he is gone. Historically, Jesus’ mission was about launching a movement that would spread the light of God’s kingdom of love in the midst of human kingdoms, which are centered more in power and egotism and greed than in love of neighbor. Jesus needed disciples who would accept this challenge. He still does. The Apostle Paul clearly understood this when he spoke of Jesus’ followers being the body of Christ in the world. And even though, at this point in the story, his disciples still don’t get it, he knows they will get it. Even though they still don’t understand, he knows that some will come to understand and some will get it, and when they do, it will require total commitment. He knows they will face the same obstacles and the same kind of opposition he faced. It will take complete dedication and commitment to the cause to spread the good news of God’s kingdom of love and grace and righteousness in the midst of kingdoms that operate by control and violence and greed.

So this is the context for the radical demands of discipleship that Jesus makes in Luke. Jesus needs some disciples who will be all-out and fully committed if his mission is to continue.  Family can’t stand in the way. Lands and houses and possessions and all earthly stuff can’t stand in the way. The task at hand is more important than anything else, even one’s own earthly life. Jesus feels that the future of God’s kingdom of love is at stake, so he is not hesitant in asking his followers to renounce everything. It’s that important.

Now, I know that we don’t live in the same cultural and historical context. We live in a different time and setting. But I think that all of us who claim Jesus is Lord must ask ourselves if we could make that kind of commitment if asked. Would you and I be willing to put the cause of God’s kingdom before family, before job, before pleasure, before everything else in life? And would we be willing to lay down our lives if necessary for the cause of love and justice in the world? These are the questions a text like this should cause us to ask.

This text is not about (these demands of discipleship are not about) what you have to do to experience God’s love. Let’s be clear on that. God’s love is universal and it is unconditional. God’s love falls on the world like rain drops. It falls indiscriminately on all. It is not based on any system of meritocracy. It is not determined by a system of reward and retribution. (However, I need to clarify – that doesn’t mean that reward and retribution doesn’t have a place at all in God’s kingdom. I personally think it does, but it’s not the main thing. I can imagine how reward and punishment might function on a level that furthers the cause of love, which is the main thing.) The main thing is God’s kingdom of love, which is so very different than the kingdoms most people live in and are governed by. Jesus needed followers who would continue what he started, who would continue to incarnate the amazing grace and inclusive love of God. And he still does. Jesus still needs followers committed to God’s cause. There are many Christians today who do not see this as their mission at all.

Yes, we live in a different time with a different set of circumstances, and we are not all called to go about spreading God’s inclusive love in the same way. But commitment is still needed. So what Jesus says about counting the cost, about calculating the time and energy and effort required is just as important today at it was then. Sometimes it’s the circumstances of our lives and the context of time and place, the context of where we live that shapes the nature of God’s calling to pursue God’s kingdom. Pursuing the kingdom of love can take many forms and shapes and can be lived out in a number of different ways. I can understand, for example, how a parent of a child killed in a school shooting would feel a calling to take up the cause of getting much needed legislation passed requiring mandatory background checks or banning military grade weapons from public purchase. I can understand how that person may feel completely called to give his or her life to this particular aspect of the kingdom of God.

There were those in the era of the civil rights struggle who felt called to give everything to that cause. Some completely gave their lives to the cause of ending segregation and getting legislation passed that would help bring about equality and justice in our society. And some did literally give up their lives. They were killed doing this good work. But you know, sisters and brother, every follower of Jesus should have supported that cause grounded in love of neighbor. I don’t mean that every disciple of Jesus had to be on the front line. But every follower of Jesus should have supported and spoke out for civil rights. Now, some were on the front line. Some had to renounce everything to be out there on the front line working for freedom and justice. We all have to search our hearts and see what we can do and what we feel called to do, but every follower of Jesus should have felt some call to commitment to that cause. There are some things, sisters and brothers, that are just clear and obvious.

Clarence Jordan, the Baptist minister who founded an interracial farm community in Americus, Georgia in 1942, even before the era of civil rights, understood this better than anyone. Their community was ridiculed and scorned and persecuted for their commitment to the inclusive love of God. Jordan called Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount the platform for the God movement, which is exactly what they are. And the God movement is not just a spiritual movement. It is a spiritual movement for sure, but it is also social, political, economical, and everything else. Jesus’ teachings on love of neighbor and how we are to treat others formed the basis of his movement and what he meant when he talked about the kingdom of God. What it means to love our neighbor as ourselves should be at the heart and center of every Christian community. But of course, today, it’s not, which just shows how far we have deviated from the movement of Jesus and from the kingdom of God as Jesus embodied it and envisioned it. Every Christian community, if it is serious about following Jesus, has to ask itself constantly: Do we live by and mirror the inclusive love of the kingdom of God? Living by the kingdom of God, living by the teaching of Jesus and the inclusive love of God calls for commitment.

Back in the day of the struggle for civil rights, Clarence Jordan put it this way, “I don’t know of anything that has caused me more real suffering and real anxiety than to see the Christian church sit in this great social revolution which is rocking the Southland, and our whole nation, as though nothing were transpiring, keeping God’s salt in a saltcellar that we call the sanctuary.” He tells about a preacher friend saying to him, “Clarence, we’ve just to lay low on this thing, and let it all blow over, and when it all blows over, then we can afford to take a stand on it.” Clarence asked him if he felt that way about all sin. He said, “Reverend, are you going to wait until sin just blows over and then hop up and say, ‘I’m against it. Glory be.’”

I honestly don’t think I could claim to be a follower of Jesus and not stand up and speak out against how we are treating the undocumented, immigrants, and people who are coming here seeking asylum in this country. My discipleship to Jesus calls for that much at the very least. Let me tell you what I think it means to be a committed disciple and a committed American. It means celebrating the freedoms we have, while at the same time standing against and speaking against the injustices that still pervade our land. Some people say, “America, love it or leave it,” but that’s not what they mean. What they mean is “America, obey it or leave it.” Love of country should never be equated with blind obedience. One of the great freedoms we should celebrate is the freedom we have to protest. I love the way William Sloan Coffin expresses this. He says there are “three kinds of patriots in America, two bad, and one good. The bad kind are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics.” He says “the good kind are the kind who carry on a lover’s quarrel with the country,” which mirrors God’s lover’s quarrel with the world. I believe it is our duty as disciples of Jesus to push for policies that support love of neighbor and protest those that don’t.

Our discipleship to Jesus is expressed in different ways, and certainly there are levels of commitment required. But if Jesus really is our Lord, then all of us must live out a commitment to do what we can do to express and spread an inclusive love of neighbor in our families, our church, our local community, our nation, and our world.

Our good God, help us to take our discipleship to Jesus seriously. Help us spread your inclusive love through the means we have available. And as we share together now in the bread and the cup, let us be ready to pour out our lives the way Jesus poured out his for the good of all people.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Crippling spirits and the liberating power of Christ (Luke 13:10-17)

The healing stories in our Gospels are never just about physical healing, they always have spiritual and theological meanings. The woman in our story had been plagued by a crippling spirit for eighteen years. It kept her bent over and unable to stand up. Can you see the fairly obvious symbolical and spiritual implications here? A crippling spirit of this kind can diminish our sense of worth and value. We find ourselves spiritually and emotionally and psychologically unable to stand straight and take our rightful place in the realm of God.

Jesus calls the woman he heals in our story a “daughter of Abraham.” A daughter of Abraham who has been bound by Satan eighteen long years. Satan here is a symbol for the crippling spirit, the spirit that has kept her from living life in its fullness in God’s kingdom. But she is still a daughter of Abraham. She is still a daughter of God. She is still God’s chosen. God’s beloved. Jesus sees through and beyond the crippling spirit. Can we?

According to a Greek legend Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffered from amnesia. In time she escaped from her captors and became a prostitute on the streets. Back in her homeland, her friends refused to give up on her. One admiring adventurer who never lost faith set out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he was wandering through the streets of a strange city he came across a prostitute who looked strangely familiar. When he asked her what her name was she responded with a name that he didn’t know. Then he asked if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands. When he looked at her hands and realized who it was he exclaimed, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she replied. When she spoke her name, her true name, the fog began to clear and a sense of recognition registered on her face. She discovered her lost self. Immediately she discarded her old clothes and old life and became the queen she was called to be.

Do you know what your true name is? It is child of God. It is son of God or daughter of God. That’s who we are in our true self, the Christ self. The problem is that the true self gets hidden and buried underneath the false self. What we have to do is strip back the layers of the false self, so the true self can emerge. Then we will be able to straighten up and walk upright and learn how to love and to be loved.

Another kind of crippling spirit takes us in the opposite direction. We can be crippled by an inflated ego just as we can be crippled by a deflated one. We can be crippled be a spirit of arrogance and egotism. Most of us who are crippled by this spirit do not see ourselves as crippled at all. We think we have it all together. The Pharisees in our story represent those crippled by a spirit of arrogance and egotism. And too often it expresses itself through self-righteous attitudes and acts and does considerable harm to others. The Pharisees in our story today do not care that Jesus just liberated a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. Their only concern was that Jesus did this good work on the Sabbath in violation of their interpretation of Sabbath law. “There are six days of the week when people can be cured of their ailments,” they say, “Do your healing then.” But did they really regard the law with such sacredness? Jesus points out their inconsistencies. He says, “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” “Does not each of you do common work on the Sabbath? Of course you, do.” “You hypocrites,” says Jesus. They don’t care about this crippled woman. They are offended because in their mind Jesus does not respect their place and position. They consider themselves to be gatekeepers. They set the rules. They determine who is in and out.

I think religious leaders today struggle with this as much as anyone, maybe even more so. A couple of weeks ago I had an aspiring religious leader comment on one of my social media posts. He is a doctoral student at Dallas Theological Seminary, a school that teaches biblical inerrancy and dispensationalism. He said my posts “sickened” him. He was determined to debate me and show me and my congregation (he wanted to show you folks) the foolishness of my faith. He wouldn’t let it go. He kept insisting that he had the truth, and he knew the truth, and he was sure that if I would just debate him he could expose my fallacies. I finally said to him, “I know all about the positions you hold. I used to hold those same positions.” I told him that I had earned my Masters degree from a school similar to the school he is attending, a school that taught, I assume still teaches, biblical inerrancy and dispensationalism. I informed him that I was back then very similar to the way he is now: I had the truth and I wanted everyone else to see and know the truth just the way I saw and knew it at the time. But I did tell him that I did not think I was quite as arrogant about it as he is. Certainly, I had a lot of ego invested in it that was expressed through self-righteousness. I still struggle with this from time to time. But this guy was just plum full of himself. He was severely crippled and didn’t know it.  

So how do we find healing and liberation from such crippling spirits as self-degradation on the one hand, and arrogance on the other? In the tradition I was taught faith was the way of salvation. But it was a rather mechanical understanding of faith that focused on beliefs. I was taught that if I just believe that Jesus died for my sins and if I confess Jesus as Lord I would be saved. But did that really save me? Did that really heal me, change me, transform me? Not at all. All it really did was put my ego back in charge. I felt that because I believed the right things, and made the right confession, and said the right prayer that gave me the right to be a child of God, to be forgiven all my sins, and to gain the promise of heaven. I felt I had done all the right things, and that made me God’s chosen over all the other people who didn’t know the truth. Richard Rohr says this about such a notion of faith (I have included the quote in your worship bulletin): “Such a mechanical notion of salvation frequently led to all the right religious words, without much indication of self-critical or culturally critical behavior. Usually, there was little removal of most ‘defects of character,’ and many Christians have remained thoroughly materialistic, warlike, selfish, racist, sexist, and greedy for power and money – while relying on ‘amazing grace’ to snatch them into heaven at the end. And it probably will! But they surely did not bring much heaven onto this earth to help the rest of us, nor did they speed up their own salvation into the present. Many ‘born agains’ have made Christianity laughable to much of the world.”

A mechanical notion of faith or salvation will not heal us and liberate us from our crippling spirits. What we need in order to experience authentic healing and liberation from our “defects of character,” from the forces that keep us crippled is a genuine encounter with God’s expansive, magnanimous, inclusive love. I wonder how many Christians who use “born again” language have actually had such an encounter. It can come to us in many ways if we are open to it and ready for it, but it certainly doesn’t just happen as a result of believing the right things. A mechanical notion of faith and salvation not only does not bring real healing and liberation, it may actually serve as a substitute that prevents us from having an encounter with Divine Love, which alone can change us. We think that if we believe the right things, do the right things, say the right things that we will be healed/saved. And yet all we have really done is create another system of meritocracy, another worthiness system similar to the one the Jewish leaders had created in Jesus’ day. It’s a system that fuels the ego and makes us feel superior. Then we send out missionaries to get people in other places to believe exactly what we believe so they can feel superior too. No real conversion happens.

Now, another way we go about this is that we substitute repentance for faith, which does, on the surface, seem to be an improvement. This works something like this: We tell people that they are sinners, that they should fear the judgment and punishment of God, but instead of insisting they believe the right things, we insist that they repent of their sins, and obey God. And on the surface it seems to work, at least at first, but then it quickly fizzles out or it just devolves into legalism, because it’s based on a worthiness system too. These two approaches have dominated American Christianity. Isn’t it obvious that two approaches haven’t worked? Look at the state of Christianity today both in our country and our world. As Richard Rohr has pointed out the majority of Christians in America are just as unchristian as everyone else – just as prejudiced, warlike, greedy, egotistical, and materialistic as everyone else. Both of these systems, one based on belief, the other on repentance haven’t worked, because love is dangled as the prize at the end. Both are systems of retribution and reward, and no system of retribution and reward really changes people. It functions pretty well at modifying behavior for varying periods of time. But it doesn’t bring about real transformation. Real healing and transformation occurs when our sin drives us into the loving arms of an Unconditional Lover from whom we have nothing to fear and who has loved us all along.

I can illustrate this from a beautiful story in Luke’s Gospel – the story of the prodigal. Actually, it’s more about the Father than the prodigal. You know this story. The son treats the Father with disdain. He requests his inheritance. Leaves home. And squanders every penny “in dissolute living.” He loses it all. This Jewish boy becomes so desperate that he hires himself out to a Gentile and goes to work feeding his pigs where we are told that if could he would “have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating.” That’s about as desperate as one can be isn’t it? So he makes a decision to eat crow, which is better than pig food, and return home. He decides he will make a confession to his father and ask to be treated as one of his father’s hired hands. Now, do you think the Son is really sorry at this point for the way he treated his father? I don’t get that impression in the story. One of the great things about the stories Jesus told is that they leave a lot of room for our imaginations and for the Spirit to work. I see nothing in the story that would suggest that at this point he is remorseful or sorrowful for hurting the Father. He seems to be just like the person who comes to God out of fear or guilt or social pressure or something else. There is no real desire to change. Just a desire to escape punishment. Or in the case of the prodigal to escape hunger and poverty and humiliation. Desperation sends him on his way back to the Father, but desperation doesn’t save him from his false self.

So what happens? Jesus or Luke describes it this way: “While he was still far off his Father saw him coming. [This implies that the Father has been waiting and watching constantly. The Father is up on the hill every day looking for his son.] The Father, filled with compassion, ran to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him.” This was all before the son spoke a single word. The Father expresses what the Father always felt – unconditional love for his son. Now, when the Son actually confesses to the Father he doesn’t do as he rehearsed. There is no mention of working as a hired hand. He drops that completely. Why? Apparently, now, having experienced the Father’s love, he feels no need to try to barter or squeak out a deal. What I think is that for maybe the first time he experiences the overwhelming, unconditional love of the Father and what flows out of that experience is true repentance. Repentance is the consequence of being loved, not the cause. God removes the barter system, the rewards and punishment system completely. In God’s system of grace, in contrast to systems of meritocracy, love precedes repentance and is the true cause of repentance.

In God’s system of grace genuine sorrow and regret over the hurt and harm we have done to others is never produced by guilt or fear of punishment. Fear, like desperation, may cause us to modify our behavior, but it cannot change our heart. But when, in our fear and desperation, we experience the unconditional love of God, then our heart changes. As John says in his first epistle, “There is no fear in love, and mature love cast out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, with retribution, and whoever fears,” says John, “has not reached maturity in love.”

We are all crippled to some degree and on some level. We all struggle with the ego. It may be a lack of value or self-worth that keeps us bent over, unable to walk tall and straight. Or it may be a spirit of arrogance and a sense of entitlement that leads us to think of ourselves as better or superior or even more blessed than others. Either way we are crippled by our ego. Some of us are more crippled than others. Some of us less. But we are all in need of healing and liberation on some level. Now sisters and brothers, healing will come, liberation will come, authentic conversion and true repentance will come about, not through guilt or fear of punishment or law keeping or social pressure or believing the right things or just modifying our behavior– it will only come about when we experience for ourselves God’s eternal, God’s immense, God’s magnanimous, God’s unconditional, God’s inclusive love.

O God, let our hearts and minds be open so we can see and understand why no system of reward and retribution can ever really change our hearts and minds. Let us be open to the experience of your great love. For only then can we begin to love others the way you love every single one of us.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

When Love Divides (Luke 12:49-56)

A few years age Reza Aslan, who was publicly known to be a prominent voice on Islam wrote a book about Jesus titled, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” The fact that he was known as a popular cultural voice on Islam helped the book sell. Also, in the aftermath of its publication he had a rather nasty but entertaining interview about the book on Fox, which helped it climb up several best sellers lists. Now, there is certainly nothing wrong at all with a Muslim or any non-Christian writing a good book about Jesus. The problem, however, is that this was not a good book. Most of the reviewers noted that Aslan was a good story-teller and writer, but not a very good historian and scholar. Some suggested he was much better at fiction than at history. His basic thesis was that Jesus was a failed revolutionary who was willing to use violence to overthrow the political and religious order to bring in God’s kingdom. He rejected outright, without any evidence to back his claim, that the many teachings by Jesus in the Gospels about nonviolence, peace-making, and love of enemies were not actual teachings of Jesus at all, but teachings placed on his lips by his followers. That argument has no proof, of course, and it’s hard to imagine any follower of Jesus, knowing what we know about followers of Jesus, coming up with the teaching on loving one’s enemies. At any rate, in his book Aslan focuses on a few texts like this one today. Matthew’s version is even a bit stronger than Luke’s. In Matthew Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”

On the surface this may seem like a real contradiction with the other teachings and actions of Jesus where Jesus instructs us to love and pray for our enemies and where he says, “Blessed are the peace-makers.” And then there is the procession he leads into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week which is basically a peace march.  A peace march, if not in protest, at least in contrast to the imperial procession of Roman soldiers led by Pilate to secure the Roman fortress outside the city in preparation for the festivities of Passover. So what is Jesus saying in the text today? To read this as if it was Jesus’ intent to divide, to set folks against one another, is to misread this text. Jesus has not given up on peacemaking. Jesus is not calling for force or violence. What he is saying, in his commonly shocking and hyperbolic way, is that the way of love, which he calls his followers to pursue, can be divisive. As long as there are unloving, ungracious, unwelcoming, sexist and racist people, then the love of Christ will create divisions. And those divisions will even cut across family lines. 

The Gospel of Luke gives us the best example of this. In Luke 4 Jesus enters the synagogue in his home town and he reads from Isaiah 61. He defines his own work by the agenda of God’s servant in Isa. 61 as bringing good news to the poor, bringing release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s grace. The people in his hometown are happy to hear this. Luke says in 4:22, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Some might wonder why Jesus didn’t just end it right there. That’s what most Baptist preachers would do. Nothing quite like a standing ovation. But Jesus knew what was in their hearts and he knew that they were thinking only of their own kind. Jesus knew that their love and loyalty was limited to their own group, their own people. They thought Jesus’ was speaking about his mission to Israel exclusively. They reasoned just the way many Christians today reason. They thought God was the God of Jews only, just the way so many Christians today think God is the God of Christians only. Jesus wanted to transform people, not please. Jesus couldn’t let it rest. Jesus could confirm their false view of God.

So, Jesus draws from the sacred scriptures they hold in common to challenge their exclusiveness and exceptionalism. He makes reference to two stories. He first calls attention to the story in 1 Kings 17. A famine had overtaken the land. There were many widows in Israel who were in need, no doubt, desperate need, but God sent Elijah, not to a Hebrew widow, but, of all things, to a Gentile widow and her son, who had no food. Elijah provides them with food enough to survive and he heals her son. And in telling this story, Jesus stresses the point that this was a Gentile. He says, “There were many widows in Israel,” in great need, but Elijah “was sent to none of them.” Jesus follows that story with another story found in 2 Kings 5, where Naaman, a Gentile ruler, is healed of his leprosy by Elisha the prophet. Again, in making his point Jesus emphasizes that there were many Jewish lepers who were not healed. Elisha was not sent to any of them. Rather, he was sent to a Gentile. After he told these two stories, drawn from their own scriptures, the scriptures all Jews held in common, Luke says, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” He went from being revered as a prophet of high honor to being hated as a messenger of the evil one speaking heresies. Luke says they drove him out of town, and wanted to hurl him over the cliff.

You see, as long as Jesus focused on the poor, the blind, the captive, and the oppressed in Israel, among their own people, they praised the words he spoke. But when Jesus made it clear that God’s love and grace was not limited to their kind of people, that God’s love is inclusive of all people, and not exclusive to them, they were infuriated.

It should be conceded that it is understandable why Jesus’ hometown crowd would be upset with him. They had good reason to dislike Gentiles. Their country had a long history of being overrun by Gentile powers. And at this very point in history, they were basically enslaved to Rome. They were given some measure of freedom, but the Romans could do to them whatever they wanted and at times did. Rome taxed them heavily and confiscated their land. This is why Jewish tax collectors who collaborated and colluded with Rome were so despised by their countrymen. They were deemed traitors. They had good reason not to like Gentiles.

But Jesus couldn’t let them go on thinking they were God’s favorites and everyone else was going to hell. Jesus was a truth-teller and he had to tell them the truth about God’s inclusive love, and it just about got him killed before he even got started in the work God called him to do.

My job would be easy if I didn’t have to tell you the truth about God’s inclusive love. You would all just love me. Everyone would want to come and worship together. Of course, I know whenever I speak I am speaking my truth – it is truth as I understand it. I could be wrong, and I am sure I am wrong about many things. But all I can do is tell you the truth as I see it. So I have to preach about God’s inclusive love. If I can’t tell you what I truly believe, then I should quit and go sell insurance. There was a time I thought seriously about that – not necessarily selling insurance, but quitting. And if I had any other marketable skill at the time I may have. I struggled with it.

I remember reading that passage in John 6 where Jesus delivered a discourse, and even before he finished his sermon, most of his congregation had left for good. John says that when many of Jesus’ disciples heard his teaching they said, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” but he didn’t stop. He kept going. And a little bit later John says, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Then after most of his disciples left, Jesus turned to the little group who had been with him from the beginning, and he said to them, “What about you? Do you want to leave too?” I remember reading that at the time and thinking to myself, “Yes, Lord, I want to leave. Why don’t you show me the door?” Then, I read a little further where the disciples respond, “Lord, to whom are we going to go? Where are we going to go? You have the words of life. We are convinced that you speak words of truth. We can’t leave.” I decided I couldn’t leave either. I would just have to tell the truth as I understand it. I would just have to speak the words that I am convinced bring life. So, in the end, I decided that I would just be honest about my spiritual and faith journey and speak what I know in my heart, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what I did and that’s where we are.

Sometimes what we think is peace is not peace at all. Or what we think is unity, is not true unity, not the kind of peace and unity that honors all of God’s children and recognizes the worth and value of all God’s daughters and sons. I have shared several times the story that Fred Craddock tells about going home to west Tennessee to visit, where an old high school friend named Buck owned a restaurant. Fred went in there for some pie and coffee and Buck said, “Do you see the curtain?” This was in the day of segregation. Buck told Fred, “The curtain has to come down.” Fred said, “Good, take it down.” But then Buck confessed the struggle he was having. He said to Fred, “If I take the curtain down, I lose a lot of customers, maybe even my business.” But then he said, “If I leave that curtain up, I lose my soul.” God’s inclusive love divides people and even divides our own souls, that is, until we decide to love. Once we decide that we are going to own and claim and live God’s inclusive then the division in our own souls is resolved. And even in the midst of outer division and external chaos, the peace of God fills our hearts. No one today who spews hate and fear and tells God’s children fleeing poverty and crime and drugs to go back where they came from has God’s peace. They may think they do, but they don’t. They may have the world’s peace, but they don’t have God’s peace.

Listen to how a young woman describes her experience of moving to a new community and finding a new church home. She says: “Everybody was super-accomodating, bending over backward to lend a hand. They were the most welcoming, organized bunch of people I have ever met. They started helping us unload the trailer and the truck, they had everything inside and unpacked in less that two hours. They had already stocked the refrigerator and the pantry with all kinds of dry goods and supplies . . . The sense of community was really impressive. When someone needed something, everybody was always there at a minutes notice.” Guess what church she is talking about? She is describing Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The church that says horrible things about our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. She is talking about the church we have come to know as the church that is filled with hate. Is that God’s peace and love? Even the members at Westboro Baptist Church love their own.  

In our world today God’s inclusive love divides as much as it unifies. There is much irony in that isn’t there? It exposes spiritual disease as much as it heals and restores. Jesus knew that the truth of God’s inclusive love would cut deep, exposing prejudices, and judging all claims to be God’s chosen over others. Jesus knew that it would even divide families. But that didn’t stop Jesus. He knew God’s will for the world. He knew what God wanted to do. He knew the kind of peace and unity God wanted to bring about – the kind that treated all people as God’s chosen people. And if we have a mind centered on God and a heart in tune with God and a will to obey God, then we would see just what Jesus sees and we would trust the inclusive love of God that Jesus embodied and taught us about. Jesus is our living example of the inclusive love of God. We are called to love inclusively like Jesus. Now, if that is too difficult. If it is too hard to accept. If we are too loyal to our political party or ideology or our particular social or religious group, or too bound to family prejudices to love inclusively, then so be it. Maybe we should consider Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Do you want to quit too?” He asked.

In the text Jesus says, “You hypocrites.” Now, I really question whether Jesus went around calling people hypocrites. My guess is that Jesus’ followers added that to the tradition that was passed on to them. But then again, maybe he did. He points out that we know how to discern the signs in other areas of our lives, like the weather. Their society was an agricultural society. Their very lives depended on their ability to understand the signs of the weather and how it impacted them.

We read all sorts of signs very well. We know how to fix up our houses when they show signs of deterioration. We know how to get help for our bodies when we show signs of sickness. We know how to build bigger barns and store all the stuff we accumulate when we have more than we need. But unfortunately, not as many of us know how to be rich toward God and give ourselves to the unfailing treasures of compassion and grace. Unfortunately, we are not very good at reading the signs of love that is limited and exclusive and centered on our own – our own religion or group. The question for us today is this: Are we willing to love inclusively the way God loves inclusively, even when it brings division?

God, help us to love others the way you love others. If we love others the way you love others, that means loving all people. That may mean loving people that some of our friends and family don’t love at all. Loving them may create division in the groups and families we are part of. It would be easy not to love the way you love. But you have called us to be like Jesus. You have called us to reflect and mirror your image. You have called us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Help us to be faithful to embody and practice your inclusive love. Because if our family and friends don’t see it in us, where will they see it. Amen.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Greed is Not Good (Luke 12:13-21; Col. 3:1-11)

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko says to the stock holders of Teldar Paper, “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” Is greed a good thing? If you eliminated greed from our economy we would have to restructure our economic system. There is a reason the Christian tradition has made greed one of the seven deadly sins. In our text today Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”

It’s important to set this teaching by Jesus on greed in the context of Luke’s Gospel. In the previous stories leading up to this passage about the rich fool, story after story, passage after passage highlights the blindness of Jesus’ contemporaries, particularly the religious leadership. In the passage right after Jesus’ teaching on prayer that I talked about last week, the Jewish religious leaders accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. In other words, to put this in the language of today, they are accusing him of doing works of liberation for diabolical and evil purposes. Jesus refutes such foolishness and contends he is doing the healing, liberating work of the kingdom of God, setting people free and making them whole.

Jesus goes on to mention the sign of Jonah. The Ninevites repented when Jonah told them the truth, but Jesus’ contemporaries refuse to hear the truth. So Jesus says, “The people of Nineveh will rise up in judgement of this generation.”

Jesus tells them that the eye is to the body what the heart is to the soul, and their heart is dark and blind to the light of God. Now, the Jewish leaders claimed to know God and speak for God, but they were in reality morally and spiritually blind to the love of God and the ways of God. They didn’t really know God at all, even though they thought they did and claimed they did. They didn’t know good from evil, or truth from deception, or justice from injustice. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Such is the state of the leadership of many countries in our world today, including our own. Jesus tells them that the light they profess is actually darkness.

Next, Jesus thunders and rails against their hypocrisy. When the Jewish leaders chastise Jesus for eating without observing their laws of ritual cleansing he says, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” They were full of greed, not just for possessions and wealth, but for power and position. They were greedy for control. The fact that Jesus did not acknowledge their legalistic interpretations of the scriptures or submit to their authority and control, infuriated them.

This is the setting that leads up to Jesus’ warning about greed and the parable of the rich fool. Jesus had been very direct, but clearly that was not working. So he tells them a parable. Someone in the crowd beckons Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother over the family inheritance. Jesus refuses to get entangled in a family dispute, but he uses the occasion to warn them about greed. Now, Jesus has already warned them that greed merits judgment, that greed is not good. Now, he takes a different approach. Jesus insists that to live a life of greed is just a foolish way to live.

In those days one’s wealth was measured in terms of lands and harvests. A rich man’s land produced abundantly. Now, under the old theology of blessing and cursing this would have been understood to mean that he was blessed. Not from the perspective of Jesus. The rich man said to himself, “I have no place to store all that I have. What should I do? I know what I will do. I will build larger barns to store all my grain and my goods. Then I will sit back and relax. I will eat, drink, and be merry.” If Jesus were telling this story to me and my kind of crowd he might say, “A bass fisherman said to himself, I have no place to store all my rods and reels and lures. What shall I do? I know what I will do. I will build a storage building so I can store all my fishing stuff. Then I will say to myself. Self, relax for a while. Then, go fish till you drop.”

Now, little does the rich man know, says Jesus, that tonight he will meet God. And God will say. “Where’s all the stuff that you lived for? Where is it? To whom does it now belong?” God says, “What a fool. How foolish it is to store up all this stuff for yourself, and not be rich toward God.” Sort of reminds me of an inscription to be found in a museum in Deadwood, South Dakota, where they had the gold rush 100 years ago. The inscription, scratched out by a beleaguered prospector, says, "I lost my gun. I lost my horse. I am out of food. The Indians are after me, but I've got all the gold I can carry.” And God says, “What a fool.” It just might be that every time a place another order to Tackle Warehouse God is probably saying, “What a fool.” I know my wife I saying that, but God is probably saying it too. I joke about it, because there is no use in pretending that we don’t all struggle with this. We all do. I’m sure I struggle with this is as much as you do.

And while we all struggle with this, there are some people who are just bigger fools than the rest of us. I will tell you about one. His name is Mike Long. He was known as America’s big bass guru. He has been featured on the cover of over 40 fishing magazines. He’s fished alongside Hank Parker and Shaw Grigsby on their popular TV shows. He has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournament winnings and big bass prizes, including the 50 or 60 thousand dollar boat that he owns. Fishing companies lined up to get him to endorse their products. He dominated the local tournament trail in San Diego County, California, known as the big bass capital of the world. The fishing industry, particularly the craze surrounding swimbaits, wouldn’t be the same today if it weren’t for Mike Long.

Well, guess what? Mike Long is a fraud. Now, I know some of you think that I have been posting the same fish over and over again on facebook. Even my son said the other day, “How did you get all those pictures of the same fish?” Now even if that were true, I would not be the fraud that Mike Long is. Mike Long was exposed by a man named Kellen Ellis who was once his friend. Kellen engaged in an extensive investigation of Mike Long over several years and just recently published the results in a 12,000 word plus investigative report (which is an amazing piece of investigative journalism) and a 20 minute video that supplies indisputable proof of Mike Long snagging, which is illegal, not catching big largemouth bass while they were on the nest. Mike Long made numerous false unverified claims with false photographs to claim several lake records in the San Diego area. The fish he snagged illegally he would hide on his boat in oxygen filled livewell bags which he turned in during the tournament weigh in as fish he legitimately caught that day. These were fish previously snagged and then hidden on his boat. That’s how he won so many tournaments. Mike Long snagged, cheated, lied, bribed and bullied his way to become the big bass king of the world. All of that has been exposed and Mike Long’s name is now held in contempt by bass fishermen all across the country. His greed, not just for the money, but for the acclaim and prestige of being the big bass master of the world, the best of the best, led him to a very dark place, where there was nothing he would not do for a taste of the praise and glory of being the King of the big bass world. Sounds like some of our elected officials doesn’t it?

In C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe one of the children, Edmund, who magically enters the land of Narnia finds himself face to face with the White Witch. She has turned Narnia into a perpetual winter—though never Christmas. Her plan is to get Edmund to talk, to get information about the other children. In order to do that she gives him some Turkish Delight. Lewis writes: “At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” That’s what greed will do – it is self-destructive.

It’s hard for us to see how destructive it is, because our economy and culture and lifestyle is saturated with it. Greed is easy to rationalize and justify, because we don’t call it greed. We might call it the American dream. We are doing this with racism today. There are a number of people who are saying racist things and supporting racist practices, but they don’t think it is racism. They are blind to their racism just the way many of us are blind to our greed, myself included. Greed is one of the reasons some people don’t want immigrants coming into our country. They will take what is ours, they say. And that really gets to the heart of what greed is. The man Jesus calls a fool, our society would call prudent and industrious.

Dr. Alan Culpepper makes the observation in his comments on this text that the rich man’s vision of the future, “eat, drink, and be merry” - leisure, recreation, freedom from the demands of work – sounds uncomfortably like the vision most of us have for our retirement years. Our entire economic system (as is true for most of the world) is driven by the desire for more. You may remember a few years back the AT&T commercial where the little girl says, “You just want more, you just want more.” The commentator says, “It’s not that complicated: Bigger is better.”

The reason Jesus calls him a fool is because he is preoccupied with himself and his goods. In the parable the fool talks to himself. He says to himself, “Self, what should I do for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he says, I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” It’s “I” and “my.” He congratulates himself. He builds for himself. He lives for himself. We get no indication of any sense of responsibility toward others.

By contrast, consider Jesus’ teaching in the model prayer. It’s not about “my” or “mine”; it’s about “us” and “ours.” It’s about God and others. “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Deliver us from the time of trial.” It’s about God and community, not God and country. God’s community transcends country. God’s kin-dom transcends nationality, ethnicity, gender, class and everything else. In God’s kin-dom God is all in all. Everyone belongs.

In Colossians 3:5-11, Paul gives us his vision of where God’s living creation is headed. We are destined, according to Paul, to a place of ultimate renewal. In the time of fulfillment Paul envisions a world reconciled, at peace, where love of neighbor prevails. Paul says, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all.” In that renewal, says Paul, there will be no religious, racial, and social inequity or inequality. We will all be one. We will all belong. We will all be united. Christ will be all in all. What a glorious vision.

Will we ever reach a time of fulfillment? When we look at how divided we are now as families, as religious and social communities, as a country and as a world, it seems like a fairy tale wish doesn’t it? But, sisters and brothers, if we are truly followers of Jesus, and not just church goers or Christians in name only, then the dream of Christ being all in all will guide our steps and order our lives. Love of neighbor will be our first priority. And that, sisters and brothers, is what it means to be rich toward God. (The quote by Richard Rohr in your worship bulletin describes beautifully what it means to be rich toward God.)

Paul tells us to put away everything that would destroy that unity. Anything that would demean or degrade another one of God’s children must be stripped from our lives like we would strip off old, dirty clothes. Paul tells us to set our minds on things above, not on things of the earth. The way we do that is by loving others as we love ourselves. Jesus and Paul make it crystal clear to anyone not blinded by their greed and ego, that we love God by loving others. We are rich toward God when we live unselfishly and generously, sharing with others, caring for others, helping others. God’s love is eternal. When we love, it is the Christ loving in us and through us. To be rich toward God is to be rich in love and the relationships born out of love.

Paul says get rid of greed and self-indulgence, put to death all attitudes and actions that hurt others – anger, malice, slander, abusive language. Stop lying and deceiving. Strip off all the things associated with your old self, your egotistical self, your little, false self, and clothe yourself with the Christ self, the true, larger self. Paul goes on to say in that passage, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Above all, says Paul, love your neighbor as yourself. This is how we become rich toward God, and that is the only kind of wealth that will last.

O God, we all struggle with greed, with wanting more for ourselves, sometimes at the expense of others having less. Forgive us, Lord. Teach us how to be generous and how to share with others. Teach us how to love our neighbors as ourselves. Because many of us don’t know how to do that. Help us to discover a better way so we won’t die as fools. So that we will be rich toward God. Amen.


Monday, July 29, 2019

The God we pray to (Luke 11:1-11)

Dr. Diana Butler Bass is a church historian and a keen analyst of present day Christianity and culture. She has written a number of books, several of which I have found quite helpful. She recently wrote a piece that appeared on the CNN opinion page, part in response to recent events and part as an analysis of where Christianity is today in our country. The piece was titled, “The of God of Love had a really bad week.” She began the piece by noting the crowd chant, “Send them back,” at a recent political rally. She discusses how the deep divisions that are tearing our country apart right now are being felt and played out in churches all across the country. She talks about this in the context of her own family and shares that she has not spoken to her brother since the incident at Charlottesville where a white nationalist ran his car through the crowd killing one and injuring 19 others. After that incident she and her brother had argued about white nationalism and racism, and haven’t talked sense. She explains that the two of them had grown up in the same Methodist church and Sunday School where they used to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. Red, brown, yellow, black and white. They are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Diana says that they had the same parents, same teaching, same church. They learned the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.” They learned the Great Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” She says, “The God we worshiped was not a scary, threatening God, but the God of love and God’s peaceable kingdom.” But then she says (and how many of us have seen this play out in our own families, friendships, and church), “My brother, as an adult, traded that God for a tougher, stricter God who exercises judgment against all who refuse to bend the knee, a kind of Emperor-God, enthroned in glory . . . a masculine Sovereign, and a winner-God for people feeling displaced in a pluralistic world.” Diana Bass, who studies religious trends, says this militaristic God became more real to many Americans and more prevalent in America after 9/11.

She says, “Meanwhile, the God of love was not having a particularly good run. In the political age bookended by Ronald Reagan’s culture wars and a devastating terrorist attack, the God of Love began to look like a loser, one fit for liberation theologians, do-gooders, and feminists. The churches that still preached a God of Love declined; those seminaries closed.” That does seem to me to be an accurate portrayal. We have lost members because I preach a God of love and inclusion, and have had visitors who won’t came back for that very reason. They don’t want a God who just welcomes anyone. Many Christians (I would say most) want a God who just welcomes Christians. Some, perhaps many, want a God who just welcomes heterosexual people. And a good number of Christians want a God who threatens people with hell.

She goes on to say, “My brother and I read the same Bible and wound up praying to different gods. His God thunders about lawless mobs and unbelievers. Mine is the mysterious Word, present before the beginning of creation, calling all people to compassion, and who welcomes little ones.” “Same Bible,” she says, “but different gods.” How many of you have family members or friends, and you grew up the same way, but you now pray to different gods?

Now sisters and brothers, today’s text is on prayer and the point I want to get across is that our vision of God impacts how we pray and what we expect in prayer. One of Jesus’s disciples comes to him and says, “Teach us how to pray?” In response Jesus gives them a model prayer, a pattern for praying that we simply call the Lord’s prayer. Todays’ text includes Luke’s version of that prayer, which is shorter than Matthew’s version. Then, in the two illustrations that follow, Jesus focuses his aim on the nature of the God we are praying to. Why is this important? Because how we see God, how we envision God, how we think about God – our operative image of God – will greatly impact how we pray and what we pray for.

Jesus begins the model prayer with, “Our Father.” You probably are aware that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, which is a kind of colloquial form of the more formal Hebrew. Our New Testament was written in Greek, so the writers of our Gospels have translated and interpreted the sayings of Jesus and the stories about Jesus that were passed on to them. However, interestingly, the Aramaic word used for “Father” (Abba) has been preserved in the Gospel of Mark and in two letters from the Apostle Paul. In other words, the word, in those texts, was transliterated into Greek, rather than translated. It was written in Greek as it sounds in Aramaic in order to preserve the Aramaic word. The fact that Mark’s Gospel and Paul preserved the actual Aramaic word that Jesus would have used, tells us just how significant that word was to his early followers. The dominant view among the Hebrews focused on the transcendence or otherness of God. God was so revered that they even refused to speak the name of God. (This, by the way, is probably why Matthew talks about the kingdom of heaven, rather than the kingdom of God. It’s the same reality. Out of reverence for the name of God, Matthew substitutes the word “heaven.”) There is truth in this, God is to be reverenced, God is above all and beyond all, but taken too far God is viewed as out there, separate from creation and humanity. Jesus understood God to be near. God is not just out there. God is right here. The kingdom of God is within you (or among you) he told some Jewish leaders. The Aramaic term Jesus used was a term most frequently used to describe a warm, personal love a parent has for his or her child. This is the God of inclusion, rather than exclusion. This is the God who welcomes and loves all God’s little children of the world, rather than a stern, angry God who has favorites and operates on the basis of a system of worthiness.

Now, I think the way many Christians interpret Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the first illustration he uses in Luke 11 is not only a misreading of the text, but a misunderstanding and misjudgment of the very nature and character of God. A friend shows up unexpectedly tired and hungry. Hospitality was expected in that culture. They put a premium on showing hospitality to a guest. For the host to not be able to provide food would have brought shame on him and his family. But the host has no food to give. So, in desperation, he goes to a neighbor to ask for food, or beg for food if necessary. The neighbor does not want to help. The door is looked and the family is in bed. Go away, he says. But the host is persistent. Jesus says, “Even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend (friendship only goes so far, right), at least because of his persistence (or a better translation would be “shamelessness,” his shameless persistence) he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” Is God the kind of God you have to wear down, like a parent who gets so tired of telling his kids no, he finally gives in and gets them what they want? Do you have to keep bothering God until God finally says yes? You would agree with me wouldn’t you that that is not good parenting?

This first illustration is an illustration of what God is NOT like. The illustration that follows is intended to contrast with the first. God is not like the friend who begrudgingly supplies one’s need, only after you wear him down. Rather, says Jesus: “Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” Is it really that simple? Why is that? Because God is a loving God. Jesus goes on: “If your child asks for a piece of fish, do you give him a snake instead? If she asks for an egg to eat, do you give her a scorpion? Of course not. Now, if you who are evil (Jesus loves to use exaggeration) know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more (this is the point – how much more) will the heavenly Father (the good and gracious and generous Abba) give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.” 

Asking is a crucial component of the praying life. However, it is not about asking for just anything, or for that matter, just anything good. Some think that prayer has to do with saying the right words, or using the right formula, or having enough faith. They turn prayer into a kind of mechanism, sort of like putting your coins in the pop machine and pushing the button. They think asking starts a process that if everything functions the way it is suppose to, then our request, like a can of pop, will be delivered into our hands.

Now sisters and brothers, asking, seeking, and knocking on heaven’s door has to be understood in the context of a loving relationship with God which leads us beyond our little agenda to embrace a larger good. In the movie Bruce Almighty Bruce Nolan, played by Jim Carry, is a news reporter going through a midlife crisis. He complains to his girlfriend that God does a poor job running the universe and contends that that he could do a lot better. Well, he meets God, played by, who else, Morgan Freeman. God gives Bruce the opportunity to run things for a while, and of course, Bruce wrecks havoc with the world and his relationship with his girlfriend, Grace. Bruce however, in time finally grows up . . .  Bruce asks God, “What do you want me to do?” / God says, “I want you to pray, son.” / Bruce squints his eyes and makes an attempt, “Um . . . Lord, feed the hungry and . . . bring peace to . . .um . . .all mankind. How’s that?” / God says, “Great . . . if you want to be Miss America. Now come on. What do you really care about? / Bruce thinks about his girlfriend. He says, “Grace.” God says, “Grace. You want her back?” / Bruce pauses and then reflects just how far he has come along. He says, “No. I want her to be happy no matter what that means. I want her to find someone who will treat her with all the love she deserved from me. I want her to meet someone who will see her always as I do now . . . through your eyes.” God smiles, “Now that’s a prayer.” Indeed, that is a prayer. Prayer takes us beyond our own interests to embrace larger interests related to God’s kin-dom of earth.

If you interpret this passage in Luke on prayer to mean that God is going to give us good things when we ask, then you are misreading/misintpreting it, because it doesn’t say that at all. What it says is that just as (there is an analogy/a comparison here) a loving human father or mother delights in giving what is good for their children, God delights in giving us what is good for us, namely,the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn’t say that God will give us any good thing. What he says is God will give us the Holy Spirit when we ask. The phrase “Holy Spirit” is just another way of talking about God’s (Abba’s) loving involvement and engagement in our lives. The Holy Spirit is not an entity separate from God. The Holy Spirit is God – God at work in our lives. When Paul uses the phrase “Spirit of Christ” that is just another way of talking about God emphasizing that Jesus is our window through which we see and understand God’s character and what God is doing and wants to do in the world. The Holy Spirit is God actively working in our lives. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to ask for awareness, discernment, and openness to God’s work. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to intentionally participate in the work of God/Christ in the world.

In one sense we already have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is what gives us life and breath. Both of the creation stories in Genesis teach this. In the first creation story the human couple reflect the very image of God. They are God’s offspring. A part of God lives in them. In the second creation story the human creature doesn’t come alive until God breathes into the human creature God’s own Spirit, God’s own breath of life. The Holy Spirit is in us, with us, around us – all the time. When I am talking to God, I am not talking to God way up there somewhere. I am talking to God in here, in my deepest self, my true self, where God dwells. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to ask to be a channel through whom the Spirit flows. To ask for the Spirit is to intentionally be part of the inflow and outflow of divine blessing in the world.   

When I first started praying years ago with any persistence I imagined God as out there, somewhere else, relating to us from a distance. I imagined a God who from time to time would intervene into our world to control events, circumstances, and people. Surely I was wrong. Isn’t it obvious that God controls very little? Just look around. Surely God believes in freedom much more than God believes in control. Clearly, God deeply respects and regards human freedom, and the freedom built into creation itself, even when we use that freedom or Mother Nature uses that freedom in abusive and horrendous ways.

Now, I still believe in intercessory prayer and engage in intercessory prayer everyday. I believe there is great mystery to prayer. I believe that our prayers connect to positive forces and powers all around us to help in our healing and to help us tap into God’s wisdom, and guidance. But I also realize that the way God works in our world and in our lives is much more subtle and indirect than I or most of you like. When you think about it, just about everything God wants to do in the world God does through you and me, or it doesn’t get done. Paul understood this when he talks about the church, the covenant people of God, being the body of Christ in the world. How does God, the living Christ, make God’s self known and bring about peace and justice in the world? The only way I know God can do this is through you and me, through people who are willing to be instruments of peace and conduits through whom God’s love and grace and restorative justice can flow. This is what the Christian teaching of incarnation is about. God becomes incarnate through us as we are led by the Spirit of Christ. Paul says in Galatians, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are humanly embodied qualities. They express themselves in our demeanor, our conversations, our actions, and our relationships. The Divine Spirit works in this material world through material means – primarily, the material of flesh and blood – you and me. It’s the only way God gets things done in the world.

Prayer is the means by which I open my life to God to participate in and help fulfill God’s will/dream/plan for the world. Prayer is the means by which I become aware of and sensitive to the ways of God’s love, and make my life available to experience and express God’s love in and through my life. Prayer is readiness and openness and participation in God’s inflow and outflow of blessing. Prayer is our way of being available to share in the workings of Divine Love.

Our good and gracious God, help us to see that what you want from us is our love, because you have already given us your love. Help us to discover over and over again what your love looks like and feels like. And may we not keep it to ourselves, for then it wouldn’t be love. Let us realize that the only way to grow in love is to give love away. Help us, through prayer, to be open and receptive to your wisdom and inspiration and compassion, so that we can participate in your loving ways and works in the world. In Christ’s name. Amen.