Sermon for July 28, 2013, The Lord’s Prayer in Luke

Genesis 18:20-32, Luke 11:1-13

Shortly, we will say the Lord’s Prayer together again in our Sunday assembly. We have said this prayer in both German and English in this room since World War I. In doing so, we continue the long Christian tradition of using the Lord’s Prayer in worship that began with the first Christian groups in the second century. The Lord’s Prayer is one of our most treasured texts from the Bible. Today we have Luke’s version of that sacred text in chapter 11.

Luke’s prayer is similar but different from the prayer we use. It is different from the Lord’s Prayer of Martin Luther who in the 16th century, in good and proper German order, said the Lord’s Prayer consisted of seven petitions, a beginning and an ending. The seven petitions of Luther are divided into two tables: the “thou” petitions which address God, and the “we” petitions that address our daily lives. But Luke’s prayer is different, shorter, more direct, and in some ways feels less polished and more primitive.

Luke’s prayer is even different from Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer in chapter six which is close to what we now use for the Lord’s Prayer. We can see the seven petitions here. The petitions in Matthew have a cadence and can be read by a group more easily. And they are paired or echo each other in some way so that the prayer hangs together as a group recites. But Luke’s prayer is more direct, more impulsive, and more primitive, if you will.

Perhaps it is best to not think of Luke’s prayer as a prayer organized around petitions or public reading, but around impulses. This prayer of Luke expresses four basic impulses or yearnings that undergird human life. These impulses or yearnings are not so much prayed, but expressed or even exhaled by the believer, as prayer is tied closely to simply living life one day at a time, one moment at a time.

The four impulses basic to human life are: that the right will prevail, that we will all have enough, that we will stop killing each other and get along, and finally that we will have the strength and courage to meet the challenges ahead.  The hope we have for living is expressed or exhaled in these four impulses.

That the right will prevail: we want the right rather than evil to prevail in this world, and we yearn for the good and true. We understand this good and right to be sacred. We also understand that it may take some time for the good to come. But we yearn for justice and peace, the right and the good, for the kingdom of God. Our impulse is for the right to prevail and we long for the good to be accomplished.  Let’s all breathe in and then exhale, focused on the sense that the right will prevail…….

That we will all have enough: we know that having enough food and resources for living is basic to all life. We yearn and long for enough. Note that we pray not for all we want, but all we need. Note that it is not what I need, but what we, we all, need. Note that this is not about stockpiling, but having enough day by day. But all life has this impulse for food, clothing, shelter and the resources needed to sustain life. We sense that we are supplied this by the sacred presence of God.  Let’s all breathe in and then exhale, focused on the sense that we will have enough…….

That we will stop killing each other and get along: we know how violent the human race can be, how difficult our disagreements can become, how mean and cruel life can be. And we know that at the bottom of making humanity work is the need to forgive, to be forgiven, and to move on rather than to be stuck in an endless and entrenched cycle of anger, fear, aggression, and reprisal. We yearn for that.  Let’s all breathe in and then exhale, focused on the sense that we will give and receive forgiveness……..

Finally that we will have the strength and courage to meet the challenges ahead: we know we will face challenges, struggles, obstacles, and difficulties in life. We all yearn for the courage, faith and strength we need to meet those challenges, so that we might be delivered. Give us the strength we need to make it through. Let’s all breathe in and then exhale, focused on the sense that we will make it through the challenges before us..….

May the right prevail, may we all have bread, may we forgive so that we are not consumed by hatred and violence, and may we have the strength we need for the challenges ahead. These are the basic human impulses exhaled in this prayer of Luke.

We might notice a couple of other things about these prayer impulses that are the breath of life for all humanity. First, notice the parables that follow the impulses. They remind us that prayer is not about good form or an occasional thing. Persistence matters. Prayer is a practice. The consistent practice and persistence matters more than propriety.  In the parables today, people are not rewarded for their procedures or good form. There are no style points here. They are rewarded for their consistency and persistency. It’s spiritual exercise that unleashes the power of prayer.

A second thing is how this prayer thing is based on having a relationship with God, an awareness of the divine, the sacred, a personal sense of God’s presence and love. All of that is summed up in the word Abba, which is an affectionate word for God, perhaps too affectionate for some, but it is only because we sense the nearness of God that we are able to breathe these impulses and entrust them into God’s care.

St. Ignatius’ Prayer of Examine is a meditative style of prayer that focuses on reviewing some aspect of life and finding the presence of God, the presence of the sacred, the will of God in whatever is going on.  When we sense the presence of God, we are able to breathe again with God the impulses of human hopefulness.

In the first lesson from Geneses, grounded in his sacred relationship with God, Abraham enters into an intercessory prayer, a prayer for others. Abraham prays for Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities so filled with violence and corruption that no one should pray for them. But Abraham does. His prayer form is an ancient Middle Eastern conversational barter with God that still goes on in some marketplaces of the world. Abraham starts out at fifty and barters God down to five.

Now the point of this is not that we should use prayer to barter with God, but that God is not interested in exacting a high price. God is a push over in this bartering. Why didn’t Abraham get the number down to zero? It was Abraham’s sense rather than God’s that settled on the number five. God is not interested in bartering with us. God wants to be graceful with us, sustaining us, often agreeing to our own terms. As God leads us along the path of renewal, God breathes with us, over and over again in daily exercise or walk. May the right prevail, may we all have bread, may we forgive so that we are not consumed by hatred and violence, and may we have the strength we need for the challenges ahead.

 

 

 

Sermon for July 21, 2013

Genesis 18:1-10, Colossians 1: 15-28, and Luke 10:38-42 

It was hot this week. We are in that part of the year when the heat can be dangerous. In the heat, sometimes our senses are impaired. Sometimes we hallucinate, or see visions. Apparently in the first lesson today, it’s very hot in the desert, and Abraham sees a vision of three visitors as he sits at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.  He senses these visionary visitors as important or divine messengers. He greets them with full desert hospitality.  He asks them to tarry, to visit if you will. And then to have some water for drinking and washing. Food is prepared. And as it is the custom in this desert hospitality, those receiving the hospitality are to leave a blessing with their host.  So the visitors leave with a blessing. They share the good news that Sarah and Abraham will have a child. Not only a child, but a future, a legacy.

Sarah happens to be listening. Since both she and Abraham are old, she laughs at the news. But Isaac is born, and Abraham and Sarah’s legacy continues.  That is the heat induced vision in this story this morning.  And as we face the challenging weather around us, we might do well to envision our own legacy, our own future.  As we face the heat of the struggles of life, in the thick of things, we might do well to envision our legacy, our own future. What are we leaving for those who come after us? What is our blessing, our legacy?

A second vision is found in the second lesson. This one is not a hallucination cased by heat. It is a rather over-reaching description of Jesus induced by the somewhat grandiose theology in Asia Minor. This passage from Colossians is a statement on the nature of Jesus. But one would hardly recognize the Jesus of Nazareth in this overwhelming description of the Christ in Colossians.

The Jesus of Nazareth was a healer and teacher, who called for a new way to relate to God, who called people to practice compassion and justice, who sensed the importance of faith in healing both individuals and society, who challenged the religious order of his time and the political order behind the religious order, who was killed, and who then lived still in the hearts of all who heard his story.

This hymn in Colossians is about that same Jesus, but one would hardly recognize the Galilean Jesus in these verses. Here Jesus is the amazing first-born of all creation, the co-creator of all that exists, the great reconciler of all things, the one whose work is completed in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, so that all creation, indeed, all things and all people are saved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

They really had a big vision of Christ in first century Asia Minor: a much bigger vision than the historical Jesus. It comes at us in long, run-on sentences. The accolades and responsibilities of the Christ of pre and post history are piled up and up. It’s helpful to note that in Greek, these are not run on sentences, but the words of a hymn or poem. In English, we don’t have the advantage of the meter which keeps it from becoming just one big pile of words. In English, in this translation, all we have is that word “He” which preserves some of the organization. The passage probably was a hymn of praise rather than a statement of faith. And in hymns we do get a bit carried away in our sense of praise. Eventually though, some of the poem’s phrases do get incorporated in later creeds describing Jesus, the Christ of creation.

This vision from Asia Minor this morning, although not induced by the heat of the season, still calls us to think about our own vision of Christ Jesus. For some of us, the vision of Colossians describes our idea of God and Christ. For some of us, however, our faith in Jesus is better described by the life and deeds and teachings of the historical Jesus who healed and walked in Galilee. And many of us would be somewhere in between.

Whatever your vision of Jesus, it is a good vision. We all are entitled to our own views of Jesus. And yet I would ask: is your vision of Jesus so little that it does not inspire? Is your vision of Jesus so little that it is not very important to you or others? Is your vision of Jesus so little that it does not include others and all creation? Is your vision of Jesus so little that it does not sense the importance of life through death?

Or is your vision of the Christ so big that it does not get down to the nitty gritty details of this life? Is your vision of the Christ so big and sweeping that it does not speak to the needs for healing, love, and justice that are all around us every day? Is your vision of the Christ so big, that it loses its specificity? For God does seem to want to be specific about our care and concerns for those in need and the issues of our time?

Oh yes, your vision of Jesus Christ is fine whatever it is. Big, little, or something in between. And whatever it is, it should be challenged by this Jesus of history and this Christ beyond that history.

Some heat induced visions point us to the question of what we leave behind. Some theology induced visions point us to Jesus Christ. Sometimes two visions of life collide in our own hearts. For the spirit of Mary and Martha live within each of us as two voices. As we live life, we are faced with the necessity of doing things, getting things done. And yet if we constantly are doing all the things that need to be done, we miss the life we wanted to have. How many times have the preparations and details of wedding planning overwhelmed the wedding itself as a simple and deeply profound statement of commitment between two people? How many times has the preparation and planning for a Christmas overwhelmed us so we don’t really feel moved by the season, only exhausted? How many times have we missed what was important about life because we lost the forest in all the trees? We have both the visions of Mary and Martha in each of us. And the Mary voice, the need to simply appreciate the moment, the significance, the joy, the presence of a friend, can easily be stifled by all of the pressure to do things and be things.  We are called to do and to serve and to accomplish the kingdom. We are also called to sit back and listen, to Sabbath, to rest, to think. And often on a hot day in July, there is nothing better than to listen again for that still small voice of God creating new visions for us in our coming cooler months.

Some heat induced visions point us to the question of what we leave behind. Some theology induced visions point us to Jesus Christ. Sometimes two visions of what matters collide in our own hearts; and when that happens, let us take time to be with God so that we are refreshed for the work at hand.

Sermon for July 14, 2013

Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Colossians 1:10-14, Luke 10:25-37

I.

     Did you notice that a lawyer introduces the story of the Good Samaritan? At first it may seem that the gospel of Luke is reinforcing the bad reputation that lawyers have in our own time. The lawyer stands up to test Jesus. And then asks a question to justify himself.  And the passage could be read that way. Lawyers may deserve at least some of those lawyer jokes.

But there is something going on here in the church of Luke and the churches of Asia Minor to whom Colossians is written. That something has to do with the law. Or we might say principles. For as Christian communities emerge and then develop, one of the big issues is “how shall we live?” By what rules, guidelines, laws, and principles should we lead our lives? What are the norms of our community life together? And to whom shall we be responsible and in what ways? How shall we treat our neighbors?

Now we may have a dislike for lawyers and even distain regulation as bureaucratic intrusion into our personal liberties. Those are the themes of our times. And there is a second prejudice against law that comes with being Lutheran. For Luther founded our tradition on the importance of grace and love rather than obeying the law as the way to God. And we Lutherans have spent centuries now condemning those who say you can earn your way to heaven by living a good life. It all, we Lutherans say, depends upon the grace of God. So American Lutherans will have little trouble seeing the lawyer as the villain in the story.

But the lawyer is not the villain, rather the inquirer who raises the question that matters to the church of Luke? Ok, so we believe in Jesus. How shall we live? What are our principles? Our guidelines for living well as Christians? And how do we treat those around us? Do we favor other church members? Or is everyone our neighbor?

Some of the rules, guidelines, laws, and principles of early Christians seem grounded in the Jewish tradition. There is some attention to the commandments and the Hebrew law. There is a sense of fairness and compassion along with human decency that is present in the Hebrew principles. But limitations are also placed on the Jewish law in early Christian communities.  Circumcision is not practiced. Nor are the dietary laws. Nor are the laws of sacrifice and worship.

These early Christians are constructing their principles around a somewhat different center. You can sense the principles and guidelines for living in Colossians. There are four emerging principles, norms, or laws for the good found in this short passage: (1) Christians are called to know God, to spend time drawing close to God in reflection and prayer. (2) Christians practice patience. (More of a Greek stoic virtue than a Hebrew one). (3) Christians are called to be joyful and thankful.  (Notice how joy and thankfulness is not a personal feeling in Colossians but a principle for living.) And (4) Christians share life together. So Christians not only believe in Jesus, they also in the name of Jesus live the good life of drawing close to God, sharing, joyful thanksgiving, and patience.

For the Luke Christians, a fifth guideline or emerging principle is compassion: helping those in need at the side of life’s roadway. The Luke Christians see two primary principles upon which to build a life in Christ, two laws that could be summarized by a good lawyer. Love of God or knowing God and then loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

At the core of this second principle of compassion is the necessary legal question, “is there a limit to my compassion?” Who is my neighbor? And what are my responsibilities to others as a Christian?

Thoughtful Christians drawing close to God, patient, joyful, thankful, sharing of themselves, and filled with compassion want to know the answer to the limits of caring.

II.

     We sometimes ask ourselves this question at St. Johns. Many weeks only one out of six people who come through our doors does so for religious reasons. The rest come for some sort of shelter, assistance, or recovery program. This place sometimes creaks under the load of the compassion this little band of Christians attempts to provide. It seems that there is no end to the people beaten up by life on the side of the road who need our help.

It’s summer, and I’ve had some time to read. One of the books in this year’s pile of summer reading is Jessica Wrobleski’s, The Limits of Hospitality (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2012). Now some people just want to avoid the poor and all their problems. Or blame the poor, the homeless, and the struggling for their problems. Wrobleski is not like that. She would fit into the compassion of St. Johns very well. She’s Roman Catholic, teaching religious ethics at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. She has spent a life doing shelter programs and meal serving in the catholic worker tradition for the homeless and those in need in West Virginia and elsewhere.  She is an example of a contemporary Good Samaritan who with deep compassion and experience wonders about the guidelines needed in order to care well.

In her book she addresses the limits one faces in a life dedicated to serving an infinite number of those in need. She talks about the need for structure and rules, the need for safety and security, the need to sustain oneself, the challenges to our sense of self, the need to get beyond a helping mentality, the limitations on one’s resources, the occasional scarcity that plagues life, and the regrettable struggle with boundaries.

These are issues facing not only the Christians of Luke but also today’s Good Samaritan, who provides immediate relief to those who are different, enlists the assistance of  partners in ministry, the innkeeper, and establishes a budget for the caring, two denarii; all so that he can be that neighbor and yet go on with his journey. In the end, what makes hospitality and compassion work seems to be a sense of courage and the capacity to treasure relationships with those who are different from us while managing our own limitations.

And this lawyer in Luke, who carries the question of what the limits of our caring might be, is told by Jesus to go, be that neighbor; yes, work with the budgets and boundaries, attending to security and scarcity, but always have the courage to care and always to treasure the opportunity to be with someone whose suffering may mirror the face of Jesus.

So in this place, it’s not a problem that so many come here for help rather than worship. Their coming is our opportunity to worship more fully and completely, deeply and richly in the name of Jesus.

III.

     This courage to care means not only relating to different people, but also thinking in different ways. Caring compassion means bandaging those wounded on the side of the road. And it also means making the roads safer to travel so that there are fewer people being attacked by robbers.

That is the point of another book I’ve been into this summer, written by another contemporary Good Samaritan, Laura Stivers’ Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches (Fortress Press, 2011).  Caring for those in need involves thinking about what causes all those people to be so much in need. In her book, Stivers digs into structural causes of poverty and homelessness as they intertwine with the personal issues often involving mental illness or addiction. And as poverty has increased in America in the last thirty years, more and more people are finding themselves caught in this personal and systemic web and without homes.

She sees providing shelter as important, and she also calls for advocating for changes in how we approach housing, mental health, and addiction for those on the margins so that we can disrupt the process by which people become ensnared in a web of hopelessness, poverty, and dependency.

And as one who cares about those in need, as a contemporary Samaritan, if you will, she lifts up this strange thing called the church, called  the congregation as a most important crucible for forming, shaping, and sharing a more prophetic vision for how we can address homelessness. For congregations, those places both intimate and public, are the places where we can both advocate and also work with the deepest recesses of the struggling heart.  The courage to care, calls us to attend to our limits, to relate to those in need, and to advocate for those who are vulnerable.

And from the beginning, this compassion was one of the earliest principles, guidelines, or laws of faith. First Christians, in these lessons were learning to know God, learning patience, practicing joy and thanksgiving, sharing life together, and helping those in need as they were given the grace to do so. And so are we.