Sunday, July 28, 2013

Teach Us to Pray

Luke 11:1-13
July 28, 2013

Dear Jesus, friend of little children, be a friend to me.  Take my hand and keep me ever close to thee.
            Dear Jesus, thank you for this food.  Ask thy blessing upon it.  Amen.
I inherited these prayers from my grandmother on my mother’s side.  What little I know about them is that she started praying them long before I came along.  The first prayer was the prayer I said every night before I went to bed as a little girl.  I have no memory of when I learned to pray it. I just always did.
            The second prayer was my family’s table grace.  We said it – we still say it – before every meal.  Again, I don’t have any memory of learning this prayer either.  It’s just something I’ve said for as long as I can remember.  I prayed both of these prayers long before my memory of them took hold.
            I suspect that Gramma may have prayed those prayers with my mother and her brothers when they were little.  I never questioned their origins when I was growing up.  They were an just integral part of my childhood.  We said them whenever we sat at table together, and my dad and I would say them each night. Just as they were my first prayers, I assume they were the first prayers for my sister and brother as well.  In turn, we’ve all taught them to our children. 
            They were distinctive to our family.  I had other friends who said grace before meals just as mine did, but no one I knew said the same prayer that we said.  My friends understood that if they were going to eat with the Busse family you were going to say that “Dear Jesus” prayer before you got to eat. 
            I’ve never thought about the theological soundness of these two prayers.  When I became a Presbyterian I quickly realized that we don’t often pray to Jesus specifically.  My Gramma was a good Swedish Baptist and I’m sure that’s where that language came from.  But regardless of their theological correctness, these prayers are precious to me. They are a link to my grandmother.  Praying them taught me how to pray. 
            Today’s gospel is a lesson in praying.  Jesus is noted as praying in a certain place.  I’m not sure the geography of this place matters so much as the fact that Jesus set aside both a time and place to pray.  When he was finished one of the disciples asked him to teach them to pray as John taught his disciples.  Just as my family became known, in a small way, by the prayers we said, at that time teachers and disciples were also known by their prayers.  The disciples of John must have had a unique prayer that only he could have taught them.  It would have marked them as his disciples.  So Jesus’ disciples want that same distinction.  If Jesus teaches them a specific prayer, then there would be no mistaking them for anyone else but his disciples. 
Jesus responded by teaching them these words, “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Although it’s not exactly the same, this provides the basis for the prayer we’ll be praying a little later in the service – The Lord’s Prayer.  A version of this prayer is also found in the gospel of Matthew.  But Matthew’s context is very different from Luke’s.  In Matthew’s gospel the prayer is taught as part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is warning his disciples not to make a show of their religious piety.  “Don’t be like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so everyone can see them and see how pious and righteous they are.  Instead pray in secret.  And when you pray, don’t worry about heaping up empty phrases, just pray these words.” 
            Luke’s context is different.  As I said, Jesus has been praying “in a certain place.” His disciples want to be taught as John taught.  They want something distinctive.  It was not unheard of for rabbis to teach their students particular prayers to be used over and over again.  So, Jesus, do what the other rabbis do.  Teach us to pray. 
Luke’s gospel emphasizes the point that Jesus spent a great deal of time in prayer.  It was prayer that kept him close to his Father.  It was prayer that kept him on the course he knew he had to be on.  Jesus prayed.  And his disciples want to know how to pray as he does.  Teach us to pray. 
It’s also interesting that the teaching of the prayer follows on the heels of two stories about discipleship, the Good Samaritan and Martha and Mary.  I spoke last week about the importance of reading those two stories together as a way to grasp the fullness of what it means to be a disciple.  You must both do and be, and the foundation of both the doing and the being is in prayer.  You’ve taught us about doing, Jesus, and you’ve taught us about being.  Now, teach us to pray.
            So Jesus did just that.
            If this prayer is to be a mark of distinctiveness for Jesus’ disciples, what makes it distinctive?  When they pray these words, what do they say about them?  What do these words say about their teacher?  What do they say about God?
            The coming of Jesus is the sign of God’s reign, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into the age of humans.  “Your kingdom come” could be a reminder to the disciples to always look beyond the world that meets their eyes and see the realm of God that is in their midst.  It is a reminder that with Jesus the coming of the kingdom has happened.  It is right there. 
            In her commentary on this passage, Professor Elizabeth Johnson writes that the prayer is said in a passive voice.  “The passive voice indicates that we ask God to hallow God’s own name, to act in such a way that God’s name is held in honor.  The petitions that follow flesh out what this means.  When God’s name is hallowed and God’s kingdom comes, there is daily bread for all, forgiveness is practiced, and God delivers the faithful from the time of trial.”[i]
            Jesus doesn’t just teach them this prayer; he goes on to tell them a story.  “Suppose one of you has a friend,” he says.  It’s midnight, but another friend has arrived at your door and you have nothing to offer this guest.  You go to the first friend and ask to borrow three loaves of bread.  But instead of jumping up and helping you, your friend tells you to stop bothering him. The door is locked.  The family is all snuggled up in bed.  He can’t get up.  He can’t give you anything.  But the one who is in need is persistent.  He doesn’t go away.  If the man doesn’t give bread to him out of friendship, at least he will give bread because of the man’s persistence. 
            Jesus further illumines this need for persistence by using words that are quite familiar.  “Ask, seek, knock.”  If a child asks a parent for a fish, the little one won’t be given snakes instead.  Or if a child asks for an egg, he won’t be given a scorpion.  Be persistent. 
            The implication, as I see it, is that if we are persistent in our prayers, if we pray hard enough, long enough, we’ll get what we want. But how many times have I, have you, prayed persistently for something only to have that prayer go unanswered?  I’m not talking about praying for something mercenary or self-serving, such as “Dear Lord, shower me with money.”  I’m talking about persistent prayers like, “Dear Lord, please help my friend not die from cancer.”  And how often, no matter how persistently I pray, does the prayer go unanswered?  I pray for my friend, but my friend dies anyway. 
            Right after the tornados wreaked their devastation, I was in a group of folks trying to process all that had happened.  A man spoke up and said that he heard that at one of the elementary schools in Moore, all the children began to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”  As the storm raged more fiercely, they sang more loudly.  And wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, their school remained unharmed.  Every child returned to their loved ones that night.  But the children and teachers at the other elementary school obviously didn’t and we know what happened there, don’t we?
            He said this as though it was absolute proof that if you are just persistent enough, God will answer your prayers.  I was so shocked and appalled I couldn’t find the words to respond.  His assessment meant the tornados were no longer a terrible occurrence of nature, but a new sort of Passover.  The children and teachers who prayed persistently, who prayed correctly were saved, while those who didn’t weren’t. 
            Be persistent.  Yet when prayers seem to go unanswered or worse, unheard, we are often left with two choices.  We blame God for being cruel or completely absent.  Or we blame ourselves.  If only we had prayed more persistently or correctly or used different words, the result would have turned out differently.  Prayer becomes a grocery list of needs that go unfulfilled or merely a way to manipulate an arbitrary God.  Often we try to explain unanswered prayer by saying that sometimes God’s answer is no.  Or God answers prayer in God’s time, not ours.  Both of these explanations have merit, but neither is fully satisfactory.  Not to me anyway.  If I am persistent, why does it seem that so many of my prayers remain unanswered?
            I have no answer to the question of unanswered prayer.  But one thing I learned in studying this passage is that a better translation from the Greek for the word we read as persistent is shameless.  Jesus isn’t instructing the disciples to persist in their prayers as much as he is teaching them to be shameless in their prayers.  Shameless can have negative connotations, but it seems to me that in this case it means something else.  To be shameless in our prayers is to be bold, audacious.  Dare to pray big, unembarrassed and unabashed.  Pray shamelessly.  Puts a different spin on it, doesn’t it?  Be shameless. Be unembarrassed in your belief and trust that God listens to our prayers, to us.  Be shameless in your conviction that God is with us, no matter what.  Be shameless in trusting that prayer isn’t about manipulation or thwarting God from some other plan.  It isn’t just listing out what we want or don’t want, need or don’t need.  Be shameless in believing that being in prayer with God is being in relationship with God.  There are different kinds of prayers – prayers of thanksgiving, praise, confession and petition.  But they are all based on the belief that we are in relationship with God.  We are in relationship with a parent who loves us, cares for us, listens to us, aches for us, suffers with us.  So be shameless in prayer because no matter what the outcome, God is with us.   Let all God’s children shamelessly say, “Amen.”

[i] Elizabeth Johnson, Pastor, Lutheran Institute of Theology, Meiganga, Cameroon;, July 28, 2013

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What Is Necessary

Luke 10:38-42
July 21, 2013

            Chef Ina Garten, also known as the Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, once told a story about the first dinner party she ever hosted.  She was still a relatively young bride, definitely a novice cook, and she thought that it would be a good idea to make all of her guests individual omelets.
            As she described it, that good idea turned out to be a terrible one.  Omelets aren’t a hard dish to prepare, but they take a few minutes, even for the most experienced of cooks.  Ina realized too late that making one for everyone at the party meant that she was trapped in the kitchen for most of the evening.  She said that was the worst of it.  She never got to spend any time with her guests.  She stood in front of the stove all night, while her husband visited with their friends.  It was at that moment that she made a vow.  From that point on whenever she entertained, she would make sure she could prepare things ahead.  She would never again ignore her guests while she slaved in the kitchen.  Ina said she would make sure that she could prepare the majority of her meal in advance, and then she’d have maximum time with her friends.  And if you’ve ever watched her show, The Barefoot Contessa, on the Food Network, you know that’s what she does.  She always talks about what can be made ahead of time before having guests over.
            I don’t know that Ina would have described herself as a Martha at that first dinner party.  But I probably would have.   I often describe myself as a Martha.  Maybe some of you do too.  Of course the Martha I’m referring to is the Martha of our story from Luke.  Martha and Mary were sisters, who when Jesus visited their home, made two very different choices.  Mary, the sister who chose to sit at the foot of Jesus, made the right choice.  Martha, who chose to clean and cook and make all the preparations for the honored guest, made the wrong choice.
            This is the basic interpretation that I’ve heard of this story since I first remember listening to sermons.  Mary is right.  Martha is wrong.  But I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again.  I think Martha gets the short end of the stick.  I even resent the way I’ve heard this passage read most of the time.  The way most preachers intone his words, Jesus comes across as patronizing and snide.  Martha is perceived as nothing more than a wayward child who must be taught how to behave correctly.  But the truth about Martha is that she was doing exactly what was required of her by Jewish law and custom.  First, she was following the rules of hospitality.  Jesus was a guest in her home.  There were things that must be done for him.  Secondly, she was doing what women were supposed to do in that culture.
            The woman bore the responsibility for the cleaning and preparing of the meal.  She was doing her duty.  Mary was the one breaking the rules.  Mary was shirking her duty.  She was also breaking a societal taboo.  Women were not supposed to sit at the feet of a teacher.  They were not supposed to be among the learners.  They were to be among the doers.  According to the rules set in place at that time, Martha was justified in her complaints about Mary’s lack of help.
            But instead of taking her side Jesus tells Martha that she is too busy doing, therefore Mary has chosen the better way and that won’t be taken from her.  It all sounds logical and good, but if you’ve ever felt like Martha then these words can sting.
            I had a very good friend in seminary who once said, “If you tell all the Martha’s in the church to sit down, you might as well go home, because the church is going to just stop.”  Let’s face it, the church runs thanks to the Martha’s.  Debbie Hamrick, the conference administrator of the CREDO conference I attended in May, gave one of the best sermons on this passage I’ve ever heard.  At one point in her sermon she said, “All of you pastors, when you stand at the communion table, do you ever think about who set that table?”  A Martha set it.  Martha’s come in every shape, size, and gender.  Martha’s, the doers, are necessary and needed.
            What’s really interesting about this story of Martha and Mary is that it follows immediately after the story of the Good Samaritan.  Every scholar I’ve read on this passage states that the two stories are meant to be read together.  They work in tandem.
            In the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus tells the lawyer who is questioning him that to love God is to love the neighbor.  Neighborly love is enacted love.  It is love in action.  The Samaritan showed love by doing, while the priest and the Levite worried more about doing their duty to the law and ignored their fellow human being.
            But in this story, Jesus tells Martha that she is doing too much.  She is distracted by many things.  She has forgotten that only one thing is needed, only one thing is necessary.  But Mary, the one who stops doing and sits and listens, is the one who does what is best.  So in one story Jesus affirms that being a disciple means doing and in the very next story, he says that being a disciple means being.  Is he contradicting himself?
            No.  Luke’s purpose in these two stories being read together is to show that according to Jesus discipleship means both things.  Discipleship is both doing and being.  There must be a balance between the two.  When Martha complains to Jesus about Mary’s lack of help, Jesus says to her, “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”  You are worried and distracted by many things, but only one thing is really necessary.  Martha was right to do, but in this circumstance her doing had gotten out of hand.  Doing her duty had become the distraction and it was keeping her from what was really important.  And that was being with Jesus.  She lost her sense of balance when it came to doing, just as the priest and the Levite had when it came to being.  Their duties distracted them from what was truly necessary – helping another child of God and taking time to listen to Jesus.
Luke and the Revised Common Lectionary place these two stories together deliberately, so that we the readers are reminded about what is necessary.  We must do and we must also be. 
            It’s not enough to think of ourselves as only Martha or only Mary.  We must be both.  Our faith is not a passive thing.  Faith is active.  It means doing.  We are called to live out our faith, to proclaim our faith, not just through words but through deeds.  But faith is also being.  Faith is finding time to listen, to reflect, be.  Loving the Lord God with all our hearts, strength soul and mind means being able to discern when to do and also when to be.  It is knowing what is the necessary thing.  That’s the challenge. 
            It is a challenge because as a society we tend to idolize busyness.  A theologian I read once stated that the true American idol is not just a show on television – it is busyness.  We are all constantly, unrelentingly busy.  And I say this knowing that I am completely guilty.  I feel guilty when I’m not doing something.  In my mind being still equates to being useless.  But how much of our busyness is actually necessary and how much of our busyness is just … busyness?
            A member of the church I served in Minnesota shared a book from her husband’s family that tells the story of their larger family history.  This family was a founding member of the Richland Prairie church, a small church in the Minnesota countryside that was also known as the Scotland church because of the number of Scots who founded it.  In this book was a wonderful letter written by Sheldon Jackson, the Presbyterian minister and evangelist who was instrumental in planting the seeds for that church as well as countless others across the United States, including Alaska. 
            He wrote to his parents in 1860 about the people of the Richland Prairie church and what he found when he arrived to spend some time with them.
            “Found them expecting me, house cleaned up, folks cleaned up.  Soon after the neighbors began to gather in, to see a ‘live Presbyterian minister,’ and there was a large company to tea.  In the evening about thirty attended the preaching service.  After the service they were loathe to separate, some staying till midnight.  These people seemed so rejoiced that they hardly know how to contain themselves.”
            Now what did he find?  A clean house, clean folks, food prepared to serve whoever came.  That was the work of Martha’s.  But those Martha’s were also Mary’s, because they realized that what was necessary was to put aside the doing and listen to a real live Presbyterian minister when he was finally in their midst.  I won’t make the claim that Sheldon Jackson was a Jesus figure, but certainly he brought the word of the Lord to these folks in a way that they hadn’t heard in a very long time.  And the church grew from there. 
            It grew from there, just as every church grows because of the Martha’s and the Mary’s.  Jesus tells us that being a disciple means loving God and loving our neighbor, and that means loving by doing – living out love through acts of kindness, compassion and sacrifice.  Jesus also tells us that being a disciple means sitting at his feet, listening being with him, being quiet, just being.  Disciples must be both doers and be-ers.  Being a disciple means recognizing what is necessary.  Sometimes what is necessary is to do, to act, just as the Samaritan acted on behalf of the beaten and robbed man.  And sometimes what is necessary is to set aside the doing and seize the moment to be with Jesus, just as Mary did when she left her duties in the kitchen and sat at the feet of her teacher.  Disciples must be both doers and be-ers.  In the church and in life, both are what is necessary.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Least of These

     The picture shows her looking up to the heavens, hands outstretched as if in supplication, a semi-smile on her face, as though a prayer has been answered.  She is quoted as saying one word.  "Hallelujah."  This is Ann Coulter's one word response to the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.  Yesterday, a Florida jury found him not guilty in the slaying of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

     There are others far more knowledgeable in the law than I who can speak to the legalities of this case. So I'd like to address the word choice of Ms. Coulter.  I don't presume that my vocation as a minister makes me an expert on God; far from it.  But I do know a little.  My masters degree includes the word "divinity," so I have done some study on the subject.

     "Hallelujah" is from Hebrew.  In grammatical terms it is an interjection.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, some of its synonyms are "glory be," "huzzah," "hooray," or "wahoo."  The actual definition is "Praise the Lord."  Ms. Coulter, perhaps you thought that you were merely offering a "wahoo" at the outcome of the trial.  Or maybe you actually were thanking God for what you consider an answered prayer.  I don't know.  But do you think that God and all the heavens are rejoicing that a grown man can kill a teenage boy with no consequences?  Praise God, praise the Lord?  Really?  

     In case you haven't read scripture (and I'm assuming that the scripture you would turn to, if you turn to it at all, is the Christian Bible) the God that I find there doesn't condone acts of oppression by the rich and the powerful against the innocent.  God sent prophets to warn the rich and the powerful that they were harming, destroying, the least powerful and the most marginalized in their world.  They didn't listen.  It didn't end well.  Not for them anyway.  

     Then remember that Jesus guy.  He spent a lot of time telling those in power that it was how they treated the "least of these" that mattered.  Their piety, their fancy prayers, their religiously right but spiritually empty rituals didn't mean anything if the least of these were allowed to suffer.  It was all loss if the least of these were oppressed, taken advantage of, or suffered violence just because those who made the rules thought their well-being mattered more than the least of these in their midst.  

     My faith tells me that Jesus was God incarnate.  But was Jesus rich or powerful?  Did Jesus have the advantage of belonging to the uppercrust of his society?  No.  Jesus was one of the least of these. He was born and lived and healed and taught and preached from the margins.  So God became flesh not as one who was powerful or at the top of society's ladder, but as one who was poor, homeless, at the bottom, the least.  

     Maybe, Ms. Coulter, you feel that as a white Conservative you now occupy the least of these status.  But as one white woman, who knows that the color of her skin gives her advantages over those of a different hue, to another, I say you're wrong.  Facts and statistics don't support that opinion.  Basic morality and decency doesn't support it.  Maybe your "hallelujah" means you think God has answered your prayer.  But I think God is grieving.  Grieving for the harm we cause one another.  Grieving at the violence we inflict without thought.  Grieving that the least of these still suffer while the powerful offer praise.