Squeaky Wheel

(sermon 10/16/16)

scary-judge

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:1-8

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A number of years ago, when my cousin’s son Jack was maybe seven or eight years old, our two families were out at a pizza place for dinner. And next to the checkout counter was a freezer chest filled with all sorts of ice cream desserts – Popsicles, Drumsticks, Klondike Bars, and so on. Jack really wanted an ice cream bar, but his dad kept telling him, no, no, no. But Jack kept up with his continuous attack, whining, crying, complaining, begging, getting louder and louder and getting the attention of other people seated around us, until finally my cousin snapped and said, “All right! I’ll get you your ice cream; just be quiet!” So he went over and bought him the ice cream and brought it back to the table. Jack took the ice cream, and as he started unwrapping it, he smiled and said, “See, I knew if I kept that up, he’d finally give in and I’d get my way.”

I never knew my cousin could move so quickly. In a flash, he jumped up, grabbed the ice cream, and threw it in the trash. Then, he guided Jack outside to their car, where I’m not certain, but I suspect they continued their conversation in a more tactile way.

Whether it was ice cream or something else, I suspect most of us have some experience with a scenario like this one, whether as kids or parents or both. And most of us have seen the same thig play out at work, or in other places – the idea that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the attention. So when we hear these words from Jesus today, about the widow hounding the unjust, self-centered judge until he finally caves in and gives her what she wants, we all have some firsthand understanding of what’s going on.

It would be easy to hear these words and get the impression that Jesus’ advice to always keep praying was advocating the same “squeaky wheel” philosophy for prayer; that even though God is good and loving, sometimes we need to war God down in order to get whatever it is that we’re praying for.

But I don’t think that’s Jesus’ intention. In fact, he says bluntly in this passage that we don’t have to wear God down like that at all; that with God it’s the exact opposite. God will quickly, without any delay, hear us, and help us, and answer our prayers.

And I have to admit, this is one of those places where Jesus’ words can get troubling for me. Just like so many of you, I’ve personally experienced times when I’ve prayed deeply for something, and not selfishly but with good and selfless motivation, and not gotten what I’d prayed for. And I’ve sat and prayed with other people in times of real crisis – good, decent people who were praying persistently and form a place of compassion, only to see the hopes expressed in their prayers be denied. So sometimes I struggle with these words of Jesus. As I do, all I can think is that if Jesus isn’t crazy and delusional, or if he isn’t deliberately lying for some reason, then I must be misunderstanding his point. So thinking about these words again, what could his point be?

Maybe I’m trying to make the question more complicated than it is. Pastors can do that, sometimes. Maybe his point is just to encourage persistence in prayer, despite the outward appearance that it isn’t effective. Imagine how many times it must have seemed to the widow that her efforts were just a waste of time, not accomplishing anything, but in the end, it became clear that it was all a necessary part of the process – this allowing of herself to always remain hopeful that a good outcome was possible. Not guaranteed, mind you. We can only assume that the widow always remained realistic, and that she must have lived her days assuming the unlikelihood of getting her way, even while she kept working for the unlikely positive outcome. But she kept up hope, knowing that the positive outcome was possible. Maybe it really is that simple. We all understand that God’s ways aren’t our ways, and that God’s vantage point sees the totality of an issue while we can only see a very narrow part of it. Because of that, maybe Jesus’ whole point is just to keep that hope – to have that faith. We aren’t supposed to keep praying because we need to be a squeaky wheel to get God to notice us; we’re supposed to do it because we know that, as Jesus promised, God is answering our prayers, promptly, and in the best way possible as seen from God’s broader vantage point. And knowing that gives us the hope, which comes out of our faith, to keep praying.

This isn’t a long sermon. It isn’t a particularly deep sermon. It doesn’t dig into complex theological positions and arguments about the nature and efficacy of prayer of various sorts. It’s actually pretty simple. It’s simple because Jesus’ words were simple, too: in ways that we can’t always see or totally understand, God’s got this, so in a gospel equivalent of a Nike commercial, Jesus tells us Just do it. Just keep praying. Keep hoping. Keep trusting. And so we do.

Thanks be to God.

Give Thanks

(Sermon 10/9/16)

elegant-thank-you-card

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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The ten men stood along the road, hoping for someone passing by to have a bit of mercy on them and maybe give them some money; they needed to beg in order to survive. But these ten couldn’t just stand up close to the road, maybe by a traffic signal with a little handwritten cardboard sign trying to evoke compassion or at least pity. According to the religious Law, as lepers – people who had any one of a number of contagious skin diseases, not necessarily just what we call leprosy today – they weren’t allowed to live in town with other people. They had to live outside of the towns and cities, in a kind of quarantine, or even exile. Beyond being medically contagious, they were also considered ritually unclean, and anyone who came into contact with them also became ritually unclean. So even as the ten stood along the road, they had to yell out “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn anyone coming along. And if, by the slimmest of chances, any of them ever did actually get better, they needed to present themselves to the priest to verify that they were healed and ritually clean before they could re-enter society.

So on this particular day, Jesus was traveling along the road, and as he approached they started calling out to him, seeking mercy, whether that was actually physical healing or maybe just some money dropped in their cup. And we heard the story. Jesus tells the ten to go show themselves to the priest, as if they’d already been healed. But as Luke tells the story, they apparently weren’t healed immediately, on the spot; it was only once they were on their way to the priest that they were healed – so they must have been confused at first by what Jesus had told them to do, but they trusted him and did what he said. And somewhere along the way, they discovered that they actually had been healed.

It must have been an amazing thing. It would have been like they’d been given a completely new life. You can just imagine how excited they must have been; how big a hurry they would have been in to get to the priest, and be given the OK – clean scan, Cancer-Free, HIV Undetectable, whatever the modern analogy might be.

But in the excitement of that moment, and the rush they must have felt to get to the priest, one of them – and only one – took the time to run back to find Jesus, to give praise to God, and to thank Jesus for what he’d done. And to make it more staggering, this one man who took the time and effort to express his gratitude was a Samaritan, of all things. This one, whose actions Jesus complimented, was a member of a despised minority. Samaritans were religious and ethnic “half-breeds;” a population arising from Jews who had disobeyed the religious Law and intermarried with Gentiles, and when they even did worship the God of the Jews, did so in a way that the Jews considered heresy. Imagine Jesus holding up one of those people as a model to emulate.

I can’t tell you how many times in my own life I’ve gotten caught up in the moment and not expressed gratitude when I should have, whether to another person or to God. As I said in our weekly email, it wasn’t ever malicious, but was more just oblivious neglect. Sometimes, I might not have realized I’d done it until years later, and when I realized what I’d done, I’d try to find a way to make amends for it – better late than never, I suppose. The most troubling cases were where I couldn’t make amends to a person I owe gratitude to, because they’re no longer here.

We talk about gratitude a lot in the church, and how important gratitude to God is in the deepening and broadening of our faith. Part of that is just the recognition and identification of how we’ve been blessed, and that it’s God who’s deserving of gratitude for those blessings. In our weekly email, I mentioned someone who intentionally takes time at the end of each day to stop and recognize how we was blessed, and what he was grateful for that day; to write about them in his Gratitude Journal, and to take the time to thank God for those blessings. I think that’s a very good spiritual discipline.

But another important part of gratitude in our lives of faith is to recognize that it isn’t just a feeling or emotion. Gratitude needs to lead to an action, something concrete. Having a spirit of gratitude will lead us to do some thing, to show that gratitude in the most acceptable way – by sharing, extending, the love that’s embedded within whatever it is that we’re grateful for, outward. God blesses us because God loves us, and God wants us to show gratitude for that love and those blessings by reaching out and loving others in the same way.

I’m going to do something now that preachers rarely do: I’m going to shut up, and not say anything for the next two minutes. During that time, I’d like you to take the notecard that you got this morning. And on one side of the card, I want you to list, just in bullet form, maybe just a single word or two for each, the top seven or eight things in your life that you’re most grateful to God for. And I want you to really try to get to seven or eight of them, so you’ll have to get down past the top three or four that come to mind quickly for all of us. OK, you’ve got two minutes – Go…

OK, time. Congratulations; you’ve just started your own Gratitude Journal. Now here’s the next step: on the other side of that card, just jot down, and again, just a word or two for each idea, ways that you think you might be able to show gratitude for your list of things in some concrete way or ways. OK, ready? Go…

OK, time’s up. Now I’d like you to take that card and put it in your wallet or your purse, fold it in half and carry it around in your pocket, whatever it takes, but carry it around with you this coming week. Try to take it out at least once a day, and look at your list of things you’re grateful for. In those moments, ask if now that you’ve thought about it, what else might you add to that list? And look at the list of things you might do to express your gratitude to God. Are you doing any of those things? Are there other ways that you’ve thought of that might be a good idea? And then take a few moments out of your busy day, and give God thanks for the things on that list, and ask for the ability to do some of those concrete things you wrote down.

Whatever you wrote on either side of your card, remember that our gratitude – both the feeling of thankfulness, and whatever concrete action that arises from it – all arises out of God’s unchanging, unending love for us. The love that Jesus showed to the ten lepers on the road that day, even to the half-breed Samaritan heretic, is the very same love that he shows to you, and to me, today and always.

Thanks be to God.