Prayer is Weird.

(sermon 7/28/19)

belief-bible-catholic-267559

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: 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.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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Prayer is weird. Can we all just admit that? I mean, really, no matter how close you might feel with God, the whole idea of prayer can seem a little strange and farfetched – this idea that any time we want, all we have to do is close our eyes, or not, and have instant one-on-one access with the all-powerful, transcendent Source of All Being and Creator of the Multiverse. To have a deep, intimate conversation with God, any time we want, and for any length of time we want, without having to fill out any forms; or wait on hold listening to The Girl from Ipanema repeating twenty times and being told to be patient, your call is very important to God; or having our topic of discussion pre-screened by some heavenly personal assistant. To have that kind of access with God… it’s just a weird concept.

It’s also weird when we try to nail down just how, or even if, prayer works. Trying to understand the mechanics of it all. Does God really want to weigh in with advice on whether we should buy Rice Krispies or Corn Flakes in the grocery store, or the Honda or the Chevy, or the house on Walnut Street of Columbus Avenue? Or, can we really get God to do something, or change something, just because we ask for it? I mean, prayer is an important part of our ministry here; we pray for one another every Sunday, we have people committed to praying as part of the prayer chain throughout the week, and our Pastoral Care Team has prayer every week, too, so is it right that we can have that kind of influence with God?  And if that’s the case, if God’s mind can be changed like that, does that mean that God is just somehow bumbling through eternity making mistakes, until being corrected by us from time to time, or that God is like some weak or unprincipled politician who decides what to do based on whatever the last person he heard from wants, or whoever flatters him the most? And there’s the question of why some people’s prayers seem to be answered while others’ aren’t – we’ve all seen someone being interviewed after some tragedy, maybe a tornado or another mass shooting, and the person says that they were praying, and they were so grateful that God answered their prayers and saved them, but wasn’t God with those other people too, and weren’t they praying just as much? Or maybe a more basic question would be whether we’re really just deluding ourselves thinking that we have that kind of access at all. Instead of reaching the heights of heaven, do all of our words actually just stop at the drywall of our bedroom ceilings?

In the face of those kinds of questions, we have stories from scripture like the one we heard today from Luke. There, we heard Jesus telling his disciples that they should most definitely pray, that they do have that kind of direct access with God, and he offers them a sample framework for prayer that we’ve come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. And then he goes further, encouraging them that when they pray, to not be meek or mealy-mouthed in their prayer, but to pray specifically, and to be bold, audacious even, and to be confident that God will hear them.

And maybe that’s where our biggest difficulty with prayer comes in, because we’ve all prayed for something and not received it – and I don’t mean superficial things, but really important things. Let me get that job. Help save my child’s marriage. Make the abuse stop; make the cancer disappear. But it doesn’t. And that seems to contradict what Jesus told his disciples. And  we come up with explanations for that, with sayings like “God answers all prayers; it’s just that sometimes, the answer is no,” they all end up sounding lame and weak, and not much more than a bit of rhetoric to help us say we believe something is true when deep down in our hearts, it doesn’t really seem true at all.

Or even worse, we might see that unanswered prayer as a sign of our own moral or spiritual failing, because we all know that Jesus said if we only had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could ask God to move mountains and it would happen. So if it doesn’t happen, there must be something wrong with our faith, doesn’t there?

He was a hospital chaplain working the overnight shift yet again, when he was called to a patient’s room sometime around two in the morning to offer pastoral care to a family whose elderly father was near death. When he got to the room, he saw the man in bed, motionless; his jaw hanging open, his forearms drawn up close to his chest, that involuntary reflex to conserve body heat that’s a sign that the body is in the process of shutting down. The family asked the chaplain to lead them in prayer, to ask God to miraculously heal the man and keep him alive. The chaplain felt real compassion for them; his heart went out to them; but he started to tell them the same thing he’d told many other families in many other hospital rooms, that it would probably be more appropriate to pray for comfort and peace for their father; and for God’s will to be done; and to give God thanks for a life well-lived, and to give thanks that their father would soon be in God’s loving arms. The chaplain only got about half of that advice out, though, before the family started yelling at him, telling him that he had brought a spirit of antichrist and faithlessness and evil into the room, and that his presence would prevent God from healing their father. Together, the family members physically shoved him out of the room, and then they formed a circle around the man’s bed, praying and thinking God for the miraculous healing that they were sure God was about to perform.

The chaplain left the floor. He stopped by the cafeteria and had a dried-out cheeseburger that had been under the heat lamps for far too long, and a cup of mediocre coffee. Shortly after he’d finished it, he was paged back to the same room, to work with the same family, now to fill out all the paperwork that was necessary in the wake of the old man’s death; and to offer pastoral care to the family regarding the loss of their father; but now also regarding their crisis of faith – they were mortified that apparently, their faith wasn’t sufficient; that God had examined their hearts and found them wanting; that supposedly, they weren’t good enough or pure enough for God to give them the miracle they’d expected.

The family had definitely gotten that part of their beliefs wrong; the man’s death wasn’t the result of any lack of purity or faithfulness on their part. But maybe they had one thing right. They weren’t afraid to be bold, audacious, with their prayer, making very clear to God what their real hopes and aspirations were, regardless of what they were. That’s actually very much what Jesus told his disciples to do in today’s gospel text.

The truth is, other than Jesus telling us that God wants us to pray, and that God hears our prayers, I really don’t know much about it. I don’t understand the mechanics of it, and I don’t know the answers to all those sticky questions about it. Like everyone else, I’ve offered prayers and been disappointed. And like everyone else, I’ve offered other prayers that seemed to be fulfilled. And even though I consider myself to be a person of deep faith, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t really know for sure if the outcomes in either case were the result of the hand of God, or coincidence, or just fat dumb chance. But what I do know is that praying, not what we’re expected to say, not what the “right thing” is to say, but praying what I actually felt and thought, just laying it all out there, shamelessly and without any theological jargon, has helped me sense God in the midst of things. Telling the truth to God and myself through prayer has helped me to hear God in the thing, and to be reassured that whatever it was that was going on in my life, God was in the thick of it with me.

And yes, while there have been many times when I’ve prayed and felt alone in the exercise, there have also been times when I’ve prayed, and usually when I’m in the deepest of grief or anxiety, I’ve felt in some inexplicable way, surrounded by warmth, and acceptance, and assurance, and a feeling that I can only describe as “liquid love, flowing down and completely enveloping me, and I had absolutely no doubt that in that moment, I was in the very presence of God – that in that moment, I was in true communion with the divine, the holy of holies of all eternity. And my spirit was lifted. I was transformed. And because of that, I know that no matter how many questions I might have about prayer, and how many times I might intellectually think prayer works this way or another, or doesn’t work this way or another, I know that prayer is important, and that it is real connection between us and God.

So from start to finish, prayer is something that we won’t ever really understand. But then again, part of the good news in all of this for us is that Jesus never said we had to completely understand it; he only said that God wants us to do it – and to do it boldly, audaciously, shamelessly, honestly. And maybe that is weird. But if it is weird, it’s God’s kind of weird, and that’s the kind of weirdness that I’m okay with.

Thanks be to God.

Gut Theology

(sermon 7/14/19)

Bones and Spock

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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A week or two ago, an old friend that I grew up with made a post on Facebook that too many Christians were supposedly making a mistake of letting their feelings and emotions guide their actions, instead of using their heads – and that that led them into bad theology and sin. What he wrote was really just a reflection of a dispute that’s older than Christianity, or religion at all, and that goes all the way back to our earliest human origins – the question of the relationship and relative importance of intellect versus emotion; of thinking versus feeling – Of Spock versus Bones; or in the verbal shorthand of our culture, of head versus heart. In our western society, we’ve tended to strongly favor head over heart, holding that intellect is superior to emotions – that intellect is based on data and logic; it’s supposedly objective; you can put it on a spreadsheet and write formulas for it; where emotions are supposedly soft, ambiguous, fuzzy; they’re unpredictable and therefore, inferior. They aren’t, my old friend would say, a reliable way to understand the reality of a situation, or specifically, a reliable way to understand God, or to understand what God wishes might be in a given situation.

You can see the head-versus-heart debate in the scriptures and in the early church in the debate over what was more important – professing the right things, or doing the right things; or as the theologians would say, the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Paul and James contribute a lot to that debate in the scriptures, and so do many of the ancient prophets, and Jesus certainly jumps into the debate with both feet. And when you look at what Jesus and the majority of those others had to say about the subject, you’ll see that they believed that both our intellects and our emotions are equally important parts of our having been created in God’s image. They’re both important kinds of intelligence. They’re both based on data inputs; different kinds of data to be sure, but important data nonetheless. And frankly, when you look at Jesus’ words and the totality of the scriptural witness, as much as it might upset our Western, supposedly objective, head-based sensibilities, if Jesus and the others did favor any one of the two over the other, it was generally the heart knowledge, the emotional intelligence, that took precedence over the head.

We see that in today’s gospel text, the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man had questioned Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. When pushed by Jesus to try to answer his own question about what it would take, the man rattled off the Law, the scriptural commandments that he’d learned in Sunday School when he was small that he was supposed to believe, and he’d apparently taken them to heart. But then Jesus pushed him further, saying it wasn’t enough to just say he believed these things were correct; he had to actually let his emotions kick in and put those intellectual propositions into actual practice.

In this parable that Jesus offered to explain his point, the first two people who walked by the beaten and suffering man, one of their own countrymen, both were upstanding religious men who professed all those same commandments as the man who had questioned Jesus – they could have rattled off the same list of commandments from the Torah, the Law.

We’ve all seen and heard of the horrible situation on our southern border right now, with refugees, asylum-seekers; men, women, and children; being detained in vastly overcrowded facilities and often being denied the basic essentials of health and hygiene. We’ve all heard about the obscene policy of forcibly separating children, even infants, from their parents. Recently, during a television segment discussing those situations, a well-known commentator on a national news network said that well, yes, it’s a sad situation and all, but actually, you know, those aren’t our children. This was the mindset of those first two men who walked past the beaten men in the parable and did nothing. It was a shame, to be sure, but it really wasn’t any real concern of theirs. He wasn’t their problem.

These two men couldn’t make the connection that the religious Law that they professed and said they believed in was really a call to act with compassion – with their feelings and emotions – and that sometimes, the right practice of the intent of the Law might require them to act contrary to the letter of that Law.

Jesus tells us that the third man to come along was a Samaritan – a foreigner, part of a group who were despised by the Jews, and vice versa. The Samaritan wasn’t a part of the Jewish religious tradition; for all we know, he may not have been an adherent of any religion at all. And he knew that on any other day, the man he saw lying in a pool of blood along the side of the road could very possibly have been a serious threat to him. He’d probably have hurt the Samaritan, thrown a rock at him, or worse, if they’d met on the street. Still, whether he was an adherent of the Jewish faith or not, the Samaritan had the same Law within him that was professed by the others who’d come along, but in his case, it was written on his heart instead of his head.

Our Bible translation says that the Samaritan felt “pity” for the beaten man. That’s an unfortunate translation that doesn’t really capture the full meaning of the word being translated, and it implies that the Samaritan felt a sense of superiority, and was looking down on the beaten man. But this word being translated actually means that he felt deep, extreme compassion for him. Today, we’d say that our heart ached for the man, or that our heart went out to him, or was broken for him. In Jesus’ time they’d have conveyed the same idea by talking about their inner organs, their intestines – their guts. In fact, that’s actually what this Greek word literally refers to; it means that the Samaritan felt a deep compassion to the core of his intestines, his guts, for the suffering man, his would-be enemy. The Samaritan allowed his emotions, his gut, to rule the day, to write his theology, and not his head. And this, of all the possible stories Jesus could weave, was the illustration that he used to teach what’s most important to God, and what eternal life is all about. Head theology is good and important, but only in so far as it’s interpreted and converted into “Gut Theology.”

It’s gut theology that we celebrate today, as we recognize and commission all those in this congregation who will be living out their faith by working with Habitat for Humanity this year. If you’re one of those workers, realize that you are all gut theologians. Realize that in God’s eyes, every one of you who frames a wall in the name of God’s love is as important a theologian as St. Augustine; every one of you who hangs a window or paints a ceiling is as important a theologian as John Calvin; every one of you who makes and distributes lunches is as important a theologian as Karl Barth.

This week our Puerto Rico mission trip workers – our Puerto Rico gut theologians – have come back safe and sound, and now, we’re commissioning another group of people to go out from here to put right belief into right practice. In several weeks, we’re gong to host an event to highlight some of the many ways that all of us can be gut theologians, and a number of the sermons between now and then will highlight some of those ways, too. It’s important that in some way or another, each one of us finds a way to convert right belief into the more important right practice – to become a gut theologians ourselves. Out of gratitude for the grace and the love that God has poured upon all of us, we need to hear the wisdom of our heads, but to act based on the wisdom of our feelings. To do anything less would be… well, illogical.

Thanks be to God.

Coming and Going

(sermon 7/7/19 – Immigration Sunday)

go away doormat
Elisha’s doormat

2 Kings 5:1-14

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

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Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

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The prophet Elisha may not be the strangest person in the Bible, but he certainly ranks up there, which is impressive given just how relatively little the scriptures tell us about him. Unlike his mentor Elijah, who never seemed to be at a loss for words, Elisha actually didn’t say much. Most of the scriptural record of him focuses on supernatural miracles he performed – making oil mysteriously not run out, raising a boy from the dead, making an axe head float in water – usually without much conversation from him surrounding it. In one case, Elisha wanted to say something to a woman who’s been offering him hospitality in her home for years, so he has his personal assistant Gehazi bring the woman to him – in her own home – and while she’s standing there right in front of him, Elisha tells Gehazi, “Tell the woman…” what he wants to say, refusing to speak directly to her while she was standing right in front of him and must have been thinking “Well what am I, chopped liver?”

Another time, in maybe the most bizarre of Elisha stories, Elisha is being hounded by a large crowd of young boys who are teasing Elisha because he’s bald, so he summons two bears to come down out of the woods and maul 42 of the boys, indicating that Elisha had anger management issues, to put it mildly.

That’s all a long-winded way of making it clear that Elisha was not by any stretch of the imagination a people-person, and that sets the stage for the story we heard about him this morning. Naaman, a powerful, highly decorated, well respected five-star general in the army of the neighboring kingdom of Aram, hears that this odd little man of God in the Samaria – this backwater, the armpit of the universe by Naaman’s estimation, might be able to cure him of this ailment that he’s been suffering from for so long. So at least for a little while, he pushes down his substantial ego and goes to get an audience with  Elisha.

Of course, we heard that isn’t exactly how things played out. When Naaman and his entourage arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha wouldn’t even agree to see this foreign bigshot in person. He sends out some unnamed lackey to tell Naaman to go jump in the lake, almost literally. Elisha instructed the lackey to tell Naaman to just go bathe in the Jordan River nearby, which in that location was likely muddy, and brackish, and hardly more than a large creek, something that looked like if you tried to bathe in it you’d probably come out dirtier than when you’d gone in. This was too much for Naaman’s ego, and he decides to go home, unhealed, until some of his people talk some sense into him. Finally, Naaman gives in, and does what he’s been told, and he ends up heading home healed and humbled, and all without Elisha ever having to debase himself by actually meeting Naaman.

There’s a bit of a reversal of this situation in today’s gospel reading. There, Jesus sends his disciples out to engage directly with people throughout the countryside, to heal the suffering and proclaim God’s good news, rather than waiting for them to come to them, as Naaman came to Elisha, to receive God’s blessings. When the disciples did this, and they return, they’re joyful as they tell Jesus all about what had happened, and their experiences. You can imagine the excitement in their voices. Clearly, this was a transformative experience for them, and you can almost hear them tell Jesus that most  often-heard comment made by people coming back from a mission trip, that they know they helped others, but they’d received so much more than what they’d given. I’m sure that when our group in Puerto Rico gets home, many of them will say the same thing.

That seems to be an important way that God works within us. We’re called to be compassionate toward others, to proclaim God’s good news of love for them, to be the face; the heart, hands, and feet of Christ to them – but at the same time, we experience God, we learn about God, we’re transformed by God, largely by coming into contact and relationship with them.  They have things to teach us – about them, about God, about ourselves. That act of being open to and receiving others seems, in fact, to possibly be the most important way that we grown in our faith and see God in the world.

So let’s think back, then, to that story of Elisha and Naaman. There are all sorts of things that a person could draw out of this story, but I suspect that more often than not, it’s told as a morality play in which the moral of the story is “Don’t be a Naaman” – don’t let our pride and ego get in the way of God working goodness in our lives. And that’s a good enough point, I guess, but today I want to suggest seeing the story from a different angle, one where the moral of the story might be “Don’t be an Elisha.” I imagine Elisha, sitting in his house after this encounter, feeling all smug and superior for having basically just phoned in Naaman’s healing, without ever having any actual personal contact with him. And in the midst of that feeling of superiority, I imagine Elisha passing by a mirror in his house, and stopping for a moment to look at himself in it; and as he’s looking into his own eyes he hears the voice of God saying “Really, Elisha? Do you know what you just missed? Do you really know everything about why I sent that man to meet you? Do you realy think you couldn’t possibly have anything to learn from him? Do you know what I’d had in mind for you, what I wanted you to learn through him, how I wanted to make you a better servant of mine, by meeting and talking with him? Really, Elisha?” And I imagine Elisha realizing what an opportunity he’d just missed, how he’d frustrated God’s good intentions for him, by not opening himself up to this other person, and suddenly, he couldn’t look into his own eyes anymore, and he quietly walked away.

This past week, we’ve been celebrating our American ideal of independence. This coming week, let’s also try to recognize and celebrate the interdependence that God has created us for, and designed us for, and continually is drawing us toward. Let’s be thankful for the good news that God loves us. And God loves and all the people that Jesus’ disciples helped. And God loves the Elishas of the world, and all the Naamans of the world. Let’s remember and be grateful for the truth that just as God uses us to transform the lives of others, God also uses those others, however we go to them or however they come to us, to transform us, too.

So whose life will you transform this week? And who will you allow to transform your own?

Thanks be to God.