The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Easter Unfolding

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-35 preached on April 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

The ability to see is granted gently.

Throughout scripture, God’s very presence is described as light. The kind of light that overwhelms us, the kind our eyes are not built to withstand or make any sense of.

When God comes to His people, it’s always with a blinding truth that none of us are able to handle. Think of Moses at the burning bush. On fire but not consumed. Think of Sinai, the mountain that only Moses could ascend. He climbed into God’s radiating company. After those mountaintop conversations with God, Moses had to cover his face with a veil, or else the afterglow of God was enough to blind the Israelites.

I imagine every time he stood atop Sinai, Moses shook all over from a reverent fear—an overwhelmed and overwhelming sense of the Holy that not one of us are built to witness. Not many of us could withstand such a sight.

God knows this about us. God was careful with Moses, and God is gentle with us, too. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. That’s why Easter comes not all at once, but over all these days and weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. God unfolds the Truth of Easter slowly. One sign at a time, and only when our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are ready to see it.

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No one has ever found Emmaus. Thousands, perhaps millions, of maps have been unfolded, unearthed, and unrolled from their ancient containers, combed over with magnifying glasses in case its name has faded away, but Emmaus has never been discovered. Perhaps it was never a place—or at least no place in particular.

And Cleopas. Who’s Cleopas? We don’t know really. He wasn’t one of the Twelve, but he was a disciple of Jesus all the same. He and his unnamed traveling companion—they were walking away. Away from Jerusalem. And toward who knows where or what. Maybe they didn’t even know. All they knew was that something they had given their lives to had come to an end. It all had unraveled in the course of the last three days. Along the way to Emmaus, they recounted their time with Jesus to each other. All the places He had taken them.

Wouldn’t we like to know all they were saying to each other. They must have recounted His words. His teachings. They must have laughed at themselves for never understanding any of His parables. What was Jesus trying to say, anyway?!

They must have had conversations along the Road about all the healings they witnessed. The way Jesus talked about God as if He knew God’s own heart—or had God’s own mind. What’s not to be astonished by? How could they ever forget?

They must have recounted that last week with Jesus over and over again while they walked away. The conflict in the Temple. That last meal together. The words Jesus had spoken around that table—this is my body broken;  this is my blood poured. Those sleepy moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when their Master went off on His own to pray. The two of them must have poured over every detail of what happened next. The arrest. The chaos of it. It all happened so fast. The next time they saw Jesus, He was hanging on a cross. Then the burial. How many tears were shed along that road as these last few days unfolded again and again in their memories? How do you walk away from all that?

They were going back to their old lives. They were walking away from the last three years of following Jesus. All of it having unraveled into nothing right in front of them.

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It’s in the thick of their grief, the fog of all this loss, that Jesus comes along. Appearing to them as a fellow companion along their journey away. Anonymous. Just a stranger keeping them company. He walks with them slowly. Nobody’s in a rush here. There’s nowhere specific to go now—nothing left to do anymore, or so they thought. This is slow time along a lost and dusty road. Jesus had so much to share with them. So much to prove to them, but Jesus is patient with them. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. Jesus knows this about us.

It’s along a road like this, with stories shared like these, that the truth of Easter should strike us not as an event that occurred, but a path on which we stand. A journey we take. A direction we walk. Easter, as well as the resurrection that comes with it, they are not one-time events frozen in place along a timeline. They are a constant unfolding of truth that takes place right in front of us. Easter resurrection is a way for us to encounter Jesus no matter when or where we are.

Emmaus maybe be a lost destination so far as maps are concerned, but we know where it is, because we’ve been there before. Emmaus is all the in-between places in our lives. It’s the ground we stand on when we don’t know exactly where we stand or what we stand for. There are many Emmauses. It’s in the middle of these Emmaus moments that Jesus arrives.

What are you discussing as you walk along?

He says.

Jesus companions with us in these places, but He doesn’t reveal himself—not at first, not in any obvious way—because He knows that our faith cannot yet handle a revelation. We aren’t yet ready for that. Faith cannot be forced upon us. It cannot be coerced. Faith—that is, having eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus—does not come all at once. It must be gradually unfolded in front of us. We are brought to sight slowly. As poet Denise Levertov puts it, every step we take is a sort of arrival. God is patient with His people.

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There are moments in our lives when we feel like we’re headed in no specific direction at all. When we lose sight of our purpose and our path. So, we walk away. Away from life as we knew it before. In our grief and hurt, we think that every step forward—away from a life that once was—will distance us from our past.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. That first question He asks the two along the road is Jesus’ way of reminding them of who they are and whose they are. In effect, Jesus comes along and says,

Let me re-tell you your story. It’s God’s story, too.

Jesus won’t let them walk away. God’s story is the biblical story, and we have been a part of it from the very beginning. Jesus won’t let them walk away because first and foremost, this is a story of a God who relentlessly pursues us. Who will not let us go. Who will not let us forget our story. And that’s when Jesus takes over. He tells the two everything that God has been doing. He starts with Moses—all that God has done for His people as God guided them away from slavery in Egypt and into the freedom and abundance of the Promised Land.

Jesus didn’t stop there. He told them about all the prophets who came along after that to guide God’s people in the right direction. Throughout history, those who lose their hope in God—who forget their salvation story—they walk away. But over and over again, God pursued them, retaught them their own story, and set them back on right paths again.

Along the road to Emmaus, as Jesus unfolds God’s story for the two disciples, their hearts are kindled inside of them. Brought to flame. And with each one of Jesus’ words, the two disciples begin piecing back together what they thought was forever broken. Maybe the Jesus story does have a future. Who are we to say that God’s story has an ending? Maybe there’s more.

Easter slowly unfolds in front of these two disciples along the Emmaus road. They start gaining eyes to see some vague notion of a future for themselves. Their hearts are brought to flame as the Holy Spirit speaking into them. But they needed more nudging. We all do. Our eyes are never opened fully. The Easter news of resurrection is too big for us to see all at once. There’s always more that needs revealing. It was only when they stopped and gathered around table, as Jesus broke bread with the two, that something in them was shaken awake.

How many times had they gathered around table with Jesus and shared bread with him? How many times had Jesus hosted a meal with them, inviting the hungry and the lost to be nourished, to recover who they are while sitting around table? This happens over and over again. Countless times. It was around table that their eyes were opened. When bread is shared, all heaven breaks loose.

They recognize Jesus right then. In table fellowship. This should remind us of Communion, of course, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that Luke intends here. After all, it was the two disciples who invited Jesus to stay and eat with them. Jesus was their guest. With hearts burning inside of them, they couldn’t yet let go of this mysterious traveler. They wanted more time with Him. Having been invited to their table, though, Jesus quickly becomes their Heavenly Host, taking bread and breaking it in front of them. It was then, in that moment when Jesus took bread and broke it, that their burning hearts were broken open and they could see!

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Friends, Easter is still unfolding right in front of us. There is no end to God’s story. Salvation is still working itself out right in front us, with every step we take along the Way. Emmaus is nowhere in particular. Emmaus is everywhere. Emmaus always happens. Easter is always unfolding in front of us. In all of our journeys, do we have eyes to see Jesus with us?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Character

A sermon based on Micah 6:8 and Matthew 5:1-2 preached on January 29th, 2017

Blessed are those who are sure of themselves, who are so confident they have no need to rely on anyone but themselves, because they have it all figured out.

Blessed are those who pay no attention to other people’s suffering, for they will walk through the world with light feet and light hearts and nothing upon their conscience.

Blessed are the strong and the brash, for their lack of humility impresses others around them.

Blessed are those think this world is fair to everyone simply because it’s been fair to them, for they sleep well at night.

Blessed are those who run over their opponents by whatever means necessary, for they will prevail in victory.

Blessed are those who lie through a smile, whose despite their kind appearances, always have ulterior motives, for in their deviousness they always get their way.

Blessed are those who stir up trouble, and never step off the battle field, because troublemaking is always easier than peacemaking.

Blessed are those who persecute and torment others to get their way, because the world belongs to the strongest, and all is fair in love and war.

If the ways of the world had their own set of beatitudes, those are it. We know who the winners are. We’re familiar with all the clichés: Nice guys finish last; Dog Eat Dog; Survival of the Fittest.

I wrote this set of beatitudes trying my best to say the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ said in His set. These alternate beatitudes are the ideals our culture lifts up and celebrates. They’re build into the very fabric of our nation. And anyone who doesn’t live by this set of beatitudes will be trampled underfoot.

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For the next few Sundays, we will move slowly through Jesus’ most famous words—the ones from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It is a surprising and upside-down picture of what faithful living looks like. We have heard these words for most of our lives, but I hope they have never really made much sense to you. That’s a good indication that you’ve been listening. I hope they still startle you. They still startle me.

As a whole, the Sermon on the Mount is a discourse on discipleship. It’s an 8-minute long description of how Christians should perceive and conduct themselves. In a way, it’s a working manual for the Ways of God, but that’s not all it is. That’s too small a thing. More to the heart of the matter, the Sermon on the Mount is a Rule of Life for each and every one of us who call ourselves Christian.

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I want to tell you about my week away doing Continuing Education back in early November. I went to a conference for Presbyterian pastors called Credo. Credo means I put my trust in. For 7 or 8 days, about 50 recently-ordained church leaders were invited to take a step back from the busy day-in and day-out stuff of ministry and focus our energy and imaginations on reconnecting to the very essence of our God-calling. We were challenged to pay closer attention to ourselves, to reclaim that part of us that led us into church ministry in the first place, to reestablish ways that honor our God-given character, to identify the values that are most important to us, and to insist on making time to tend to our spiritual lives throughout our weeks and our months doing ministry.

We all left that week having written our own Rule of Life. A manifesto of sorts. But more than that, I think: a very intentional plan for the living of these days. We promised each other before we left for home that we would spend the next 11 months practicing our newly-written Rules of Life, come back together this coming October, and see how they might need re-tweaking. I want to share my Rule of Life with you.

Stretch: Do an hour of stretching every day.

Pray: Spend an hour reading scripture and in prayer every day.

Play: Go on hikes, dates with my wife, and whenever possible, stop working at 5:30p

Spend: Be a good steward of money

I also wrote a big dream, a Mi Gran Sueno, for this year: Start outlining the book I’ve always wanted to write. These are very simple, very doable practices. There’s not a thing extraordinary about them, but tending to them faithfully day-in and

These are very simple, very doable practices. There’s not a thing extraordinary about them, but tending to them faithfully day-in and day-out sometimes seems heroic. Often, I do one or the other of them not out of sense that it will lead me into greater life, but merely out of a sense duty or drudgery. Some days, I complete forget I’ve made a Rule of Life at all. And other days, I simply don’t care that I have, and I hope for a better attitude for the next day.

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If these 8 beatitudes that begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount had checkboxes next to them, I wouldn’t be able to put a mark in any one of them. None of these come naturally to me. In fact, by many standards, they may look to you and I like terrible advice! Impractical and foolish. But, let’s not pass them up so quickly.

At first glance, they may appear as mere suggestions for how you and I should behave. Or maybe you see them the opposite way, as rules that we need to adhere to. We might think that a list like this isn’t so much for regular Christians, but only for those more holy than we are. Might you think that because I’m a Pastor, they’re made for me, but not for you? Not so fast! These beattitudes are for all of us. And they’re not so much a list of 8 things we have to be or accomplish. These 8 things are really only 1 thing: a single vision of what a God-blessed life looks like. Read rightly, these beattitudes are both an invitation into, and a description of true Christian character. This is what our lives would look like if we lived them the ways God wants us to. We are to take this sketch of blessedness that Jesus has given us and spend the rest of our days doing our best to live into it. And, in a word, the sketch of Christian character looks: Different.

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Maya Angelou was a writer as well a person of deep Christian faith. But if you ever heard her talk about her faith, you’d hear her use hesitant words. She didn’t like to call herself a Christian. As a poet, she knew the meaning of words very deeply, and she understood the word Christian means little Christ, and that was simply too big of a thing for her to claim. She thought that when anyone identified them self as Christian, it rang of self-accomplishment. It seemed to her too big of a thing for anyone to assume about themselves—that they’d made it. They’d become a little Christ. She thought she just wasn’t there yet. I know what she’s saying, but I’m not sure I agree with her. None of us are there yet, and it’s a dangerous person who thinks they have arrived.But can we not call ourselves something that we’re still hoping to become?

The first disciples of Jesus were called by that name not because of what they already were but what Jesus thought they ought to be. We know what we ought to be, and there is no better a collection of words in all of scripture that describe it—the essence of Christian character than these Beattitudes. These are enormous words, and we should spend our days living into every one of them.

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Let’s run through each of them quickly.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I best understand a thing when it’s compared to its opposite, so throughout I’m going to repeat the world’s beattitudes that I shared a few minutes ago.

Blessed are the poor in spirit – The spiritually poor are those who practice a humble dependence upon God. Its opposite are those who are sure of themselves, who say they have it all figured out. The poor in spirit know they are unable to save themselves. They know they have nothing to offer God, and who therefore look to God for salvation, asking for God’s grace. To such as these, the Kingdom of God is given. This is a quality of character we should practice.

Blessed are those who mourn – We usually equate mourning with the loss of a loved one, but this goes deeper than that. Jesus is talking about those who see the sorrow and suffering of an unjust world, who mourn the loss of their own self-respect, or the self-respect of others. The opposite: those who don’t seem to care about the suffering of others. By sharing this quality of Christian character, Jesus asks us to take an honest look at the evil we see in the world, to face it, to name it, take it personally, and weep over it.

Blessed are the meek is there to suggest that we practice a gentle and humble attitude toward others. Its opposite is something like throwing your weight around. The meek are those who know what a great gift God’s grace is, who know in the deepest parts of who they are that there’s nothing about them that earns God’s favor.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the ones among us who are never satisfied by the world’s idea of justice and fairness—who realize that human beings have a great capacity to mistreat others, and whose greatest prayer for the world is that all people may be treated in a way that honors their God-given integrity and dignity.

Mercy is compassion for those in need. Blessed are the merciful directs us in the ways of forgiveness and compassion for others. We live into this one when another’s suffering becomes our suffering too. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared,

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Blessed are the pure in heart – A person pure in heart is sincere. When you look into their eyes, you get this feeling that their whole life—inside and out—all their thoughts and all their motives are pure. I’m sure you can imagine the opposite

Blessed are the peacemakers – We should give ourselves to the work of creating calm where there is anxiety, understanding where there is conflict, and figuring out our problems without the use of violence.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness – This one speaks loudest to those Christians in parts of the world where their faith puts their life in danger. For us, it speaks how important it is to be unwavering in our faith, even when—especially when—it’s inconvenient. If you can’t see yourself in any of these descriptions, I implore you, in the name of Jesus Christ to change your ways. This is about as close as a Presbyterian minister will come to giving an alter call.

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Let me give away the ending here…each and every one of us will fall short of this picture of God blessedness. The point isn’t to accomplish any of these. The point is to do our best to live into them, to lean into them, to trust their divine wisdom a whole lot more than we trust in the backwards wisdom of the world. The prophet Jeremiah declared to his people,

Do not follow the ways of the nations…the rituals of the nations are hollow.

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Let us live into these counter-cultural words. They are nothing less than Jesus’ version and vision of personhood and the very shape of human being created in God’s image. May you give yourself to them. May you walk in the directions they take you, and in their practicing, may you discover the Way of Jesus.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

 

Going Without Knowing

A sermon based on Psalm 27:1, 4-9 and Matthew 4:12-23 preached on January 22nd, 2017

Sermon audio

These days, it’s awfully difficult to hold our attention. Our culture moves fast. We dart from one thing to another just as fast as our high-speed internet connections can move us. It’s not difficult to get our attention, but it’s almost impossible to hold our attention. Scientific studies have proven this. Since the year 2000, the average attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, which is the attention span of your average goldfish. If that’s true, it means I’ve already lost you.

Magazine editors also know this about us. The word-count of your average article has dropped from 2,000 words to somewhere around 400 words. Any longer than that, and they lose their readers. I’d like to say that I’m not a part of that easily distracted average, but I know that every time I get my Atlantic Monthly or Smithsonian Magazine in the mail, I turn to the cover article to see how long it is. If it’s anything over 4 pages, there’s a good chance I’ll throw the magazine away before I get to reading it. In this sense and others, we’ve become tourists in our own lives. We visit moments, but we no longer settle down into them. We live out of our suitcases instead of using the chest of drawers, empty and available for us.

And in a lot of ways, our religious lives are like that, too. We enjoy those occasional moments of spiritual highs—the moments when our faith entertains us. We make scarce time to grow in our faith, and if we’re honest, the attention we give to practicing our faith is fleeting—counted only in moments. It’s more akin to a rest stop along the highway than a long, day-in and day-out journey down the road.

We don’t mean to spend so little time attending to our relationship with Jesus, it’s just that, increasingly, Jesus has to be squeezed into our ever-endangered free moments. Whatever attention we pay to Jesus has to be written into our schedules. Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, puts it this way:

There’s little interest or enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue or of deeper knowledge.

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Come, follow me!

Jesus shouts to those first disciples. And right way, Simon Peter and Andrew drop their diversions—the nets they were mending—and follow Him.

One thing missing from this story is all the small print. There’s no clarification of what this commitment these first 4 followers of Jesus would be like. No questions of how long this would project of discipleship would take. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John weren’t given an itinerary or an ETA. Jesus didn’t hand them a syllabus, nor did he present them with a project proposal. Really, no details at all. Jesus simply said,

Come, follow me,

and they dropped everything and went with Him.

Jesus doesn’t want casual fans. He’s not interested in entertaining tourists. Read all 4 gospels. There’s never a moment where Jesus tolerates a distracted follower. Jesus doesn’t care for sightseers. Jesus wants disciples.

A disciple, biblically speaking, is a learner, not a learner in the academic sense of the word, but someone who dedicates her or himself to the slow, careful, intentional, and meticulous ways of apprenticeship. Whether we’ve ever realized it or not, when we call ourselves disciples, we are identifying ourselves as people who learn and work as apprentices under the tutelage of Jesus, our master craftsman.

This means that discipleship is a learning-growing relationship where we live under the guidance and instruction of our Teacher, and we dedicate our everyday, our every moment to paying attention to the ways of Jesus. And like all apprenticeships, discipleship takes every bit of our day, every bit of our focus, our entire mind and heart. The student soaks herself in the life and ways of her teacher. So are we to throw all of ourselves into the careful and meticulous learning as apprentices of Jesus. Casual glances toward Jesus isn’t discipleship. It’s tourism. Freidrich Nietzche calls biblical discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction.”

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Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John—none of them were looking for new jobs. If we take this story at face value, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t, Jesus simply shows up one day and disrupts their lives. Not asking but telling them to follow Him. Jesus pulled them away from everything they ever knew. The rhythm of their days as fisherman. Their family and friends. Their homes and their mortgages. And for some unknown and thoroughly confounding reason, these first 4 disciples drop everything, including their nets, and follow Jesus. The only thing Jesus says about what’s coming next for them is this ambiguous and mysterious mixed metaphor:

I’ll show you how to fish for people.

“To fish for people.” That’s the calling. That’s the vocation of a disciple, and we have to figure out what that means in our own contexts. Change the metaphor if you need to. I have a hunch that the only reason Jesus used a fishing metaphor is because he was talking to fishermen. If Jesus was talking to construction workers, He might have said,

Come, follow me. I’ll show you how to dig for people and build up a new Kingdom.

If He was talking to a bunch of chiropractors, he might have said,

Come follow me. I’ll show you how to turn your crooked hearts and lives back into their proper alignment.

The point is that you take who you are, how you best understand the world and your place in it, and apply it in a bigger way change the world with it.

Jesus’ call is a summons to be something bigger—to think bigger thoughts about your purpose and place in the world, because God’s call upon your life and mine isn’t merely a call to do something; it’s a call to be something. Jesus calls us as we are, from where we are and how we are, being who we are, and then He takes us farther, changing our focus, expanding our sense of purpose, apprenticing us in the Way until we realize that the Yes we’ve said to Jesus means giving of our entire selves to the call of God upon our lives.

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In a world full of people trying their best to take the lead, who seem to define success as the capacity to climb to the highest rung of whatever ladder they’re on, the vocation of discipleship says that being a leader doesn’t hold a candle to being a follower of our Divine Apprentice.

Discipleship is first an abandoning of all the values that our culture holds up highest, and giving ourselves to the project of followership. It’s a changing of loyalties. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a purposeful, determined, and daily humbling of ourselves. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John—they had no clue where Jesus was leading them, but they followed and obeyed anyway. Discipleship means going without knowing, being caught up in what Jesus is doing. It’s a call to spend our days and our lives sharing in the life and ways of Jesus, giving our best, apprentice-like attention and devotion to our Fisher King.

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A story like this, where four random people simply get up, seemingly abandon their lives as they knew them, and walk away from every one of their relationships makes all of us feel…what? Small? Pithy? Incredulous? This story does have a certain sting to it, doesn’t it?

When we ask ourselves what we would do if we were in the situation, dropping it all and following just doesn’t seem possible. We’re no sea-faring people like the disciples. We spend most of our time on land. We have our feet, as well as our loyalties, firmly grounded in some very specific places with some very specific and beloved people. So, maybe our version of dropping our nets and following Jesus—this going without knowing—looks a little different for most of us. And that’s okay. We’re not all meant to be vagabonds. But just like those first disciples, we come and go, leave and arrive in so many senses of those words. What if we did it all under the apprenticeship of the Master Craftsman of our lives, Jesus the Christ?

Maybe our call to be disciples of Jesus means dropping our own nets—all those heavy things in our lives that only ensnare us, entangle us. All those small things that take up too much of our time and attention, that distract us from seeing how Jesus is always approaching us, saying to us in some way or another, “Come, follow me!” It could be that following where Jesus takes us means considering all of those fears we have that keep us where we are.

Could it be that some of us are trapped inside nets of our own making—the selfish motives we have woven over the years, that feeling we have that we are helpless to undo all the knots we’ve made in our own lives or in the lives of others. Maybe the call to drop our nets means being more receptive to the voice of Jesus. Or, could it be that Going Without Knowing means getting out of our own way so that Jesus can become our way.

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That’s not a bad prayer for all us, by the way. What if, before we rolled out of bed in the morning, we prayed a prayer like this:

Jesus, get in my way today! In fact, Jesus, become my way, today!

That’s not the prayer of a casual follower or a sightseer, nor are those words a spiritual tourist would say. Those are the words of an apprentice, a disciple on the Jesus Way.

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May we be caught up in the Jesus vocation, this going without knowing, this long apprenticeship in holiness. This long obedience in the same direction.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Keeping Company with God

A sermon based on Psalm 63-1-8 and Luke 10:38-42 preached July 3rd, 2016

Sermon audio

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries about these 5 little verses. Even over just the last couple decades, this little story about Mary and Martha has given rise to Sunday School lesson after Sunday School lesson. There’s a book, complete with a study guide and DVD, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, that’s marketed to women. Its author, Joanna Weaver, points out that most women are Martha’s, constantly running around taking care of everyone around them, no time to stop at all. That certainly seems true.

The question that tends to be asked about this passage in every bible study ever made about it is, “Are you a Mary or are you a Martha? This story has been made into a personality test of sorts. Regardless of your gender, “Are you the doing type like Martha, or are you the reflective sort like Mary?”

We’ve made Martha out to be the personification of constant worry and anxiety. She’s the very first Martha Stewart—queen of the kitchen. Mary, on the other hand, is made out to be the personification of faithfulness and prayerfulness.

So, Which one are you? is the question. Mary or Martha? So, whenever we hear this story, we’re forced to choose one or the other as if that’s how we’re wired. As if Martha was always the busy-body and Mary was always the relaxed, laid-back one. The truth is, at times, we’re all a bit like Martha, and at other times, we’re all a bit like Mary. It all depends on the situation we’re in.

The other truth is there were many moments when the roles were switched, where Mary was all business, and Martha was the one paying attention to Jesus. We’re are all Martha in moments. We are all Mary in moments. It’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and. There are times in our lives for everything. Times to be of service and times for quiet contemplation. At least in a well-balanced life, that’s the way it works out. This story doesn’t exist so we can peg ourselves as one or the other. This story exists to remind us that it’s important for all of us to take time to unplug from or resist all the demands that come rushing at us from one day to the next, and push them away at least for a time, so we can take some time to listen to Jesus—to sit at His feet and keep company with God.

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Last week, we talked about prayer as speaking up—shouting into the heavens, demanding, expecting God to answer. This week, we go a little deeper than that. This week, we’re looking at the relationship that prayer is meant to foster.

Imagine Mary in this moment. Jesus is teaching in the living room. There are disciples all around her listening to Him, also. She may be the only female in the living room.

There’s the clink and clatter of dishes being thrown around in the kitchen just one room over. Martha, her sister, is angry that Mary’s not helping and she’s taking her anger out on the pots and pans. Mary hears the clatter she’s making and knows the exact meaning of every single noise coming from the kitchen: Martha thinks she should be in there with her preparing the meal. But Mary tries her best to shove all those distractions aside and focus for a time—for this one moment at least—on Jesus’ every word. It’s not every day that Jesus comes around, so Mary is not going to let this opportunity pass her by! This is her chance to keep company with God, to pay attention to the Teacher, to learn the language and lessons of Jesus, to hold space with the Divine!

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Is there someone in your life who you don’t have to say a single word to in order to feel completely understood? Who you can simply hold space with, and no matter where the two of you happen to be, that space feels like home? If you’re lucky enough to have found that sort of intimacy, then you know a bit about the heart of prayer.

Prayer has many purposes, of course. There’s the kind of prayer where we ask God for what we need. That’s the sort of prayer where we do most of the talking. We can use prayer to ask for forgiveness or to complain about something. All of it is legitimate. Whatever we need to take to God is a perfect use of prayer. But when it comes down to it, the central purpose of prayer is to keep company with God. That’s it! The chief purpose of prayer is to hold space with the Divine, to nurture an intimate relationship with the God who craves relationship with us. Prayer is close encounter of the 1st kind.

More than anything, God wants us close, and prayer is the vital lifeline of every disciple. It’s the engine room of the Christian faith. Prayer’s purpose is to know God and be known by God, and that happens only when we make time—undistracted and intentional time—to do what Mary did, and sit at the feet of Jesus. God sees how hard that is for us. He knows that there are a million and one things to take care of in the kitchen. He’s heard the banging of pots and pans, the anxious stirring of spoons and restless slicing of kitchen knives. But even among all the loud distractions, God speaks up and says Choose what is better! Don’t just do something, sit there! Spend time keeping company with me. If that means getting up earlier in the morning before all the distractions of the day come rushing in all at once, so be it! Make that happen. If it means calling Time Out in the middle of the day to catch your breath and, like Mary, take a moment to sit at the feet of Jesus, then do that.

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When it comes to prayer and scripture reading, most of us have good intentions. It’s just that most our moments get stolen away from us. Like Martha, the demand of the hour pulls us away into the everyday-ness of it all, and we end up losing ourselves in our tasks. It’s hard to find time to step back and take a moment to dedicate ourselves to growing our faith and our prayer lives. But, to use Jesus’ words about Mary, we need to choose what is better.

Prayer is slow time with the One who knows us more than we know ourselves. God knows us better than anyone else does. And if we give ourselves over to practicing prayer on a daily basis, we will find an oasis there, away from the clink and clatter of our busy kitchens and our busy lives.

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The truth about prayer is that it’s not so much a way to visit with God as it is a homecoming. Our lives are made whole because of our relationships, and prayer is the way to nurture our first relationship, the most important relationship of all—the one we have with a God who calls us His very own sons and daughters.

Friends, God wants us close. God wants us to take our relationship with Him much more seriously. We know that every good relationship takes effort. It takes an effort to carve out time from the busyness of our everyday and give it to those we love. Our relationship with God is no different. In fact, it’s even more crucial. A faithful relationship with God is well worth whatever time we can steal away from any other part of our lives.

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This is all way too easy to preach and hard to do. These sermons aren’t just for me to preach to you. I preach to myself, too. For a pastor, I’m terrible at stepping away from the busyness of it all to spend some time in prayer. It’s always my intention to do so, but it just never really works out that way. There have been times that I’ve spent moments in the dark and still of this sanctuary, eager to take slow time away from all clink and clatter of my week, and even though I tried, I couldn’t keep my attention on prayer.

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There’s a story about a tourist who observes an Orthodox Jewish man who’s praying at the holiest place in all of Judaism, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Jewish man is rocking back and forth from heel to toe and over again, his eyes are closed, and he’s beating his chest, and sometimes he raises his hands in prayer. When he finishes praying, the tourist comes up to him and asks,

What do you pray for?

The Jewish man responds,

I pray for righteousness. I pray for the health of my family. I pray for peace in the world, especially in Jerusalem.

Are these prayers effective?

the tourist asks. And the Jewish man replies,

It’s like talking to a wall.

Next week, we’ll talk a little more about all the stuff that gets in our way whenever we set out to pray, but for now it’s important to say that even when we think we’re doing it wrong and nothing seems to be working out, even in those moments of struggling prayer, God is keeping company with us and honors us for keeping company with Him.

Even when prayer seems like a failed experiment, God is there. We are too. And that means we’re holding space with God. Every moment we spend sitting at the feet of Jesus is worth it. God will use that time to grow us.

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One more story. It’s the story of a father who decided to install a staircase in his backyard. He picked out the stones he wanted. Some weighed around 100 pounds and others around 200. It took all his strength to move each one into position. His five-year old daughter came out and begged to help. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. The father suggested she help by taking two giant steps back and sing him a song to encourage him along in his work. She said no. She wanted to help. So, carefully, whenever it would not endanger her, he let her place her hands on the rocks as he pushed them into place. Well, all this made the project go much slower than the father had anticipated. He could have built the steps in much less time without her presence. But when it was all finished, the father and daughter cheered as they looked at what they had accomplished together. He could see the sense of accomplishment and pride on his daughter’s face. That night at dinner, the daughter announced to everyone there,

Me and daddy made steps!

And the father was the first to agree.

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From God’s perspective, the most important thing about prayer isn’t that we do it well or accomplish anything for ourselves with it. It’s that in our praying, we spend slow time with God, nurturing our relationship with Him, sitting at His feet, keeping company with the One who calls us His children, and wants nothing more than to make good steps in loving relationship with us.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

The Audacity of Prayer

A sermon based on Psalm 138 and Luke 11:1-13 preached on June 26th, 2016

Sermon audio

I remember what these summer days during my childhood were like. They were whatever we made them to be. Both of my parents worked during the day, so summer vacation meant the freedom to run around the house doing whatever my young mind could conjure up.

Neighborhood friends would come over. We would play baseball in the front yard, tearing my dad’s lawn to shreds. The slab of concrete at the bottom of the front steps was home plate. There were ghost men on first, second, or third, and I was all-time pitcher. If I threw it a little high, the baseball smacked against our bright red front door, leaving a dent in it. Eventually, my father got smart enough to replace the wooden stair posts with metal ones, because they took a beating, too.

When we weren’t playing baseball, we thought of crazier things. One time, my brother and I tried to make our own Coca-Cola by following the ingredient list on the back label of an empty 2-liter bottle. We found some sparkling water in the back of the fridge, and there was maple syrup in the cupboard which we thought would be a fine substitute for whatever High Fructose Corn Syrup was. A splash of this, and a dash of that, and we ended up with a Frankenstein-like concoction of liquid goo in a glass that neither one of us had the guts to try.

Then there were better thought-out experiments. Mom told us we could make a phone with two aluminum cans and a long piece of string. It was hard to believe, but by God, it worked! Not in any satisfactory way, really. It wasn’t like Atlantic Bell would go out of business anytime soon, but my brother and I had a wondrous time standing 12 feet away from each other, putting our mouth and our ears up to the cans in alternating fashion. My brother’s voice was muffled on my end, and I imagined mine was on his end, too. But it wasn’t long until we figured out that it was a whole lot easier to understand each other through the air than through 2 tin cans and a piece of string. It seemed like a cool trick, but what’s the use, really? In the end, it was just another impractical childhood experiment, something we tried but never could see the advantage of.

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Jesus talked about prayer often. And if we pay enough attention to the gospels, we’ll find that He prayed often. But it seems like every time he wanted to pray, he went off on his own, so the disciples were never in on it. It doesn’t seem like Jesus prayed with them all that often, which is a curious thing. So whatever the disciples heard of their Master’s prayers were muffled, too. So, at one point, the disciples have to ask Jesus outright:

Can you teach us to pray?

Jesus answers them with words that we now call the Lord’s Prayer. And its words are startling, really. We’re used to praying it every week, so it might not seem all that odd to us, but basically Jesus teaches his disciples that they can talk to God like He’s right there with them, like He’s on the other end of a string. Like He’s a part of their family: “Call Him Father,” Jesus says.

And the boldness of this prayer doesn’t end there. Next Jesus teaches them that they shouldn’t hesitate to ask God for whatever it is they need. Just come right out and say it. Just like you might ask your parents for something without hesitating, go up to God and do the same thing—go ahead and ask God for what you need. In fact, Jesus says, be really annoying about it. Pray to God like a bothersome neighbor who won’t stop knocking on your door in the middle of the night asking for food, refusing to go away until he gets what he wants. Keep at it until God loses His mind hearing you knock and knock and knock, and ask and ask and ask. Pray until you drive God crazy. Until you make God answer you. That’s Jesus’ first lesson about prayer—do it until God can’t ignore you anymore! Believe that Someone—a Divine Someone—really is on the other side of that door, and raise holy ruckus until you get an answer. Prayer lesson number one: If you’re gonna pray, pray with everything you got, until you’re breathless and God’s exhausted!

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For years and years, whenever I would make hospital or home visits, I was scared to pray at all. You might expect a hospital chaplain to end each visit with prayer, but for so long, I tried my best to dance around it.

My reluctance about praying was the thought that I might say the wrong words. Maybe I’d get a name wrong or make some mistake like that. But most of all, I was scared to pray for some specific thing—like for healing or safety—and then come to find out my prayer didn’t work. What if healing didn’t come? What if things just got worse? Wouldn’t the person I was praying for end up disappointed and discouraged? Wouldn’t I end up discouraged, too? I wanted my prayers to be correct, accurate, and realistic! “Why pray for something that doesn’t seem likely?” I thought. So, instead of praying big prayers with big faith, my prayers were these vague, washed out, ambiguous string of words spoken in a miniscule voice that never asked God for anything specific, much less ambitious. Even in my prayers, I was hedging my bets! I thought my prayers had to make sense to me in order for them to make sense to God. It was only with time, and maturity, and the abandonment of that ridiculous notion, that I began taking my chances with my prayers—asking God for bigger things, expecting God to deliver miracles and healings in unexpected and powerful ways. What else is prayer but an ambitious cry for help—a long shot taken in the dark?

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In our story for today, Jesus encourages us to go big with our prayers. Speak bold words! he says. Dare to ask for unlikely things!

Prayer is the way we storm the gates of heaven, rattle its bars, and arouse God’s attention. The greatest prayers are the defiant and persistent ones shouted into the skies above, until heaven can no longer ignore the commotion we make, when earth begins to tremble with their volume!

With Jesus’ first lesson on prayer, he says they should be as persistent and as stubborn as a salesman who wedges his foot in the door, or a wrestler who has his opponent in a headlock. Good prayer is shameless and unrelenting. They’re our defiant shouts into the silence of the skies above—demanding that God do something. Keep knocking on heaven’s door, Jesus’ says. If God is anything like the man who doesn’t want to be bothered because he and his family have already gone to sleep, just knock louder until He’s forced to pay attention to you.

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A life of prayer isn’t simply about knocking harder. It’s really about establishing a relationship with God. And all relationships take work—marriage, parenthood, friendship. We know that. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that establishing a prayer relationship with God takes effort, too.

In the movie 50 First Dates, Adam Sandler’s character, Henry, falls in love with a woman named Lucy who he meets in a diner. They spend a Saturday morning making houses out of their waffles. That first breakfast together went so well that Henry decides to go back the very next week to see Lucy again, only this time Lucy has no idea who he is. This happens from one Saturday morning to the next until Henry finds out that Lucy was in a bad car crash a year before. She hardly lived through it, and now she suffers from short term memory loss. Every day, she wakes up having forgotten that yesterday happened at all, her brain injury makes her believe that every day is Sunday, October 13th, the day of the crash. Henry refuses to let this get in the way of being in a relationship with Lucy, so every day he wakes up and sets out to introduce himself to Lucy and then make her fall in love with him all over again. And he does this day after day after day. Each day a brand new pursuit. Our prayer life should be like that—a day in and day out pursuit to be in relationship with God.

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The disciples ask Jesus a question about correct prayer technique, but instead, what He gives them is a lesson on how to nurture a strong relationship with God. Instead of answering how we’re supposed to pray, Jesus tells us about the kind of relationship we can have with God if we’re willing to invest ourselves in prayerful relationship with Him. And just like any sort of relationship, the first couple conversations might be awkward and a little touch-and-go. We might knock over our drink or stutter through our sentences, but day after day, week after week, by pursuing a deeper relationship with God, investing ourselves in a pattern of prayer, our words will start coming easier, and our ears will be opened wider. We will become increasingly attuned to the cadence of God’s voice, and we will learn how God speaks into our lives.

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If you’re done with touch-and-go prayers—prayers like emergency flares thrown into the heavens whenever times get tough—if prayer always gets pushed to the sides of your days, relegated to times of either great suffering or great joy, then God wants more from you.

If you pray, but it feels like you’re talking into a tin can phone with a broken string, then ditch the cans and speak up. Crowd the silent skies until they’re packed-full of your prayers! Pray out loud, even if your family and neighbors think you’re crazy! Make them audacious! Peirce the air with them! Stop being polite with God. Jesus says that with our words shouted into the heavens, we can take God by the collar of His pajamas and rouse Him from sleep.

So, start praying like you mean it! Keep asking, seeking, knocking. Like the neighbor asking for bread in the middle of the night, be shameless with your prayers! And don’t ever stop. Rattle the bars, and make an uproar until heaven itself comes tumbling down to earth. God hears our persistent and audacious prayers. And He answers.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.