Saturday, October 19, 2019

Gimpy Faith Year C, Pentecost 19, Genesis 32:22-31, Luke 18:1-8,


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Wrestle with God, if you must, hold fast throughout the night, and when morning comes don’t be surprised that you come up wounded from the battle.  One does not prevail against God and remain unscathed.  Yet cling to the promise, nevertheless.
When I went into ministry, one of my biggest concerns was prayer.
I had idealized notions of what prayer was all about, and very overwhelming sense that other people’s piety afforded them a prayer life that I simply didn’t have.
My sense was that my father, for example, was richly blessed with an ability to pray that escaped me.
He would pray as though God was just around the corner in the next room.  Raise your voice a little, which he did, and God will hear you.
I had heard others talk about their lives of prayer and devotion, and it often seemed like they had an admirable ability to be in conversation with God as though God was their best friend.  The words just flowed. 
This struggle remained with me throughout my years in ministry.
Of all the questions I’ve been asked during interviews by call committees, the one that gave me the most trouble was “Tell us about your personal life of prayer.”
If I had to tell you about it in an interview it was no longer my personal life of prayer.
That was one objection.
But the other was a sense of inadequacy.
I wish I could pray like my father.
But I can’t.
It’s not that I don’t pray.  I do.  You know that.
I’ve prayed with people from birth to the grave.
Sometimes my prayers are eloquent.
Sometimes they are labored and cumbersome.
Still, at other times I’ve felt inspired to pray.
At one such time I composed this prayer, which remains my favorite:
Hold me tight, most precious Lord,
                That I might follow you.
Grant me grace to live each day,
                May I be born anew.
Lift me up whenever I fall,
                And never let me fade
From the grace filled light
                Of your own sight
                That turns the night to day.

Yet prayer remains a struggle.
One of the issues I’ve had to deal with is the philosophical one.
I’ve questioned as a philosopher, the effectiveness of prayer.
My struggles philosophically with prayer are similar to the “problem of evil” that philosophers debate.
If God is all loving, and God is all powerful, then why is there evil?
Evil continues, so either God is not all loving, or God simply isn’t able to stop it.
That’s the problem of evil for philosophers.
My philosophical problem with prayer was similar.
When we pray for something good, like a cure from a deadly disease, and the person we are praying for dies anyway, then we ask why.
Perhaps we didn’t pray ‘right’.  It’s our fault for not praying as we ought.  But what a burden that is for us to bear.  I’ve prayed with moms and dads whose children were dying, and they did die.  Do I really want to believe that the reason they died was because of my inadequacy in prayer???  That if I had just been better at it, they would have lived???  That’s it’s my fault???
Maybe God just doesn’t hear our prayers.
You know, God has a lot on his mind, what with being the Lord of the Universe and all.  Perhaps he just doesn’t have time to worry about my surgery next week. 
Well, if God doesn’t have time to listen, why pray?
Or perhaps, God does care and listen to our prayers, but he just can’t do anything about it.
Babies will die.
Tragedies will happen in spite of our prayers, because God can’t or won’t intervene.
That’s a philosophical problem with prayer.  And it eats away at our faith.
But then there are other times when prayer seems to work like magic. 
Healing happens.
Doors open.
It’s just a clear as day.
And when it’s all over everyone involved just really senses that the hand of God was all over it.
As a bishop of mine once said:
“Dave, this is a God thing.”
Sometimes, you just know that.
As I’ve struggled with prayer over the years there are two passages from the Bible that have become most dear to me.
The first is from Romans 8:
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Over the years, I’ve prayed eloquent prayers, and not so eloquent prayers.  Sometimes I’ve know just what to say and how to say it.  At other times I searched for the right words.
But more times than not, I’ve learned to sigh.
“Sighs to deep for words” has become for me a model for prayer.
And as I sigh, I also cling to the promise that the Spirit is helping me in my weakness and that those deeply felt sighs are actually the Spirit’s own intercessions.

The second passage is today’s Old Testament lesson.
4Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
There may be a lot of things I haven’t done well with respect to prayer.
But, I can tell you this much, I have spent many a sleepless night wrestling with God.
This story about Jacob is amazing.
He wrestled all night.  All night.
And it was not just another man with whom he struggled, but God.
And having prevailed against God throughout the night he received God’s blessing at the break of day.
With a catch.
A dislocated hip.
Gimpy.
He prevailed in his struggles with God, but was left with a limp when it was all over.  It took its toll.
Jacob had feared for his life as he anticipated meeting up with his brother Esau the next day.
You remember the story.
He had cheated Esau out of his birthright, and had been on the run ever since.
Now was the day of reckoning. 
Jacob had tricked his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, and now he had the audacity to wrestle with God until God blessed him as well.
Jacob often is looked upon as a despicable character, a cheat.
Yet there is another dimension to him.
A faithful dimension.
As evidenced by his wrestling through the night and prevailing, Jacob had a persistent, resilient, and unwavering faith.
He wrestled through the night and prevailed, and for that, God blessed him. 
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus tells us as his disciples to “pray always and not to lose heart.”
And he tells the parable about the woman who persisted in her appeals to the judge for justice, and finally was granted her wish because of that persistence. 
A stubborn, persistent, demanding even, faith.
Do not lose heart.
Do not give up.
Wrestle through the night but never let go.
Never let go of God.
Wrestle with God, struggle with God, but hold fast to God and the promise of his blessing.
That’s the epitome of faith.
To struggle through the night, and to prevail until morning when the promise is fulfilled.
The struggle may not be easy.
We may come up limping as a result.
But in the end God will be faithful to his promise.
Amen

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 18, 2 Kings 5.1-3, 7-15c, Luke 17.11-19, Grace without borders.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Grace. . .
“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’?”
Grace. . .
We have a problem with grace, and that is our ego.
Naaman.
A commander of an Aramian army.
One powerful enough that the King of Israel was frightened and intimidated by him.
A foreigner.
But most importantly, a leper.
A couple of things we know about lepers:
·         Leprosy was a dreaded infectious disease;
·         It was often considered a curse from God brought about by our sin and the decay brought into the world by the fall;
·         Lepers were shunned.  Fear of contracting the disease led to people being ostracized and isolated from their communities and families;
·         And finally, there was no known cure.
All of this meant that lepers were considered some of the lowest of the low, cursed by God and man alike, and with little or no standing in the community.
Which makes Naaman an interesting case.
Leprosy actually shows no favorites.
It’s not just a disease of the weak and the poor.
Naaman was a man of great power, and probably, wealth.
And yet he suffered from this disease.
And he was desperate.
So desperate that he took the advice of a young slave girl and sought help from an enemy and a foreign nation’s God.
Naaman was so desperate that he was willing to do anything to be cured.
What he didn’t expect was grace. . .
Elisha sent word to him, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Naaman expected something different.
“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?”
Wash and be made clean.
And he was enraged.
Why?
·         Well, for one thing, to be told to wash probably offended him because of the belief that leprosy was a result of filth. 
·         And secondly, Naaman was still proud enough that he felt he deserved the personal attention of Elisha.
·         And finally, he expected more of a ‘show’.
Instead, what he got was just a simple word of instruction.
Wash.  Be clean.  Be healed.
And he was.
In the Gospel lesson we hear the story of the ten lepers that Jesus cured.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
The focus then shifts to one of those lepers, a foreigner, a Samaritan, who alone returned to Jesus to thank him.
One of the directions we could go at this point is to say that these two lessons are about gratitude.
The story of the ten lepers used to always be assigned for Thanksgiving.
The message was sort of a shaming.
Shame on you for being ungrateful.  Even the foreigners returned to give thanks.  You should too.
That’s a little morality lesson.
We learned that from our parents.
Say “Please.”  And say “Thank you.”
OK, point well taken.

Another point we could make today, is about grace.
For starters, though we might want to judge the nine lepers who didn’t return to give thanks to Jesus, the fact is that Jesus healed all of them.
Their being healed was pure grace.
Likewise, Naaman, though he was enraged was also healed.
Wash, be clean.
Show yourself to the priests, be healed.
Grace.
Another point well taken.

There is another dimension of these Bible stories that spoke to me this week.
That’s the matter of borders.
These were foreigners that were healed.
From Aram.  From Samaria. 
As we study the scriptures, one thing that we learn is that in the beginning there was an understanding that God was the God of the Israelites, and that other nations had their own gods.  It was the God of Israel against the gods of the other nations.
And through much of the Old Testament there was an understanding that God was Israel’s champion, defeating Israel’s enemies and always on Israel’s side.
God was a national God.
What happens as we move through scripture, over the ages, is that more and more God is understood as the God of all nations, not just Israel.  This culminates with the Great Commission where the disciples are sent out to the nations.
But the tendency remains for us, even to this day, to believe that God is “our God”, and by implication, not “their God”. 
There are two ways we draw borders and boundaries in order to claim God as our own.
The first is when we declare ourselves to be a “Christian Nation”.  Implied in that is the understanding that there are other nations that are not “Christian”. 
Now part of that is just fact.
We consider ourselves to be Christian.
Arabs most often are Muslim.
India is predominantly Hindu.
Israel, Jewish.
But there is a line that we cross at times wherein we understand that God is on our side, as opposed to all those other nations.  And sometimes, our American exceptionalism, is so great that we believe God is more on our side than even that of other Christian Nations. 
For example, there are many other nations that are as Christian, if not even more Christian than us, yet we tend to see ourselves as being better than, for example, Tanzania.
Borders.
And even stronger border that we draw is the religious border. 
Historically, it is the Nicene Creed which defined that border.
If you believe the Nicene Creed you are part of the Christian Church, and if you don’t, you aren’t.
That’s a border.
An interesting part of our history is that the Nicene Creed was written and adopted in response to an order from the Emperor Constantine.
A ruler of nations mandating that the Church define its borders.
Once the Nicene Creed was adopted there were insiders and outsiders.
And grace was reserved for the insiders.
Fast forward to today and the question of borders continues to shape our understanding.
First of all, God is not confined within any of our human borders.
God is not a United States citizen.
And God is not a Democrat or a Republican even though sometimes we act as though he is.
God’s grace extends to all people, regardless of their citizenship or political affiliation. 
And secondly, is an even more divisive question.
Naaman would not have been a Jew, yet the God of Israel healed him.
The Samaritan leper was not considered to be an orthodox Jew, yet he was cured as well.
The question is:  Is God’s grace and mercy an exclusive gift to those who adhere to the Nicene Creed or any other definition we have of the “Christian faith”?
Is baptism necessary for salvation?
Does one have to make a particular confession of faith in Christ Jesus in order to ‘merit’ God’s mercy and forgiveness?
Our historical way of answering those questions was to say “Yes, grace is restricted to those within the Church.  Our Christian faith, our receiving the sacraments of baptism and communion, and our accepting Jesus are the basis of our salvation.”
That’s been our understanding.
That’s how we understand Jesus’ words "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Historically, that not only meant believing in Jesus, but being a member in good standing in the Church.
But over and against this very exclusive claim is another theme in the Bible, namely that God’s prerogative is to show mercy and grace to whomever he pleases:
In Romans Paul writes:
For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."  So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”
The bottom line:  If God wants to be merciful and gracious, God can to whomever he chooses and none of the boundaries that we would make and adhere to matter.  Amen

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 17, Luke 17:5-10, Faith & Forgiveness


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
In the verses that immediately precede this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says:
“Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.  And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive."
 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"
Increase our faith?
Why do the disciples make that plea to Jesus?
Because the forgiveness that Jesus commands his disciples to offer is one of the most difficult things a human can really do.
Harboring resentments, anger, and holding that person in disdain & contempt is a more typical response to those who have seriously wronged us, and certainly easy.
Forgiving, though, is harder.
Forgiving time after time the same offense is almost impossible.
Imagine, for example, a woman whose husband has been unfaithful.  When the affair comes to light, he is filled with guilt and remorse and says, “I am so sorry, please forgive me, and I promise, I’ll never do it again!”
She shows him great mercy and love, and forgives him.
But then, a short while later he has another affair.  Once again he comes to his wife.
“I am so sorry, please forgive me and I promise, I’ll never do it again!”
This scene repeats itself, time after time.
Can we really imagine that the wife, on the fifth, sixth, even seventh time that her husband confesses to having an affair can still find it within herself to continually forgive?
That task would be monumentally difficult.
Our response would more likely be something like:  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Or we might say that yes, we are to forgive our spouse if he/she is unfaithful, but there comes a point where we should also protect ourselves from further harm and hurt by divorcing them for their unfaithfulness. 
Forgive them, yes.
Stay married to them, no.
But that’s not really what Jesus says.
Even if the same person sins against you seven times and repents, seven times, you must forgive.
“Increase our faith!” the disciples exclaimed, “Increase our faith.”
In response to them, Jesus has two things to say.
First, that faith is powerful and does what it does.
And second, that faith is not some extreme virtue so high that only the spiritual giants among us can attain it, but rather faith is simply what each of us is expected to do.
When we forgive, forgiveness happens.
And to do that is simply our ‘job’.
Bill Belichick, the legendary coach of the New England Patriots is famous for his coaching ‘mantra’.
“Just do your job!”
He doesn’t expect his players to go out and win games on their own.
He doesn’t expect his players to go out and win championships on their own.
He expects one thing, and one thing only:  “Just do YOUR job.”
Like the slaves in Jesus’ example, that were expected to serve their master, we are expected to do the same, do what is commanded.
And that means among other things to forgive.
One of the objections we raise, too often, is that people must truly repent in order to be forgiven.
Did the person in Jesus’ example truly repent?
If someone sins against you time and time again, each time repenting and asking forgiveness, only to do it all again—is that true repentance?
Most of us would say “No.”
Yet Jesus says that we are to forgive such a person.
Another issue is the question of repentance.  “What does it mean to repent?”
Literally, repentance means to ‘turn around’.
In our theology, it has at least three different meanings, depending how we understand the work of Christ.
We’ve been studying this in our class, Sunday mornings.
If we understand Jesus to be the victorious King who is fighting the powers of evil in this world, then repentance means to turn from our fears, and trust that Jesus will defeat the forces of evil and set us free.
Repentance.  Turning from fear to trust.

If we understand the Christian faith as being the conflict between a righteous God, and a sinful humanity, then repentance means something different.  Actually, in this regard it means two things:
First, that as sinners we stop doing what we were doing that was sinful.  Just stop it!  And go and sin no more.
And also, repentance means that we turn from our guilt to receive with gratitude the forgiveness offered to us for the sake of Jesus Christ.
The problem with this understanding of repentance is that the Bible makes clear that we cannot just stop sinning.  Paul makes that point in Romans.  And if we could stop sinning, we wouldn’t need forgiveness in the first place.
The third way we understand the work of Christ is as the reconciler between God and humanity.  Sin is understood as separation from God and the family of God, and reconciliation is what forgiveness means.
In this sense, repentance means turning back and coming home.
It’s the story of the prodigal Son.
Do you give up your fear, and trust that Christ will defeat evil?
Do you turn from your guilt and accept the forgiveness freely offered to you by Christ, who died for your?
Do you turn back from your wayward ways and return home to the God who loves you?
These are the questions of repentance. 
Faith then, in these three senses, means:
1.       That we trust that God will defeat all the forces of evil;
2.       That we accept the forgiveness offer by Jesus; and finally,
3.       That we love God and each other as we have been loved.
We haven’t always ‘done our job’ in this regard.
In fact, we’ve failed miserably. 
The fact that there are so many difference denominations is a result of our not really being able to forgive each other for our differences.
We have our conflicts.
And rather than forgive, we either start a new church or join another church, or perhaps even give up church altogether.
Actually this is something that has always struck me as being really troublesome and futile.
First of all, there is only one Church.  We believe in ONE holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  One.
That means that when we have our differences, leaving one Church and joining another doesn’t resolve those differences, it merely accentuates them.
“Just do your job”, Jesus says.
Forgive.
Yet, time after time, we fail to do this one job.
Thankfully, the God who told us to forgive someone even if they sin against us SEVEN TIMES A DAY, also forgives US when we sin against him, day after day.
Thanks, be to God.
Amen