Monday, July 29, 2013

Let Us Pray

Luke 11: 1-13

This week we are back to Jesus once again.  That is, we departed the Gospel lectionary by way of Elijah the prophet but have now found ourselves back on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus and his followers.   And his followers are inquisitive and yearning to learn to pray just like the followers of John whom he taught to pray.

Hear now the Gospel of Luke at the eleventh chapter. 

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  Amen.

Jesus teaches the disciples to pray and then with his follow up examples he asks them to trust that God will not let them down, or disappoint them, he asks them to trust that God is ever present and loving like a parent who will go out of his or her way to be in relationship with her child and who knows and anticipates her every human need.
The Church of the Pater Noster, or the Lord’s Prayer, is an open air basilica in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives that commemorates the place where it is thought that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.  Designated in the 4th century CE by the Emperor Constantine under the direction of his mother Helena it has been a venerated sight for all these many years. 

Now whether it really WAS the site where Jesus uttered the Lord’s Prayer first, that’s an unknown for so many places were designated by Helena as the ‘official’ site almost, it seems, on her whim.  But that doesn’t matter because what I learned and witnessed when I lived there was that it was and is the pilgrims who visit these sites and offer their deepest prayers and souls that make a place sacred and holy, that make the place a place where you can visualize Jesus.  Such is the Church of the Pater Noster.

What also makes this such an extraordinary place is that there are  over 100 different plaques of Palestinian tile with the Lord’s Prayer each recorded in a different language.  There is even an English Braille plaque. 

You see the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer that all Christians hold in common from a myriad of backgrounds and paths.  It unifies us on the most basic level acknowledging that we all need, we all hurt, we all harm, we all are in need of forgiveness.  It acknowledges that when we talk with God we yearn to relate to God as a parent or at the very least one who cares profoundly, who listens, who forgives and provides, and who protects us.  You see we are diverse as the birds of the air and yet hold in common some of humanities deepest desires and needs.

It is no accident that when in a nursing home and the most despondent or mentally challenged, or perhaps someone who has suffered a stroke, when they hear the words, ‘Our Father’ they can conjure up from deep within them the rest of this prayer enough to pray it out loud slowly and intentionally.  It is written within the human Christian heart and soul.  It is our common love song to God.

This passage that acknowledges our commonalities teaches us about living and relationship. We are connected through this prayer of life, you and the person next to you, the one in the pew in back of you, the homebound person, the hospitalized, the youth off at a workcamp, even the one who might disagree with you.  The Lord’s Prayer binds us together to acknowledge that, we are all in the same boat!  It is a intensely human kind of prayer. [i] 

Although remembering that God is not a vending machine where you put in your quarter and out comes whatever you asked for,  remembering that God is not a fortune teller where you pay your fee and you receive a fortune and see into the future you can truly free yourself for a greater and a more profound relationship with God and a richer prayer life that brings inner healing. 

I don’t believe that prayer is about asking and receiving, it is so much more.  It is about living into an ongoing conversation with the divine source of creativity and love, realizing and accepting that we will receive what is necessary and beneficial to our living.  Trusting that God will provide can free your spirit for a clearer vision of the path ahead. 
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century philosopher and peace maker said, "Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is a daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart."

When I first went into ministry my prayer life got all screwed up.  I was so intent on formulating beautifully poetic public prayers that when I tried to pray on my own privately I was getting tripped up.  I searched for picturesque and meaningful words and I fretted over my grammar. 

I got frustrated.  Then, somehow, I realized that God didn’t really care what words I used, that I could place myself, my tears, my needs and wants right before God and rest comfortably knowing that is all God wants of me and that becomes my prayer.  God doesn’t need to hear me yacking on, waxing poetically, and pontificating profusely.  God needs me to be attentive to myself as God’s creation and for me to live fully into God’s call upon my life at that very moment.   

Ministers are asked quite often, “Pastor, how do I pray”.  And as much as I would like to give someone a formula for ‘how to do it’, and I could, there are many, in my heart of hearts I cannot do that.  My best response is to place yourself fully and honestly before God.  Place all of those who are in need of healing, comfort, guidance and strength right there in front of God and let it be, words aren’t really necessary.

Meditate, concentrate, love and trust God fully in the moment.  And then, when you are ready say the words that Jesus taught us because it is a beautiful, beloved prayer and in that way you will have followed faithfully in the footsteps of the disciples who so long ago were also taught to pray.  It is our heritage, it is our common bond, and it is a reflection of Christ’s desire for us.

[i] Douglas, John Hall. Feasting on the Word, p. 288, Proper 12, Year C Volume 3.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Mantle

2 Kings 2: 1-2, 6-15
 He Qi
 This is the final story that we will hear in the Elijah saga.  Although it’s been a rather disjointed series I hope that you get a picture of this important prophet.  A lot has happened since last week’s story of Elijah besting the prophets of Baal and then running for his life.  After Elijah ‘gets back to work’ out of the cave he runs across Elisha plowing his field.  Elijah puts his mantle on Elisha indicating that now Elisha has been called to duty.  Elisha says goodbye to his family and becomes Elijah’s assistant.  This is about nine centuries before Jesus.  Elisha’s got a lot to learn.

Not long before the LORD took Elijah up into heaven in a strong wind, Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, "The LORD wants me to go to Bethel, but you must stay here."  Elisha replied, "I swear by the living LORD and by your own life that I will stay with you no matter what!" And he went with Elijah to Bethel.  Elijah then said to Elisha, "Now the LORD wants me to go to the Jordan River, but you must stay here.”   Elisha replied, "I swear by the living LORD and by your own life that I will never leave you!" So the two of them walked on together.

Fifty prophets followed Elijah and Elisha from Jericho, then stood at a distance and watched as the two men walked toward the river. When they got there, Elijah took off his mantle, then he rolled it up and struck the water with it. At once a path opened up through the river, and the two of them walked across on dry ground.
After they had reached the other side, Elijah said, "Elisha, the LORD will soon take me away. What can I do for you before that happens?"  Elisha answered, "Please give me twice as much of your power as you give the other prophets, so I can be the one who takes your place as their leader."
"It won't be easy," Elijah answered. "It can happen only if you see me as I am being taken away."
Elijah and Elisha were walking along and talking, when suddenly there appeared between them a flaming chariot pulled by fiery horses. Right away, a strong wind took Elijah up into heaven. Elisha saw this and shouted, "Israel's cavalry and chariots have taken my master away!" After Elijah had gone, Elisha tore his clothes in sorrow.

Elijah's mantle had fallen off, so Elisha picked it up and walked back to the Jordan River. He struck the water with the coat and wondered, "Will the LORD perform miracles for me as he did for Elijah?" As soon as Elisha did this, a dry path opened up through the water, and he walked across.

And so begins Elisha’s prophetic ministry. 

If you noticed Elijah tries his best to shake off Elisha but his devoted follower just wouldn’t get the hint.  Both Elijah and Elisha were active during a time when there were hundreds of other active prophets, ‘guilds’ you might call them.  If you were to align prophet activity with the geo-political world and the lifespan of Israel you would see high prophetic activity when the Ancient Near East was not at peace in the divided Kingdom of Israel and Judah.  And, overall, this was not a time of peace and Elisha didn’t want to leave Elijah because he was a novice and needed encouragement and mentoring. 

But endings must happen before beginnings can start and when it was time for Elijah to take his leave Elisha asks for the same powers that Elijah had.  Elisha was not being greedy.  He was really asking for the inheritance of a first born who always got a little more.  He wanted to be Elijah’s principle heir. But the request is difficult for a human to meet, this Elijah acknowledges.  He knows there is more at stake here than what he alone can provide, you see Elijah knew that God’s almighty hand was the progenitor of his abilities.  It was God alone who performed miracles through Elijah.

And as they walked Elijah was taken up, up and away in a flaming chariot to heaven.  The prophetic legacy of Elijah has been passed now to Elisha in this miraculous succession.  The mantle, which had become the symbol of authority and power was no longer Elijah’s but was in the hands of Elisha.  The proverbial torch had been passed, the baton handed off.  Elijah let go of his mantle and Elisha picked it up and continued the prophetic ministry forward.  This is quite a story of succession.  Of leadership preparing one to the other for the difficult tasks ahead that God will ask them to perform.

Soon enough, and we all know how quickly time passes, we will be passing the mantle of church on to the future generations, not just OCC but the larger church?  How do we want to do this? How will we prepare today so that when we pass the mantle to our children’s, children’s, children we will leave it better then when we found it?  If you were a boy scout or a girl scout you will be familiar with that concept.  Clean up your campsite, get things in order, leave no trace of trash but leave it a place of verdant growth and hope.  We need to get the church in tiptop shape so that it can be passed on.   

But what might that look like given the fact that ‘church is changing’?  No doubt the look and feel of church is really shifting.  Overall fewer people are finding it a place of renewal and strength but I don’t think this is because God’s message of transformation, forgiveness and hope are irrelevant and dead.  Right now this world is in dire need of transformation, we know that if we listen to the news and especially the events of this past week with the Treyvon Martin case.  Something much larger is happening and we have yet to figure out what that something is. 

Phyllis Tickle asserts in her book, “The Great Emergence”[i], that every 500 years the church goes through a major upheaval and shift.  Five hundred years ago the church witnessed the Great Reformation and the birth of Protestantism.  Five hundred years prior to that was the Great Schism where we know the Eastern church split and birthed Roman Catholicism, and yet another 500 years before that was Gregory the Great and the Fall of the Roman Empire where he did much to clean up after the fall and get it into shape.  So it looks like we have entered into another 500 year shift since the Reformation happened in and around 1517 CE.  So if you don’t know what’s going on, this may be it!

The church or Christianity as expressed in church changes but not without pain, not without controversy and not without disappointment and fear. This might just be our source of confusion as to why people don’t come to church.  Because something much larger is at play.

And it is in this discombobulated time that OCC must figure out who we are and how we would like to pass the mantle on.  Don’t despair, be of hope.  We have a great opportunity before us as we enter a time of evaluation and discernment as a church and we will do our best to understand how God wants us to be a worshipping and faithful community. 

Come September we will have the opportunity to do some visioning about our future.  About who we want to continue to be and who we want to grow into.  About how we want to carry out the mission of this church and the Gospel message while adapting to the change around us.   About when we pass the mantle what do we want it to look like for those who will undoubtedly think different than us and use different ways of communication.  I encourage you to begin to think about it now.  Our beloved church is really not ours to lay claim to, it is God’s beloved church.

This might seem like an onerous task but it is not.  Let’s vision out five years, maybe ten.  We all will have different ideas and yet with collaboration we can prayerfully cast a future that God intends for us, a future that will be spiritual and faithful, life giving and transformative.

Bidden or not, God is present. (anon)
Bidden or not, the mantle is in our hands.  Let us ready it or the future and those who will pick it up.

Amen and Amen.

[i] Tickle, Phyllis.  “The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why”.  2008. Baker Books, Michigan.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Listen Elijah, Get Back to Work!

I Kings 19: 1-19
A few years ago I remember seeing a clip where Steven Colbert of the Colbert Report was interviewing the iconic Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live fame.  Colbert, tongue and check, made the somewhat crude analogy of FOX commentator Glenn Beck to that of a prophet.  And of course, only Fr. Sarducci could put a spin on this.  He said, “Well, yes, he’sa talks a lot, he hear’sa voices and he’sa unstable.” 
 Probably this is a good description of a prophet, he talks a lot, he hears voices and he’s a bit unstable.  That seems to sum up Elijah the prophet of Israel in today’s story. He talks a lot, sometimes rather hyperbolic.  He hears voices, one voice in particular, and he is definitely unstable.  Elijah’s in a heap of trouble, that ‘troubler of Israel’ as King Ahab calls him.  For not only is Elijah in trouble with Jezebel because he killed of some 450 of her beloved Baal’s prophets, now she wants to kill him.  His faith and vocation are in trouble.  Elijah suffers a crisis of faith and if not a crisis of faith at the least a crisis of vocation.

Elijah’s troubles began on Mt. Carmel where he faces off against 450 prophets of the god Baal to determine which deity, YHWY or God or Baal is the god of Israel.  Two pyres, ready to be lit, were set up with a sacrificial piece of meat and Elijah challenges the prophets to have the ‘Baal’ consume the sacrifice with fire.  Nothing happens no matter how long and how hard the people cry out to Baal.  Elijah even mocks them, “Pray louder!” he says.  God on the other hand, tells Elijah to pour water on the pyre and the sacrifice and then it is consumed with flames. YHWY triumphs.  Baal fails.

Right now, at this point, Elijah does not have one shred of fear within him.  He's on top of the Ancient Near East world.  He leads the people gathered at this spectacle to kill those 450 prophets of Baal.  But as we will see beginning at chapter 19, Elijah becomes unraveled like the strands of a threadbare tablecloth and then unhinged like a pythons jaws spotting prey.  This is the unstable part that Fr. Sarducci talked about. 

Ahab told his wife Jezebel what Elijah had done and that he had killed the prophets. She sent a message to Elijah: "You killed my prophets. Now I'm going to kill you! I pray that the gods will punish me even more severely if I don't do it by this time tomorrow."

Elijah was afraid when he got her message, and he ran to the town of Beersheba in Judah. He left his servant there, then walked another whole day into the desert.

Finally, he came to a large bush and sat down in its shade. He begged the LORD, "I've had enough. Just let me die! I'm no better off than my ancestors." Then he lay down in the shade and fell asleep.  Suddenly an angel woke him up and said, "Get up and eat." Elijah looked around, and by his head was a jar of water and some baked bread. He sat up, ate and drank, then lay down and went back to sleep.   Soon the LORD's angel woke him again and said, "Get up and eat, or else you'll get too tired to travel." So Elijah sat up and ate and drank.  The food and water made him strong enough to walk forty more days. At last, he reached Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, and he spent the night there in a cave. 

While Elijah was on Mount Sinai, the LORD asked, "Elijah, why are you here?" He answered, "LORD God All-Powerful, I've always done my best to obey you. But your people have broken their solemn promise to you. They have torn down your altars and killed all your prophets, except me. And now they are even trying to kill me!"  "Go out and stand on the mountain," the LORD replied. "I want you to see me when I pass by." 

All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But the LORD was not in the wind. 

Next, there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire.

Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat.  He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.

The LORD asked, "Elijah, why are you here?" Elijah answered, "LORD God All-Powerful, I've always done my best to obey you. But your people have broken their solemn promise to you. They have torn down your altars and killed all your prophets, except me. And now they are even trying to kill me!"

The LORD said:  Elijah, you can go back to the desert near Damascus. And when you get there, appoint Hazael to be king of Syria. Then appoint Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat to take your place as my prophet.  Hazael will start killing the people who worship Baal.   Jehu will kill those who escape from Hazael, and Elisha will kill those who escape from Jehu. But seven thousand Israelites have refused to worship Baal, and they will live.   Here ends today’s reading.

Jezebel and her threats! She makes good on them as we saw three weeks ago now, so Elijah has reasonable evidence that she will kill him, her record so far has been good – remember Naboth’s vineyard and his demise?  So, Elijah is probably justified on some level to be afraid.  He runs.  Very far.  From Northern Israel and Mt. Carmel to Beersheba way down south in the deserts of the Negev.

Elijah ran away from Jezebel afraid and would rather just die than be sought and killed by this female antagonist.  But that was not to be the case.  God, in those divine and redemptive ways sends food and water twice so that Elijah could gain strength and courage.  

God had a plan in place for an ally, a king, a new prophet, and a way to get rid of those nagging Baal worshippers. Elijah, the prophet, was the one to carry God’s plan forward and eventually the mantle of prophecy would have to be passed on.  But for now where was Elijah??  He was in a cave, folks.  Hiding!  How convenient it must have been for him to just drop out of sight, to disappear from the scene, to take a break from the action, to disengage from responsibilities.  To hide. 

I've heard this cave that Elijah fled to referred to as the 'cave of avoidance'. Because it was in this cave that he thought he could hide and not be found.  It’s in this cave that Elijah could comfortably live with his fear or anger and not have to deal with anything.  He’s a man on the run trying to desperately avoid his murder, but also his work and vocation.  Fear leads to avoidance and Elijah is avoiding God.  But God won’t let Elijah hide.  God finds Elijah and says, Elijah what are you doing?  Get back to work.  I’ve got a few things for you to accomplish here, you’re not done just yet!

It’s at this very moment that our scripture ends and leaves us hanging asking the question; will Elijah be defined by his fear or his faith?  Will he stay or will he come out?  Will Elijah avoid the difficult tasks ahead of him or will he confront them with the confidence and knowledge that God is with him and won’t fail him?  Good questions, don’t you think?

The same is true of church and of you as a church right now.  Orange Congregational has taken a bold step; you have poked your head out of the cave of avoidance, the years of living with a deficit budget and stagnant growth.  I sincerely commend you for taking that very brave move into your future.  But now what?  How will we organize ourselves to live into a prosperous future?  I am not talking dollars and cents because we can do the math and restructure the budget to make it all work.   I am talking about a prosperous spiritual future because if we lose our spiritual center we will lose it all.

God has balled us out of the cave and into our faith and our future.  Many people have asked me, ‘how are you going to do it?’  Well I’ve got news for you, it’s not about me doing it all, it’s about you!  The church is the people doing for others living in love and kindness towards one another.  It’s about expressing your faith, maybe even without using words.  St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words.”

Believe this and know that God will supply all that we need to become a beacon of hope for all people in Orange, know that God will sharpen the tools of witness that we have to go out and witness to others what we have here.  We are a place of caring individuals grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We have a strong faith in God the one who heals, comforts, and sustains us.  How can we share that with one another and with others?

A new model for Church School is a great start. This isn’t the 1950’s and the other Sunday School model isn’t compatible with the way in which children learn any longer.  The workshop rotation model is. 

How about a lay care giving ministry?  I know that you care about one another, let’s do it in some formalized way.  Church Council brainstormed some exciting ways in which we could expand our ministry and it was wonderful to see the excitement that it generated.

Now we, like Elijah are out of the cave, just barely, but we are out.  God met us at the threshold and issued a plan that OCC will thrive in her ministries.  Let us proceed with faith that new things will emerge and that all will be fed and nourished.

Because, as Rabbi Hillel once said, “If not now, when?”


Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Sermon from the Mound

This past Sunday was Baseball Sunday!  I preached a sermon that I've preached before, 'A Sermon from the Mound'. CLICK HERE and you will find the sermon with some edits to reflect the 'ball territory' that I was in!  Have fun and play ball!!