Saturday, September 24, 2016

In the Need of Prayer

1 Timothy 2: 1-7
Prayer is so important.  It’s good for your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body.  God likes it too!  Prayer is an ancient ritual from many faith traditions passed down from generation to generation.

During the summer this year the kids from Summer BLAST aka the Lego Club learned about the Lord’s Prayer.  They divided the prayer up into four different parts, discussed what it meant to their everyday lives and then collaboratively depicted it in Lego’s.  They are quite interesting; you can have a look at them upstairs in the council room.  The important thing is that they really took the time to learn about what they are saying when they pray with us together, the Lord’s Prayer.  One of the early changes to the liturgy that I made when I first came was to move the Lord’s Prayer to a place in the order of service before the children left for Church School.  This way they can hear it spoken and learn it so that it becomes a part of their early Christian experience and faith formation.   So that when they are old and in nursing care, when they hear that beautiful prayer they will be able to recall it when their memory has failed all else.

Let us hear now about prayer in today’s lectionary reading, from the epistle of 1

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
 Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
Timothy, new pastor of a church in Ephesus, is given a lot of instruction in the two succinct books of Timothy 1 & 2.   If this letter is written in ‘Paul’s name’ in the late first century, as they believe, then a generation or two had passed from the scene.  Jesus hadn’t returned as they had expected and longed for and by now the apostles are dead.  And during that time persecutions had been a part of the early Christians experience.  It’s Paul’s way of reminding Timothy that God is the one in charge, not Nero, not the Roman Empire, not the pagans.  God.  And that they are to remain steadfast in the faith. 

We know that Paul is painfully to the point.  What we have just heard in these short seven verses is: pray often, pray for everybody, prayer is good, prayer pleases God.  With great proclamation this passage calls us out of isolationism and into the fullness of what it means to be a community of believers in the one God, in prayer, of what it means to be a church gathered in the world around us that is at odds.  We, OCC and all churches, synagogues, and mosques are unique.  We go against the pervading culture of spirituality that finds itself in autonomy rather than interconnectedness.  

Most people prefer to go it alone rather than be in community.  How often do you hear, “I’m not one for organized religion’ or ‘I prefer to pray to the big guy alone’? And while I believe that works for a while, how much richer it is when we can share our joys and concerns with one another. How much fuller it is to know that others are walking the same path as I am.  Maybe you’re not in step with me but we share the road, traverse the same hills and navigate the same valleys.  Interconnectedness is a hallmark of a caring congregation, and prayer is essential to its life. 

Each week that I read the list of people to be included in our Pastoral prayer, I am reminded of the depth, sincerity and earnestness of your prayer.  I know this list seems long and arduous to read sometimes.  But it’s not just a medical roster of folks who are sick, or a way to get the news out about a person or family, it is a way to actively do something before God on behalf of another human who shares your common lot.  We are very privileged to lift up to God heartfelt and loving prayers on the behalf of others and it is our duty.  Remember the first and second greatest commandments, love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  Communal prayer brings us close in our walk with Jesus. 

Intercessionary prayer is what Paul is encouraging us to do.  Prayer shouldn’t be the last ditch effort.  It’s not like wringing your hands together and saying we’ll at least I can pray.  NO!  Intercessionary prayer should be first and foremost!  Our passage begins, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone.”  First.  Of.  All.   And it doesn’t have to be formal.

You know sometimes prayer can be rich and full of meaning and sometimes we just throw our hands up in the air and say, “God, I’ve got nothing for you today, just be with me or be with my friend”.  And that’s ok.  That’s a full and heartfelt prayer.  Prayer is not flowery words and promises that you can’t keep.  Prayer is not cause and effect, like if God’s having a good day then I’ll win that lottery, or I’ll get the boyfriend or the girlfriend I’ve asked for, or Leslie will beat that cancer.  It just doesn’t work like that. 

Things don’t happen because I pray.  But things can happen when I pray.  I am changed by the experience.  My heart is calmed and still and resting in the presence of God.  I am changed not by my words but by the intense emotions that reside within me can finally be released and offered to God in prayer.   In time and over time you will see and understand the profound meaning of prayer, and how it was answered if indeed answers are what prayer is about.

Remember the words of Jeremiah?  I tend to use them a lot, probably because I need to hear them!  God says to Jeremiah, tell the people, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me and I will restore your fortunes.” (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

Jeremiah simply lets the people know that God gets it, God will protect them and that God will hear them and restore them.  And isn’t that what we ultimately want and need from prayer?  Assurance and restoration?

So we will pray to the one true God and to our mediator, Christ Jesus, together.  We will stand united in the need or prayer. 

I love when we end our meetings standing in a circle, holding hands and praying the Lord’s Prayer.  At that very moment our voices are united and we are one body in Christ.
No matter what went on in the meeting and how we may have disagreed or agreed with one another, no matter what we brought to the table with us from home or our lives, we are one and we affirm our love of God and our common humanity.   So let us now stand up and hold the hand of the one next to you as we pray very slowly again, the Prayer that Jesus gave us. 


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Got Mercy? Do Tell.

1 Timothy 1:12-17
It’s now two or three generations after Jesus has been resurrected and ascended.  The apostles are gone, Paul is gone, and the expectation that Jesus was going to come again within their lifetime was beginning to waver if not vanish altogether.  So somehow the remaining faithful had to figure out how to move on, and keep the faith alive and organize their community of faith.  This was the context in which today’s scripture was written.

What scholar’s call the “Pastoral Letters”, 1&2 Timothy and Titus, probably were written in the style of Paul but not by Paul himself.  They read much like a leadership manual for new churches of the day.  What to do, who’s to do it, what should be worn or not worn, and how to worship.  We could compare it to the first original constitution and by-laws that were written by Orange’s founding members. 

Paul, after his conversion on the road to Damascus, was a devout follower of Christ who journeyed throughout the Roman Empire telling his story about the mercy of God who picked him up out of the bowels of bad living and the tenements of torment and turned his heart and life around.  One of the places we know that Paul planted a church in his mission field was in Ephesus.  Here we find a new pastor, Timothy, hard at work.

The epistle begins with Paul’s greeting and a strong warning about false teachers who have deviated from the divine message of ‘love from a pure heart’ (1:5).  Then Paul shows great gratitude for the mercy that he has received, I like particularly Eugene Peterson’s telling from “The Message” for 1 Timothy….

 I'm so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work. He went out on a limb, you know, in trusting me with this ministry. The only credentials I brought to it were invective and witch hunts and arrogance. But I was treated mercifully because I didn't know what I was doing—didn't know Who I was doing it against! Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus.

 Here's a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I'm proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.

Deep honor and bright glory to the King of All Time, One God, Immortal, Invisible ever and always. Oh, yes!

Effusive, overenthusiastic, hyperbolic Paul.  One of the greatest of evangelists, he was granted mercy and couldn’t keep quiet about it.  I think that’s the way in which true mercy works, as one scholar puts it, “Mercy is a verb of God’s activity that is conjugated in Paul’s own experience.”  Paul’s confession of faith is what motivates the early church to get up and moving.  His mercy is our verb.  If God can grant mercy to someone like Paul, ‘public enemy number one’, then God can grant mercy to anyone, even me and you.  It calls us to action.
Have you ever been granted mercy?  Do Tell!  That’s what Paul does.  He talks about that defining moment in his life the rest of his life to whomever he meets.  He becomes God’s number one witness of the day.  Paul experiences profound salvation when God’s mercy is extended, which is why this evangelist speaks out.

We know that the mercy of God extends way beyond our own comprehension. It’s there when you need it most, but deserve it the least.  It’s those kind and compassionate acts, which are endowed with forgiveness all of which - or not deserved.  You’re on death row walking that lonely route to the executioner’s chamber and the phone rings from the governor’s office, commuting your sentence.  That’s mercy!  You ignored the signs on the road and entered an area of sinkholes.  Now you are up to your neck in quicksand slowly being pulled down.  By some mysterious luck (luck as some would call it) a passerby sees you and throws a rope to you.  That’s mercy!  You’ve tried over and over again to kick an invasive habit and one day, by the grace of God solely you do.  That’s God’s divine mercy!

Mercy comes in all sorts of packages from grand gestures of unmerited forgiveness to those smaller moments in life when you know that somehow, someway you’ve been given a second chance.  When you are on your last thread of hope, your life begins to change.  You can see a pin dot of light shining in the darkness and you can feel the air that begins to permeate your stagnate existence.  That’s mercy!  And we’ve all been there.

Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, tells us parables of mercy over and over again.  If you have one hundred sheep and one gets lost, won’t you go out to find the poor sheep that has lost his way?  Of course you would.  If you had ten very valuable coins and one of them gets lost in a crack in the floor, wouldn’t you sweep and vacuum until you find it?  Of course you would.  When you’ve lost your way to drunkenness or gambling or any sort of indecent living, doesn’t God come out looking for you?  Of course God does.  When you just feel as if you’ve lost your faith in our common lot or worse yet, in God, don’t you think that God comes to us in so many ways both seen and unseen, heard and unheard?  OF COURSE God does.  And that’s mercy!

Where have you experienced God’s mercy in your life? When were you on your metaphorical or maybe literal ‘way out’ but were picked up and granted mercy?  I’m sure you have, at least one time in your life, been granted God’s ultimate mercy and grace.   I have!  We’re in this humanity thing together.  It’s being saved and revived from the last shred of strength that we have, and then been given a fresh start to get things right.  But it can’t stop there after you’ve said a polite ‘Thank you God’.

Do you have a story to tell?  A story where God reached into your life and saved you?  I challenge to tell one person this week.  You don’t have to use eloquent words,  they just need to be sincere and from the heart.  One of the most powerful stories of redemption was from a man I met in Wooster Square sitting on a park bench.  A homeless man who just could not help but tell me his story.  And it was powerful, from the heart.  He had been saved, granted God’s mercy and lived to tell other’s all about God’s great act.  That’s what mercy does.

The call of the Gospel is for us to seek, understand, and accept God’s mercy and then to tell others, like Paul, like Lamott, like the shepherd who finds his lost sheep and calls together his friends to party, like the woman finding her lost coin, we are to tell others.  It is our testimony and witness that perpetuates our Christian faith.  It is our ancient tradition that must not get lost.  In the weeks to come we will hear personal testimony and witness as we begin ‘Pay it Forward’ as part of our Season of Generosity.  Listen carefully, be inspired and then tell your story.

That’s what we do in our community of faith.  Once you’ve known mercy and grace, and you will, it’s hard to keep silent.  Got Mercy?  Do Tell!

Amen, may it be so!

The Potter and the Plan

Jeremiah 18: 1-11
Of all of the final examinations that I’ve taken in my life, at university or seminary, the hardest was a final for an advanced pottery class.

I had to throw, on the potter’s wheel, a set of four identical mugs that looked alike, were weighted equally, and were glazed in the same way.  If you think this is easy, it’s not.  Any number of things can and did go wrong.  You can throw a misshapen vessel by applying too much or too little pressure or by adding a little too much water to keep the clay malleable.  You have to watch that you don’t lift up the walls of the vessel to quickly as it’s spinning on the potter’s wheel or linger too long in one spot otherwise the walls get way too thin.  If something happens in any part of the process the potter just has to collapse the vessel and begin again. 

So night after night I would go to the ceramics studio in my blue work shirt and jeans covered with dried clay and I would bend over the potter’s wheel and work as I listened to the spinning of the wheel.  One mug.  Two mugs. Then three and eventually I had thrown four mugs but not without collapsing many mugs in the process that just needed to be tossed out for one reason or another or collapsed on its own from overwork.

I labored very hard on that final and learned about patience, perseverance and a steady hand.  I learned about clay too, that not every batch is the same. The mugs weren’t identical but they were unified in their look and that was good enough.  (Good enough- the two best words in the dictionary) I did well on the exam and unfortunately I do not still have the set.  Somewhere along the way they just disappeared like childhood toys, I don’t know where they went.  But the experience has never left me.

The image of the potter is used quite often in the Bible and in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah because the author used examples from life that would resonate with his listener’s. Jeremiah’s call and his prophecies were rooted in Israel’s purpose, not in the development of just one person.  And it was the prophet’s job to tell the community of faith things they didn’t want to hear and about how God wanted to shape their life together.

Let us now hear the word of God through the prophet Jeremiah….

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings…..

While we might think about God shaping our individual lives, bent lovingly over a potter’s wheel molding us like a potter, Jeremiah here is addressing the life of the community, called together.  God is molding a society and nation to be a model of ethical monotheism in a critical time in the political history of Judah, the southern kingdom and these words we just heard might seem a bit harsh.

The people of Israel were having a difficult time remaining true to the covenant God made with them on Sinai. One God, one people, no other god’s.  That was difficult for them.  With all of the outside political factors and cultural influences encroaching upon their nationhood they questioned this ‘one god’ theology, maybe even rebelled and often went back to their old ways.  Peer pressure is not a new concept!  You see God was forming them to be a better nation and had great plans for them, plans for their welfare and not for harm, to give them a future with hope God says later in Jeremiah. (Jer: 29)  If only they would trust in their future now and have faith that God would bring them through and show them the way.

In our scripture we see God is deeply invested in the future of Israel as a people, as a community of faith.  God wants to shape a vessel of hope out of them that will contain the foundational tenets of a people of faith living together in covenant.  That is to love each other, and to love God, to walk in God’s ways which is to repair the world and no other.

Yet like dried clay or too wet clay we see them actively resist the hand of the potter and form themselves for their own purposes.  They did have a choice you know, there is a relationship between the clay and the potter.  Or, they could embrace God’s way, be attentive to the manner in which God wanted to form them congruent with God’s law. God was not indifferent to the way their collective life was to take shape.  God was aggressively involved in it.  God cared.  God loved.  And this is why we detect a sense of judgment or dissatisfaction in our scripture. God wants them to be the best that they can be and to be harbingers of God’s grace.

And God wants to continue to shape us as a community of believers too for purposes that we cannot envision yet.  God shaped us into existence over two hundred years ago and is shaping us now for ultimately God’s purpose and plan far beyond what we can even imagine.  We’ve been attentive to God’s call so far?  How will we be attentive to who God is calling us to be?

There have been turning points in the life of this congregation that were seminal to whom you are today.  There are decisions that were made by your bold ancestors that were precedent-setting and that made all the difference as to how you gather yourselves and carry out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They were faithful people wanting to worship God and bear witness to just how great and wonderful God had been to them.  You are their legacy.  What legacy will we leave?  What type of vessel will this church become for others to be a part of a generation from now?  God is continuing to mold us and that’s what this redevelopment thingie is all about. 

Soon the redevelopment teams will reconvene after the summer hiatus.  They will reconnect and assess how they need to proceed to ensure that we are open to the ways in which the hands of the potter are trying to shape us.  Once they have met then I will have an all church forum to do some reassessing of the entire process, to take the temperature of the congregation to see if you’re getting antsy with it or if your satisfied with the work thus far, or if you have any new and innovative ideas for us to explore.  There’s always something that can be looked at and it is good to stop and assess.  But we aren’t alone in the process, and that is something we need to always remember.

Christ is our steady foundation who issues that same call as long ago to follow, to trust, to believe in a future that promises hope and redemption for all people.  Are we faithfully telling that Gospel?  It might not be overt but do our actions show the community of Orange that we are loving and accepting of all God’s children who want to walk in his ways?  We don’t exist for ourselves, we exist for God and all others who sorely crave some hope and acceptance in their lives.

We know now that God is a God of love, not revenge, and that God will not turn against us or exact danger upon us.  God is merely asking for a deepened commitment to the covenant that God has given us.  God has molded us, shaped us, searched us and knit us together unified as a worshipping people like a foursome of mugs.