Saturday, July 27, 2013

10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year C

When God Doesn't Answer Prayer

Readings: Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying, Luke tells us, in a ‘certain place’. I imagine him to be on a rolling hill by the Sea of Galilee. His disciples watch him at prayer with some interest. They see the serenity surrounding him as he prays. They want that same sense of peace. “Teach us to pray,” they say to him. Jesus responds with a prayer from his Jewish roots, a prayer that very much reflects his thoughts about who God is and the place God has in his life. He addresses God as Father. His prayer begins, not with his needs, but with his relationship with God. He prays that God will meet his needs. He prays to a forgiving person. He prays not to be tested by life more than can endure. They know from his prayer that Jesus is in a loving and intimate relationship with God, a relationship in which they want to share.

How did you learn to pray? I suspect that most of us in this church today learned to pray from our parents. I would also suspect that what we really learned was how to say some prayers. Speaking for myself, I would kneel at the side of the bed as my mother heard my prayers, simple prayers taught to me by rote. Somewhere along the way I learned to say the Lord’s Prayer. It became a routine. I would rattle it off without thinking about what I was saying. You see, I had not really learned how to pray.

Jesus continues in his teaching about prayer by telling a story. It is a story that paints the portrait of a loving God and offers instances of human generosity and the motives behind it. He tells of a person who will get out of bed and supply a friend’s need, probably because the friend is persistent. A traveller has arrived unexpectedly on the man’s doorstep. He has nothing to feed him. He goes to his neighbour and bangs on the door. He wants his neighbour to give him some of tomorrow’s fresh bread. The family has already retired for the night. The gate is locked. It causes no small interruption. It wakes up the children and the dogs. It is stretching friendship a bit far. Jesus points out that hospitality is important enough, and the shame of not providing it was so great, that the poor man will get up, perhaps reluctantly, to respond to the request.

He is pointing out a simple truth about prayer. It is not the words that we pray that bring about some magical change in our lives. It is our attitude towards prayer. Prayer is intended to bring us into a closer relationship with God. It gives us the inclination to place every aspect of our lives in God’s presence and offer it in prayer. That means it is not enough to simply rattle off our prayers without really thinking about what we are saying, without allowing the words of the prayer to change our lives.

That seems simple enough, but this passage of Scripture as with many passages creates some real difficulties for people. “For everyone who asks receives,” Jesus continues in his story, “and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

So Jesus, what do I say to the young woman who opens up to me telling me her story of years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father? “I prayed every day to God that he would stop, but he didn’t!” she told me. “Maybe I didn’t use the right words. Maybe it was my fault.”

What of the man suffering from years of depression who was convinced by a well-meaning friend to pray to God rather than take medication?

Or the young widow who prayed earnestly that her husband, dying of cancer would be healed. What do I tell her when she asks me, “Is it something he did? Am I being punished for my sins?”

What do I say to the family of the teenager hit by a car, praying desperately for a miracle as the doctor tells them that there is no hope and that life support is to be withdrawn?

Those fervent prayers cause crises of faith. Why did God not answer my prayer? Did God fail or did I? Is it lack of faith on my part? Did I do something wrong? Did I pray the wrong way or use the wrong words? Perhaps there is no God after all? And there are well-meaning people who are quick to blame victims for their lack of faith. What happens is part of the human tragedy. There are trials that challenge our courage, trials of pain and suffering, of loss and bereavement. And all of us die. Some of us it is true, die all too young.

Jesus says that the answer lies in continuing to pray, in being persistent in our prayer life. In prayer we ask for what we need. We ask, not because God has some sort of ‘money-back’ guarantee. Nor is it about getting the pink Cadillac you have always wanted. We ask knowing that we are building a relationship with God. We ask knowing that God hears our prayers. We pray with a sense of assurance knowing that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a promise that God will keep. We pray in loving expectation for the responsive word of God to rise in our hearts.

As I reflect I think of three ways in which God responds to our prayers. All three are wonderful gifts. The first gift is the surprise we had not even considered asking for, but which delights us. God is constantly offering such gifts – a rainbow in the sky, a beautiful sunset, a kind glance from a friend, a smile from a stranger.

The second gift is just what we wanted. Sometimes God gives us what we want and pray for. Haven’t we all said, “That was an answer to prayer”? When that happens everything about it smacks of God. It happens at just the right time. We sometimes call it a coincidence, but for me it is God at work, a ‘God-incidence’.

The third gift is not at all what we wanted, but it becomes more valuable as we live with it. God may not respond to our prayers as we wish. We may hear God’s call through a word heard in passing. With time we may begin to value and understand God’s response. Sometimes we do not. In whatever way God succeeds in reaching into our hearts we may hear the voice of God. That gift of grace, that powerful love brings us to the feet of Jesus. There we sit quietly with him enjoying his company, knowing that God loves us and loving us cannot help but answer our prayer.

Jesus’ lesson to the disciples about prayer points out a deep truth. The answer to prayer comes about, not because we get it right, or because we are living better lives than everyone else. It is about persistence in prayer, not because we hope to tire God out in order to get what we want, but because in persisting we build a relationship with God. We make God a part of our lives. We make prayer a part of our lives. It becomes as natural to us as breathing. We open ourselves up to God and we let God do the rest. Amen

Saturday, July 20, 2013

9th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year C

“The Tyranny of the Urgent”

Readings: Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:16-28; Luke 10:38-42

The gospel begins with a homey story about a visit that Jesus makes to two sisters, Mary and Martha. It is Martha, the outgoing sister, who greets Jesus at the door. She welcomes him and invites him in, then bustles around, making a fuss over her visitor, making certain he is made to feel at home. She prepares to serve a meal.

At that point in the story, we meet Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on to his every word. It does not sit well with Martha that she is busy working while Mary is listening to their guest. She complains to Jesus. “Tell her to help me!” Refusing to interfere, instead Jesus says to her, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”

I suspect that many of us can identify with how she is feeling, with her frustration. How would we want the story to end? Do we want Jesus to insist that Mary go and help? Perhaps we would even like to see Jesus say to Mary, “Let’s go into the kitchen and help Martha with this meal. Then you can both come out and listen to my teaching.”

Now I must say, I have always identified with Martha. You see, my middle name is Martha while my older sister’s middle name is Mary. We did, growing up have a rivalry between us as many sisters do. Part of the problem was that I was two years younger than she. No matter how hard I tried, I could not live up to her perfection. Even when it came to looks, she had it made. She had long, honey coloured, naturally curly hair that formed into perfect ringlets. Mine on the other hand was dark and straight, with not even the hint of a curl no matter how hard I tried. When we shared a room together, her half was always as neat as a pin while mine looked as if a cyclone hit it. When we ate ice cream cones, mine dripped all over me, while she daintily licked at it until it was finished. But the worst thing to me was to be reminded constantly by my parents that I should emulate my namesake, Martha, and be more like my older sister.

So often when we listen to this story, what we hear is that there are two ways of doing things, the right way and the wrong way, and Mary was doing the ‘better’ thing. That is not what Jesus is saying. He is saying that we all need to take the time to be hospitable, but hospitality might mean that we should be sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to what he has to say, reflecting on our relationship with God and responding to God.

Notice that Jesus did not call Martha to task about what she was doing. He accepted her service and hospitality. Such things were important to him. But she was 'distracted' with all the serving. It was her distraction from what was important that caused him to respond as he did. Her anxiety about all the details kept her from the most important thing, really enjoying the opportunity to be with Jesus, to spend time together, to talk, and to listen to one another. She was missing out on the best part of friendship because she was obsessed with 'doing' rather than 'being'.

In fact, it is high time that Martha went on strike! Her life is living her. She needs to get a life. Part of the message is that everyone is to be included and no one is to be left aside trapped in a role, which prevents them from participation. Martha is being encouraged to abandon a role in which she sees herself as being held captive to serve the needs of others. She is being challenged to leave behind her martyr complex that has her believing that if she does not do it, no one will.

It is easy to become distracted by many things. What distracts us as individuals? Aging, work, wealth, power? We can be more interested in accumulating wealth or power than in being who we are meant to be. And it is not wealth that is wrong. It is being distracted by wealth that is wrong. The accumulation of wealth can become our whole focus in life. It can distract us from building relationships. It can distract us from assuming our responsibilities. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken to people planning a relative’s funeral only to hear all of the regrets. They regret that they did not spend more time together. They regret that work came first. They regret not spending more time in meaningful conversation.

For me the distraction is only too often the Internet. I am certainly becoming more relaxed about email since my retirement, but why is it that I somehow think that as soon as an email arrives I must read it and respond to it? I have to say, people get anxious about your response. “Did you get my email?” they will say accusingly. One commentator labeled it “the tyranny of the urgent”. When I first started out in ministry, I received mail that had already taken several days to get to me. I took my time about responding. If something truly were urgent, then I received a phone call. But somehow society has given us the idea that the messages that come to us need immediate attention. We get distracted, and I suspect, sometimes use bad judgement in firing off an answer.

What about church? Are there things that distract us and keep us from living out our mission? Do we become so concerned with the building, with its beautiful architecture, with its historical significance, that we forget that the church is the people of God? Do we become obsessed with its deficiencies and become distracted by everything that needs to be done? Do we spend our time raising money for this project or that without considering the greater needs of the community, without considering our mission?

Martha had a wonderful sense of service. She was well organized, and enthusiastic, a wonderful hostess; but service, even sacrifice can be spoiled by self-concern and self-pity. Good works can become a misery to the doer and a tyranny to others. When what we are doing gets to the point that it distracts us then something has gone wrong and we need to do something about it. We need to concern ourselves with being, rather than doing. Those who serve may need to step back from time to time to contemplate, to become more grounded in the faith, to renew their strength. Busily doing ‘good’ may be a distraction from what the church needs at the time.

That is what Jesus told Martha. "One thing is needful," he said. Yes, we are to be servants in the world. That is certainly the message of the Gospel. That is certainly the call of discipleship, a call that Martha understood only too well. What she did not understand was that the assignment begins at the feet of Jesus. Listening to Jesus is not better than serving Jesus, just more needful. We can all benefit by returning to Mary’s place of quietness and strength. Mary knew that it was at the feet of Jesus that she would renew her strength.

It is through the life of prayer that we get in touch and keep in tune with God. We need times of quiet renewal in our lives. It is through Word and Sacrament that we are renewed and revitalized. From our worship we are sent out into our Monday through Saturday journey into the world to serve humanity. There we transmit some small touch of divine love and power to despairing, suffering, lonely people.

The Lord was coming to my house. I wanted everything to be just right, so I scrubbed it from top to bottom. I cleaned and polished until the place shone. Then I laid the table with my best tablecloth. I polished the silver and put out my best china. There were candles and matching napkins. Everything looked quite wonderful.

When Jesus came into my house I greeted him at the door. I lavished attention on him. I made certain the conversation did not lag. He seemed to be most appreciative of our time together. But when he left, I realized that something was bothering me, something I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Then a question arose from somewhere inside me. What did Jesus want from me? Food? Hospitality? I wondered. But then a second question, a more important one, came to me. "What did he want to give me? I felt sure he wanted to give me something. But whatever it was, I didn't give him any opportunity to offer it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Proper 15, Year C

The Road from Jerusalem to Jericho

Readings: Amos 7:1-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

A lawyer comes to test Jesus. “What should I do to be saved?” Jesus does not give him the answer. He seldom does. Instead, he turns tables on him, asking him, “What do you think you should do?” The lawyer gives the correct answer. “Love God and love your neighbour.” He knows the law. He says all the right things. He does all the right things. He lives a respectable life. He knows that he cannot be challenged on his knowledge of the law. But he wants to justify his actions, so he asks another trick question, “Who is my neighbour?”

Jesus responds, but not in the way we might expect. He does not argue with him about the law. He does not write a pastoral letter. He does not form a committee to talk about the issue. He does not give a theological reflection on the subject. He tells a story that hits home.

A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed of everything and left for dead. Several people pass by him on that busy road, amongst them a priest and a Levite. Maybe they are in a hurry to reach Jericho before nightfall. Perhaps they fear being made unclean. Or they may fear being attacked themselves. For whatever reason, they don’t stop. But a Samaritan, an outcast of society, does stop. He cannot pass another human being in pain without wanting to relieve that pain. He takes care of the man, binding up his wounds. He takes him to an inn and looks after him as long as he can. He gives the innkeeper enough money to care for the man until he is well. His are not simply band-aid solutions; he accepts the responsibility for this person who is in desperate need.

Jesus asks the lawyer one last question. “Who was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He knows there is only answer. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus tells him.

I suspect the lawyer was expecting an argument from Jesus, something he could really sink his teeth into. He is a person looking for a debate. And what Jesus gives him is an opportunity to judge himself. Hopefully he discovered that if we are motivated by law rather than love we are robbing others of real justice.

The story of the Good Samaritan is one that we all know only too well. But I wonder, how many of us have truly heard the story? How many of us have found ourselves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho? What was our response? Did we respond out of love?

In a university course, a teacher once the class if they had ever heard the story of the Good Samaritan. They all looked at her incredulously. Of course they had heard the story. In our society we call people who help other people “Good Samaritans”. But she went on. “I am not asking if you have listened to the story. I am asking if you have ever heard the story.”

One young woman began to sob. “I know exactly what it you mean,” she said. I was just a child of seven at the time. My father was driving me to the beach to join the rest of the family at the start of the summer holidays. As we were driving along the highway my father had a heart attack. He managed to pull the car over to the side of the highway and told me to try to get help. I got out, waved my arms frantically, but no one on that busy highway would stop.”

“After what seems ages, someone finally stopped to find out what was the matter. He alerted the police, but by the time help arrived my father had died. He was only thirty-four years old.”

Those listening to her story vented their anger and resentment at the motorists who passed by, finding it incomprehensible. One person, however, piped up and said, “I can understand it totally.” He related his story.

“One cold winter night, very late, just as I was about to go to bed, there was a knock at my front door. It was a stranger looking for a place to spend the night. He was travelling back to university, had run out of money and was hitch-hiking. It had not gone well. He needed a place to sleep for the night.”

He went on. “I looked him over. He sounded genuine, but I felt angry at him for not being better prepared. I found every reason in the book not to help him. My own safety, his lack of foresight! I closed the door on him. I watched him disappear into the night. I admire the person who acted. He was a real hero. I wish I had.”

A third person began to relate her story. “You don’t feel like a hero when it happens. I was in my apartment one evening when there was a knock on the door. My neighbour from the next apartment was there holding the limp body of her young child. She was hysterical and had no idea what to do. I took the child in my arms, pointed to the phone and told her to call 911. I proceeded to do mouth to mouth on the little one. An ambulance arrived a short time later. One of the attendants said that if I had not acted the child would surely have died. Mother and child were taken to the hospital. She made a full recovery. I was lauded as a hero, but honestly, I just did what I had learned in my First Aid course.”

Who heard the story? They all did.

There have been many stories this past week from the town of Lac Megantic of people who heard the story and responded as neighbour to neighbour. Crisis so often brings out the best in neighbours. But it should not take a crisis.

So the question remains for us; dol we hear the story? What will we do to put Jesus’ vision of justice into practice in our world? How do we offer gestures of kindness to others? This passage is a revealing and judgemental condemnation of much that passes itself as Christian. It makes many professions of faith seem less than authentic. If we take it seriously, we can no longer simply say the right words or belong to the right church. The parable demands that we account for our actions. We cannot say, "I turn to Christ" without making a commitment to love God and to love neighbour.

Who is my neighbour? Is my neighbour the one who lives next door to me? Is it others who are like me, who share my heritage, my interests? The fact is that every human being is my neighbour. It can have nothing to do with colour, background or social status. It cannot have to do with how clean the person is. It cannot have to do with how well they speak. It must simply be the one who needs my help.

Jesus knew what it meant to be a neighbour. He was tortured, stripped and left in a ditch to die. Do we bear the marks of the wounded Christ in our lives? Are we neighbours to the wounded in our society? Those wounded by life, those burdened with cares, poverty, sickness and despair? Do we know who is our neighbour? Do our actions show that we know? What impact is our congregation having on the community around us? Those are questions we need to be asking.

A teacher once asked his pupils, "How do you know when night ends and day begins?"

One student answered, "You know that night ends and day begins when you can look into the distance and know which animal is your dog, and which is your sheep."

"That is a good answer," the teacher said, "but it is not my answer."

"You know that night ends and day begins," another student said, "when light falls on the leaves and you can see whether it is a maple or an oak."

"That too is a good answer," the teacher said, "but it is not my answer."

"What is you answer, teacher?" they asked.

"When you look into the eyes of a human being and see a brother or sister you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a sister or brother you will know that it will always be night."

Let us look in the face of our neighbour and see Christ. Amen.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Proper 14, Year C

Leaving Your Baggage Behind

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-3, 17-21; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 6:7-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

The message of the gospel this week is that sometimes in life we feel powerless and must seek a power beyond ourselves. We must learn to depend on God’s grace, our need of it, and our need to share it for the empowerment of others and ourselves. That theme has been with me all week as I have gone about my work. A bumper sticker that I saw the other day brought it all home to me. It proclaimed, “When the world ends the one with the most stuff wins!” It caused me to reflect that most of us don’t travel through this world lightly. We carry a great deal of baggage, emotional and otherwise. It is a big learning for most of us to trust that God can meet our needs. As Christians we know that God’s grace is abundantly available to us. We know how much we need that free gift. But to really depend on God’s grace and God’s grace alone, to follow God’s agenda, is contrary to all that our self-reliant society stands for. It is very difficult for us to even acknowledge that we are in need of God’s grace. We are often unaware of the needs of others. We don’t even see our own neediness. It comes from the self-indulgent behaviour that is so prevalent in our modern day society.

If you don’t think we are self-indulgent, simply walk through a mall observing how people react. People these days expect doors to open for them. They walk around with cell phones to their ears, oblivious to the effect they are having on other people. Most of us give little thought to how dependent we are on other people, never mind on God. When we find ourselves in need, it is very difficult to ask for help.

Not that it is unique to our society or era. I suspect it is part of human nature. It comes through loud and clear in that wonderful narrative that we heard in the Old Testament reading. Naaman is the commander of the army of the king of Aram. He is a great man, honoured in his country because of his leadership. This man who possesses great power has to learn the hard lesson that he is human and vulnerable, and that there are other kinds of power beyond his own. He has leprosy, probably not the virulent disease that would have banished him into exile, but difficult all the same for a man of his position to deal with. He tries every cure possible, but nothing works. His wife’s maid, a young woman from Israel, tells him about the prophet Elisha who may be able to cure him. He doesn’t take any chances. He gets a letter to the king of Israel, lots of money and clothing, and sets off for Israel. After his preliminary visit to a rather astonished and frightened king, he arrives with all of his entourage at Elisha’s house. Elisha doesn’t even come out to see him. Instead he sends a messenger, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” He might as well have told Naaman to go jump in the lake! Naaman is beyond angry. After all, he wants a performance equal to his self-importance. His pride is deeply wounded. He refuses to do as Elisha has told him.

Once again it is one of his servants who persuades him to come to his senses. “If he had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it.” Finally he is able to hear the good sense of what the servant is saying. He does as Elisha has told him. He immerses himself seven times in the Jordan, and he is made clean.

It is a wonderful story that reminds us of the struggle most of us have in accepting help. It is a wonderful reminder that there are sources of grace other than those we know in our public lives.

Jesus’ disciples too must learn to depend on God’s grace for their needs. Jesus empowers them to go out into the society around them, to share the good news of what they have come to believe and experience. They go out trusting that God will provide. They don’t pack a lunch. They don’t take money, or even an extra pair of sandals. They stay wherever they are welcomed. And they come back filled with stories and experiences of God at work in and through them. They are happy, not because of their new found power, but because they belong to God. They know that the glory belongs to God, not to them. They know that they are utterly dependent on God, and that they can trust God to be there in all of their needs.

How do we learn to be grace-filled people, dependent on God for our needs? How do we put God’s grace into action in our world? For most of us it begins with learning that we need God and that we can depend on God to meet our needs. I can certainly think of times in my life when it became abundantly clear to me that I had a share in God’s grace and that God would be there in my needs. It has usually been times when I needed God and made an active decision to trust that God would meet my needs.

When I was studying theology I did some courses in urban ministry. The first year I worked in a Food Bank. Most often my job was at the intake desk. I would interview people and make recommendations for how to help them. The desk was at the entrance to the building. I would watch people walk back and forth in front of the building, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes before they came in. I wondered what kept them from just coming in. We always helped them. For many people, just to say ‘I need’ was very difficult.

Then I did a course that required a ‘plunge’. To pass we needed to spend a weekend on the streets. The weekend our supervisor chose for us was the middle of a rather cold November. “Take no money, no sleeping bag, no food!” we were told. “You can sleep outside, or you can find a hostel to stay in.” I felt like a lamb amongst wolves. It was a terrifying but life-changing experience!

I found myself walking back and forth outside a hostel trying to get up the courage to go inside and ask for a place to stay for the night. It was just so difficult to say, “I need”! When I did I received the help I needed. I learned a great deal about myself that weekend. I learned a great deal about people, about how dependent we are on one another, about how kind we can be; and I learned that I could trust God to take care of me.

There were some wonderful moments that weekend. At the intake, the supervisor noticed my uneasiness – more about the lies I needed to tell than about my situation. She produced some bath salts and suggested I soak in a nice tub. When I related that part of my experience to others in the group they were incredulous.

There was the young woman who took me to church. “You look like the kind of person who would come to church with me,” she said. I looked at my blue jeans and sweat shirt. “It doesn’t matter what you are wearing,” she told me. And so off we went. I thought it would be to a church close to the hostel, but no. We went to Timothy Eaton Memorial. I hung back at the door, but she grabbed me by the arm and marched up the aisle close to the front of the church where she sang every hymn as loudly as she could.

We don’t all need to take a ‘plunge’ to learn that God takes care of our needs. We do need to learn to depend on God’s grace. We do need to get rid of some of our baggage.

Like the seventy Jesus sent out, we are called to seek out people who will respond. We are to listen to them, to share with them in their pain and their joy. We are to meet their needs. We are to relate to them the gospel message that God loves them and is the answer to their deepest needs. We are called to allow God to work through us. We are called to responsible action, to finding the ways and means so that others can come to know God. We are called to live out the Gospel message in our lives. It is a call to respond in the way we live and work. May we know the urgency of that call! May we respond and live in love as God has called us. Amen.

The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

Opening Locked Doors Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 2; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31 It is evening on the first day of the week. The d...