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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Confessions of a Bedraggled Parent

Luke 18:1-8; Psalm 121
            When my children were little they could get on my last nerve with their persistent begging for things.           
            Can we play outside? Can I have a cookie? Can I watch TV? Can I have some candy? Can we play a game? Can I have money for this? Can I have money for that? Can I, can I, can I?
            There were times when I was absolutely firm and successfully held my ground. “No,” I would answer, and “no” meant “no”.
            Then there were, well, those other times; the times when I caved; I gave in.
            They got the cookie 15 minutes before we were going to eat dinner – especially if they gave me a good story for why they “needed” it. They got to play outside before they did their homework, even though this was against the rules, but always, of course, with the stipulation that it would get done right after dinner.
            Yes, their persistent begging wore me down, until finally they got their way. Sometimes. It didn’t happen all the time. I won’t tell you how often it happened, but it was often enough that it gave them hope that strengthened their resolve for the next time they wanted something. Justice was not done on those days. We didn’t follow the law (the rules of the house).  
            Today we have a little plaque in our house that reads, “What happens at Grandma’s stays at Grandma’s” so, I plead the fifth where our grandson is concerned because, well, it stays at Grandma’s!”. I am sure you understand. You understand that it’s not just about giving in to nagging – it’s also about love – which leaves us particularly vulnerable.
            Most of us have probably had that experience – either as the petitioner, begging and pleading our cause before our loved ones –
            where we pretty well know their weak spots
                        and the vulnerabilities we can prey upon,
                        or as the judge and arbiter of justice and all things sweet and sticky.
            In any case, on those days when my kids wore me down, I guess I was like the judge in the gospel lesson today who – at least sometimes - does the right thing for the wrong reason.
            The parable in our gospel lesson today is often referred to as “The Parable of the Unjust Judge.” Just a look at the description of this man in the gospel text, and we understand how it got that name;
            “he neither feared God nor had respect for people.”
            Someone who has no respect for people doesn’t care one whit for a widow. In Jesus’ time widows had no power. They were completely dependent upon and vulnerable to those who wanted to take advantage of them and they were in many ways helpless.
            The widow in this parable has been victimized by circumstance – she is a widow after all - and she has most likely been victimized by the system as well. The law of the day was that when a man died all his wealth and property would pass on to his sons if he had any, and to his brothers if he did not, and then to more distant male relatives when those closer descendants were lacking.
            There was an expectation that a widow would be looked after by the one who inherited the estate, and widows with good family systems might be cared for, yet they were still totally dependent on the decency of those who inherited.
            The most common types of complaint that a judge like this was likely to deal with were land and property disputes, disputes over inheritance, and the widow’s is the messiest kind of these cases. Because really, “expectations” aside, the law works for her opponent and against her.
            And yet, our widow remains relentless. She continues to pursue what she sees as justice for herself, or at the very least, mercy.
            She continues to fight for her survival.
            She gives up her helplessness and pursues, persists, and perseveres, seeking what she calls “justice.”
            Despite her widowhood and accompanying helplessness this widow sees herself as having hope.  
            Rather than voiceless, the way most marginalized people have no voice, this widow speaks with purposefulness and insistence that she be heard.
             Instead of giving up on the judge, she trusts, she believes, that ultimately she or, rather, justice will prevail, even against an unjust judge - Even against the prevailing wisdom and law of the time. This woman believes and trusts that all evidence to the contrary, justice will triumph for her sake. Otherwise, how could she continue to appeal to this man who neither feared God nor respected people?
            Jesus told this tale as a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Jesus also twice repeats the idea of fearing God and respecting people.
            Justice for all people, and especially for the weak, the vulnerable, the lost, and the lifeless ones is not only important to God, it is at the very heart of God.
            There is good reason that Jesus would use this story to teach his followers about the necessity of prayer in their lives, even prayer that seeks the seeming impossible, even when hope appears determinedly dead in the water.  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where sin and injustice will converge in his arrest and trial, his conviction and passion, his death and resurrection.
            It is not lost on us that Jesus, who himself fervently prayed throughout his life and especially when difficulties and challenges arose, encourages constant prayer; the Son of God, who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died for “this cup to pass,” declares that God will grant justice to those who pray both day and night.
            Those experiences like the one I shared with you of my parental successes and failures at giving in to the nagging of my children, teach us that “no” is never really “no”. and our experience of God is that God’s “yes” comes out of a place of pure love and mercy and grace that supersedes any rules we may have put in place. 
            We are primed by our experience of being the parent occasionally worn down by persistent begging, or of having been the beggar who has worn down our own parent, to interpret this parable as a story that teaches that all we have to do is nag God with our prayers and we, too, should get what we want, even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
            The thing is, this gospel points to an ever greater truth. The extension of God’s mercy is not dependent of “fairness” or “law” as we interpret it. God’s response is one of grace for God’s beloved children. Prayer is not so much about wearing down God as it is about building up our relationship with God, and having that relationship strengthen us in our life of faith. 
            This parable demonstrates God’s character through contrast. The point is that God is not like the unjust judge. Rather, God is just and loving, cares about the needs of people, and hears our every prayer. We can expect justice and mercy from this God.
            Of course, there is a lot of mystery that surrounds prayer. How does it work? Why does it seem that some prayers are answered and others go unheard? I don’t have answers for those questions.
Perhaps it is easy to hear this story and conclude “Well, obviously the widow is a good example of persistence and faith because she ultimately receives what she wants”— What about the woman who knocks and knocks and knocks and never receives a reply?
              Who among us hasn’t prayed for something—   persistently, faithfully, constantly, and not received that for which we prayed?  Is the widow a better pray-er than I am? Am I just not good enough at prayer? Simply being faithful in prayer doesn’t guarantee that we’ll receive the response we want. 
            But being faithful in prayer does strengthen our relationship with God.  Being faithful in prayer does remind us constantly of who God is, and who we are, beloved children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ.
            Being faithful in prayer grounds us in God’s promises and gifts, gives us an outlet for both the grief that threatens to destroy, and the joy that sometimes overwhelms. Being faithful in prayer gives us hope that no matter what may come, God will somehow bring us to a good end. Immersing ourselves in a healthy prayer life gives us the means to faithfully, consistently give God thanks and praise for God being God.  
            Two weeks ago, I asked you to write down on cards I gave you, something you had done in faith. Those cards are in this basket. The single most common answer was “prayer.” You got it! You know that it takes faith to pray – even if it is Jesus’ faith we rely on. Because when we are unable to pray, we have a community surrounding us that prays for us in our stead, and the Holy Spirit interceding for us.
            Last week, you wrote down something you are grateful for. Those cards are here too, and again you gave great answers, including things like faith and life, family, health, education, church, Jesus, and prayer. Some of these cards are completely full, others have just a word or two. Some responses are written on these cards and others are on paper torn from the pages of your bulletin. Each response is valid, important, and communicates something about our relationship with God, as do the prayers we pray.
            Today, our third and final exercise links together the messages of these three weeks. Faith, gratitude and prayer work together as essential aspects of our relationship with God. They are three parts of our spiritual lives informed by scripture, blessed by the Holy Spirit and blessed for our use in the work Christ has set before us.
            So today, I ask that you write down something that you are praying about or would like to pray about. I will include some of these in the prayers of the people.
            Yet remember, prayer is not simply nagging God until our needs are satisfied—our prayers are our participation in the reign of God. While our “nagging” prayers might not always be resolved the way we want them too, by continually being in prayer, and not giving up hope, we are drawn closer to God and proclaim with confidence that God has not abandoned this world.
            By praying constantly, we practice faith that we might have strength for these troubled days. We practice faith that we might be a part of God’s coming kingdom, the kingdom of justice and peace.  
            By praying unceasingly, we follow the path of our Lord. We place our trust in God above all else.
            Let us be a people of prayer. Let us be a people of prayer in this place, at this time: PRAY.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

How Are YOU Doing?

I usually edit out parts that pertain to our worship activity and congregational life before posting sermons. but this week I thought I would leave it in rather than deconstruct what was an important part of our life together. 

Luke 17:11-19
It’s a common enough greeting How are you? To which most of us respond, “Fine,” or, “I’m good.” It’s a response we give automatically – almost by rote.
I read a blog this week reflecting on the gospel text we just heard and where the author began by sharing the interesting response a friend of his makes to the simple, common question, “How are you?” And it got me thinking.
I wonder if you have ever had trouble answering that question? “How are you?”
I know I have, because truth be told, there are times when, however sincere the question and kind the person, they don’t really want to know the truth.
It’s not that they don’t care, but sometimes you know, you just know, that if you really told them how you are doing, things would just get AWKWARD!
Whether the response you might want to give is, “Great! I just won the lottery!” or a more common, “Lousy. I haven’t been able to sleep, my bunions are aching, and my roof is leaking,” or something somewhere in between, you sense this isn’t the time for complete honesty.
So, more times than not, you probably do what I do - reach for the easy answer –
 “I’m Fine.” Or even, “I’m good,” even on those days when that is a bold-faced lie.
So, what was the thought-provoking response to the question, “How are you?” It was a simple, “I’m grateful.”
Wow! What a modest yet powerful statement. “I’m grateful.”
We look at the story in our gospel today, and we realize that gratitude is not only a response; gratitude is a choice we make.
In this healing story from Luke, ten lepers approach Jesus. Leprosy in the 1st century was greatly feared. Although today there are multidrug therapies that can bring cures, as you can imagine there were no such treatments in those days. And, since leprosy was highly feared, there were strict rules and regulations about contact with its victims.
So, as they approach Jesus, while still a distance away, these lepers beg for mercy.
We don’t really know if it is physical healing that they are seeking – did they, in their wildest dreams think that healing was even possible? Had they heard stories about Jesus’ healing miracles? Or were they simply asking for a cool drink of water or a crust of bread? But God, in infinite wisdom, knows their need, as God knows ours.
A healing does indeed occur. Jesus doesn’t touch the lepers, he doesn’t instantly cure them.
Rather, he instructs them to go present themselves to the priests – something a diseased person who had been considered “unclean” would need to do in order to be restored to community.
What did the lepers think about this strange response?  Jesus didn’t heal them outright, but sends them on their way. After they left him they suddenly realized that they were indeed, healed!
I imagine they were all happy, and grateful. But nine of them simply continued on, and went their way. Only one returned. Only one recognized the source of healing and felt compelled to respond. Only one made the choice to return, to offer God thanks, and to submit himself before Jesus, the agent of his healing.
“How are you doing?”
“I’m grateful!”
This one leper, a Samaritan, prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet. Prostration is a radical act, a physical posture given to express complete submission and vulnerability before another. With this act, the Samaritan expressed not only his gratitude but his complete surrender, his whole life, returned to Jesus.
This simple but powerful motion expressed what words could not – it expressed how complete his gratitude and therefore his allegiance to Jesus was, as a response to what had been done for him.
How are you doing? “I’m grateful!”
Even in the midst of our darkest days, there is something to be grateful for.
I don’t deny that some days it is difficult if not impossible to name something for which we are grateful, but that is where the community of faith comes in. Because when I am unable to access my font of gratitude, there is someone else here to raise up thanks and praise to God in my stead. And I am here for you. And God is here, in this thing with all of us, together.
It has been both anecdotally and scientifically proven that lives lived in gratitude – that is, where gratitude is a conscious-choice-turned-natural-response, people are healthier, happier, more content, and report greater satisfaction with life.
To say, “I’m grateful” is not intended to say that we should stuff down, deny or pretend that those other feelings don’t exist. Not at all.
David Lose points out that there is a range of emotions we might experience in the course of our day. Each is useful in its own regard; each has a place. But we get to choose how much stage time to give to each emotion, and as we do, we give them power over our lives.
Gratitude shapes the reality in which we live.
The disease that afflicted these humans who came to Jesus, leprosy, was an isolating, confining, disfiguring, disease. Lepers lived in colonies with other lepers. They were not permitted among the healthy residents of the town. In many ways, leprosy was a death sentence.
And that’s where Jesus comes in.
In healing these lepers, Jesus restores them to life – he brings them a kind of resurrection from death. The healing of the lepers can be seen as a preview of the resurrection of the dead that comes to us through Jesus. Just as all the dead, not only the holy and just and good are raised by Jesus, so all the lepers, not just the perceptive and thankful are cleansed.
Robert Capon writes, “…for the lepers to enjoy, to accept, to celebrate the power of their resurrection from disease…well, that cannot happen until they see themselves not simply as returned to normal life by some inexplicable circumstance but precisely as lepers, cleansed by Jesus -that is, as living out of their death by the gift of someone else

s life. 
Isn’t that what the life of faith is all about? We are sinners. Each and every one of us is dead in sin, unable to raise ourselves, unable to save ourselves. We are broken, we are diseased, we are dead and we are dying. We cannot, by our own strength, will, or goodness, heal ourselves from the brokenness of sin and the deadly results of our infinite attraction to deadly things, or the reality of our frail human lives.
Only God can do that, and God willingly saves us, heals us, guides us back from the edge of despair and death and back into life. Only God, through Jesus, can bring us eternal salvation and resurrection from death.
These are things we recognize and acknowledge – through words of the Confession and Forgiveness we recite, when we remember our Baptism, when we gather around the table at the Lord’s Supper each week. In each of those acts, we make a choice. We express our praise and gratitude for all that God achieves for us through each Means of Grace in our lives.
Studies have shown that consistently choosing certain behaviors, attitudes and thought patterns can actually change certain pathways in our brains, thus affecting future thoughts and behaviors. It turns out that choosing gratitude really can shape our lives and the lives of those around us. 
Gratitude isn’t just warranted as a response for the grandiose blessings and common benefits we receive in this life, things like healing, home, family, and health – but is even more appropriate in the multitude of small things that come together and enrich our lives.
As Christians, a daily dose of gratitude for God’s eternal blessing, for the presence of Jesus in our lives and for the gift of grace that surpasses human knowing, is certainly called for.
So let me ask you, how are YOU doing?
            Last week, I asked you to write down on a card something that you had done in faith recently. And as I read through your answers, I was truly touched. Your responses were authentic reflections on ways in which your faith and the love of God that lives in you shapes your relationship with God. Many of you named prayer as that thing you have done in faith.
Some of you named some kind of service you had performed on behalf of another: a meal taken to a neighbor, a ride offered a stranger, a huge leap of faith you took when making an important decision.
Some of you named everyday activities that you undertook in faith. Others named ways in which faith gave you courage to reach outside of your comfort zone.
Today I’d like to ask another question. Once again, you were handed a card when you came in and this time what I would like you to write down something for which you are grateful.
I invite you, when you come forward for communion, to place your card in this basket, as your offering of praise and thanksgiving this day.
Gratitude is indeed a response to God’s activity in the world. I would like to challenge you to a daily exercise in gratitude. Begin a journal, and for the next thirty days, as you examine your life, write down something for which you are grateful to God.
Let this activity help to shape your life and your faith, and give you greater understanding and appreciation, that in the daily give and take of your life, even in dark and uncertain times, there is still something for which you may be grateful – even if it is that this community surrounds you in Christ’s name, and lifts you up.  
It is a choice to see those blessings and name them; it is a choice to express our gratitude in word and deed.
That choice has consequences for ourselves and those around us. Our attitude and expressions of gratitude, both spoken and acted out in our lives, is transformative. Let it be that like the Samaritan leper, we may offer our lives in total submission to Jesus, in complete gratitude that is a choice we are compelled to live out, for all that God has done for us in Christ. Amen.

[i] Capon, Robert Farrar, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, (Eerdmans:2002) p. 324.