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Persistent Prayer: A Sermon on Luke 18
October 20, 2010, 4:52 pm
Filed under: Sermons

This morning we read the parable of the persistent widow from the Gospel of Luke. The widow’s tenacious, annoying persistence finally wears down the judge who doesn’t want to hear her case. I can easily imagine the annoyance she caused.

 

Pastor Jeff and I have a year and a half old black lab. Over the past year, he’s mellowed out quite a bit. No more tugging my pants down, or attacking my sweatshirt sleeves. Sure, if you see us on a walk, you might see him attacking his leash, but I think that’s an improvement. Recently, he’s been trying out the persistence thing on us.

 

It happens right about 2pm on a Sunday afternoon. Our house is quiet, lunch is finished, and Pastor Jeff and I are exhausted after the morning and ready for a nap. Iggy’s been quietly sleeping at our feet, but just as he notices we’re ready to relax, he gets up, sits in front of us, stares, and barks. Loud. And repeatedly. His persistence means he wants a walk. Since his persistence prevents us from getting the nap we want, he usually wins and gets his walk.

 

The persistence Jesus is talking about is unrelenting: constant and consistent. The widow’s persistence annoys the judge and may also be causing him to be shamed. Even though the judge is described as one who doesn’t care about God or the opinion of his fellows, it seems that this widow is bruising his reputation too much to be ignored. She is trying to call him to do his job. An Israelite judge has a God-mandated job to act with justice and to be especially mindful of the needs of the widow, orphan, and alien, those classes which were most vulnerable in their society. This judge hasn’t cared much about his job. The only reason he ends up caring about this widow is her persistence. Because she keep bothering the judge, he eventually hears her case and grants her justice.

 

Jesus tells this parable to his disciples, hoping they will learn its lesson, and preparing them to face the difficult times he knows will be coming. Jesus is looking forward to his death. He knows that at that time, his disciples will gather in fear, will be uncertain what to do, and will be persecuted and in danger. In the midst of dangerous and fearful times, Jesus wants them to persist, to continue to look to God for help. Jesus wants the disciples to never give up in their faith, no matter how hopeless their situation seems.

 

Do you ever feel like you’re in the midst of a hopeless situation? What difficult times are we living in now?

 

As a congregation, we’ve faced the deaths of many of our loved ones. We fear for the continuation of our congregation and our community, as attendance and population continue to decline. We worry about the kind of world our children and grandchildren will grow up in. We are uncertain about our relationship with our own church, the ELCA.

 

Jesus tells us to not lose heart.

 

In the face of hardship, fear, and injustice, Jesus invites us to continue praying. When it looks like God isn’t doing anything or that our situation is too much for God to handle, Jesus invites us to continue praying. It’s not an exercise in futility, but an exercise in persistence. We do not persist in pestering God without hope, but we continue to pray because God will answer.

 

We learn about how God acts from this parable. God is good, loving, and merciful. God cares about us much more than the unjust judge cares about the widow. So then, if the unjust judge will eventually listen to the widow’s complaint, God will listen to and act on our prayers that much more!

 

This doesn’t mean that difficult times and injustice will not be present in our world. This parable is about our persisting in faith despite the difficult reality, persisting even though it doesn’t look like God has the power to bring life or justice to the situation we are in. We continue to look to God to act in our world, even as we continually pray about the brokenness of the world around us. This parable was to prepare the disciples for the difficult times ahead. It reassures us that God is just and loving, and will act to heal us and the world.

 

This parable also uncovers some of God’s priorities. Throughout the Bible, and in Jesus’ ministry, God is deeply concerned for the well-fare of those without power: widows, orphans, immigrants, and outsiders. We tend to think of God’s care for us as individuals, but much of Scripture is about God’s care for a whole community, a whole people. God’s care and God’s justice is for those we may not always think about, or care about, ourselves.

 

As we enter into prayer, we should spend some time reflecting on if our prayers for change in the world, for God’s action, are in line with God’s preference for the poor and powerless. Are we remembering those for whom God wants to act? Or do we only remember ourselves? Are we opening our ears to hear the ways God may be answering our prayers by calling us to act with justice, to care for the poor, the homeless, and the immigrant?

 

Pastor Jeff and I have heard you’re sick of hearing the call to mission. We keep sharing this call because we feel the need to be like the persistent widow, continually reminding you of your God-given job to bring justice to a broken world. Maybe it’s hard to hear because you feel helpless to do anything that makes a difference in the world. But joining God in God’s life-giving mission is not beyond your ability to do. It’s doing the things you’re already a part of: feeding the poor, caring for the elderly, visiting the sick and grieving. It’s living your daily lives with a recognition that God has given you all you have, and seeking to share your life and resources with those in need.

 

When Jesus tells his disciples this parable, he is about to give his very life away. He will be betrayed, suffer, and die on a cross. As he faces his death, he reminds the disciples to pray and not to lose heart. Jesus is steadfastly turned onto his path, and wants the disciples to remain steadfast in their trust in God, no matter the dangers of the path following Jesus. Jesus’ death is not a reason to lose heart and lose faith. In sacrificing himself, Jesus will give unending, irrevocable, restoring life to the world. In his death, he conquers death and gives life abundantly.

 

We who fear the death of our church and our community would do well to look to Jesus. He enters death with a goal of giving himself away for the life of the world. Rather than being destroyed, or swallowed up by death forever, Jesus is raised from the dead. He receives life, and also gives that life to the world. If we look towards the possibility of our own death and do not lose heart, but persist in our trust in God, we may find God’s gift of new life. If we look for ways to be like Jesus here and now, giving our lives away for the sake of a world in need, we will experience resurrection.

 

Jesus calls us to persist in faith in the midst of difficult times. The disciples will face difficult times when Jesus dies. We hear that their fear causes them to lock themselves up in a room. But Jesus comes to them, to release them from their fear. Jesus sends them out to share the good news of God’s love for all people. Even then, they face difficult times. Many are scorned, many are persecuted, many are martyred. But they persist in faith. Today, we are in the midst of difficult times. Will we persist in faith, trusting that God will hear and answer us?

 

 

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Let’s make a deal, God… A sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
October 10, 2010, 2:56 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , , ,

Have you ever really wanted something from God? Something you knew was in God’s power and you were willing to do whatever God asked, just so that it would happen? You try to strike a bargain with God, praying, “Ok, God, I know you can do what I want- so if you do it, I’ll…”

 

Legend has it that Martin Luther tried to strike such a deal. He was caught in the middle of a thunderstorm, thought he was going to die, and promised God that he’d become a monk if only he got through the storm safely.

 

For many of us, the incidents that lead to our bargaining aren’t quite so theatrical. They arise as we stand by and watch loved ones go through difficult times. Sometimes we ask God on behalf on ourselves, but I bet it’s more often that we fall on our knees begging God for a miracle on behalf of someone else. Someone we wish we could trade places with. Someone for whom we would battle whatever illness or hardship or grief they have to face.

 

It’s hard when we have to stand by and realize we really can’t do anything. We have no power to change a difficult reality. That can be even more difficult if you’re the type of person who gets things done, who conquers problems, and who is in control.

 

We meet just such a person in our reading from 2 Kings this morning. Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram, modern Syria. He was a great man, a mighty warrior, and in favor with the powerful king. He had been victorious over Israel. Yet for all his power, his ability to command and control thousands of troops, he does not have complete power over his own health and body. He has been infected with a skin disease, a visible sign of imperfection.

 

He is not able to win over this disease. In the midst of his defeat, there is a witness to hope. A young Israelite girl is serving his household, a prize from his latest raid. She tells her mistress that a prophet in her homeland has the power to cure this disease. Naaman takes seriously this advice. For all his power, it’s amazing that he listens to the humblest people under his command.

 

Naaman goes through the channels of power to obtain a cure from this prophet. He tells his king, who writes to the Israelite king and sends along gifts to smooth the way for Naaman to receive favor and a cure. The prophet Elisha makes himself know to the king of Israel, and Naaman is sent on to Elisha’s home.

 

Up to this point, things are probably looking pretty good to Naaman. Everything is going as expected, he’s working with the important people with whom he typically associates, and he’s accompanied by signs of his power and wealth. He looks impressive, with the exception of the disease that has caused him to come to Israel, but it seems that he’s got even that situation under control and is well on his way towards conquering it.

 

He comes to Elisha’s door with his personal guard, his servants, and a portion of his wealth to give in exchange for a miracle of healing. He also comes with expectations of what will happen next. As a commander of the army, he’s worked on his ability to anticipate what will happen in a given situation. He’s stayed alive by commanding others to carry out his vision. Now he brings those skills to Elisha’s front door.

 

There they fall flat and fail him. Things do not go as Naaman envisioned. Elisha does not come out, does not honor him, does not perform as Naaman expects this religious worker to perform. Naaman’s power is not recognized and he has no control over the situation.

 

Elisha only sends a messenger, who tells Naaman to go take a bath in the local river. This response enrages Naaman. We who read this account must think Elisha a fool: here he is insulting a commander of the army, remaining in his house as this general stands outside with enough men to destroy it. Elisha will not play Naaman’s game. It will not be because of Naaman’s power and control that Naaman will receive healing.

 

Naaman is a curious character. He does not act on his insult, but once again listens to the voice of those under his control. His servants prevail upon him to try out this humble cure advised by the prophet. He goes and washes in the Jordan. He is cured. He returns to Elisha and thanks him, declaring that the God of Israel is truly the one God.

 

In his healing, Naaman realizes that there is one who has power even over him. He goes through a difficult journey of humility to get to experience the power of this God. He comes with his own expectations that others will serve him: an expectation well-earned through his experience, but not applicable to this new experience with God. God is the one with power for healing and life. God will not be intimidated or controlled.

 

Where does that leave us when we really, really need something from God? When we’re ready for whatever sacrifices or humility God demands, just so that there can be healing in our life, or in the life of the one for whom we’re ready to sacrifice? What should we do when bargaining seems like the faithful response?

 

It’s difficult to define the line between trying to get God to listen to us and trying to control God. One sounds better than the other. The former sounds a little more faithful. But they really aren’t so different. Both point to a lack of faith, and to a continued focus on our own power.

 

God does listen. God does heal. But we’d be wrong to think there was no one else besides Naaman who sought a cure from sickness, or that Jesus wasn’t aware of the prayers of the ill all around the city besides the ten lepers. We’d be misguided to try to figure out what they did differently than all the rest to receive God’s healing, and try to let that guide our own lives.

 

There’s no secret formula, no best bargaining chip, no power we can use over God. It doesn’t quite seem fair. In our world, we believe those who work hard, who keep trying, will eventually succeed. If there’s an answer or a goal, we’re a people willing to do what it takes to get it.

 

Too many of us know that it doesn’t work like that with God and our work towards getting God’s healing. We’ve lost loved ones because of senseless disease and accidents. We’ve had to stand by as others suffer. We’ve come face to face with our own powerlessness.

 

Maybe we’ve had expectations of what God would do for us: how God would heal, why God would heal, how we would enlist God’s help. Perhaps we’ve seen things work out as they should for someone else. Why hasn’t it worked all the time for us, too?

 

God is not bound by our expectations. God gives healing and life out of who God is rather than what we have done or sacrificed. We are not in control. We do not have the power to give life or healing, nor to determine who receives it. This is difficult news, but it is also good news.

 

God gives based on who God is: God is generous and gracious. God freely gives what we think we need to bargain for. God has given us life! At many times in our lives and the lives of our loved ones, God has given us healing. Yes, there are times when the healing we have prayed for does not come, and death separates us from those we love. But even then, God still gives life. Those who have died are not outside God’s gift of life and healing, but are on their way towards experiencing healed life in God’s presence forever.

 

God goes beyond our expectations. God heals and gives life outside the bounds of our expectations: to those who we would call outsiders, sinners, and unworthy of God’s gifts. Our God is the one who healed a foreign general and who healed not only 9 Jewish lepers, but also a Samaritan. God doesn’t give life and healing only to those who deserved it, or worked for it, but gives freely to all creation.

 

When next you pray for someone in need of God’s healing, don’t be afraid to tell God what is needed. You may even find yourself bargaining for good news. God hears your prayer and the impulse that is behind your bargaining: your love for another. God understands this love. It is God’s love for us that led the Word to become flesh in Jesus Christ, God’s love that led Jesus to die for us, and God’s love that unites us all with the risen Jesus Christ in life forever. God knows what it is to give life and healing out of love. God gives those gifts to us. Our hope is in God and not in ourselves. At the end, hope in God’s faithfulness will not be disappointed.

 



Is this microphone on? A sermon on Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
October 3, 2010, 2:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s fairly often that we hear people talk about the good olds days in contrast in our society now. People seem to think that life was simpler and safer a few generations ago. Now life is dangerous, immoral, and godless!

2010 isn’t the first year people have lamented that our present isn’t what it should be. People in the distant past had the same laments. Have you ever thought that you have something in common with people who lived 3000 years ago? Their opinion of society could be ours:

The world’s going to hell in a handbasket. All signs confirm it. Any 24-hour news station shows us plenty of reasons to believe it. Their talk-show hosts convince us to fear: fear for ourselves and especially fear for our children. War is being waged around the world. Students are shooting each other. Corruption is rampant. Everywhere we once thought was safe is no longer. For some, even the church seems a stranger.

Right here in this sanctuary, where we might think we are safe from bullets and missiles, we find that we are not safe from our captivity to fear. We look around our church and fear that we will not be able to sustain ourselves. We look into our own lives and fear the brokenness we see in our families, our inability to live up to our own expectations, and the unknown future.

When we look into our world, church, and personal lives and see the brokenness, decay, and destruction, what else can we do but fear? Is there any other option?

Does our faith give us any answers? Do we think God has any role to play? Or is the state of the world a sign that God has abdicated God’s role?

Do we dare expect God to give us answers? Are we so bold as to demand an account from God? Should we meekly accept all the junk in our lives and our world as part of God’s plan? Or should we demand more: should we shout out like the prophet Habakkuk “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you do not listen? Or cry to you ‘violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous- therefore judgement comes forth perverted.” (Hab 1:1-4)

If our world is going to hell in a handbasket, shouldn’t we expect God to see that and do something about it? Habakkuk certainly thought so. He shouts this lament to God as his world is crumbling around him. His country was being conquered. The rich were ignoring God’s commands and exploiting the poor. Destruction and violence, lawlessness and corruption are the norm. Could God not see? Did God have no power to save God’s chosen people?

As he calls out to God, Habakkuk names all he sees wrong in his world. He demands God answer for not stopping the destruction. Then he stands and waits. He listens to hear what God will say.

God offers Habakkuk – and us- the only answer that brings freedom from captivity to fear and despair. God answers with a vision. This is a vision of the future that gives life to those who trust in God’s faithfulness.

The Lord tells Habakkuk to write down the vision and share it with all who fear that God has abandoned them when they look upon the destruction of their society. Even in the midst of this present darkness, God still has in mind a future for God’s people. God declares: “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.” (Hab 2:3)

The Lord is so confident that this vision would be fulfilled that God commands Habakkuk to write it down, to keep it as proof that God fulfills God’s promises. Change, peace and healing will not come immediately, but God gives the people a vision of a good future, and asks them to wait expectantly for its fulfillment. This is the life of faith.

What is our life of faith? Do we have any sense of God’s vision for us here today?

I believe that even when we don’t see anything good around us, God is still with us with a vision. When I hear news of more violence and war, I remember God’s vision of peace. God’s vision comes to me through the prophet Micah (Isaiah 2:4 too) 4:3 “God shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The Apostle Paul writes God’s vision of unity among peoples in Ephesians 2: 14-17 “For Jesus Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” When I hear news of the oppression of the poor and vulnerable, I hear God’s vision from the prophet Amos 5:24”But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” When I hear news of religious violence and intolerance, I hear God’s vision revealed to John 21:10”And in the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God…22I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”

God’s vision is for the transformation of our present reality.

What is God’s vision for us as the people who worship at Redeemer?

Hear the vision I see: God is here with you, to give you life and freedom from whatever binds you: sin, grief, fear. God is already at work to bind us together as one people in the body of Christ: who rejoice with those who rejoice, who cry with those who are in grief (Rom 12:15). You spent yesterday working, laughing, and sharing together as you served this community and raised money for our ministry. Our faith, our trust in God’s vision, shapes our life as a worshipping community. Our faith compels us to join in God’s vision. What would it look like for us to live into God’s vision?

How would we “take up our cross daily and follow Jesus?”(Luke 9:23).  How would we “go and make disciples of all the nations?” (Mat 28:19). How would we live as the first church as recorded in Acts 2:42”They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” These are examples of God’s vision for the lives of those whose faith binds them to Jesus.

Faith is a gift from God. It starts out like a tiny mustard seed within us. It grows by the grace of God. Our lives are shaped by our faith. This gift of faith is our trust in God’s vision and God’s faithfulness in fulfilling that vision. God will be faithful to God’s promised vision for our good future. Even when that seems impossible, when we feel that God has abandoned us completely, God is still faithful and at work for us.

The central revelation of God’s fulfilling vision is in Jesus Christ on the cross. As Jesus is dying, he calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).  Jesus experiences the despair and the loss of God that is at the heart of our fear in our present and for our future. When Jesus dies, the hope that God was doing something wonderful through Jesus died. Yet it is this event, where it doesn’t look like God is there at all, or has any power over anything, where Jesus conquers sin and death. Jesus’ death shows God’s faithfulness to us. God raises Jesus from the dead. Jesus comes to us, knowing the depth of despair and abandonment, and offering a new future of hope, freedom and life.

Whenever you see destruction, violence, or brokenness in your world, tell God about it. Open your eyes with watchful expectation and be ready to recognize God at work. Let your faith guide you into living “as if.” Live as if God is at work, as if God has power over all evil, as if God’s vision and promise are true. This living “as if” is living by your faith. It is clinging to God’s faithfulness, God’s vision, and letting that vision shape your life.

Whatever fear or despair you enter, God is there with you. God is willing to enter whatever darkness you experience and even there has a good vision for you. As God spoke to Habakkuk: “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” (Hab 2:3)

God, you promise a vision of peace. Bring all nations and leaders into a reality in which war is ended, and the needs of the poor are met.

God, you promise a vision of all nations united in worshipping you. Bring your church into oneness in your body. Strengthen the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and our parish: worshipping at Redeemer, Our Savior, and Trinity, that we might live by faith and work towards your good future.

God, you promise a vision of restored creation. Bring us into a reality in which we care for all you have made: plants, soil, waters, living creatures, and humanity. Grant a full and safe harvest for those who work in the fields.

God, you promise a vision of community in which outsiders are welcomed and the hungry fed. Bring us into this community, and stir in us a spirit of love that washes away our judgment.

God, you promise a vision of healed life. Bring our bodies and relationships into wholeness and wellness. We especially pray for those concerns and people on our minds, including those on our prayer list — and those whom we name before you now.

God, you promise a vision of resurrected life. Bring us and all your saints into your presence for eternal rejoicing.