Sunday, September 30, 2012

Meditation on Prayer

James 5:13-20

                        “Are we weak and heavy laden,
                        Cumbered with a load of care?
                        Precious savior still our refuge,
                        Take it to the Lord in Prayer!”

        Thomas Merton wrote, “Prayer is best learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.”  I want to suggest that for many folks, even those sitting inside the walls of a church, Merton’s words are right on target.  For some, prayer is close to impossible.  When I was younger, and a little bit na├»ve, I thought everyone prayed all the time.  I now know that is not true.  I am happy to announce we have some folks in this congregation with an incredible prayer life, but I suspect they are the exception and not the rule.  Think about it.  How often do we say to someone, “I will pray for you.”  How often do follow up on our promise?  How many of us have a scheduled moment in our day when we stop, become still, and listen.  How many of us take a holy, often dark moment, to dare to let God crowd into our busy schedules and heads.
        Prayer is hard.  If you pray often you probably already know that.   Kathleen Norris suggests that “Prayer stumbles over our modern self-consciousness and our self-reliance.”  I think she is right.  The world we live in pushes, shoves and demands us to move toward goals and objectives.  The world we live in is ego-centered rather than God-centered.  Even when we choose to pray, too often our prayers center on our needs, our desires, our hurts, our pains, our laundry list of life.  So often our prayer evolves from doubt, despair, guilt and even anger. We pray out of desperation rather than habit.  Believe it or not, I am here to tell you that is OK.  Look at the Psalms.  They are demanding, crude, and often seem impetuous. Few are as serene as the Shepherd’s poem.  All originate from the episodes of life that drove the Psalmist to his knees, and toward God.
        When I went through seminary over 30 years ago prayers were broken into four categories: adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.  I suspect my instructor had worship more in mind than my personal growth.  Even so, that formula remained my prayer guide for many years.  But the more hospital rooms visited, the more time I spent in cemeteries and living rooms, the more time I surrendered to the lives of others, the more I felt I needed to move away from teachings of the past.  My prayers became personal, even demanding.  My prayers began to leave the stylistic formulae found in the Book of Common Worship and were closer to ragged pieces of driftwood that had somehow made it to shore.   I found myself more in tune with the writer of  James who encouraged his folks to pray for the sick, pray for the elders, pray for sinners and even pray for the righteous.  No one is excluded from his prayer list, especially not me.  James had one rule. We are to pray as if nothing else we do is more important..
        How do we do that?  James states that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective.  He uses Elijah as his primary example.  I am not sure any of us can meet that standard.  Elijah prayed every day for three years that it would not rain in order that Jezebel might be punished.  During that three years Israel was as dry as a bone.  Then when Elijah prayed for rain, the heavens instantly opened.  If you are expecting that kind of results from me you will be sorely disappointed.  But that does not mean I do not believe in the power of prayer.  I have witnessed the prayer life of individuals who have shaped themselves into becoming more attune with Christ. Likewise I have witnessed the power of a praying community as it becomes more attune to the body of Christ.   Prayer changes relationships.  Prayer changes lives.  Prayer is something each of us can do, if we are willing to take the time.
        You see, that is the key.  Prayer, like any other discipline, takes time.  For years I have wanted to play the guitar.  I own a gorgeous instrument which in the hands of someone else makes beautiful music.  A friend once told me I had the ear to play, the ability to play, all I needed was the time to play.  And then he added, “Time and desire need to be synonymous.”
        If one has the desire to pray, then one will discover the time.  And once one discovers the time, the next thing they will discover is the beauty of silence.  Words are not the key to prayer.  Holy Prayer is dependent on the presence of God.  In order to invite God into our lives we must be willing to slip away from the noise that bombards us.  A number of years ago my congregation was having its semi-annual youth service.  One young woman asked if she could have the pastoral prayer.  I was delighted by her eagerness.  When it came time for her to pray she said, “Let us pray.”  And then there was silent.  She said nothing for two or three minutes.  I, along with the congregation grew restless. After five minutes of silence I glanced at the young woman.  Her arms were slightly extended, her head looked upward and her face was aglow.  I don’t know how long the silence continued but the restlessness ceased and the heartbeat of the congregation became one.  At the right time, she said, “Enable us to carry from this place the peace and strength we have gained from talking with you. Amen.”
        Prayer is the courage to bare our lives to the scrutiny, the judgment, and the love of God.  Prayer is having the audacity to yield to our confusions, yield to our limitations, yield to our joys, yield to our desires and then, with full humility and total confidence, hand them over to God.  Prayer is the realization that not only are we seeking God but God is seeking us.  Therefore prayer is about being still; prayer is about discovering a quiet moment; and prayer is about preparing to be discovered by God. 
Then, only if you dare…….. speak. 
                                                          To God be the glory, Amen.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

"The Harvest of Righteousness is sown by those who make Peace"

Mark 9:33-37; James 3:13-18
        Having lived in North Carolina during many basketball seasons, and in Texas for more that a decade of football seasons, I know that being Number One is not something taken lightly.  Even here, in the Land of Jefferson, where scholastic status is discussed somewhere other than the sports page, I suspect the academic ranking of our chosen university or college is considered very seriously.  Someone has to be Number One so it might as well be us.
        If you don’t think being Number One is important, consider this.  Ever been to a sporting event where the fans hold up two fingers and proudly chant, “We’re number two; we’re number two.”  Ever been to a T-ball game? The organizers proudly proclaim no score will be kept so the kids can play for the love of the game but I guarantee you every father knows exactly how many runs have crossed the plate.  On the ride back from many a tennis tournament my wife would console my son with a pep talk and a promise to stop at the Dairy Queen.  I would be strangling the steering wheel, simmering in a quiet rage while mapping out the time needed on the court to develop a much more effective first serve.  Being number one is critical, especially to guys.  That is the way I was brought up.  Be it sports, cards or even table games, it’s not worth the effort if you don’t own Boardwalk.    You can understand why I find this mornings scripture to be a bit  disturbing.  After all, what could possibly be wrong with the desire to be Number One?
        Jesus wandered into a very interesting conversation.  Each disciple was making a pretty good case as to why they were the MVD, that is to say, most valuable disciple. 
Peter exclaimed, “I am the Rock.  I am second in command.  If something happens to Jesus, I will step up.”
Andrew threw in his two cents, “Peter, you are all talk.  If it hadn’t been for me you would not even have met J.C.”
“None for you have the financial responsibility to run this outfit,” cried Matthew.  “I am the one who keeps this ship afloat. Without my words of caution we would go bankrupt.”
“Says who?” demanded Judas.  “I am the treasurer.  Not only that every one knows I am the brains of the outfit.”
“So what,” said John.  “We all know Jesus loves me best.”
About this time all the disciples noticed Jesus was listening to the conversation.  Without a hint of embarrassment Peter said, “Jesus, settle the argument.  Who’s number one?”
Being a fairly descent Old Testament scholar Jesus could have responded, “God is number one and we should place no other gods or egos before him.”  But Jesus knew he was in the midst of guy talk and any sort of theological statement would have flown right over their heads.  So Jesus calmly said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last.  Furthermore if you want to be first you must become a servant to everyone else.”  As you might imagine the disciples looked at one another and shook their heads.  Thomas whispered to Bartholomew, “When did Jesus start wearing a dress?  He just doesn’t get it.”
Actually it was the disciples that didn’t get it but who can blame them.  Many of the lessons taught by Jesus sound wonderful, when used in a children’s sermon.  Jesus is so…… idealistic.  It sounds great on Sunday but the stuff Jesus suggests would never work on Monday morning.  The real world strives on competition, conflict and stress.  Many of you folks have done quite well for yourselves.  Did you get where you are suggesting the first should be last?  This stuff suggested by Jesus is utter non-sense.  What would our lives be without stress or competition or a full daily schedule scratching to get ahead?  WE ARE WAY TOO IMPORTANT TO LET JESUS GET IN THE WAY OF HOW WE LIVE OUR LIVES.                  (Stop)                            
Jesus picked up a child.  “Whoever welcomes a child is number one in my book.”  Well that is the first reasonable thing Jesus said in this whole passage.  We love children.  We would do anything for our children.  We encourage them. We praise them. We motivate them to be as driven and stressful as we are.
Let me do a little biblical homework for you.  In the time of Jesus there were no Toys R Us.  In the time of Jesus the market place was not driven by the appetites of tots under ten.  In the time of Jesus folks weren’t preparing their six year olds to go to an Ivy League School.  In the time of Jesus there were no soccer leagues, piano lessons, or dance recitals.  No one was writing self-help books on how to be a better parent because in the time of Jesus nobody cared about children.  In the Jewish tradition a child was not even considered to be a human being until he was twelve.  Noticed I said he.  Female children were an embarrassment, a drain on society.  A father was never happy until he was able to marry her off.  So when Jesus has the audacity to say, “Whoever welcomes a child is first in my book,” the disciples were speechless.  How could the least important dregs in all of society matter to Jesus?    And the even tougher question is, “Why should those who are the least  matter to us?”
It would be so easy to take the logical step and spend the rest of this sermon talking about our relationship to the poor, the sick, the broken, the discouraged.  But that would be too easy.  One thing I have learned about reading the gospel is Jesus doesn’t want us to do it the easy way.  Jesus doesn’t want us to talk in generalities.  Jesus wants us to live the gospel in our life, the gospel in our workplace, the gospel in our school, the gospel around our coffee table, the gospel on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, so that on Sunday, we come here, worn out, wasted, breathless, looking for a moment of rest, a day of Sabbath from all the hard relational work we have been doing.    You see what Jesus wants is for us not to be in competition with each other but to be in consultation with each other.  Jesus wants us to worry less about who is number one and more about who is number 6,347.  Jesus wants us to grapple with one question, “Do you value your neighbor as much as you value yourself?”  In a world looking out for number one that is a HUGE question.
The writer of James wrote, “The harvest of righteousness is sown by those who make peace.”  Something that I have learned the hard way…….. and something I am quick to forget is that true peace, true relationships between people, between communities and even between nations is never possible if there has to be an absolute winner.  How often have conflicts arisen simply because one person, or one community, or one nation needs to be greater than any other?  What if our motivation to be neighbors could be void of any personal ambition?  What if our desire to end conflicts could be motivated by our desire to be complete in Christ, a circle which, by design, includes the least of these?  So often, conflict resolution sows the seeds for the next conflict.  What if the seeds we attempt to sow are forgiveness and understanding?  What if we looked beyond ourselves and walked in the shoes of our adversary?  
I’m just kidding. Who would attempt something so ridiculous?  After all,  We are Number One……aren’t we?    

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Words of My Mouth

James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

        We have once again entered the season of bumper stickers.  I read every one and agree with very few.  That sort of makes them a bit dangerous. If you are like me I drive a little too close to the car in front of me just to read the pithy statement concerning our upcoming election.  I am afraid the accident rate on 151 is going to increase as we get incensed by the flawed political views of our fellow travelers.
        It is amazing to me what one can say, or fail to say, in eight words or less.  Bumper sticker language is simplistic, aimed at raising our blood pressure and seldom passes the litmus test demanded of good judgment.  I believe wisdom evolves learning how to think carefully and act virtuously in complex situations where one is tempted to think simplistically and act recklessly.  Or as the writer of James so eloquently wrote, “A great forest is so easily set ablaze by a small fire such as the tongue.
        In the scripture we studied last week, the writer of James speaks about our actions as a response to faith.  Remember the key verse, “Be you doers of the word and not hearers only.”  In this third chapter James wants to concentrate on how we speak a word about The Word.
James begins with some obvious observations. First, language is powerful.  Being a political junkie I watched both  conventions.  Many words were spoken.  In fact the same words were spoken, over and over and over again.  But what will be remembered are two distinctly different but equally powerful moments.  At the Republican Convention, Clint Eastwood stole the show talking to a chair.  At the Democratic Convention Bill Clinton brought the house down with one word, “Arithmetic”.   Both were classic moments which will be remembered long after the 2012 campaign is forgotten.
Second, language can be a blessing.  There are words that we use that lift the spirits of others.  When a child comes home after a bitter defeat on the field of competition the words we choose go a long way in restoring the confidence of our off- spring.  When we are sitting with someone in a moment of crisis, the words we select can begin the healing process.  When our choir sings, it is not just the melody that touches our heart.   When I say “The Lord be with you,” and you respond, “And also with you,” this holy place is embraced by a love that is almost beyond human understanding. A simple exchange of words can lift a heart and create a sacred moment.
Unfortunately while our words can evoke a blessing, they can more easily be a curse.  In the Jewish wisdom literature it is written, “Honor and dishonor come from speaking. The tongues of mortals may be their downfall.  Do not lay traps with your tongue.”  (Sirach 5:13-14)  Who here has not fallen the victim of that idle chatter we call gossip?  It is so much fun to talk about others. Once we start, we are like a horse without a bridle.  Our mouth runs through the pasture of our reckless imagination forgetting the lies we speak become truth when passed to the ears of others.
James was well aware of this struggle between the veracity and the fraudulence of the spoken word.  James proclaims when the word spoken is the truth, it announces a sacred reality which is vocalized in the midst of a desolate land left bankrupt by empty promises and broken dreams.  But when the word is less than the truth, or when the word is only what we care to hear, the opportunity for a holy moment is lost amidst the more familiar phrases that bombard our lethargic minds. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “To often the church is guilty of selling the gospel in glib speech, making what is difficult sound easy, or what is mysterious sound plain.”
What words are you wiling to offer concerning your faith? Gracious we talk about everything else.  What week will the leaves hit their peak?  Do you think the Skins will win today?  If I am holding 16 points and a five card minor suit what should I bid?  Who do you think Jesus was?  I can instantly get a discussion on the weather, football or bridge, but what about a conversation about Jesus? That is dangerous stuff and I confess I understand your reluctance.  One of the main reasons I hate to go for a haircut is because when I sit down the first question the stylist asks is what I do for a living.    If I say I am a minister they get nervous…… and make mistakes…….and fix the mistakes……but make more mistakes and try to fix those mistakes so that by the time they finish they are filled with guilt and I have no hair.  So I just tell them I am a counselor and I spend the next twenty minutes listening to their problems.
Talking about faith is hard.  Can you can imagine the fear that must have swept over the disciples when Jesus said, “Who do you say that I am?”  Very quickly the disciples reached for everyone’s our favorite pronoun when it comes to being indecisive.  “THEY say you are Moses.  THEY say you are Elijah.”
The wonderful thing about “they” saying it is the answer requires no commitment on our part.  Third person language is safe; it places space between us and the inquisitor.  But Jesus didn’t have much use for third person responses.  He asked a second time, “Who do YOU say that I am?” 
I imagine the disciples looked at each other sheepishly.  John said to Bartholomew, “Didn’t we cover this last week?”  Matthew looked away hoping Jesus eyes wouldn’t meet his.  James and Andrew punched Peter and whispered, “Say something or he will start preaching again.”  So Peter said the first thing that came to his mind, “You are the Messiah.”  And all the disciples applauded and secretly wished they had come up with that answer.  I imagine Jesus said to them, “You are right, only I suspect you have no idea why right you are.”
A word, a single word, “messiah”.  For the disciples it was a word that signified greatness and power.  It was a word that brought back memories of the golden age of Israel.  It was a word that meant Jesus was the personification of King David.  Messiah meant that God was going to step forth, God was going to sweep Rome out of Jerusalem, God was going to return creation to its rightly order. It was a word of civil restoration.
But the word had a second meaning.  Instead of the restoration of a past order it called for the recreation of a new order.  Instead of power and glory it called for suffering.  Instead of a royal throne it called for a rugged cross.  Instead death to the Romans it promised death to the messiah.  Instead of life reinstated it called for life resurrected.  This time Peter didn’t have to be prompted to speak.  “Jesus, take it easy. Let’s discuss this. We didn’t sign up just to watch you die.  Isn’t there an easier, less complicated way to do this?  Can’t we find some middle ground that doesn’t involve language which is way over the top?  Let’s step back, take a deep breath and be realistic.”
Jesus looked at Peter, he looked at the other disciples, and I suspect he looked at us, then quietly said, “If you want to become my follower, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”  That is strong language, scandalous language that can both bless and curse us. It is bold, challenging language. But most of all it is fundamental language that not only defines who Jesus is, but points to a clearer understanding of who we might become.
Calvin wrote, “We are not our own, we are God’s, therefore let God’s wisdom and words preside in all our actions.  We are not our own, we are God’s.  With God as our legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed toward that which is holy.”
Who do you say that Jesus is?
Perhaps Jesus is the one that offers light for your darkness.
Perhaps Jesus offers courage for your fear.
Perhaps Jesus offers hope for your despair,
or peace for your turmoil,
or strength for your weakness,
or wisdom for your confusion,
or forgiveness for your sins.
Or perhaps Jesus offers all or none of the above.
       Who do you say that Jesus is?
                       Who do you say that you are?

               Be careful how you answer.  Someone, perhaps everyone is listening.  Speak a word of wisdom; speak a word of hope; speak a word grace.  Speak from your heart and not from the back of your bumper.    Speak with a tongue that lights the way rather than starts a fire.    Amen.