The Difference Prayer Makes

Sunday, July 24, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 11:1-13 & Genesis 18:20-32

Several years ago, a book entitled “Prayer-Does It Make A Difference”, by Philip Yancey grabbed my attention and I just had to read it. It’s a great book and if you’d like to read it, it will be in the library in the parlor. The book addresses the question, “Does praying make a difference?  It’s a question that I’m certain has crossed everyone’s mind at one time or another. It’s easy to say, “What’s the point?” especially when bad news continues to pour into your life. Each one of us has challenges we face. Family and friends who are experiencing some kind of trouble – some of them sick or dying, chronic illnesses that we have to deal with, job situations that are shaky or lacking, financial worries, relationships in turmoil, and a long list of things I could add to the list. We pray for an end to the pain and suffering. We pray for answers, but often the answers don’t come. In fact, often things continue to get worse. The temptation is to ask, “Does prayer make any difference?”

We ask the question because evil does seem to be triumphing. I know I’m not the only one who is more and more discouraged and sickened every time I hear from the news about another racially motivated murder, or another mass shooting. Every day brings the story of another tragedy. And while we may not know these people on the news, what happens to them should matter to us because we are all connected. We are all God’s children. Violence against any person is violence against us all. Our hearts are heavy with the daily unfolding of these stories, and we can be tempted to give in to despair or worse yet, apathy, that this is just the way things are. The temptation is to ask, “Does prayer make any difference?”

Our first reading from Genesis is a perfect example of this kind of situation. If we had a news camera on the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, we would see similar images of what is happening today – people who are hurting one another, theft, violence, and murders. When we think of Sodom and Gomorrah today we tend to think of particular crimes, but the sin of those cities was the sin of every place even today. It all boils down to one thing – a lack of love, a lack of compassion, a lack of mercy, and a lack of hospitality. They weren’t treating each other with the love of God. The outcry in these cities was great, and some most likely began to ask if their prayers made any difference. In situations when evil seems to be winning, it’s easy to think this way. It’s tempting to think that God either isn’t listening or doesn’t care.

But our story in Genesis shows that God does care, and cares deeply. And it shows the nature and power of prayer. Abraham had a direct and open dialogue with God on behalf of the people of those cities. He asked God not to let them be destroyed even for the sake of 50 righteous people, and God agreed. But Abraham was persistence, bold even when he continued to plead for the people. What if there were only 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally ten. Abraham was bold in his conversation with God. It took courage because Abraham admitted that he was “but dust and ashes.” In comparison to God, Abraham knew his place. He knew that he didn’t have all the answers, and he was really taking a chance in repeatedly going back to God. So why did Abraham keep at it? Why did he keep pleading with God? Because he truly cared about the people of those cities. He wanted justice for them, and so he advocated to God on their behalf. That’s what real prayer is all about. It’s not about what is best for us, but it is thinking of what is best for everyone. It’s not praying for our will, but God’s will to be done. And God’s will is always for justice, mercy, and love.

Growing up, my parents had a record by Tennessee Ernie Ford (I know I’m dating myself by saying that) with a song on it entitled “Others.” The lyrics began: “Lord help me live from day to day in such a self forgetful way, that even when I kneel to pray, my prayers may be for others. Others, Lord, yes others, let this my motto be. Help me to live for others that I may live like thee.” The song was a beautiful prayer asking God to help us live for others. This is mission of every Christian, to live a life not just for ourselves, but for others. Abraham’s prayer was for others, and Jesus’ prayer that he taught his disciples – and that includes us – is for others.

In the Lord’s prayer that Jesus taught us we pray “give us each day our daily bread.” We are not asking for the things we need individually each day in order to live, but we are also advocating on behalf of others that God will give them what they need to live each day. When we pray “forgive us our sins” we are praying that God will not only forgive our sins, but the sins of those who have hurt us as well. When we pray, “do not bring us to the time of trial” we are asking God to preserve all of us from any situation that would cause us to lose our faith. The Lord’s prayer is not just a prayer that God will provide for our daily needs, but that God will provide for the daily needs of all people. This prayer says, that praying makes a difference.

Jesus certainly believed that. The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus prayed all the time. Luke chapter 5 says Jesus, “would withdraw to deserted places to pray.” In chapter six we read that “he went out to the mountains to pray” and he “prayed before he chose his apostles.” In chapter nine we read that Jesus prayed when he fed the crowd of 5000. He prayed alone and with only the disciples with him. He prayed the night before he died and he even prayed from the cross.  Jesus’ whole life was a life of prayer. This is the example Jesus expects of us as well.

Living a life of prayer helps us to see that prayer is not always for asking for what we want. It’s not always about trying to change God’s mind, or changing a particular situation. Prayer is about having a relationship with God and the result is that prayer changes us. Prayer helps us to find ourselves, to become – as far as it possible – who we really are. For example, when we pray the Lord’s prayer, and we ask God to give us our daily bread, we are admitting that we are dependent on God for what we need. When we ask God to forgive us, we are admitting that we are guilty and in need of being healed. When we ask God to lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil, we are admitting that we are lost and vulnerable and in need of a savior. Living a life of prayer as Jesus did shows us that we need God power through the Holy Spirit to be who God created us to be and do what God asks of us to do. Prayer makes a difference because prayer is not a passive act. The more we pray, the more prayer changes us – for the better.

In our gospel story today, Jesus tells a parable of someone who goes to a friend in need and says that even though his friend may not want to get up and help him – which is absurd because a friend will always help – he will help because of the person’s persistence. The Greek word is actually best translated not as persistence, but as shamelessness.  In other words, Jesus is telling us we must be shameless, or bold in our prayers just like Abraham was in the reading from Genesis. We have to speak up, tell God what we need and expect that God will not only hear but answer. Jesus gives us that assurance.

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” How much more – those are the key words. God gives to us abundantly and pours out abundantly the gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, piety, fortitude (strength), and the fear of the Lord, which is wonder or awe. And the fruits of the Spirit are reflected in our lives – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These fruits of the Spirit are summed up in love. So if we pray for the Holy Spirit, we receive an abundance. How much more could we possible want? How much more is needed? Prayer opens up a floodgate of blessings if we pray as Jesus taught us – from the heart and out of love for God and others.

Does prayer make a difference? It most definitely does. It makes a difference in that in stops us from thinking only of ourselves, and turns us toward God. Prayer keeps our focus on God and when we do that we see that evil only seems to be winning. Jesus has already triumphed over evil. Jesus has already triumphed over death. Jesus has already saved us by his grace. Now as disciples we are to tell others of what God has already done. And God’s prayer is answered through us.

This week, pray with boldness. Don’t hold back. Pray for each other, pray for this congregation, and pray for all God’s children. Tell God how you feel and thank God for always being with us to listen. When evil seems to be winning, when life seems to be overwhelming, remember Jesus is risen. Death and evil have already lost. It’s up to us to spread the love and light of Christ. That’s how the news reports will improve. We need to pray for an abundance of love. Be bold in your prayer and ask God to let you shine God’s love brightly for others. Amen.

 

 

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The Voice of Grace

Sunday, July 17, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 10:38-42

 

When you stop to really listen it’s amazing what things you hear, like the echo of the ocean in the shells on the beach. If we passed by the home of Martha and Mary thousands of years ago when Jesus was visiting, what would we hear? There was certainly a lot going on that day. Maybe it was the clanging of pots and pans, or the chopping of vegetables, or the movement of furniture as Martha swept the house. We don’t know exactly what Martha was doing, but we do know that she was “distracted by her many tasks” whatever those tasks might have been.

We’ve all been there haven’t we? We plan special meals, family events, work projects, even church activities …there seems an endless amount of tasks we have to do. Some of them are fun and some not, but they certainly distract us. And we want them to be as perfect as they can be, so we spend a lot of effort to make them extra special. Hospitality is a great gift, but not if we do it with a resentful heart. We heard about it in last week’s gospel in the story of the Good Samaritan who went above and beyond to care for someone – someone who was an enemy. The Good Samaritan saw someone in need and responded. Today’s story is very similar.

In today’s story we hear about someone who is responding to another’s need. That person saw an opportunity to be of help and took the time to make a difference. Their life was already busy with many tasks, but this person decided that they weren’t too busy to do something more for a friend. Yes, it was going out of the way. It was adding one more thing to a plate that was already full, but that’s what you do for those you love.

Listening by the door or window, we’d hear Jesus sitting in the main room of the house talking about…..Well, Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus was saying. He only says that Martha’s sister Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet like any other disciple, listening to what Jesus was saying. I wonder what it was. Was He talking about the many people and events that happened prior to His arrival? Was Jesus explaining the Scriptures? Or was He talking about Jerusalem and what would happen to Him when He got there? We don’t know what Jesus was talking about that day, but whatever it was it was important because whatever Jesus had to say was important. Mary knew that and she didn’t want to miss a word. And when Jesus began to speak she dropped whatever she was doing and listened. She wanted to hear everything. Jesus was the focus despite the noise that was getting louder in the house.

And if we were there we would hear that growing noise too. Maybe the sound of things getting slammed around. Martha mumbling even louder, angry that she was attending to the tasks that needed to be done like every good Jewish woman of her time was expected to do while Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet like one of the disciples just listening – relaxing – taking it all in, while Martha was getting increasingly more distracted and stressed.

When Martha couldn’t take it anymore, she went and interrupted Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Martha expected Jesus to say, “Yes, Martha, you’re right. Mary, go and help your sister Martha.” But instead she heard, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

That wasn’t what Martha wanted to hear and if we were listening in that day, it would have surprised us too. It still surprises us doesn’t it? How often have we found ourselves in such a state. We spend our days running around trying to do one thing after another. We try to fit more things in than are possible in 24 hours leaving little or no time to relax or spend time with our families. And in our church communities we do the same thing. We focus on how to increase membership, and all the things that are going wrong rather than on the mission of God’s church. And we may find ourselves resentful that others aren’t doing more. Our focus is on the wrong thing.

And today more than ever it’s easy to be filled with more and more anxiety. We can worry ourselves sick wondering about finances, and the work that needs to be done, and how we are going to get where we want to be, and what the future will bring. We’ve forgotten Jesus’ prayer, of “give us today our daily bread.” Instead of dealing with our problems one day at a time we can become trapped with every detail of the future. The headlines on the news don’t make it any easier. Every day there is another shooting, more racial violence, more anxiety that is flashed across our tv and computer screens. And while it’s important to do our best to help each other and to stand up against all this violence, we can’t do that if our focus is on everything that is going wrong instead of our real focus – Jesus. That is what Jesus was compassionately saying to Martha that day, and that’s what He’s saying to us today. “You are worried and distracted by many things, but there is need of only one thing.” Jesus wants us to know that He is all we need. He will ease our burdens.

The answer to our worries is not fear, but surrender to focusing on Jesus and listening to his voice for direction. The answer to violence is not more violence but the compassionate love of Christ. The answer to fear is not isolation and discrimination, but the generous hospitality of a servants heart. The answer to the many problems that we face every day is not apathy or defeat, but living generously as faithful disciples of Jesus. He needs to be our focus and if we keep our focus on Jesus then all the other things that we need to do will be taken care of in a balanced and healthy way. When we listen to Jesus, then we are energized and empowered to do all those tasks we have to do. We don’t have to do them alone. We, as a community of believers, can and need to work together. Jesus is with us to lead the way, but first we must listen to him.

Martha and Mary, are not the focus of this story. The focus is Jesus. In today’s story we hear about someone who is responding to another’s need. That person saw an opportunity to be of help and took the time to make a difference. Their life was already busy with many tasks, but this person decided that they weren’t too busy to do something more for a friend. Yes, it was going out of the way. It was adding one more thing to a plate that was already full, but that’s what you do for those you love. That someone was Jesus and He was willing to do anything – including dying – for those He loved and that means everyone. He was there for Martha, and Mary that day. They needed Him more than they realized, certainly more than Martha realized. And He is here for us today.

Jesus hears our worried cries for help, just as He heard Martha’s. And he responds with compassion and says, Come to me, all you who are heavily burdened. I will be your rest. I AM the better part. When we feel overwhelmed, overburdened with many tasks, underappreciated, or hopeless, it is in listening to the word of God that will restore our hope, restore our souls.

And once restored, we can then go and proclaim what God has done for us. We can then be the instruments of peace that God will work through. There are so many distractions – both external and internal – that can pull us away from God. Our own inner fears can be louder than anything or anyone else. That was the case for Martha. She eventually couldn’t even hear Jesus over her own distractions and worries, but Jesus responded to her with love and with a word of hope. He invited her sit and listen, to be refreshed, and to imagine what is possible with Jesus as the focus. Jesus lovingly responds to us in the same way.

Can we hear Jesus’ voice over the many worries and distractions that pull us away? Can we hear Jesus’ voice in others as He speaks through them? Can we hear Jesus’ voice in the least likely of people and places – the ones we try to ignore?

In the midst of our distractions it’s often hard to hear. It’s easy to hear Jesus’ voice when we slow down and make the time, but we always find a reason to do just one more task. The problem is, there’s always one more task. Jesus is speaking to us all the time, but in the noise of our thoughts it’s impossible to hear. We expect Jesus to say what we want Him to say and we don’t expect Him to speak through those we’d rather avoid. But Jesus is speaking all the time, through people who are far from perfect – people like you and me – filled with worries, and fears, and distractions.

Being a disciple means not only doing, but listening. It’s a holy balance of the two. In fact, we first have to listen – listen to the direction God is pointing us to next. Like the sound of the ocean echoing in a seashell, we must draw close in order to hear the voice of God echoing all around us. The Spirit is calling us to come close to Jesus and be restored. Today, as we worship and hear God’s Holy Word, as we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion and experience the real presence of Christ, we see and hear the sounds of forgiveness and grace. Today, Jesus lovingly asks us to make him our focus, to take time and listen to his voice of grace, to be refreshed, and to imagine the endless possibilities through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Kingdom of God is Near

Sunday, July 3, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Music is a sound that has the power to heal people and this week as Independence Day approaches tomorrow and we remember the brave men and women who fought and continue to fight for our freedom, I am reminded of one particular song entitled ‘From a Distance” made popular by Bette Midler in the 1990’s,. The lyrics to this song are quite beautiful.. “From a distance there is harmony and it echoes through the land. It’s the voice of hope. It’s the voice of peace. It’s the voice of every man.” It goes on to say “From a distance we all have enough and no one is in need. And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease – no hungry mouths to feed.” But the song’s refrain says “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us from a distance.” The song was written by Julie Gold who wanted to speak a word of hope. She said she “set out to write a song about the difference between the way things seem and the way things are.” She was contrasting the reality that life is not the calm, peaceful, quiet, safe place we dream it should be. Life is filled with suffering, and pain. Our world is filled with racism, hatred, and violence. It’s filled with poverty, and hunger. More and more people are addicted to all kinds of things. People are cruel to one another. And more and more people are afraid instead of living a life filled with peace. Peace seems distant. Hope seems distant. One may even feel like God is distant. Yet the writer of that song said that God is watching us from a distance. Watching, and comforting us as we hear in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah.

And while the writer of this song had the best of intentions, I find the theology not quite accurate – at least not from our Lutheran perspective. Because we believe that God is not watching us from a distance. God, in fact, is very much involved in our lives. God loves and cares for us so much that when we were lost in the depths of sin, God sent Jesus to become truly human – one of us – so that we would never be distant from God. Jesus was God in the flesh here on earth.

In Luke’s gospel today Jesus appointed seventy others besides the original disciples and sent them on ahead of Him to announce that the kingdom of God had come near. But what did Jesus mean when He said the kingdom of God has come near? Can you smell the kingdom of God? Is it something you can taste? Can you hear it or feel it? Is it a place you can pinpoint on a map and travel towards? When Jesus said the kingdom of God has come near, he was talking about himself. Jesus has brought God to us. Because of Jesus we can see and hear, smell and taste, feel and touch the kingdom of God. When we experience Jesus we experience the kingdom of God. Because of Jesus God is not watching us from a distance; God is very close and near to us. This is the news that Jesus sent the seventy out to tell everyone. The kingdom of God is near.

He sent these seventy out with a holy urgency. He told them to pack light and not to even greet anyone on the road. They had no time to waste. This news had to be told to as many people as would hear it. We don’t know anything about these 70 individuals that Jesus appointed to go on ahead of Him and proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” We don’t know their names; we don’t even know their genders, age, or status in life. We don’t know if they were educated or illiterate. It seemed Jesus didn’t have any particular qualifications for this job. What we do know is that Jesus sent them out and told them not to waste any time getting this news out. And in Luke’s gospel, they weren’t just disciples or followers, they were sent ones – apostles – sent on a particular mission with instructions for the journey.

Most of us take a lot of time planning for a trip. We make sure we pack the right things in our suitcase. We want to be prepared for any kind of weather and any situation that may arise and so we pack as much as we can fit into our luggage. But Jesus tells these apostles not to bring anything for this important journey. Jesus says, “Carry no purse, no bags, no sandals.” Further, He tells them that they are going out like lambs to the wolves. Jesus tells them to go out without any provisions and that they are to be as humble as lambs that may possibly get eaten by wolves. That doesn’t sound like a mission most of us would want to say yes to. Yet they were to rely on God to provide all that they needed. That was their mission and the mission field is still in need of laborers today, perhaps now more than ever.

The harvest is still plentiful and the laborers are few. There is still so much to do in this mission work that Jesus sends us out on this journey as well. It began at baptism, when through the water and the word we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” We didn’t come to the waters carrying any provisions; we came without anything and relied on the grace of God to equip us for the journey. At that moment, the kingdom of God had come near to us; the kingdom of God was now within us. No qualifications and no provisions were necessary for our journey of faith that lasts a lifetime. The Holy Spirit dwells within us and equips us with all we need for this mission trip.

That is what our Christian life is; it is a mission trip. We, like the sent ones in today’s story, are sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God has come near. The Holy Spirit ignites within us the vision to see and proclaim this kingdom because through baptism we are part of this kingdom. The kingdom of God is not a place to seek out, but a relationship with God to embrace. When we meet together for worship we strengthen each other on this journey. This is why Jesus sent the 70 out in pairs – two by two – reminiscent of Noah’s ark, only this time instead of going into a place of safety, we go out to face dangers from those who don’t want to hear this truth. We cannot do it alone. We have each other to help us on this journey, and we have Jesus who is with us through the Holy Spirit.

The kingdom of God cannot be seen with ordinary vision but with the eyes of faith. The God sightings that we spoke about at VBS are everywhere. The kingdom of God is near. It’s all around us. We see, and touch, and taste, the kingdom of God when we hold in our hands the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion. Through this Blessed Sacrament God comes to us unlike any other place and in that moment we receive God’s gifts of forgiveness, grace, and new life. We are equipped with all we need to go out and proclaim that the kingdom of God has indeed come near.

We proclaim the kingdom of God has come near each time we follow the way of peace instead of violence, hope instead of despair, compassion instead of competition, and love instead of hatred. We proclaim the kingdom of God when we offer forgiveness instead of a lifetime of resentment. We proclaim the kingdom of God has come near when we see the homeless as our brothers and sisters instead of problems and nuisances. We proclaim the kingdom of God has come near when we open our hearts and our minds to those who think or act differently than us rather than judging them. We proclaim the kingdom of God when we see the injustices around us and decide to stand up for the dignity of every human being.

The Good News is not just meant to be studied or talked about; it is meant to be lived. Each one of us has been given unique gifts and talents for our mission trip of following Jesus. We don’t need any additional qualifications. We don’t need any special provisions. If we try to do it our way those things we think we need will only weigh us down. We need to pack light, lifted up and supported by the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s what happens when the kingdom of God comes near – lives are changed – not because of what we do, but because of what God does. There are so many who need to hear these words of hope. God is not watching us from a distance. God in the risen Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit is very near to us. Our names are written in heaven. That is God’s word of hope. That is God’s word of peace. That is God’s word for everyone. This week, remember that God is not watching us from a distance. The kingdom of God is near. Tell that news to everyone you meet. There’s no time to waste. Amen.