Counting the Cost of Discipleship

Sunday, September 8, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 14:2-33 & Philemon 1:1-21

 

Today is Rally Day! It’s the day we kick-off everyone returning from summer vacations and settling in to the routine of fall, which is just around the corner in a couple weeks. Children are back in school or will be by Monday at the latest in some districts. We’re setting in to a back to normal way of life. But what does this way of life mean for a Christian? In the first reading from Deuteronomy we hear God’s message to “choose life” but what kind of life are we asked to choose? It is a life of stewardship, which means being caretakers of all living things. It’s a life lived following God’s ways. Jesus showed us how to do this. And he said in our gospel lesson today that if we are to be his disciple, we must carry the cross. We must estimate the cost. We must calculate the risk. These words spoken by Jesus are challenging ones to hear.

They convey that there is indeed a cost to discipleship. Choosing to live a life committed to God based on the model Jesus taught us is not easy. Being committed to putting God first in our lives has serious consequences. It means reorienting our time so that nothing steals our time from God. This is costly. In may cost us friends, family members, or others who don’t understand this priority. In Paul’s letter to Philemon he takes the time to write a letter to advocate for the slave Onesimus. While Paul isn’t able to change the entire system of oppression, he is able to make a start. He urged Philemon to treat Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Later, Church history tells us that Onesimus went on to become a bishop. That one letter to Philemon that Paul wrote changed the course of history. It only takes a little time to make a big difference.

During the next four weeks, the Stewardship Team has put in a lot of time and worked very hard to focus our attention on different aspects of stewardship each week through the means of special videos. This week, our stewardship video focuses on time. We’ll hear from a few people in our congregation on how they see themselves as good stewards of time.  Let’s take a look.

(Roll video)

Just as Paul took time by advocating for Onesimus – Dick, Bertie, and Pauline spoke about their journey of faith, and how being a good steward of time is essential in being a faithful disciple of Jesus. They each take the time to show hospitality, to welcome and care for others, and to find time to connect with God through scripture and prayer. By doing so, they are able to be fully present in life, and to be present for others.

We can all be good stewards of our time. All the time we give to show kindness, compassion, and love matters. A letter, a phone call, volunteering to help in some small way, all makes a big difference. As we reflect on our scripture texts, and let the words of Jesus really sink in, let us ask ourselves, “How am I a good steward of the time God has given me? How am I using that time to carry the cross so that God’s kingdom may be made known? Time is so very short. We need to make the most of it. We need to count the cost, and make it count. Amen.

 

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By Invitation Only

Sunday, September 1, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 14:1, 7-14 & Hebrews 13:1-2

 

When was the last time you received a special invitation? You were excited right? Was it to a birthday party? Anniversary? Graduation? A wedding? Whatever the occasion they are all reasons to celebrate. We all love to be on a special guest list. And often we want to know who else will be going? Who’s going to be joining in on the celebration with us? The guest list is pretty important for many people. If it’s someone well-liked or famous we want to make sure we’re there and we don’t miss it, hoping to get close to them. There’s a sense that when you’re around someone important, you feel important and special too.

With the rise of social media and sites like FB and Instagram, a person can take a photo with someone important or famous and share it with everyone they know. It could be a famous singer, sports figure, or even an author. Whoever the celebrity is the pictures are shared so everyone can see you were with this person. You feel special that you got to be in their presence. If Jesus were walking around on earth as he did thousands of years ago, I’m sure people would be taking selfies with him on their phones and posting pictures of them all over social media. It’s human nature to want to be near important people like that. It makes us feel special.

The questions Jesus wanted the Pharisees back then and us today to think about is, “Who are the important people? How do we determine that? And is there enough room for everyone on the guest list?” In ancient times dinner feasts were places where a person’s status was determined by who you associated with. You wanted to be seated next to the distinguished guest. And if you were around them, then your status was immediately elevated. “Wow, did you see who he/she was hanging around?”

That hasn’t changed over the centuries. It’s happens in schools where the popular kids are treated great and those who are considered nerds, or geeks, or some other negative name are not. There’s a line drawn between who is part of the “in crowd” and who is not. But it doesn’t just happen at schools, it happens at places of work, with people we meet, and yes, even in churches. Judgments are made as to who is good and who is bad. Judgments are made as to who is doing what is acceptable in God’s eyes and who is not.

That’s why Jesus’ preaching and teaching caused so much commotion. He hung out with all the people that all the so called good or religious people said were bad – tax collectors, people who took money for themselves, prostitutes, people who led shady lives, poor people, outcasts, people who were unclean, those considered enemies, and people who had nothing to offer society. These are the people Jesus hung out with, and these are the people he said should be invited to the banquet table. He said not to invite those who we expect could give back, but put those people on the special invite list. And the reason is that in the kingdom of God there is room for everyone. And there, no one is better than anyone else. Everyone is deserving of love. In God’s eyes, everyone is important, a V.I.P.

Paul reiterates this in his letter to the Hebrew church. He says “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” So who’s important? Everyone. What if we treated everyone as angels in disguise? What if we treated everyone as if they were Jesus?
Wouldn’t the way we treat each other be a lot different? We’d go out of our way to make sure they had everything they needed. We’d show them generosity and hospitality. We’d go the extra mile and never let anything or anyone hurt them. We’d put ourselves in their shoes, feel their pain, and do what we could to bring them joy. We’d pour out an abundance of love and blessing on them. They’d all be welcome and loved by us even if they looked weird or acted strange or did things we didn’t think were right. We’d treat them differently if we thought there was a possibility they were God’s angels.

Angels are messengers. And God still speaks through messengers today. Messengers of peace, messengers of hope, messengers of love. These messengers are all around us. The Holy Spirit is speaking through them and inviting us to experience God through the ordinary things of our life. We come to God knowing we are sinners, yet at the same time saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus we all have a place at the table of God. The invitation has been extended to all of us beginning in our baptism. Mya Gallucci has received this invitation today. It’s an invitation that comes from the Holy Spirit, and has called her to the water of new life. Nothing she did or her parents did earned her this V.I.P. status. It is a gift from God. This gift, this special invitation is open to all.

This is exciting news, and news we ought to be running to share with everyone. There are people who do not know about Jesus and the only way they will ever know him is if each of us invites them to come and know him. We do this not only through the words we say, but more importantly through the lives we live. When we show mutual love toward one another, when we show kindness and compassion, we show others a glimpse of the Divine. We show others the most important V.I.P. of all – Jesus, the Christ. Whenever we gather together Jesus promised that he is present among us. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” When was the last time you received a special invitation? The answer is today. The Holy Spirit has called us –invited us – together to hear God’s word and join in the feast and the celebration.

This week, remember the gift of your own baptism. Know that you are a V.I.P. in God’s eyes, and let someone else know that they too are a V.I.P. Invite someone – anyone – to worship with us. It could be someone you go to school with, someone you work with, someone you randomly meet in the store or even on the street. That’s what Jesus did.
Let them know they don’t have to look a certain way, or act a certain way, or even believe a certain way. Let them know God loves them just the way they are – because God does. Invite them to come as they are and that there is a place at the table for them. Show them God’s love and let them experience God’s grace. Be God’s messengers, and let them be God’s messengers to you. Let them know that a place at God’s table is by invitation only and there’s an invitation for everyone. Amen!

 

 

Seen By God

Sunday, August 25, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 13:10-17

 

Imagine being crippled and bent over for eighteen years. Really put yourself in her place for a moment. You’re unable to look up at the sun, or see a shooting star, or even a rainbow in the sky. You wouldn’t be able to see that sign of God’s promise because all you would be able to see is what’s under your feet. Sometimes looking down can be a good thing in that you notice the crickets, the flowers, or even have time to see a four leaf clover. But most of the time, you’d be noticing the dirt below you, the sidewalks, the shadows. In fact, living bent over and crippled for eighteen years you might very well feel like a shadow of a person. You wouldn’t be able to look people directly in the face, and they in turn, wouldn’t fully see you. Just your physical stature would make you feel small and unnoticeable. That must be how the woman in our story today must have felt.

But one person noticed her. While Jesus was preaching in the synagogue that day, he noticed the woman – whose name wasn’t even noticed or mentioned – and he called her over. Of all the people in the synagogue that day, she stood out to Jesus. Why? Because Jesus was always in a state of being aware of his surroundings. And he noticed when someone was in need. She didn’t ask him for anything. She didn’t ask for healing. In fact, after all these years she had accepted her fate. This is the way life was for her. She didn’t expect that it was ever going to change. In fact, she most likely expected it would get worse over time. And the people in her community had come to accept that that was just the way it was.

Centuries later we are still trapped in thinking the same way. In fact, this kind of thinking is more crippling than the physical ailment the woman in the story was afflicted with. Complacency is a much more insidious affliction because – unlike the illness the crippled woman experienced – complacency spreads. Thinking “that’s just the way it is” slowly erodes our humanity. Eventually we don’t see those who are suffering. We don’t see the systems that are crippling people. We don’t see the damage we are inflicting on each other and God’s planet. “That’s just the way it is” causes us to lack the ability to put ourselves in their shoes and feel their pain. It causes our ears to become deaf to the language of contempt turned toward certain individuals. It slowly erodes our compassion and replaces it with apathy.

Fear can be a strong component in causing this erosion. We might worry that if we get involved the cost may be too great. What will happen to us? Jesus gives us a better example to follow. Previously in Luke’s gospel Jesus heals a man with a withered hand simply with his command. He did not even touch the man and he was healed. Jesus had the power to do this. He could have done the same with this woman, but instead, he chose to touch her. He didn’t care that others would accuse him of violating purity laws. He wasn’t concerned that he was touching someone who was considered “unclean.” Jesus wasn’t even concerned that it was on the Sabbath day, a day set aside for rest and not work. This woman was a child of God. This woman was in need of healing, and Jesus had the power to heal her.  It couldn’t wait. Now some would argue that it could wait. She had been afflicted for eighteen years. What would one more day have mattered? It mattered to Jesus. We all matter to Jesus. One more day to those who are suffering is just too long to wait.

God sees us. God hears our cries for help even when we have given up hope that things will ever change. The touch of God heals. We, like the woman bent over and crippled, are always in need of healing. What is it that is robbing us or others of living a life of wholeness? Perhaps we are bent over and crippled with a hardness of heart, an unforgiving spirit, a heart filled with worry, animosity toward a certain person or group of people, or a lack of compassion. Can we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and feel their pain as Jesus did? That is at the heart of this story today. Jesus showed us by his example that we need to be aware of the sufferings of those around us and do whatever we can to help with the gifts and talents God has given to us. Jesus wants all of us to be able to stand up, look around, and not just give in to the belief that things are “just the way they are so what’s the use of trying” or even asking for help.

The power of God’s Holy Spirit resides in each one of us. God’s power is stronger than evil. It is stronger than our fears. It is stronger than whatever that tries to keep us held captive. In God there is always hope – not a hope that is just wishful thinking, but a hope that is active and transformative. This transformation begins with us, so that we can then heal others and the world.

Like the woman in this story, Jesus has seen us, called us, and extended his healing hand to us. We, like her, have been blessed, and can now be a blessing to others. We bless God with our whole lives, our whole beings, not just one day a week, but every day. Sabbath and blessing are a way of life. May we live each day with the awareness of its sacredness, and like Christ be a source of healing to all. Amen.

Awakening to Peace

Sunday, August 18, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 12:49-56 & Hebrews 11:29-12:2

 

“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” What a way to start a conversation! I imagine if I began a sermon like that I’d be asked to leave! Jesus however, wasn’t concerned about that. He told it like it was. He spoke in a way that was intended to wake people up. This question certainly does just that. “How do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Or in other words, “How can’t you see what’s right in front of you?” It’s no wonder Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” His words of truth did cause division, and they still do because it’s really hard to see things for what they truly are.

It’s hard to look at the facts when they’re upsetting. It’s hard to face the reality of our own sinfulness. It’s hard to face the consequences of societal racism, economic injustice, prejudice, sexism, violence, and the way we treat one another. It’s very difficult to admit what humans are doing to the climate to the point where it’s almost irreversible if we don’t act now. It’s much easier to just look the other way if it doesn’t directly affect each one of us personally. The truth, however, is that it does. We are all connected, and when one person suffers, ultimately everyone suffers.

We all want peace. Jesus wanted peace. Yet in order to have lasting peace, we have to listen to Jesus’ words and “know how to interpret the present time.” Jesus’ entire ministry was to help us interpret the present time, and to bring about the kingdom of God – a kingdom of love and peace. There can’t be peace if people are always at war with each other. There can’t be peace if we don’t have a healthy planet because of our greed. There can’t be peace if we keep treating all living things with such disregard and contempt. We need to interpret the present time for what it is, and find solutions.

This past Friday and Saturday, I attended the 21st Kateri Peace Conference. The programs focused around the climate crisis and what we can do. One of the speakers, acclaimed journalist and author, Dahr Jamal. In 2003, when the war in Iraq escalated, he decided he couldn’t just sit and do nothing. So he decided to go to places like Iraq and Turkey, and inform people of what was really going on. He risked his life to wake people up to the truth. He wanted to help us “interpret the present time.” He’s also written several books, including his most recent one, “The End of Ice: Bearing witness and finding meaning in the path of climate disruption.” It’s not an easy read, as it tells of some devastating realities of what humans are doing to the planet, and how before too long it may be too late, resulting in extinction if not corrected. These aren’t easy things to read or hear, but he is helping us “interpret the present time.” It’s his calling, and Jesus says it’s our calling as well.

In order to respond to this calling we need to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit for guidance. It’s what Jesus did throughout his entire ministry. The answers will be provided if we simply take the time to listen so that we can respond. This is exactly what Jesus did. He spoke the truth, and that’s exactly what got him killed. Standing up and speaking the truth is a dangerous action because some people are just not going to want to hear it, but Jesus loved us too much to keep silent. Our salvation was so important that he spoke the truth to wake us out of our complacency, even if it meant losing his own life. Our lives were that important to God.

Jesus did not come to bring conflict and division, but those things were the consequences of him proclaiming God’s kingdom because speaking the truth often means going against the status quo. The Roman government at that time wanted people to be afraid so they could control them. Jesus’ message of peace was different than the Roman message of peace. Their message of peace – called the Pax Romana – meant people could live in peace as long as they followed Rome’s rules even if that meant creating a system where some people held all the wealth and power, while others were kept poor and oppressed. Jesus’ peace, however, is a peace that is eternal, and leads to freedom for all people, and all creation.

It’s easy to want to give up when the obstacles seem too big, but we don’t have to rely on our own power. We have the power of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us through our baptism. That is the fire Jesus said he wished was already kindled. The fire of change brought about by the Holy Spirit.

So how do we keep that fire kindled? How do we keep that fire alive in ourselves and our congregations? We need to keep our focus on God. Every decision we make has to be made through a connection with the Holy Spirit as we wait for divine guidance. When we engage in practices that feed us spiritually – daily prayer, the study of Scripture, faith formation- our congregations will grow and flourish because we will be inviting the Holy Spirit to work among us and through us. We as a congregation are called to be the living presence of Jesus here on earth. That means we can expect conflict because change – the kind of holy change Jesus is demanding from each one of us – is not easy, but it’s what we need and what the world desperately needs.

We do not do this work alone. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses – family, friends, ancestors, prophets and disciples of ages and decades past who showed us how not to give up, who showed us that God works through ordinary people to do great things. There are so many people who we look at and say, “Oh, I could never be like them. I could never be like Mother Theresa, or Nelson Mandela, or Deitrich Boenhoffer, Dahr Jamail, or some other great figure, but we are not called to be like them. We are called to be us – the best we can be. Jesus showed us how to do that. Our best is when we do as the psalmist says, “Save the weak and the orphan; defend the humble and needy; rescue the weak and the poor; deliver them from the power of the wicked.”

Those who have died in faith, and who have gone before us are still praying for us. They are cheering us on. Our help is not only from this world. Our help comes from God and all the saints who have gone before us. Because we have this Divine support, we can put aside any worry or discouragement we have about running the race of faith that is set before us. We can put aside any sinful thoughts of giving up and just letting the forces of evil win because we have a pioneer who has gone before us and has paved the way for us. When we feel like we’ve hit the wall, when we feel like we can’t go on for another day – another minute, when we wonder “what’s the use of continuing to try despite obstacles that come against us?,” we have to keep our focus on Jesus who has paved the way and promised to be with us always. Jesus promises a joy and peace that is beyond our comprehension.

This week, pray to be awakened in order to run the race of faith that is set before you. Don’t be discouraged. Sometimes it may seem like things are falling apart. It may seem like the divisions are tearing things apart – but some things need to be taken apart before they can be fixed. Old records – old habits may need to be broken, before new ones can be set. Death has to happen before resurrection.  Don’t give up. Be brave and speak the truth in love. Listen for God and listen to each other. God is speaking, and calling us to be the change we wish to see in the world. Peace begins with us. Amen.

Are You Ready?

Sunday, August 11, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 12:32-40 & Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

 

“Do not be afraid.” This is not the first time Jesus reminds us not to be afraid. Humans worry about a lot of things. Yesterday, I spoke to a young woman who’s having trouble sleeping because she’s afraid of being shot. Yes, all these mass shootings are causing a lot of people to be afraid. I’ve spoken to teachers and children who don’t feel safe in their classrooms. I’ve spoken with people who are starting to take anxiety medication because of this. Churches are having to take active shooter training classes. As of August 5th, 297 mass shootings have occurred in the United States. It’s no wonder people are afraid.

And they’re not just afraid of gun violence. Yes, people are afraid not only of death, but of life. Many are afraid of being separated from their children, afraid of being abandoned without parents, afraid of being caged up, tortured, and raped. They’re afraid of the healthcare crisis, economic crisis, and the environmental crisis that affects all of these areas of our lives. There’s an increasing rise in hatred toward others, and at the same time a rise in apathy. So many people feel if something doesn’t directly affect or bother them, then it isn’t something worth fighting about. We’re losing a sense of compassion for each other. And as a result we have a crisis of faith.

It’s understandable. How does one hold fast to their faith when it seems like God is very distant? I’ve never shared this story with a congregation before, but I feel it’s important to share it with you now. Over thirty years ago, I was getting beaten up outside the house where I grew up in a small town in CT. Who it was is not important. I was so afraid that when I tried to scream, no sound came out. As a result, I became even more afraid. I had to be taken to the hospital, and treated for bruises, cuts, and a concussion. I eventually healed, but what has lasted with me to this very day was not the beating itself, but the fact that no one got involved. I remember at one point the lights in the houses in the neighborhood started going on – one after another – and I felt hope. I thought someone is calling for help, but no one did. These people – many who knew me since I was a child – didn’t want to get involved. I could have been killed, and no one cared enough to do anything. They didn’t want any retaliation. It wasn’t their business.

Why do I tell this story now? Because this kind of thing happens every day, and it needs to stop. Jesus is telling us we have to be ready. He said, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” We have to be ready to get involved because we are all God’s beloved children. It doesn’t matter if we all believe the same things, if we act the same, or think the same, or even worship the same. Jesus came to save all people. He suffered, died, and rose again for all people, and Christ will come again. How will he find his faithful disciples? Ignoring the problems of others and caring only for ourselves like the rich man in last week’s parable who built a bigger storehouse for all his bounty not caring about sharing it with others? Or will we open our hearts, our homes, our churches, our buildings to help those who are in need? Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Our actions are a witness to our faith.

This past week the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly was ready to take a stand as faithful disciples. Hundreds of people from the Assembly marched to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Milwaukee for a prayer vigil in support of migrants. The ELCA has declared itself a sanctuary church body signaling support for immigrants. They also approved new social statement: “Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action,” which calls sexism and patriarchy sins, and condemns white supremacy. We as the ELCA did this because we are ready  to stand up for the truth that Jesus taught us – that love is stronger than hatred, light overcomes darkness, and all of God’s creation is to be valued and treasured. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If our treasure is in Jesus and God’s kingdom, then our heart is there also. And God will never break our hearts. God treasures all creation, all humanity, and we are called as Christians to do the same.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” God is faithful to all the promises that God has made. God is with us; God will not abandon us. This is the good news that we must be ready now to share with others not only through words, but actions. We must remember that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Through the eyes of faith we can see the Beloved Community of all God’s children living together in peace and love. We can see the kingdom of God taking place right now. We can see the promises of God coming to fruition. And through the power of the Holy Spirit we can have hope, and courage, and be ready to do our part in making this happen so that no one is afraid. Are you ready? Amen.

 

Opening the Doors to God’s Abundance

Sunday, August 4, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-26
Luke 12:13-21

 

In last week’s gospel text Jesus’ taught us how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer wasn’t just a model that we were supposed to memorize and say by rote, but his prayer was an invitation into a deeper, more honest and meaningful relationship with God. Jesus said, “Knock and the door will be open.”  Prayer opens us up to a different way of being.

Jesus’ parable from Luke this week illustrates what happens when instead of allowing prayer to open us up, we close the door – to God, to ourselves, and to others. The rich man in our gospel story allowed his greed to close himself up. His prayer, his dialogues were not with the Divine, but with himself. Instead of growing into a deeper relationship with God, he spiraled into a deeper relationship with his own ego. He didn’t give thanks to God for the land that produced so abundantly, but thought only of how he was going to store it all – not to share with others, but all for himself. There’s nothing wrong with saving for the future, and taking care of oneself, but this is not the point to Jesus’ story. This man turned inward – the true definition of sin – instead of turning to God. This man made his possessions his god. He was so concerned about building bigger places to store his stuff, that he left no room for God. They became the source and meaning of his life. Without them his life felt meaningless.

Meaningless and absurdity, that is the definition of the word the writer of Ecclesiastes calls vanity. “Vanity, of vanity, all is vanity.” All is absurdity. That is what he felt his life was all about. He, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, felt that life was meaningless and absurd if all we do is work hard just to have someone else enjoy it after we are gone. He, like the rich man, prayed – was in conversation with himself – “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” They both felt it’s meaningless if they aren’t to enjoy it. This thinking perfectly describes how many people feel today. Many people are working long hard hours with often little to show for it. Some can barely can make ends meet financially – yet I’ve seen them share out of the little they have – while others seem to have more than enough and yet don’t share out of fear that there won’t be enough left for them when they need it. People can’t sleep at night because they are either worried about what they don’t have or worried about all that they do have being taken away from them. The writer calls this vanity. It’s absurd, or senseless or foolish to live like this. But what’s the alternative?

Jesus invites us to open ourselves up – to God’s kingdom, to God’s way of being lived in gratitude, compassion, mercy, justice, and love. God invites us to open ourselves up through prayer, which invites us to a deeper relationship with God. Who is our god? Is it our possessions, our work, our prestige? The true God shows us who we truly are. We are more than our possessions; we are children of the living God. Our possessions are not what save us; it is the true God who saves us. Our possessions are not our security; it is the true God who gives us our security even when everything around us seems to be falling apart. It is the true God who is our joy even when we find ourselves walking through dark valleys. “Christ,” St. Paul reminds us, “Is all and in all.”

This is what the writer of Ecclesiastes finally understood through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in verses 24- 26. He said, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.” This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from God who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” He finally understood that God desires for us to live a life of joy and abundance – not to store up treasures for ourselves as in the parable of the rich man who builds larger barns for his own needs – but to live lives that ensure all people have enough. When we put God first in our lives, care for each other, and think not only of what is good for ourselves, but everyone around us, we realize that there is more than enough for all. And we realize that even in our work, even in circumstances that we may not find joyful, we can still have an inner joy because God is present. God “is all and in all.” This realization opens us up to know God more deeply. This is what it means to be rich toward God.

Using our resources – no matter how much or how little we have – for the benefit of those in need like the story of the Good Samaritan – is being rich toward God. Intentionally stopping what we are doing and listening to Jesus’ words as Mary did in the story of Mary and Martha that we heard a couple weeks ago, is being rich toward God. Trusting God will provide for what we need instead of worrying all the time, and praying the Lord’s Prayer to give us our daily bread is being rich toward God. The difference is the word us instead of me. As we heard last week, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are asking God to give us – all of us – what we need every day. Prayer opens us up to surrendering to God’s vision of abundance for all.

What if instead of building bigger barns – bigger false idols or barriers to God – we opened up the doors to our hearts and let God’s grace permeate our souls and flow out? What if instead of hoarding our possessions, our money, our dreams, and our gifts, we opened up the doors and shared them with those around us and invited them to do the same? What if instead closing ourselves off to the belief that we can’t do something, or that some goal is impossible we opened ourselves up to God’s possibilities? Imagine how we, our families, our congregation, our neighborhoods, our country, our world would be changed if we simply trusted in God’s abundance and opened ourselves up to God’s love. Maybe we’d finally put an end to all these mass shootings, all the hatred, all the prejudice, and all the inhumane treatment of all God’s children. We don’t need to store things up or let fear of scarcity control us. God is a God of abundance and the well of God’s resources – love, compassion, mercy, grace – never run dry.

Let us pray, gracious Holy Spirit, open us up to make room for God, to make room for God’s love and grace, to trust the abundance of God, to dwell in the abundance of God, to share the abundance of God’s kingdom with everyone. Amen.

The Difference Prayer Makes

Sunday, July 28, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 11:1-13 & Genesis 18:20-32

 

“Lord, teach us to pray.” It’s a powerful request, because it assumes that prayer makes a difference. Several years ago, I read a book by Philip Yancey called, “Prayer – Does It Make a Difference,” that addressed this very topic. It’s a question that I’m certain has crossed everyone’s mind at one time or another. So many people want to know how to pray, are concerned they can’t pray well, and wonder exactly how to speak to God. We thank God for our blessings, which we ought to do. In fact, the 14th century German mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it would be enough.” Still, we ask God for what we want or need; we pray for others, and it’s good to go to God with all these things. Yet, when prayers don’t seem to be answered, when a particular situation goes from bad to worse, we may ask the question, “What’s the point? What difference does prayer make?”

Our first reading from Genesis is a perfect example of this kind of situation. The ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were like many cities today with stories of crime and murder, but their biggest sin was a lack of hospitality. They lacked love, compassion, and mercy.  They weren’t treating each other with the love of God. This kind of action always leads to destruction. Yet, Abraham prayed to God on their behalf. He believed his prayer would make a difference. He persisted in pleading with God to save them not just for the sake of 50 good people, but even if there was only ten good people. He wanted mercy for them, and God who is merciful agreed. Imagine if Abraham had kept persisting and asked God to save them for the sake of only one. God who is merciful would have agreed. Abraham’s prayer was for others, and Jesus’ prayer that he taught his disciples – and that includes us – is for others. This is mission of every Christian, to live a life not just for ourselves, but for others.

In the Lord’s prayer that Jesus taught us we pray “give us each day our daily bread.” We are not just 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. When we pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done,” we are surrendering our will to God’s will. We are asking that God’s kingdom – God’s place of love, compassion, justice, and mercy – spread everywhere. 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 over 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.

When Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,” he was telling us that prayer is the door. Prayer opens the door to where our heart/ our soul – the essence of who we are – and God are connected. Prayer isn’t saying the right words, or using the proper technique, but an experience with the living God. That changes us, and subsequently everyone and everything around us.

Prayer helps us to find ourselves, to get in touch with our very soul – who we are deep down.  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 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’s power through the Holy Spirit to be who God created us to be so we can do what God is calling 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 open our hearts to God, so that we can be in relationship with God, experience God more deeply, and share that experience with others through the lives we live.

“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. In Jesus’ prayer to God we hear what He knows about God; God listens, provides, forgives, protects, and is generous. God is a God of abundance not scarcity. With God there is an endless supply of all we need. With God the door is always open.

“Lord, teach us to pray.” It’s a powerful request, and one we can go to God with daily. This week, practice prayer – connecting and being in relationship with God. Practice opening your heart and pouring it out to God. Practice listening to God. Practice trusting God. Practice allowing God to fill you with peace, love, joy, and light so that you can share that light – God’s light -with others. Practice letting God answer prayer through you.  Amen.