Archive for July, 2010

Prayer Works?

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Prayer Works?
Luke 11:1-13
July 25, 2010
Steve Hammond

Why do you think the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray?

I think it is because he prayed a lot. And they actually probably did too, given their religious culture. But I think they realized prayer meant something different to Jesus than it did to them. When he was praying, he was really praying.

Well I am here this morning to tell you that prayer works. Sometimes. And it is the sometimes that makes the whole issue of prayer as complex as it is. If God always answered prayers, or never answered prayers, this would all be a different story. But sometimes prayers are answered and sometimes they are not. It’s confusing. Sometimes my prayers are answered and sometimes they aren’t.

It is not helpful for me when people respond with something like, “Well, God answers every prayer, but the answers are just different than we were expecting.” It’s a way to try to convince ourselves that prayer works, even when it doesn’t actually seem to be.

I guess it is true that we would be in bad straights if God always answered our prayers the way we wanted them to be answered. One of the things I like about the universe is that God is God and I’m not. So I am willing to trust God’s ways and wisdom and will, because they are better than mine. But that only helps to a point.

The variation on that theme is that God answers all prayers that are in accordance with God’s will. Which, as far as I can tell, means that God’s says yes to the things God was already going to say yes to anyway. That makes prayer a puzzle to figure out. Just ask for the right things, and it will work.

Nor can I go along with the notion that prayer works if your faith is strong enough. If all of my prayers depended on my faith, that would be pretty sad. And if prayer being answered is a matter of our faith, then where does that leave God? Does God just pull out the old faithometer? If it’s in the green zone the prayer is answered? That makes God more of a technician, a meter reader, than the creator of heaven and earth. It makes it all about me rather than about God. But for Jesus prayer was, indeed, about God.

So if someone suggests to you that you should pray more because prayer works, don’t go down that path. Because if you do, you will find it a hard trail littered with rocks and ridges and broken walking sticks. Even if you make the hard slog to the end, it is not worth it.

And notice that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. If the point is that prayer works, it would have made much more sense if they simply asked him to pray for them. Because if it is going to work for anybody, it’s going to work for Jesus.

But the disciples saw something much more profound going on for Jesus than simply that prayer works, even though his prayers were pretty effective.

There is no way around the fact that prayer is a mystery. It’s an invitation to those greater mysteries of God, and faith, and following Jesus, and ourselves. There are a lot of books about prayer in your average Christian bookstore. But they are not going to be of much help other than getting you praying. You just have to pray. There are no formulas that fit everybody. There aren’t right and wrong ways to pray. It’s just you and God and that community of believers you are praying with and for.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he didn’t pull out his power point presentation. I guess back in those days they had to do handouts. He was pretty brief. The Luke version of the Lord’s prayer is even shorter than Matthews.

God,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.”

There is not a whole lot there or there is much more than we will ever grab hold of, depending on what we are looking for.

Then Jesus talks about that person who went to a friend for bread. He was pretty persistent even though it was the middle of the night. But he went and asked because it was his friend, after all. And sometimes you have to be persistent, even with your friends. But friends understand even when it’s the middle of the night, and everybody could have probably lived without bread until the morning.

Whatever happens when we pray, we are going to a friend. Persistence is okay. Pound on that door. Cuss if you have to. Sit quietly, but waiting. Whatever you need to do, this is our friend we are talking about. Even if we embarrass ourselves, it’s okay. And even if the friend doesn’t get out of bed and unlock the door, that’s okay, too. She is still our friend. And it is still worth asking.

Some people have attitudes about prayer that, to be truthful, I don’t always understand. It’s been seven years since that cat bite about did me in. Imagine shuffling off this mortal coil because of a cat bite. How ridiculous would that have been? My own cat. I guess I was a lot closer to that reality than I thought, but thankfully they didn’t tell me that until I was a lot better.

Anyway, when I was recovering lots of people would tell me they were thinking about me, or even sending out good thoughts for me. Well, I appreciate it when people think about me. But, frankly, it is more helpful to have people praying for me. People’s thoughts about me are great, but they can’t do for me what God can do for me. God is the one who laid the foundations of the earth. God is the creator of life. God is in the miracle business. As nice as it is that others are thinking about me,I want God thinking about me and some folk reminding God to think about me.

People were praying for me and thinking about me. And I got better. There were some people in that hospital over those 17 days who didn’t get better, even though people were praying for them. And there it is.

I also talk with people who don’t pray for themselves because they think it’s selfish or something. I mean I pray for myself all the time. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Now if all I did was pray for myself, that would be one thing. But, I try to diversify.

I mean, Jesus prayed for himself. “God if you can take this cup from me, now would be the time.”

The writer Anne Lamott says there are really just two prayers. The first goes, “help, help, help” the second goes “thank you, thank you, thank you.” I agree with that in many ways. And I do wonder if we aren’t asking God for help, help from for ourselves, then what are we thanking God for?

I think people are sometimes reluctant to pray because it is so much of a risk. It raises all those questions about our own faith, it focuses all those struggles we have with what we believe about God, it leaves us open to all kinds of disappointment. You see it so profoundly when you are in a group and ask who wants to pray and most of the eyes go down. Jesus never said that praying is something we can only do when we know what we are doing. Only when we score high on that faithometer I talked about. And I feel like I benefit so much when others pray. It’s a great gift. And we all need gifts.

I think some of us have these great visions of the risks we are willing to take for our faith, but are scared to death to offer a prayer among friends. We feel so vulnerable.

And I think that is what the disciples saw. They saw that vulnerability Jesus brought with him in his life and his prayers. He was willing to lay it all out before God and take the risk. That’s why he could laugh and cry and sweat blood when he prayed. He had touched something real.

Jesus knew God would treat that vulnerability so very gently. What did he say“This is not a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your little boy asks for a serving of fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? If your little girl asks for an egg, do you trick her with a spider?” So is God going to mess with us when we pray?

Prayer is a profound mystery. But it fueled Jesus’ life. In prayer, like so many other things, he has much to teach us. All we have to do is ask.

The distractions, like the Realm of God, are in our midst.

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

The distractions, like the Realm of God, are in our midst.
Luke 10:25-37
July 11, 2010
Steve Hammond

There were three people who saw a wounded man on the side of the road. Only one stopped to help. What was with the other two?

I don’t think they were bad people. It seems to me they were more likely distracted. I can understand that since I get distracted quite easily. Just ask Mary. I can walk over to the phone to call somebody. I see something on the table and pick it up and read it, and then go back to what I was doing without ever making the phone call. I go to the grocery store to pick up milk. On the way I pass the pancake syrup. “Oh, we’re out of pancake syrup,” I say to myself, and grab the pancake syrup and proceed to the checkout stand. Then later that day Mary says, “I thought you got milk today.” And I go, “Oh, man. But I got pancake syrup. It was on sale.”

What did Jesus say our number one priority was? “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.” What did he know the challenge for us was? The distractions. All three of those men knew what the Kingdom or realm of God required of them. Help that man out. But two of them were too distracted. They could have been distracted by their fear. By their religious and family responsibilities. Maybe they were distracted by their ideologies or religious and political convictions. They may have been late for work, or promised the kids they would be home for supper.

We all are distracted. There are sick kids. There are bills to pay. There are conflicts at home, church, and work. There is the computer that’s not working and the lay off that has just been announced. The World Cup Final is this afternoon. The dog hasn’t been walked yet today. The homework assignment has to be finished. I haven’t done any practicing today. The car won’t start and where is the money to fix it. I know my mother is going to call this afternoon and I haven’t sent the thank you note. We’re still waiting to hear from the doctor. The distractions, just like the realm of God, are in our midst. And so we just walk by when the realm of God is staring us in the face, or lying on the side of the road.

Jesus didn’t tell us much about the Samaritan, because the fact he was a Samaritan was enough. Making the Samaritan the hero in this story was the most over the top thing he could think of, given how the Jews and Samaritans felt about each other. It would be like Jesus going into a big convention of some organization of the religious right and telling the story this way.

“One of the folk registered for this convention was beaten up and robbed on his way over here. His money was taken. He was stripped naked and left in the street to die. The preacher for that evening saw the man lying there, but hurried into the convention center. The President of Young Christians for a More Godly Nation didn’t stop either. He pretended he didn’t see the man because the executive committee had to get its statement done about the growing threat of Barack Obama to all that is good, and godly, and decent about America.

“The only person who stopped to help was this flaming gay guy, the head of the local chapter of the Coalition for Same Sex marriage. He called 911, and after waiting 15 minutes he put the wounded man in the back of his car and took him to the emergency room himself. When they asked who was going to pay for the man’s care he said, ‘my partner and I will go out and start raising the money.’” That’s kind of how that story sounded to those first people who heard it.

And the story surely took that rich young religious guy by surprise who wanted the call to love our neighbor to rule out people like the Samaritan. And ever since religious folk have been trying to figure out exactly who we don’t have to count as our neighbor.

The Samaritan shows us that everybody counts. And, if we can get past the distractions, there are opportunities everyday to find God’s realm, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

This story Jesus told also shows us that seeking God’s Realm is probably not as intimidating as we might think. Especially if we realize that Realm comes to us in little bits and pieces every day. Our call is not to save everybody’s soul. We don’t have to end hunger, create racial harmony, bring peace to the Middle East, or clean up the Gulf Coast, though it is good that people are trying.

When the Samaritan stopped to help that guy, he did not bring and end to violence. But he found God’s realm. He let go of the distractions.

Do any of you ever listen to the radio show, “Speaking of Faith?” Last week Krista Tippit interviewed, Shane Claiborne who has written this fascinating book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. If you get a chance, go to the Speaking of Faith web site and find that show from last week. Scroll down a bit, and it’s the one about the Monastic Revolution. I’ll send out an email later today with the details. You also may want to read that book.

But the ordinary radical part is his belief that finding the realm of God comes in the very ordinary stuff that can make radical followers of Jesus out of us. He quotes Mother Teresa. “We can do no great things. Just small things with great love. It’s not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.”

Let’s face it. Helping one victim of violence isn’t going to make the world a safer place. And who knows, the victim may have been horrified, rather than grateful, when he learned it was a Samaritan who helped him out. But in that moment, the Samaritan was about the work of the Realm of God. He was doing God’s work.

I just saw an article this morning in the New York Times about the recovery, or lack thereof, from the earthquake in Haiti.

Here is how it starts. PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Hundreds of displaced families live perilously in a single file of flimsy shanties planted along the median strip of a heavily congested coastal road here called the Route des Rails.

Vehicles rumble by day and night, blaring horns, kicking up dust and belching exhaust. Residents try to protect themselves by positioning tires as bumpers in front of their shacks but cars still hit, injure and sometimes kill them. Rarely does anybody stop to offer help, and Judith Guillaume, 23, often wonders why.

“Don’t they have a heart, or a suggestion?” asked Ms. Guillaume, who covers her children’s noses with her floral skirt when the diesel fumes get especially strong.

Thankfully, there are lots of people who are trying to help some of the folk in Haiti. It seems overwhelming, I’m sure. But that guy who was beaten and left for dead along the road, was glad someone was willing to stop and help.

Some of you are going to be helping out with the Interfaith Hospitality Network this week. There will just be a few folk there out of the millions of homeless people in this world. But you will find the Realm of God there.

I assume that the Samaritan, after dropping the man off with the innkeeper, just went on with what ever he was doing before he encountered that poor man on the side of the road. He didn’t start an organization to help victims of violence. He didn’t organize a growing police presence on the road to Jericho. Jesus says nothing about him setting up a preaching mission to persuade robbers of their waywardness, and their need for Jesus. He went on to see him Mom, or deliver the present to his niece, visit his brother in jail, sign the contract, make the sale, or whatever he was doing. But along the way, he got past the distractions when he bumped into the Realm of God and discovered who his neighbor was. It’s a pretty good story.