Monday, February 23, 2015

"Pray in This Way" - A Lenten Exploration of the Lord's Prayer

For the season of Lent we will be focusing on the Lord's Prayer.  We continue with the Introduction.

Lord’s Prayer – Our Father in Heaven

Today we begin a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer – Newsletter will have an article that will talk about the background of the prayer.  So dive right with what Luther calls the introduction – Our Father in Heaven.
In many ways this opening is like the “salutation” of a regular letter – “Dear John” or “Dear Mary.”  These words open the prayer but they also set the tone for all this is to follow.  And especially those first two words – Our Father – they are powerful words that are like a foundation upon which the rest of the prayer is built.  It is those two words that I would like to focus on this morning, we’ll leave the 2nd part of that 1st line – the in heaven part for when we consider the 2nd petition since they are related.  So…
Our Father – Who’s Father?  OUR Father.  Right off the bat with the very first two words we are making an extremely important and profound statement of faith.  The God whom we worship – the God who is the object of our prayers is not just MY God, not just MY Father – or His or Her God or Father – The God whom we worship is OUR Father.  We live in a society that more and more tends to see faith and religion and prayer as private or personal.  More and more of us are claiming our Christianity to be a completely personal or private matter.  And as a result more and more of us have come to reject the importance of the community of Christ, the church.  Who needs it if my entire religious life is just me and Jesus or me and God.  Why do I need the institution of the church?  Why do I need any one else?  I can just go up on a mountain, or out in nature or on a golf course and pray to God by myself, right?
No.  For with these two little words that stands at the beginning of this prayer – OUR Father – Jesus points us in a completely different direction.  With these words Jesus not only rejects the idea that our faith is totally and completely a private matter but Jesus challenges us to see ourselves, our faith and our prayer life in the context of the community of faith.  We cannot be Christians all by ourselves – we are a part of a community and we need each other.  We are all a part of the Body of Christ, to use an image from Paul, and we are linked together – we are interconnected with each other.  Right away this prayer reminds us that we are an important part of a community and everything that follows in this prayer is based on this understanding of faith in the context of community.  The Lord’s Prayer is not an I prayer – it is a WE prayer.  It is not a prayer FOR ME – but a prayer FOR US.  If we come before God in true prayer we do not simply come before the God who is our own private God, but before the God who is the God of us all. 
This then brings us to the next word – FATHER / OUR FATHER.  The use of the word FATHER I think for some of us may feel a little formal, patriarchal or even distant.  Some folks have expressed that they feel pushed away from this opening for many of these reasons.  So let’s take a minute and explore this 2nd word a bit.
As you all know the Gospels and actually all of the New Testament was written in Greek.  But Jesus did not speak Greek.  His language was Aramaic, which is related to Hebrew. In the Gospel accounts then all of Jesus’ words - his teachings, parables, prayers and so on - have been translated from Aramaic into Greek by the Gospel writers.  And then, in order for us to be able to read them, these words have been further translated into English. So when Jesus originally gave this prayer to his disciples the Aramaic word that stands behind our formal English word “Father” is the word ABBA.  And this word literally means “Daddy” or “Papa.”  One of the first words that an infant would have learned to speak would have been either Abba (daddy) or Imma (mommy).  And these words were reserved for the closest and most intimate of family relationships.  No one in the 1st century would have dared to use the word ABBA to refer to God, but Jesus did.  And more than that, Jesus even urges his followers to use the word too.  Jesus is suggesting a new way of understanding of the relationship between God and God’s children.  No longer are we to be to feel separated or distant from God the Father; no longer are we to be intimidated or afraid of the eternal Patriarch who sits in judgment.  Now, in Jesus, God has initiated a new relationship with us that is intimate, that is close, caring, understanding and founded upon Grace.
To better understand how Jesus himself understands his own relationship with God the Father and how Jesus understands his use of the word ABBA in this context, let’s look for a moment at the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  There, the overwhelming love of the Father leads him to behave in some very un-patriarchal ways.
1.                     He gives in to the request of the son to divide up his estate, before he is even dead. 
2.                     Once the son has gone off on his own, he doesn’t write him off, but rather continues to wait for him in hopeful expectation.
3.                     When the Father finally sees the wayward son afar off he RUNS to greet him because he cannot contain his joy.
4.                     The son had practiced up a nice little speech, but the Father doesn’t even let him get out much of it before interrupting him with forgiveness and welcome.
5.                     The son does not have to earn his way back into his Father’s favor, he is restored completely without hesitation.
6.                     And to celebrate the Father throws a big, expensive party!
Scandalous would have been how this story would have been received by those in the 1st century who heard the story the same time.  Incredible behavior on the part of the Father – unheard of – improper.
But this is Grace unbounded!  Grace and love so vast and deep that it cannot be contained or comprehended.  When we say those words – Our Father – we are affirming all of that.  God is OUR ABBA – the one whose love for us knows no bounds.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

"Pray in This Way" - A Lenten Exploration of the Lord's Prayer

For the season of Lent we will be focusing on the Lord's Prayer.  We begin with this general introduction to the Lord's Prayer:

Pray Then in This Way
Beginning in Lent we will begin our 40-day pilgrimage with a focus on the Lord’s Prayer.  This wonderful prayer is one which is familiar to all Christians and which has been a regular part of Christian worship since the early church.  It is so familiar that it runs the danger of becoming too familiar.  In other words, it is easy for something like this beautiful prayer which we recite over and over to become so familiar that it looses it’s edge and bite.  For this prayer has an edge.  Though it is based on the Psalm tradition of the Old Testament it nevertheless is, in many ways, a very radical prayer that lifts up God’s unexpected priority for God’s children and calls for a equally radical response from those who prayer this prayer.
The first issue which this prayer lifts up, however, is that this prayer places prayer itself at the center of Christian life and discipleship. And it does provide a model for how we might structure our own prayers.  The prayer is in two parts with an introduction and a closing doxology:
Introduction: Our Father in Heaven…
Part I – Acknowledging God: 1. Hallowed (Holy) be your name;
                        2. Your Kingdom come;
                        3. Your will be done, on earth as in heaven;
Part II – Petitions for God’s involvement in human life:
                        4. Give us today our daily bread;
                        5. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us;
                        6. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
Closing Doxology: For the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are yours, now
and forever.  Amen.

The prayer that Jesus sets out is a two-part prayer that begins with acknowledging the Jewish tradition of respecting the sacred name of God, but at the same time is very personal.  The Greek for Father is actually the familiar term Abba that should be translated more accurately as Daddy or Papa.  It is an intimate and familiar word.  This is important because too often we think of God as remote and far away; or we think of God as an angry judge ready to condemn and turn his back on us if we don’t measure up.  No, our Father in heaven is our Daddy, Papa who loves us unconditionally (think of the Father in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” Luke 15).  I would also add that Jesus’ use of the male familiar term does not assign a gender to God.  Jesus related to God as father.  The God includes both father and mother; male and female.  And if the male familiar term Father, Daddy, Papa does not work for you then it would be completely consistent with this prayer to substitute the female words Mother, Mommy, Mama.  The prayer is, itself, exceptionally inclusive and affirming.

This then brings us to the first part, the petitions that acknowledge who we understand God to be.  And they build on each other.  God is the God whose very name is Holy and we pray that we would be always aware of God’s holy name so that we would not bring dishonor or blasphemy upon God’s name.  This happens a lot.  For whenever we attach God’s name to our own particular cause or viewpoint or prejudice we are dishonoring God’s name.  For the God whose name is Holy is also the God who brings the Kingdom into our midst, and we then are citizens of this Kingdom of God.  And the will of God that will be accomplished in heaven and on earth are none other than the priorities of the Kingdom itself.

And what are the priorities of the Kingdom?  That takes us to part two and first and foremost: That people are cared for and fed.  That hunger is eradicated. There is no excuse for Christians to ignore the issues of hunger in our world.  WE spend lots of money and emotional energy fighting for all kinds of superficial “religious” issues, but consistently too many Christians ignore the one issue that was priority number one for Jesus himself: Hunger.  Then we pray for forgiveness for ourselves, our communities and by so doing we ask for insight, grace and love to be able to reach out to others with care and forgiveness.  Lastly part two ends with an acknowledgement of the reality of evil and asks for God’s deliverance.  Finally we close the prayer with a doxology that was added by the early church in the 3rd century.

This prayer should make us uncomfortable.  This prayer should challenge us.  It is too easy for Christians to become complacent and self-centered.  This prayer forces us to look beyond our own self-interest and the pet issues that are dear to us and to see that we are called to a much bigger calling.  Hunger on the other side of the world IS our issue. This prayer condemns all suffering, injustice, hate, and arrogance.  In this prayer we are called to commit ourselves to the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus represents.  May we take this opportunity to reassess our values and our way of living our discipleship this Lent as we travel towards the cross of Jesus, accompanied by the Lord’s Prayer.  Amen.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reflections on the Lessons – Epiphany III – Jonah and Mark 1

Read the texts here: Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20
Both of the lessons today deal with the issue of call.  In the Gospel, Jesus calls the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.  “Follow me,” he says, and they leave everything and follow him.  This lesson is contrasted by the lesson from the reluctant prophet Jonah, who also received a call from the Lord God: “Go!”  “And then away in the opposite way he went.” It is also interesting to note that Mark makes it clear throughout the Gospel that these disciples really didn’t know what they were getting into.  They have preconceived ideas of who Jesus is and what he wants from them that turn out to be completely wrong.  One wonders if the disciples actually understood more from the beginning if they would have been so willing to leave their nets and follow.  Jonah on the other hand seems to have a pretty good idea of not only what is expected of him, but what the result will be.  This is why he tries to run away.  He is not in agreement with God.  In both cases the bottom line ministry that these men are being called to is one of unconditional love and grace; it is one of radical inclusion.  In the Gospel this is made manifest on the cross.  In Jonah, God does not want to see the city of Israel’s hated enemies destroyed and Jonah just knows that God will end up having mercy and extending forgiveness.  And Jonah wants no part of it.

I think there are points of contact between us and the disciples, and us and Jonah.  Like the disciples, we too often create an image of Jesus/God that looks more like our ideas of who God is and what we think God’s priorities should be.  Popular Christianity includes a strong element of judgment and tends to downplay God’s love and grace.  Oh yes, “God loves everyone” (we say)… “but” – and then we come up with conditions: “you have to “accept Jesus as your savior or you have to be good or you have to believe in a certain way or you have to be a part of a certain expression or denomination or you have to accept these political positions or you have to… etc. etc. etc.”  WRONG!  God’s love and grace are unconditional!  God loves us, and because of that then we are able to respond to our call.  This is why the focus is on the cross of Jesus.  It reminds us of God’s amazing love and grace for us.  If it starts to become a symbol of “you better do this, or that, or else” then we are missing the point.

Like Jonah, we too often like to pretend we know the mind of God.  God can’t love those people, God can’t possibly be willing to forgive and accept those people! We like to think of ourselves as having a special IN, and the annoying thing about grace is that it tends to be so radically inclusive.  And this is exactly the point that God makes at the end of the book of Jonah.  God informs Jonah in no uncertain terms, that God is a God of love and forgiveness and God loves the creation so wildly and passionately that God will go to whatever lengths God needs to in order to bring people into relationship and wholeness.  Too bad you don’t like it, Jonah!  But you cannot presume the mind of God.  And this is our problem as well.  Way too often, we like to presume the mind of God.  We are constantly baptizing our prejudices, our priorities, our opinions, our politics and claiming: “God is on my side – and – God opposes you.”  Or we arrogantly assert – “If you want to be right with God you have to think like me!”  WRONG!  We do not know the mind of God and to presume the mind of God is to try to put ourselves in God’s place, which you might remember did not work out so well for Adam and Eve. (And which theologians down through the years have used as a definition of Sin).

A very wise Pastor has summed up the message of these lessons in this way: “If God does not love everybody, then there can be no love for anybody.  If God is not gracious to all, there can be grace for none.”  This is the central theme of the story of Jonah and the Gospel of Jesus.  And like Jonah and the disciples we are all being called to follow, to live lives that reflect this grace and love and to reach out in God’s love and grace to care for others and pass on this love.  It is to this that we are being called.  God’s call to us is that we would open our hearts to God’s love and grace and be open vessels of this love and grace to all – that is – TO ALL.  It is a risky call, because God is so generous and like the disciples we have a hard time understanding and accepting God’s radical inclusivity.  And like Jonah when we do begin to understand we might want to go in the opposite direction.  But just as God pursued and followed Jonah even into the belly of the whale, God will follow us and never let us go; constantly showering his love and grace upon us and calling us to follow and to love – In the name of Father, Son+ and Holy Spirit!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Reflections on the text – Mark 1:4-11

Read the text here: Mark 1:4-11
Wet & Well Pleased
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:10-11

And we are off!  Just like that within just a couple verses in the Gospel of Mark we are plunged into Jesus’ ministry.  No long mystical prologues; no genealogies; no Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds or wise men here.  Within the space of just a few sentences Jesus arrives at the Jordan River as an adult, is Baptized and then he is immediately wandering in the wilderness struggling against the powers of temptation.  No time for a reception, or time to visit with family or time to consider and think about all that has happened.  Jesus is baptized – the heavens are ripped, the Spirit descends, he hears the voice – and it is out into the wilderness and beyond.  Just like that.

The heart of this brief episode occurs in verse 10 through 11 just as Jesus emerges from the water.  Let’s take a closer look at these events in two groups:
1.     “The heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove…” The Greek here is even more violent – the heavens are ripped apart - it says.  The word used will appear only one other time in the Gospel and this time at the moment that Jesus dies on the cross when the curtain of the Temple is ripped.  The prophet Isaiah pleads with God: “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1).  And here the prophecy is fulfilled. God has ripped open the heavens and has come down to dwell among God’s people on earth in the form of the Spirit.  The Temple curtain is ripped because God no longer will be separated from human beings – God lives among God’s people. The ripping open of the heavens then makes possible the bestowing of the Spirit of God on Jesus. 
2.     “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased!” Did Jesus know who he was in relation to God before His Baptism? This is a statement of identity – Jesus is God’s beloved Son.  This is also a statement of unconditional acceptance.  Note - Jesus has done nothing yet.  Jesus has not yet accomplished anything. Jesus has not even contended with the powers of temptation – this comes AFTER these words.  In fact, this event, these words make it possible for Jesus to enter into his ministry.

This story, like all stories from the Gospel, are about more than just a biographical recounting of an event in Jesus’ life.  The Gospel stories are proclamation and all have something to say to us about our lives in Christ and our discipleship.  For we are called, we are baptized and we are sent forth.  We are reminded that God has ripped the heavens open, God has ripped apart the Temple curtain and God continues to dwell among us.  God is not remote or distant or confined to one holy place. God lives among God’s people.  And the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to all who are baptized.  You have been given the gift of the Spirit in your baptism.

And the words spoken are for each of us as well.  “You are my Son / you are my daughter – with you I am well pleased.”  Spoken to each of us before we have done anything.  Because God’s love and acceptance of us is not contingent on anything we do – we are accepted and loved on the basis of who we are.  This is no mere affirmation.  This is not a pat on the back and a “good job!” from God.  There is a place for that, but this acceptance goes deeper than a superficial affirmation – or a “like” on Facebook.  Jesus had not done anything and neither had most of us when we were baptized.  This is unconditional acceptance.  This is God saying to you: “I love you.  You are beloved. I am well pleased with you.  Nothing you do will ever alter this fact.”

But the story doesn’t end here.  This is only the beginning, as it is for us as well.  For we too are called; we too are sent forth from the font to bear the light of Christ’s unconditional love and grace.  Like Jesus, we are empowered to move forward in our lives, contending with temptation, and encountering all kinds of situations we were have the opportunity to bring the light of Christ. 

Therefore, Baptism is more than a private family event.  Baptism provides the foundation of our faith.  For in Baptism we are accepted and loved by God and called and sent forth to bear the light of this love and grace into the world.  So, then since this is such an important part of our faith I want to suggest and exercise.  Do you know when you were baptized?  I was baptized on April 10, 1955 – Easter Sunday! Have you ever done anything to remember and celebrate your baptism?  There are a variety of things that you can do.  Dipping your hand in water and making the sign of the cross is one thing that I think is very meaningful and helps us to remember and stay connected to our Baptism.  But also, What about getting a candle out (your baptismal candle if you still have it, otherwise any candle will do), lighting it and reading through this story of Jesus’ baptism, along with Romans 6:3-5, and also with Luther’s Small Catechism explanation of Baptism.  You can do this on the anniversary and/or in connection with the Baptism of our Lord and other festivals of the church.  But whatever you do, never forget that the words of the voice are for you: “you are my Son/Daughter, the Beloved, and with you I am well pleased!”