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02.12.17 Praying in Desperation Luke 18:1-8 Sermon Outline

Since Amos, the “day of the Lord” had an ambiguous meaning. Traditionally it referred to the hope of ancient Israel, a nation oppressed by others, the hope of God’s deliverance. But in Amos, the nation has become the oppressor! The day of the Lord is still the hope of oppressed people, but not of an oppressive nation. For such a nation, the day of the Lord is a day of darkness and reckoning.

By the time of Jesus, the nation of Israel was both. It was oppressive to some of its inhabitants, and it was again a nation oppressed, this time by Rome. Into this situation, Jesus, like Amos, talked about God’s deliverance. Referring to the “Son of Man,” a title used by Daniel to refer to the Jewish messianic hope, Jesus urges his followers to trust God’s timing and to be ready and patient. As part of Jesus’ teaching on this topic, he offers the parable of the widow and the unjust judge.

The book of Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ final words to the ancient Israelites on the threshold of the Promised Land. He is reminding them that they must keep God’s commandments if they are to keep the Promised Land.

The widow in Jesus’ parable probably wouldn’t know much of the Bible, but she apparently knows this verse: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and widow of justice.” (Deuteronomy 27:19) Not only is this the revealed Law of God, but it is also a reasonable practice among people. But it wouldn’t be very convincing to judge who “neither fears God nor has respect for people.”

In Jesus’ day, widows were in a precarious situation. As women they had no rights. If there was an eligible male relative, they were expected to marry him. If she had had a son with her husband, he assumed responsibility for his mom. Widows were socially vulnerable, easily exploited, and an unwanted drain on society. But the widow in Jesus’ parable has some claim to justice, for she keeps asking the judge to grant it.

Jesus may have a particular situation in mind, actually. He starts the parable by referring to “a certain town.” If he is referring to a concrete situation, then the audience would murmur in knowledge. In that audience may have been people who considered the judge an answer to prayer. Maybe his predecessor had too much fear of God, or too much respect for others. Maybe he bent justice to favor the religious or the socially powerful.

For others in the audience, the judge has caused despair. His delay of justice has been a denial of justice, and so people have simply stopped asking. Rather than an answer to prayer, the judge has caused people to stop praying.

For Jesus, this situation provides an illustration for “the need to pray and not lose heart.” Following his teaching about God’s deliverance, Jesus urges us to pray while we wait for God’s justice, for the redemption of the world. Jesus has faith that this is certain.

This is why he contrasts God with the “unjust judge.” Unlike the judge in the parable, God is just, and God’s justice is coming. And those who deny justice will find themselves cursed, just like Deuteronomy says.

So, Jesus teaches, we who believe in God are to pray and not lose heart. This is also part of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, which we know as the “Lord’s Prayer.” There, we pray that God’s kingdom would come “on earth as in heaven.” We’re to assume a day-to-day attitude as sustenance is given to us (“Give us this day our daily bread”). And we’re to forgive others as God has forgiven us. In other words, we’re to begin living according to God’s coming justice now, in the meantime, while we wait.

But the truth is, even as we pray and do these things, we can still lose heart. In this situation, Paul tells us to at least continue praying. He taught that even when we no longer have the words, the Spirit prays for us. Eventually, Paul suggests, our lost heart will return to us as hope.

The technical term for this attitude in prayer is “supplication.” This word shares the same Latin origins as “supple.” It suggests a person bending the knee to beg or plead before a king or a judge, asking for something only they can do.

The Lord’s Prayer is supplication (despite how casually many of us recite it). The Spirit’s prayer for us described by Paul is supplication. They refer to the things only God can provide.

Jesus knows that there is injustice outside God’s kingdom. He urges us to pray and not lose heart. And so at the end of the parable Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Let us hope that he does, especially among those of us who follow him.

Centering Prayer Intro Workshop

These are some notes from my participation in an introduction to centering prayer workshop in February 2017. While not a novice to the material, I found lots to think about on the presentations. Here’s some.

DISTRACTING THOUGHTS

  • are opportunities to relate, intend, surrender to God
  • attractions and aversions are stronger, and harder to let pass
  • evaluations and insights are also distracting thoughts as are
  • pleasant memories and pleasurable thoughts.
  • many of these are really our attempt to capture the experience–to attach to it but
  • the point is to surrender.
  • we were taught not to
  • Resist thoughts, or
  • Retain them, or
  • React to them, but to
  • Return to the sacred word, or I might add, to
  • Rest again in God
  • a helpful image of resting for me is a small animal held in the hands

MOTIVATION

  • the motivation to begin and continue/endure in the practice of centering prayer is the presence of God, which may be assumed
  • NOT the experience, which may not

PRACTICE, PERFORMANCE, PRESENCE, AND PERFECTION

  • centering prayer is a practice
  • as a child, practice was always secondary and in service to a performance (like on the piano)
  • one practiced so that the performance would be perfect
  • but in the practice of centering prayer (yoga instructors speak of one’s “practice” also)
  • there is no upcoming performance
  • there is no perfection
  • there is only presence, God’s ubiquitous presence and
  • our presence to God
  • as long as I still assume performance and perfection related to the practice of centering prayer, I will not experience God’s presence to the highest possible degree

HELPFUL PERSPECTIVES

  • WHITE NOISE is a symbol of what all other occasional noise actually is, and can actually  become
  • for example, the noise of continuous traffic is really no different than the noise of a single car passing through a previously silent time
  • I am to treat both as white noise–noise that I can either attend to or ignore
  • and this applies both to external, physical noise as well as internal, mental/emotional noise
  • the more I practice treating all noise this way, the better I will become
  • DEEP BREATHS at the beginning energize me and give me cleaner oxygen than my typical shallow breathing
  • this means I can re-energize and re-focus by taking a few deep breaths during the practice
  • MY TYPICAL SEQUENCE is to be distracted by some physical discomfort like a pressed joint or an itch
  • then I experience some performance anxiety
  • then I notice environmental distractions like noise
  • then I experience a creativity download–my mind finds all sorts of great things to think about
  • finally I rest
  • AT THE END, I typically have two responses
  • relief, or
  • disappointment
  • sometimes surprise

WHEN “ISSUES” SURFACE

  • I find it’s helpful to consider whether this is
  • a gift which can be used in service to others, or
  • a compulsion which needs to be healed

PRACTICING IN GROUPS

  • Have people silence their phones (not just vibrate) and watches
  • Good to outline the steps in detail so people know when it really begins
  • Use a short musical peace for the final “get set”
  • at this time, people can smooth out ripples in their shirt, clear their throats one last time, scratch that last itch, etc.
  • pre-end with a rain stick or bell, leaving another :30-:60 for exiting the practice
  • exit with a spoken prayer of thanksgiving

MISCELLANEOUS THINGS

  • Gregory the Great talked about contemplation being “knowledge impregnated with love”
  • Centering prayer leads us from conversation to communion (see Matthew 6:6 and John 14:20)
  • The word for prayer in Jesus’ Aramaic is something like “shayla” which apparently means to open oneself up
  • One participant said she hopes to better “live in the present instead of waiting for the perfect”
  • the distinction between helping others and serving them is that helping has an ego-element

02.05.17 How God is Known Acts 17:22-31 Sermon Summary

You can look to creation and discover God as powerful and ordered. You can look inward to find God as love. But to know God as Savior, look to Jesus Christ.

Summary Points

  • Two ways of knowing God and their limitations
  • A third way revealed in the Bible

God is known in many different ways, which leads to various ways to talk about God. These ways are all provisional and conditional, and they are complementary to one another.

One way to know God is through nature. It basically derives from observing creation. Doing so suggests a God who is powerful and ordered. Knowing God this way leads some people to fear, and others to trust. In our passage, Paul refers to this God by stating, “From one ancestor God made all nations, and allotted them times and locations with the hope that they would reach for God and find him.” In other words, noticing creation and our limitations within it, we might search for and find the Creator.

Another way to know God is to look not outside ourselves at creation, but inside. Introspection leads some people to discover sparks of divinity, for God has made us in the divine image. Paul acknowledges but also has reservations about this way of knowing God when he says, “We are God’s offspring, but we should not think that God is an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”

These two ways of knowing God—looking outward at creation or inward to the divine image—will lead to what Augustine called “vestiges” of God, or to what Paul identifies in Romans 1 as “inferences” of God. They yield some knowledge of God. But can we know even more?

The context of this passage has Paul in the city of Athens. He acknowledges the extreme religiosity of the citizens, finding shrines and idols everywhere and to every deity, including—just in case they might have missed one—an altar “to an unknown God.” Paul desires to focus our fuzzy understanding of God.

Whatever other gods there may be, Paul says, there is a God who is creator, who is Lord of heaven and earth, and as such is not confined by religious buildings, religious dogma, or maintained by religious rituals. This is a God who transcends all these and yet, Paul says, is not far from anyone.

How does Paul know this God? Such knowledge is beyond natural theology and introspection. The God Paul knows, he knows because God has revealed himself to Paul. Paul had a direct and personal experience with this God.

What did he experience? On the way to Damascus with papers in hand to arrest wayward Jews who had begun to follow “the Way” of Jesus, the resurrected Christ confronted Paul. Over the course of the revelation, Paul discovered the God who saves.

Jesus doesn’t appear to many of us in such dramatic fashion, but we have Paul’s testimony. And we have the testimony of others, going all the way back through scripture.

Psalm 67 begins, “May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us, that your ways may be known upon the earth, and your saving power among all nations.” When God wants to be known beyond creator and beyond our divine image, God reveals himself, and what God reveals is that he is Savior.

What God said to the ancient Israelites God says to all of us in Christ: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You will know that I am the Lord your God who has saved you from slavery and sin.”

Returning again to Psalm 67 to conclude, “Let the people praise you, O God; let all the people praise you.”

Prayer in Response to the Executive Order of January 27

God of Grace, we thank you that you made space in the universe for our world, speaking words of creation to bring all people into existence and to share life with you. We thank you that our Lord Jesus Christ made room among his disciples for tax-collectors and zealots. In his name we invite all people to his table of grace, for Jesus gave it to us as a vision of your all-inclusive kingdom. We praise you that for centuries our country has welcomed refugees of war and poverty, industrious people seeking a better life, and that we have pursued righteousness among those who were brought here against their will. So this morning we pray for those who have been banned from our great country, turned away or sent home because of our fears and the evil actions of a tiny minority. We who are your children lament that our country now stands outside your hospitality and grace, that what we have freely received we no longer freely give, that we reject your Word which charges us to be grateful and generous with all our blessings. We pray you will not withdraw your blessings upon us who have been so unfaithful in our stewardship of them. And we pray for the refugees of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia, and the many employees of American companies from these countries who are now exiled. Lead our country, through our president and our prophets, to the hope you have promised in Christ and died to provide for all people.

01.29.17 All Means All Ephesians 2.4-9 Sermon Summary

According to Ephesians a “great mystery” has been revealed: God has brought near those who were far away. Just how far does the mystery apply?

Summary Points

  • The great mystery in Ephesians, and why it was hard for some Jews to accept
  • How the great mystery transformed Martin Luther and reformed the church
  • How the great mystery will encompass all in the ages to come

After being blown away by Jesus’ ministry, Christ’s first disciples had to deal with this: That the Spirit was given to non-Jews, called Gentiles. This is the “great mystery” of Ephesians, not so much that grace was given to us, but that grace was given also to them.

Ever since the Exodus when God delivered the Jews from slavery to Egypt through the wilderness, the Jews figured they were particularly special. “Chosen” was the preferred term. This is why Jeremiah cites the Exodus, writing during the Exile, when God seemed far away and the Jews felt forsaken, not chosen, and certainly not loved.

But, Jeremiah reminds them, God came near to them. After they had suffered the sword, when they were needing rest, out in the wilderness, God came in grace. The reason is because God had continued to love them. And so, Jeremiah encourages, God will come again during the Exile.

This, then, is grace, that God would come near to us, despite our sin, forgiving our sin, and giving us life.

When we realize this—truly realize it—it is a world-shattering mystery. Just ask Martin Luther. For twelve years he was a monk and a theology professor. Luther was obsessed with his sin, going to confession multiple times a day, consuming so much of his confessor’s time that he eventually told Luther to go and not come back until he had committed some real sins.

Luther did everything the church required for forgiveness, the official acts and even some extraordinary ones. Still he found no peace. Until he discovered the mystery: “By grace you have been saved through faith, this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

“Boasting” here does not refer to the bravado so prominently on display in our times. Instead it refers to self-reliance, self-achievement, what would come to be called self-righteousness. In Ephesians it refers to an ethno-centric religiosity. It was the attitude that our religion and our nation are especially blessed. But neither religion nor ethnicity—Judaism in Ephesians, Roman Catholicism for Luther—is at the center of salvation. At the center is God and God alone.

This is the great mystery. It is by grace we have been saved through faith, not by works so that no one may boast. That last line means, “so that no one need despair,” not the Jews in Exile, not the Gentiles far away, and not Martin Luther. It transformed his life, and he struck the match that would reformed the church.

How far does the mystery go? It goes as far as a sin-obsessed monk, as far as Jews lost in the wilderness, as far away as the Gentiles. But can we measure how far the mystery extends?

Ephesians says, “God has raised us up with Christ,” and it continues, “so that in ages to come, he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace.” Grace extends not just to Jews and Gentiles, not just to Luther, not just to us, but to all.

Psalm 67 captures the vision. “Let the people praise you, O God,” it begins. Let those liberated from Exodus and Exile praise God. Then it continues, “Let all the people praise you,” including all the nations, including all creation. All.

Some Jews of Jesus’ day, and in the days of Ephesians, and in the church of today, can’t imagine the “all” extending all the way. “All” would be too scandalous because it certainly couldn’t include “them.”

But that is exactly the nature of grace. God comes near to those far away. God saves the Jews and Gentiles. God saves the sinner. We who know this praise God. We who know this also have hope that all the people will praise God in the ages to come.

01.22.17 Post-Inaugural Weekend Prayer

We thank you, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, for the peaceful transition of power in our nation’s capital Friday. We pray President Trump will succeed in leading all Americans to make our great country greater still. We pray ordinary Americans will make America extraordinary again. We pray America may be first again, not because we look first to our own interests, but because we place your priorities first. We pray we may be first to follow Jesus Christ, the revelation of your will for the world, who came to the poor and healed the sick, who forgave sinners and welcomed the outcast, who sacrificed himself for the benefit of others, who trusted you instead of mighty Rome or misguided religion. We pray that we might have the courage to follow President Trump in quoting Psalm 133, that it is indeed pleasant when people dwell together in unity. We pray that you will unite us first and foremost as this Psalm indicates, in the mission and work of Christ in the world.

We give you thanks for the peaceful Women’s March on Washington, and Boston, and Chicago, and Denver, London and Los Angeles, New York and New Delhi, Sioux Falls and Sydney, and Colorado Springs. For the placards that were overwhelmingly decent and direct, for the variety of concerns, for the diversity of the crowds, we are thankful. For the women who led us, and those who also marched: Veterans, undocumented immigrants, senior citizens, anxious children, protective parents, queer Americans, those needing health care, cautious Trump supporters, and citizens around the world in solidarity with these—we pray their concerns will be represented beyond the extraordinary numbers who gathered Saturday, but also among the numbers who gathered on Friday. We pray, in other words, for the will of the majority to be heard and well represented, for the majority of Americans and people around the world desire with Jesus your Kingdom on earth.

Jewish vs. Christian Faiths

I wonder how much the difference between Jewish and Christian faiths–doctrine and practices–has to do with the fact that Christianity emerged quickly in a defensive environment. On the one hand, they were asserting a theology within a Judaism that rejected their innovations. On the other hand, they were proclaiming a new religious faith into a pagan and philosophical culture. In both cases, Christian thinkers found themselves on the defensive almost immediately, and would have had to proceed in the formulation of doctrine and practice within those contexts.

Judaism, on the other hand, while it certainly had periods of development and evolution that occurred in similarly pluralistic contexts, evolved over a much longer time and thus had the luxury to be influenced, to become winsome in its testimony, and fluid in its theological identity. Put another way, perhaps it does not suffer from the twin anxieties of “having to be right” and having to “convert” others, because it learned to trust God, exercise patience, and respect religious diversity even as it discerned and practiced religious faithfulness.

If so, perhaps this explains why Judaism survives as a diverse, tolerant, and unified witness in the world, whereas Christianity is suspicious of it’s own diversity, judgmental, and contradictory in it’s testimony. Whereas a Jew might say of another Jew, “That’s not how I practice Judaism,” two Christians are more likely to excommunicate one another over their differences.

I believe it is in the DNA of Christianity to bear witness to a confessional religious identity without alienating those with whom we disagree, and thus I am hopeful we can reclaim it. I am thinking, of course, of Jesus Christ, himself a Jew, who practiced Judaism not according to the various sectarian traditions of his day, but who rather affirmed what could be affirmed within them, yet loved all according to his understanding of the Kingdom of God. Those of us who profess him as Lord ought better to practice the conviction and grace of the one we claim to follow–one who called others to faithfulness but who also let them chose to walk another path. He trusted God with his own life but also with theirs–he refused to condemn them.