DID YOU MISS CHURCH?
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland
Moosup Valley Church UCC
September 8, 2019
When I read a text like this, I’m glad I’m not a biblical literalist. I am not one to say that God reached down from heaven and wrote this passage with his finger like Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I don’t believe that God whispered it into the ear of a faithful scribe and then edited the translations of the monks over the centuries. Biblical material is a product of its time. It reflects the truth of the community in the 1st century which gave these stories their life and meaning. But it is the task of each generation to discover that truth for itself. So what then, might this text mean for you and me in the 21st century?
The cost of discipleship is a difficult one for contemporary audiences like us. It confronts us with hard choices and jars any notion that being a Christian is easy. While there are texts that comfort the afflicted, this one afflicts the comfortable. Luke has constructed this passage very carefully. He starts with Jesus’ introductory verse to the crowds followed by three statements about the nature of discipleship. These are: First, whoever does not hate mother and father, spouse and children – and even life itself – cannot be a disciple. Second, one who does not carry the cross, cannot be my disciple, and Third, none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
And in between, there are two analogies, two comparisons to help us understand about discipleship, (building a tower and waging a war). These raise the question of whether would-be disciples can follow through on their initial commitments. In other words, don’t start something you can’t finish.
This discipleship talk is tough stuff. Jesus is speaking to a large crowd. Is he trying to sort out who is really serious about following him? Is he trying to winnow – cut down on – the circle of people who have become attached to him and his cause, warning away those who cannot bear the heat?
Now, I don’t believe that Jesus wants us to leave our families. Everything Jesus stands for is about relationships: caring for children, letting them come to him, blessing them. And caring for elderly and widowed women and orphans. He would not want us to abandon them. Nor do I believe Jesus wants us to give away everything we have. Then we would add to the ranks of the poor, and we know Jesus cares about the poor. At the same time, I don’t believe Jesus wants us to turn our back on our neighbors and the needy, or turn a blind eye to social injustice or environmental degradation, even if it might mean “carrying a cross.”
So what do we make of this Gospel lesson? Today’s passage is in the travel section of Luke’s gospel. Jesus already has turned his face toward Jerusalem to confront the authorities and to speak truth to power. So his call to discipleship may be a call to follow him into the city and to face the danger to be found there, to separate the curious from the committed.
As I studied the passage, I wondered, too, if Jesus is reflecting on the choices he is making: First, leaving family must have been painful. Remember on the cross, he provides for his mother in the care of a disciple. And he knows he will be carrying a cross, the Roman’s method of executing criminals. And the two analogies about building the tower and waging war? Jesus is finishing what he has started, standing up for what he believes, giving up all that he has, even onto death. Jesus is a man of principle.
And to us? Perhaps the call is to follow Jesus’ way – the way of self-offering love, the way of mercy, the way of compassion. Following Jesus means to be Christ-like, to live a principled life – that is, a moral, ethical, honest, righteous life in keeping with Jesus Way – no matter the cost.
Lest we think that such a life is beyond us, let’s look at some of the ways we are already doing this. This summer, some of us spent time with children and grandchildren, building memories during vacations. Families and friends are important and deserve our time and attention. And sometimes we create new families, weaving together lonely and isolated strangers who become as family to each other. Kim’s friend Robin did this when she fostered two severely abused little girls for two years. One of them, who is now being adopted, still has a picture of Robin on her dresser.
Some of us move beyond our comfort zone and advocate for our neighbors. A Foster resident spoke up for a person on food stamps last week when she overheard the clerk at the grocery store ask loudly to the customer ahead of her in line, “Is that an EBT card you’re using?” The Electronic Benefits Transfer cards are designed to look like ordinary debit cards to protect a poor person’s privacy. Instead the clerk called her out and embarrassed this shopper. And the advocate, someone you know, who could have been you or me, spoke up and vowed to take it all the way to management. Jesus never belittled people because they were poor!
Sometimes people take bold public stands, like those who “take the knee” during the National Anthem, to raise attention to injustice and oppression. Even if it causes them harm in some way, they know they have done what is right, regardless of the cost.
Corporations, too, are called to principled living. I think of CVS who decided no longer to sell cigarettes, a known cause of cancer, because they could not justify doing so as a health care provider. And recently, businesses like Walmart have decided not to sell some kinds of guns and ammunition to take a principled stand on the proliferation of guns. Last year, the RI Conference UCC took a principled stand to require all clergy to take White Privilege training to keep our credentials, our “standing” as a UCC minister.
We have all have stood on principle from time to time. We have taken time to care for an elderly parent or a disabled child ourselves rather than putting them into an institution. We have turned down a great job because we didn’t want to move our family. We have stood up for someone who was being bullied and gotten pushed around. We have given up our time and used our skills to rebuild a community after a disaster. We have raised questions about church teachings and risked being called a sinner – or challenged our school system’s policies or our employer’s business practices and been called a trouble-maker.
Today’s text is about “principled living,” having beliefs and acting on them, making the most loving choices. Principled living means facing suffering with courage, standing up to injustice, and balancing our own needs with the needs of others. Discipleship is costly, but those who live principled lives and live to tell their stories, tell us that standing on principle, being clear about values and acting on them, has transformed their lives.
This is the life that Jesus of Nazareth invites us to pursue, a life where priorities are examined and decisions made, a life in tune with love and mercy and peace. You and I are called to choose this life, this leader, these principles.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
God’s Dinner Party
Luke 14:1, 7-14
September 1, 2019
When I was a little girl, my father took up photography. More often than not, his pictures were of family picnics with someone flipping burgers, an uncle carving the Turkey at thanksgiving, or my mother proudly carrying a cake with blazing candles to the table. Food, it seems, was at the center of our lives.
And so it is in the Gospel of Luke. There are more references to eating in Luke than in any of the other gospels. In fact, Luke’s Jesus is certainly more preoccupied with banquets, tables, and reclining at tables than are Matthew, Mark or John. In today’s lesson, Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee for a wedding banquet, a surprising move since he was under surveillance by the Pharisees who were threatened by his constant reinterpretation of their rules. However, this host is intrigued by Jesus and invites him home for dinner.
At Palestinian wedding feasts, it was common for guests to recline on couches around the room, with the center couch being the place of honor for those with the most wealth, power, or office. If a more prominent man arrives fashionably late, a guest who had assumed the center couch, might be asked to move to a less prestigious location. How humbling and embarrassing!
Jesus was never one to miss a teachable moment. He watches as guests crowd in and head for the best seats, and then he offers some practical advice for such social occasions: “…sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.” And as if Jesus were Miss Manners, he offers the principle – based on the Wise Saying of Solomon in Proverbs (25:6-7) about how to live the good life, lessons passed from generation to generation – “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Over and over again, we hear Jesus saying that humility is a virtue, that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
And then Jesus takes his teaching to the next level by likening the banquet to the Kingdom of God. When you throw a dinner party, he says, don’t invite your family and friends and others of your social status who will then be obligated to return the favor…. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed,…”
Status was an issue in Jesus’ day just as it is in ours. We move to gated communities to keep the rabble out. We hang with friends who are of the same social and racial groups. We are most comfortable with people who are like us. With this lesson, Jesus is asking us to mix it up! But not everyone is willing to broaden their circle of friends and acquaintances. At a fancy fundraiser dinner party a couple of years ago – this is a true story – 200 wealthy people were invited to the home of the president of the board of a nonprofit.
A conversation was overheard between two of these moneyed people. An older man was complaining about the difficulty he and his wife were having when they traveled to their million dollar summer home on the coast of Maine because they had to travel by ferry to get to their private island. A wealthy woman responded, “But don’t you think you can suffer a little inconvenience in order to separate yourself from the masses?”
Separate yourself from the masses? The gospel today reminds us that the masses are invited to God’s dinner party. God cares as much for the poor as God does for the wealthy. God cares as much for the homeless person on the corner holding a sign, “Please help!” as God does for the woman in the new car who drives by without making eye contact. God cares as much for the immigrants who have fled to this country to make a better life for their children, even to save their lives, as God cares about the corporate executive who counts on their low-cost labor. God cares as much about the young black men who fill our prisons at a disproportionate rate as God cares about law enforcement officers who stop and frisk people of color indiscriminately – and maybe even more so.
In Bible Study we are reading Diana Butler Bass’ book, A People’s History of Christianity. On Tuesday, we started the chapter on “Ethics: The Love of Neighbor,” and in just a few pages, we found the missing link connecting the early Jesus Movement with us today.
How did we get from there to here? How did the followers of Jesus, the son of a carpenter, a rabbi from a backwater village in Galilee, lay the groundwork for this new faith, Christianity, to blossom into the official religion of the Roman Empire?
We might think it was because our ancestors were willing to die for their beliefs, willing to be thrown into jail, sacrificed to the lions, that people were drawn to this new cult. But that wasn’t it. It wasn’t Jesus’ teachings, the philosophical ideas in themselves, that caused people to convert to Christianity. It was the living of Jesus’ teachings, the practicing of hospitality that attracted the Romans.
Remember Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Matthew that lays out the practice of welcoming the “least of these” into the heart of the community?
I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.
The early Christians did these things.
In the second century, a plague struck which gave the Christians a chance to showcase these teachings. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the streets. The pagan religions had no answer. Ordinary Romans fled from the cities. Christians, however, who didn’t fear death, stayed behind and tended to the sick and the suffering with acts of mercy regardless of class, tribe, or religion. They did “risky, compelling, and good things that helped people,” on the basis of Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor.
Today, the talk across the Christian community seems to be about sexual morality, but this is a relatively new conversation. Biblical morality in both the Old and New Testaments had to do with hospitality, welcoming the stranger, caring for the common good. So “[f]rom what historians can gather, hospitality—not martyrdom—served as the main motivator for conversions,” to Christianity.
This country has a long history of rejecting immigrants. Benjamin Franklyn wanted to shut out German refugees because their customs were different from “ours,” that is, the English. Our grandparents remember signs, “Irish need not apply.” Roosevelt’s administration turned back ships with Jewish children to their death under Hitler. Today, it’s Central Americans and Mexicans.
Perhaps, remembering our Biblical roots and the ethic of hospitality can be a foundation for pressing for Immigration Reform in the years ahead. How else can we call ourselves Christians? How else can we represent what church is all about to our children and grandchildren? How else can we guide our nation?
We make judgments about people, about classes of people, without knowing them, without walking in their shoes, without hearing their stories. We isolate ourselves from those who are different. Jesus wants to educate us. God’s dinner party must include “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” And not just because it’s good for them – but because it’s good for us. Jesus is not recommending the practice of charity as much as he is recommending that we grow more Christ-like, more understanding, more loving, more just.
And at Moosup Valley Church we want this, too! Two years ago we adopted this new mission:
Gathered in 1868, Moosup Valley Church is a community growing in our knowledge of Jesus. Led by the Spirit, we reach out to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. We are a country church welcoming EVERYONE, respecting individual personal beliefs, and spreading peace in our world.
At God’s table, all are welcome; no seat is more honorable than another. And it is in passing the potato salad and pouring the lemonade that we become humble and develop the capacity to love, liberate, and empower each other.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Be Set Free
August 25, 2019
Jesus was forever getting into trouble by challenging the system and those who enforce it. Rules have their place, of course. They teach us right and wrong, keep us safe, bring order to chaos. But, for a rabbi, speaking to a woman in public was just not done, even if the woman were his wife. And then,… there’s the matter of keeping the Sabbath.
In today’s text a crippled woman, “bent over” for 18 years, enters the synagogue. Jesus notices, stops his teaching, and calls her over. Is she part of the lesson for this Sabbath? She has not asked for healing and why today, to break the law about working on the Sabbath? “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” he says, and he lays his hands on her. “Immediately,” the text reads, “she stood up straight and began praising God.”
This puts Jesus in trouble with the leader of the synagogue who is rightfully indignant! Jesus could have waited a day and healed her then. What’s one more day after 18 years? The leader condemns Jesus and appeals to the crowd. Jesus has broken the rules! But Jesus humiliates the leader with another rule: The temple leaders are allowed to care for their livestock – to unbind and lead their ox and donkey to water on the Sabbath – so why not unbind this woman? The common folk loved Jesus for his intervention. Perhaps they have “had it” with the professional clergy class that cares more for the rules than for the people that the rules are supposed to serve!
Now, we don’t know why this Jewish woman, this daughter of Abraham, was bent over. Ancient people would ascribe her infirmity to Satan: She must have sinned to be so bent over. Today, we would wonder, did she suffer from a spinal injury? From an autoimmune condition? From arthritis? Whatever it was, she was unable to see the sky without twisting her body. Perhaps she had never looked another in the eye or saw who was coming toward her on the road. Her life was limited – until Jesus came into her life.
Who in our lives is bent over? Those of us who have survived cancer, perhaps, and who are bent over the scars, mutilated by our healing, always afraid the tumor will return. We need Jesus to set us free. Those of us in troubled relationships, fearful of domestic violence or sexual abuse; those of us aging, losing hearing, sight, memory, mobility; those of us in unfulfilling jobs, tied down by professional demands while children clamor for attention. We need Jesus to set us free.
Surely those returning from war, brains damaged by exploding shells, those of us evacuated by raging fire or rising floods, hearts and sleep broken by unspeakable images, and those of us who have lost loved ones to violence or disease. We need Jesus to set us free as well. All of us, at some time in our lives, are bound by infirmity, bent over by life, crippled by circumstances, in need of Jesus’ touch. Reading this text over and over, I wondered, too, what is “bent over” in me that I am not aware of? What infirmity of the spirit that doesn’t show on the outside? A blindness of the eye that clouds my vision? An ear that is deaf to the truth? A heart too small, like that of the Grinch’s who stole Christmas?
Like us, the bent over woman didn’t ask to be healed, perhaps didn’t know she needed to be healed, could be healed. She had developed coping skills, accepted her limitations, learned to get by in spite of her bondage. And people were so accustomed to her bent-over-ness that they paid her no mind. She came and went in the temple without complaint. Perhaps being bent over got her out of some chores, was something to hide behind, an excuse for being unkind, short-sighted, into herself.
In recent years, some Christians have come to appreciate the value of keeping the Sabbath. They turn off their cellphones and TVs, power down their computers, let emails pile up, and leave shopping for another day. Instead, they sit on their porches, visit with family and friends, read and reflect. Sabbath is so healthy for us, for the healing of our souls, the remedy for our too-busyness, for our bent-over-ness.
So, this text is not meant to criticize the keeping of the Holy Sabbath. Earlier in his gospel, Luke said, “Christ is Lord of the Sabbath.” Nor is it about a miracle. Instead, it is about the character of God which is revealed in what Jesus does. He does not pray for the woman, which is what we would do. Or ask questions about her faith or wait for others to come to her defense. There is no “test” for her faithfulness, no requirement that she be a better woman, no insistence that she be deserving. Instead, Jesus simply calls her over, and – in spite of her ritual unclean-ness caused by her ailment – he touches her. Jesus will not let her condition keep him from setting her free.
Yes, we live in a broken world. The world and all that is within it is a work in progress. And each one of us is a work in progress. We are like the woman bent over and unable to look up and see the sun. We struggle to see the path before us, so consumed by our own lives, our own problems, our own needs and wants, joys and disappointments, the sin of separation from God and from each other.
But Jesus invites us to mend our souls – and to mend each other’s souls. In the reign of God, there will be no conflicts between what is good for one and what is good for all. Perhaps we make it too complicated. Perhaps all it takes is kindness, to see what God sees in each of us. When we notice the person next to us stooped down, we might take on some of her burden, some of his brokenness without judging her or his worthiness.
Perhaps that’s where the real healing begins, the place where we all stand tall, the place where we all are set free and able to rejoice in the love of God!
May it be so! Amen.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Do Not Be Afraid, Little Flock
August 18, 2019
There’s a lot to be afraid of: Terrorism on our own shores, waged by angry people with assault weapons; instability in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula; an economy driving a wider wedge between rich and poor; global warming which is fueling erratic weather; the increasing scarcity of clean water to drink in our cities. Not to mention, disease and death.
Plus, hate speech and public violence have become the norm. The clergy at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the “spiritual home of the nation” where inaugurations and state funerals are held, issued a public statement on July 30th, “Have We No Decency?” They write, in part,
“We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.” ….
“When does silence become complicity?” they ask. “What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency [than] of ours.”
Yes, there is a lot to be held responsible for, a lot of work to be done to usher in the Kingdom of God, a lot to be afraid of.
In the midst of this, the gospel echoes across the centuries: “Do not be afraid, little flock.” It is endearing, isn’t it, to hear Jesus call us “little flock”? Jesus is in the midst of his journey to Jerusalem to confront the authorities and to almost certain death, and yet he takes time to comfort his followers.
“Do not be afraid,” is a theme in the Gospel of Luke, beginning when the Angel Gabriel brings news to Mary that she will give birth to the Savior. And it’s a frequent theme in this chapter that precedes today’s reading: Are you afraid of being killed? Remember that God is concerned with the hairs on your head. Are you worried about having the right words to defend the gospel? The Holy Spirit will give you words to say. Are you worried about the future and want to accumulate possessions? Remember that you can’t take it with you. Are you worried about your life, about food and clothing, about starvation and nakedness, about the mortgage and your bank account? About how you look in the eyes of the world? Do not let it turn you away from the needs of others, the Gospel insists.
The early church had plenty to worry about. Luke was writing late in the first century, and members of the Jesus movement were being persecuted: thrown into jail, offered to the lions, used as human torches at Roman garden parties. Worrying about these things will not make a difference, in one’s life or in one’s death, Jesus says. Instead, trust the God of the Gospel who attends to sparrows, ravens, and lilies, a God whose concern extends to the very hairs on our heads, a God whose desire is to give us the treasure of heaven.
Don’t hold on to what you have in order to protect against what might happen. “Sell your possessions and give alms,” Jesus says, calling on us to place our confidence in the imperishable things of heaven, rather than the moth-eaten things in our own backyards. God wants us to be ready to receive blessing. Jesus wants us to adopt the perspective of eternity: “[W]here your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” One’s heart, then, is not to be set on getting rich by accumulating human treasure but is to be set on what God ultimately treasures, which is compassion and mercy for those in need.
Last Sunday we reflected on our “stuff,” not letting it have a firm hold on us. Jesus talks specifically about giving alms. To us, today, “alms” can show up in varied ways: Giving away what we don’t need to someone who needs it. Collecting food for the hungry for Foster DHS. Filling backpacks with school supplies for poor students. We already do these things.
Could we stretch to do more – individually and/or as a congregation? How about holding a yard sale to raise money to help someone with overdue bills or college tuition? What about inviting a homeless relative or friend to live with us until they get back on their feet? Maybe we could talk with our legislators about policy issues, like employment and minimum wage and health care. A cool idea that I read about and am going to use is to carry water, snacks, and socks for people asking for help on the street corners.
Last Sunday we sang as a hymn the offering prayer, “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee. Do we really believe that everything we have we hold in trust for God? What if we lived like we really believed that?
And then Jesus tells a story about a master who returns from a wedding banquet and puts on an apron and invites his servants who have been waiting for him at the door to sit down to eat. And he comes and serves them. [Betsy puts on “Be the Church” apron.]
The story is an allegory about God. God is like this master who loves and cares for each of us, who comes in surprising ways to offer comfort, assurance, and lasting treasure to God’s little flock. The early church thought that Jesus would return, and some churches still wait for the “Second Coming.” I, on the other hand, believe that Jesus is already here, in our midst. I believe that Jesus is already here, and a piece of him is in each one of us as we do these things in his name:
Be the church. ~ Protect the environment. ~ Care for the poor. ~ Forgive often. ~ Reject racism. ~ Fight for the powerless. ~ Share earthly and spiritual resources. ~ Embrace diversity. ~ Love God. ~ Enjoy this life.
Yes, there is a lot to be afraid of in this world of ours. But we are not alone. God knows what we really need – and what the world really needs. And God is working in and through us to give us the kingdom.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Congregational Church UCC
August 11, 2019
The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer, at least in the United States. Federal Reserve officials love singing the economy’s praises these days, throwing out terms like “full employment” and “remarkedly positive” with abandon. But not everyone is benefiting.
According to a recent article by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa, Senior Contributor to Forbes Magazine, “America’s Humongous Wealth Gap Is Widening Further.” He writes: “A steady economic expansion and historically low jobless rate can mask deep inequalities in income and wealth that leave American families in vastly different financial situations.”
The Feds know this, he reports, citing in their paper on inequality, “The top 10% of the wealth distribution …. hold a large and growing share of U.S. aggregate wealth, while the bottom half …. hold a barely visible share.” In fact, “[t]he increase in the wealth share of the top 10% came at the expense of [the bottom 90%].” The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.
Against this background, we have Jesus’ parable of the rich landowner who has reaped a bountiful crop and has more to store than his barn can hold. He has too much stuff, way more than he needs or knows what to do with. Anyone who has moved recently knows about “stuff.” In one of his monologues, Comedian George Carlin makes fun of us in our obsessive accumulation of material things:
You got your stuff with you? I’ll bet you do. Guys have stuff in their pockets; women have stuff in their purses….Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for your stuff. That’s what life is all about, tryin’ to find a place for your stuff! That’s all your house is; a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.
A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking of in an airplane. You look down and see all the little piles of stuff. Everybody’s got his own little pile of stuff.
Jesus’ parable is usually known as “The Rich Fool,” but it could also be titled “Bigger Barns” or even “A Place for Your Stuff.” Jesus tells this story when he is asked for financial advice from a person in the crowd. He warns first against greed, which ancient philosophers believed to be a form of depravity and a lack of self-control.
I was reading this week about the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the first of which is that life is filled with suffering, and the second, that the origin of suffering is the craving and clinging to impermanent things. The “Rich Fool” has this in spades. And a storage issue about space becomes a preservation issue about time, how long his supplies will hold out: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”
As Carlin put it:
So now you got a houseful of stuff. And, even though you might like your house,
you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff! And that means
you gotta move all your stuff. Or maybe, put some of your stuff in storage. Storage!
Imagine that. There’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on other people’s stuff.
So the issue of time is about anxiety, the fear of running out – and the higher-capacity barns will provide the security that will allow his soul to “relax.” But Jesus pulls him back to what is important with, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then, that become moot as he gets the news that he will die that very night.
We are a consumer-oriented society. Economists want us to go out and “buy, buy, buy” more “stuff.” And we want bargain rates for that stuff made possible by low wages and jobs moved overseas, yes, still, which often take advantage of marginalized people, child labor, unsafe working conditions. Money and profit drive the conversation.
Nowhere do we hear about what’s good for everybody. Notice how the pronouns “I,” “me,” and “mine” dominate the gospel story. Nowhere does this landowner offer thanks to God for the abundance of his land. And, furthermore, in that ancient world, landowners were expected to leave enough behind in their fields so that poorer neighbors, widows and orphans, were able to glean enough for their needs. This was the ancient world’s welfare system.
True, “stuff” is more complicated in today’s world than it was in the first century. But still, we need to develop our capacity to see “stuff” for what it is – a part but not the center of our Christian lives.
So, I offer three questions for discussion:
- Why does Jesus tell this parable? Is there a problem with storing up resources for a rainy day?
- How do we balance being good managers and “stewards” of what we have – our property, our savings accounts, our pension plans, etc. – with sharing what we have with others? Given that a central element of the Christian life is giving to the poor, how do we decide how much to keep for ourselves (and our families) and how much to give away to others?
- What does it mean for Moosup Valley Church to be a people who are “rich toward God” and each other? How might we discern the answer?
What does it mean to be “rich toward God?” Will we measure our lives by the standards of the world, seducing us to want more and more? Or shall we measure our lives by the call of the gospel?
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Teach Us to Pray
August 4, 2019
It’s surprising that these disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. These disciples are men of prayer, Jews who carry out their religious obligations. They’ve been praying all their lives according to their customs. But they have watched their teacher go off by himself, climb the mountain, walk away from the crowds, set off in a boat to pray, and they want to experience the blessings of prayer that they see in Jesus.
What shall we say about prayer? What is the point of prayer, even? What are we doing when we pray, and how might we do it better? If God knows what we need before we ask, why do we need to ask?
Perhaps the common perception of prayer as a petition – a knock on God’s door that opens to my needs and wants – is too narrow an understanding of prayer. Yes, we do offer prayers of petition for ourselves and prayers of intersession for others, like we did for Barbara’s son Jeff this week.
But, do we really think prayer changes the mind of God? Or does it change us? Pat calls us Moosup Valley folks the “Prayer Warriors.” Do our prayers make things happen? Or do they change our perceptions of what “is” already, the way we infuse energy into a situation, the way we accompany each other in troubled times?
It’s unfortunate that Jesus’ parable of the friend who comes at midnight to ask for help is so often interpreted as a guarantee that when we ask, and for whatever we ask – if we have the magic formula, the keys to the Kingdom – it shall be given unto us. As if God were a vending machine dispensing favors and blessings.
We cannot possibly know the mind of God, so we attribute to God the roles we see in our human families. “Mom, can I have a cookie? Please? Please?” And we ask again and again until we wear her down, “Oh, all right, have your cookie, but don’t let it spoil your supper!” Or maybe it’s “Please can I get the puppy? I’ll take care of it. You won’t have to do a thing!” And then it’s “Please, dad, can I take the car? Please!” As adults, it’s “Help me find a job.” Or “Please, God, help her get well!”
Then, if we have persisted in prayer, and we have not seen the outcomes we’ve longed for, we think our prayers are deficient, or, worse, that we are deficient. We must not have prayed hard enough, long enough, were not worthy enough. And then we’re twice disappointed, shamed even. It can be all too difficult to perceive what is happening with our petitions, if God is listening or not, if God is responding or not. Remember, even Jesus cried out in anguish on the cross, “Why have you abandoned me?”
A better translation of “persistence” in the parable, given the culture of first century Palestine, would be “shamelessness.” Not to receive a guest with grace and tend to his or her needs, would have been a shameless scandal. Hospitality was highly prized in the ancient world, and a sleepy friend who would not get up and tend to the urgent needs of hospitality was no friend indeed!
What might this say about God as the sleepy friend, then? Luke presents the idea that God’s way of giving – because God rises and tends to the one who knocks, even more so than our human friends could or would – is to give all who ask the gift of the Holy Spirit. So every prayer is answered by the indwelling of the divine.
We Christians are an incarnational people. We believe that God is with us, even within us, drawing us to Godself. Mystic Thomas Merton speaks of prayer as our communion with God. So, I have come to think of prayer as steady communion, as being in a loving, ongoing relationship with God, not simply as a set of words, although I may use words at times, but not all the time, or even most of the time.
I have come to think of prayer as a relationship with God, and I treat this relationship like a relationship with an earthly loved one – like that with a loving spouse, a dear friend, a faithful pet, a cherished colleague, a connection with the fullness of nature. (Reformation reformer Martin Luther said we can find God in the trees and flowers, probably making the point to his critics that the institutional church does not have a monopoly on God.)
In a relationship we use words, yes. We have conversations, we talk things over, we ask for guidance, we argue, we ask for forgiveness, we plead for what we need. Sometimes we get answers “in so many words,” and sometimes we don’t. That’s one kind of prayer.
Sometimes those words are accompanied by an outpouring of feelings – love, joy, anguish, anger, fear, despair, hope, resignation. Sometimes the feelings alone are enough. No words needed. God knows. That’s another kind of prayer.
I imagine God would like us to be quiet more often, not wait until we are prepared with just the right words (that is, words well put), in the right place (in church), at the right time (on the Sabbath). God is accessible night and day, 24/7, with or without words, at work or at play, any time, all the time. Wherever we are, there God is. I imagine God wants us “to come as we are” to prayer. “Unless you come to me as a little child.”
We know relationships don’t always need words. How often have you traveled miles in the car in companionable silence? Or sat at the kitchen table with a friend, nursing a morning cup of coffee? Or rocked side by side on the porch, taking in the sunset? We don’t need words with God. We could listen more, talk less. We might be more open to discovering the presence of the Spirit within us. Perhaps the only words we need are tears in the mystery of it all!
Too, God can be experienced in the warmth of the sun, in the touch of the wind, in the smell of a newly mown lawn. God can be experienced in the feel of cool water on your skin, in the weight of a baby in your arms, in the healing loss of self in meditation. These, too, are prayers. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily laden, and I will give you rest.”
Our human minds cannot possibly know the height, and depth, and breadth of God, but we can catch a glimpse of Godself in the life of Jesus. He teaches us The Lord’s Prayer, a very human, accessible prayer, a prayer we can pray without ceasing as our hearts reach out to God’s heart – give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us. Prayer means appealing to the very heart of God in response to the very heart of God appealing to us, a relationship with the very essence of life itself, of mutuality of need and trust and love.
Prayer means reaching out to the One who comes looking for us when we are lost, dines with us when others have cast us out, welcomes us home when we have wasted our lives, accompanies us on the journey called life.
Lord, teach us to pray!