July Sermons 2019
July 7, 2019
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Comedian Jeff Allen has the rare distinction of enjoying success both in Las Vegas clubs and in taking his act on the road to perform before various Christian groups. While I suspect that the content of his material varies greatly before those two audiences, he is best known in both venues for his routines about marriages in general and his relationship with his wife. In one of his stories, Allen reveals how, on the eve of his own wedding, his father offered him some advice that he didn’t fully appreciate at the time, but has turned out to be a real pearl of wisdom that probably saved his marriage on more than one occasion. Whether you are married now or have never been married, I think you can appreciate the timeless truth of his father’s words. “Son,” said Allen’s dad, “I only have one piece of marital advice for you. There are going to be arguments in every marriage. But if you see one coming, and before it escalates out of control, ask yourself these two questions: ‘Do I want to be right?’ or ‘Do I want to be happy?’ I haven’t been right in years,” his father went on, “but I’m a very happy man!”
While that’s not necessarily a healthy way to live in all aspects of marriage or life in general, there is a grain of truth buried in the advice given to Allen by his father: Try to imagine how different disagreements with our spouses, our children, our families, and our friends might be—how different our world might be if everyone were not so obsessed with always being right! As the Body of Christ, called to serve and to share His Good News with the world, rather than needing always to be right, what if instead we asked these two questions of ourselves before setting out each day to share that Good News with others, as did the 70 in today’s Gospel?
Do I want to be right? or
Do I want to be effective?
In families we might set aside our need to always be right for the sake of the relationship. In the areas of government and world politics, say in the United Nations, we might, at least on occasion, sacrifice being right for being effective in keeping peace in the world. As to our own great country, I have to wonder with the upcoming 2020 Presidential election, whether anyone is looking forward to seeing our TV screens filled with angry, red-faced people shouting at one another, trying to talk over one another, and generally exhibiting the kind of behavior we teach our children to avoid. How different might the next sixteen months be, and how happy and blessed our country might be, if those on both sides of that aisle in our nation’s Capitol were willing to set aside the need always to be right about every single issue in favor of working together to find the most effective ways to benefit all the people and then to work together to achieve them. While I’d put the likelihood of anything like that taking place at somewhere below zero, it’s certainly something we might want to place high on our prayer lists. In today’s Gospel we find Jesus giving His 70 apostles a brief tutorial on how to behave during the mission He is sending them on. If we take a bit of a closer look at His instructions, we might discover that Jesus is embracing this notion of effectiveness over correctness, 2,000 years ago.
Of course, this message wasn’t embraced by the world back then, anymore than it is today. Sometimes I think that this almost obsessive need we humans seem to have about always being right must have been programmed into our DNA. But that can’t be true, because if it were, we could than lay the blame on our Creator God—who never makes mistakes. No, I think we all have to own this destructive trait, writing it off to our free will and to the world we live in.
Of course, that wouldn’t really explain how this destructive pattern of always needing to be right surfaced in Eden, in the world’s first couple. Remember their little spat over who was at fault over eating of the forbidden fruit? The man trying to blame the woman, and the woman trying to blame the serpent? Can’t we just imagine Adam whining, “I’m right; she made me do it!” Eve responding, “No, I’m right. That serpent made me do it!” While the serpent lies there in the grass, chuckling and thinking, “Wow! Things are getting off to a great start! I think I’m really going to like this free will thing, especially if it comes with these human’s obsessive need to be always right!”
How different might the world be today had these first two representatives of all humankind swallowed their need to be right and just owned up to their wrong choices. “We’re so sorry, God! You trusted us with free will and the very first time we used it, we made a big mistake! How about a do-over?”
Of course, we’ll never know what would have happened had they confessed and repented, but we’ve certainly witnessed the results of their failing to do so. Which brings us back from our short detour to Eden, to those 70 apostles sent as Jesus’ advance team into the Judean countryside to prepare the way of the Lord. Sent as lambs into the midst of wolves, their task isn’t all that different from what we face today in a world which seems to be moving farther away every year from organized, traditional religion. Jesus sends them out nearly empty handed: no purse, no bag, no sandals, into the same cities where he plans to visit later. Their mission? To offer peace. To heal the sick, and to tell others about the Kingdom of God. We need to pay close attention to these early marching orders for the apostles, as they haven’t changed all that much in 2,000 years. Peace is, after all, a timeless Christian imperative, with Jesus often referred to as the Prince of Peace. Healing takes many forms beyond the physical healing of wounds and physical infirmities; and the Kingdom of God, for Christians, has no expiration date as a topic of discussion. And yet, having said that, as send-off speeches go, I have to say, with no disrespect intended, that Jesus’ pep talk to these 70 apostles actually struck me as a bit of a downer. I mean really, Jesus: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Translation? “You’re going to be way outnumbered with likely no help on the way! You’re not going as conquering heroes, but as lambs among wolves.” And this after telling them they’re to take nothing with them, and they’ll be traveling barefoot!
I mean while we can’t expect every send-off speech to measure up to Knute Rockne’s famous “Win one for the Gipper” speech at Notre Dame. At least Notre Dame went out and beat undefeated Army in 1928. Looking at Jesus’ words, it seems almost as if he’s setting them up . . . to fail!
But, of course, we know better, as Jesus was the prototype of motivational speakers: All he was doing was letting them know at this early stage of their apostleship that truly being and living as a Christian was never meant to be a walk in the park. Those Notre Dame players, listening to Knute Rockne in a game they were given no chance of winning, weren’t going to be charging from that locker room to sit in the stands, munching on hot dogs and drinking beer. They were heading onto the gridiron to do battle! Likewise, Jesus wanted to make sure that these 70 recruits weren’t going to be welcomed into people’s homes to chat over tea and crumpets. Doors would be slammed in their faces, accompanied by harsh words; and maybe even threats of physical harm. Jesus wasn’t setting them up to fail; he was warning them to “Be prepared” long before it became the Boy Scouts’ motto. Being prepared today means the same as it did then. Jesus sends us out today not as experts or know-it-alls with all the answers; not as leaders or celebrities. Instead, like the 70, so must we, after making a respectful, gentle, and non-judgmental approach, wait to be invited further into the lives of those we wish to introduce to the Good News and the healing grace of Jesus. If and when we are invited to take the next step, Jesus offers to His apostles then and today some of the very same advice that we give to our children and seek to follow ourselves when invited to someone’s home: Eat whatever they place before you . . . or at least make an effort and try not to offend the host. “Remain in the house,” He tells them, “eating and drinking whatever they provide.” While these six words may not seem that threatening to us, they would have been shocking to any 1st century Jews who were bound by very strict Kosher dietary laws, let alone the prohibition against even entering the home of a Gentile or non-Jew.
Paraphrasing the advice given to comedian Jeff Allen by his father, we could say that what Jesus is really saying to apostles in every generation is that when we are spreading the word of God to others, is it more important to be right, or to be effective?
The final words of advice that Jesus gives to these 70 apostles is of particular importance to us today in a culture in which bad Christian stereotypes abound with their anger, their judgment, and their prejudices against anyone who disagrees with their interpretation of the Bible and the lifestyle that they believe it dictates. He tells them not to sink to arguing, name calling, or fighting--exactly the kind of behavior that will soon be filling our TV screens and all media outlets as that 2020 Presidential election draws near. Instead, Jesus tells them just to brush it off and to repeat this message of hope: “God’s kingdom has come to you.” Instead of screaming judgmental words, brandishing signs with hateful words, and even using them as weapons; instead, as we tell small children, “Use your words” in proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ—the Prince of Peace.
Guess what? When the 70 apostles return from their mission having followed this counterintuitive method of evangelism, they report to Jesus that it had actually worked! Big surprise—Jesus was right and effective!
Outnumbered. Underprepared, and not a little frightened. Without all the things they thought they would need to succeed-they were successful. Why? Because, for the greater good they were willing to sacrifice their need to be right in favor of being effective in bringing others to the love, the peace, and the acceptance of Jesus Christ! And guess what? One doesn’t need a genius I.Q. to recognize that the pattern for this counterintuitive approach to bringing others closer to the kingdom of God was modified by Jesus himself.
Later in Luke’s Gospel, in an act of pure love, Jesus willingly went to the cross. He was innocent, but remained silent. He had the power, but He chose to surrender. He could have fought and won, on what we now call Good Friday, but chose instead to die and to rise again, gifting us all with Easter Sunday, answering for all time whether, in spreading the Good News of God’s Kingdom on Earth, it is more important to be right, or to be effective!
Jesus then asks His apostles in every generation to do as He did, to live in such a way that we will be invited into the lives of others, where we might share the good news of God in Christ Jesus. But in doing so, Jesus would ask each one of us to leave His house today with these two questions foremost in our minds:
Do I want to be right? or
Do I want to be effective?
July 14, 2019
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”
With these nine words, Jesus begins quite possibly the most well-known parable in the Gospels, about an unnamed man we have come to know simply as the “Good Samaritan.” Of course in the 1st century, linking these two words together would have been a nightmare of an oxymoron to any Jew, as the Jews hated the Samaritans; and Samaritans hated Jews. Try imagining Jesus appearing today and launching into a parable like this one in which the hero turned out to be a member of ISIS, and you’ll have some idea of how this story sat with His Jewish audience. Instead, many Christians today end up not really understanding or appreciating the radical teaching or the impact of this radical parable. I mean, let’s face it, we name hospitals and churches after that good Samaritan; how could he possibly be a bad guy? Well, he wasn’t; but unless we first grasp how shocking this was to that 1st century audience, we risk missing completely the point Jesus was trying to make.
Remember how this all got started—with Jesus telling the story to answer the smug lawyer who had just rattled off an answer to Jesus’ question about what he must do to inherit eternal life. The commandment ended with “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus actually complimented the lawyer, telling him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.” However, not willing to leave well enough alone and, we are told, “wanting to justify himself,” the lawyer committed one of the cardinal sins which I learned in law school almost always leads to disaster for a trial lawyer: Asking a question you don’t already know the answer to. And so, the lawyer asks that question of Jesus, with predictable results. “And who is my neighbor?” Then came those nine words that introduced the Good Samaritan to the world: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho . . . .”
This parable never fails to remind me of that song made famous by the late Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, better known to the world and to millions of children as Mr. Rogers, who gave us all glimpses of his beloved neighborhood on his weekly TV show. Just as Jesus had done 2,000 years ago, Mr. Rogers would open his show each week, asking the question, “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” before answering his own question by telling us, “They’re the people that you greet when you’re walking down the street; they’re the people that you meet each day.” Except for the fact that the people Jesus was speaking about in today’s Gospel and those neighborhood people Fred Rogers was singing about 2,000 years later were most certainly not the people you might meet on a typical day in Dixon, Illinois. Because what Jesus is telling the lawyer in the parable and, by extension, everyone who would follow Him, is that His neighborhood is the world; and that all of its inhabitants are our neighbors—people that we are called not only to love as God loves us, but also to help if we find them lying bruised, battered, and bleeding on the Jericho Roads of life.
While there is, in fact, an actual Jerusalem to Jericho Road—a steep, winding, seventeen mile stretch that has for centuries been a place known for robberies and murders, a place of suffering and sorrow—the application of the parable for us is clearly metaphorical. Our Jericho Road is wherever we encounter a neighbor in need on the roads of our lives. In today’s parable, Jesus is seeking to open our eyes and our hearts as we follow Him on those roads, encouraging us to remove our blinders, to expand our neighborhoods, and start seeing the world every day . . . as God sees it.
“Who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer. To him and to every would-be disciple from that day forward, in this parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells us that there is no one in the world who is not your neighbor when it comes to our being true to the second Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Our mission then, should we choose to accept it, is not a Mission Impossible, but rather a mission from God that is not only possible, but vital and--to intentionally employ a double negative for effect, and I can almost hear my English teacher wife cringing—is a mission we are not allowed to not accept. That mission is to go into the world every day with our eyes wide open to see those Jericho Roads invisible to others, along which lie today’s victims: those who have been assaulted and left to suffer and die by an increasingly remote and elitist society—one that simply renders invisible the sick, the friendless, the needy, widows and orphans in their distress, and those living a life style that somehow doesn’t fit whatever norm that those passing by have deemed appropriate.
We who are today the descendants of those first disciples, we are the only hope for societies’ victims along those invisible Jericho Roads in our communities, across the nation, and around the world. A large part of what we are about as the church—the outward and visible expression of Christ’s Body on earth--is to provide the ways and the means for our members to be neighbors to those victims.
We are already doing this in a variety of ways—and more will soon be coming. Next week I will deliver a check to Rebecca Munoz-Ripley, the Director of the Sauk Valley YWCA, representing proceeds of our Red Bowl donations. I will also be meeting with Rebecca to discuss other ways we might support their children’s programs for disadvantaged single moms. We also financially support the new PADS, a safe home for battered women and their children. I met last week with Terra Lorenzen, the PADS Director; and St. Luke’s will soon launch “PADS PALS,” a ministry to collect needed items for women and children who have found refuge there. I can assure you that more opportunities are in the works for all of us at St. Luke’s to be the Samaritans to those who suddenly find themselves as battered, down on their luck victims on the Jericho Roads of life. These are just some of the opportunities St. Luke’s offers to its members to be that Good Samaritan and to fulfill the challenge issued by Jesus to the lawyer in the parable to “go and do likewise.” If you have ideas of your own for ministries that St. Luke’s might initiate to fulfill these challenges of Jesus to be His hands, feet, and presence in the world, please speak out; and you will be heard. The question for us all is not only what we must do in order to respond to the mandate of Jesus to “Go and do likewise,” because if it stops there with only acts of mercy and kindness and nothing more—it becomes nothing more than a salvation by the numbers or a checklist kind of faith that suggests that if one can simply check the right hopes, he or she is guaranteed a place in the Kingdom of God. That kind of approach is often referred to as “works righteousness.” While good works or good deeds are certainly important, we must also seek to become people of grace and mercy--people whose good works are inspired and motivated not by the desire to achieve salvation, but rather by a desire to draw closer to God and to be a person with an inner faith so strong that those good works simply cannot be contained and flow from us naturally that we might be those good neighbors throughout our lives.
One of my least favorite responses to questions about how someone is practicing their faith in the world is to hear, “That’s between me and God.” How much we give; how much we pray; how often we attend worship; and so on. I would suggest that there’s really no such thing as “just between me and God.” Today’s parable and many other examples in the Bible teach us that a truer response would be that in God’s eyes, it’s always, “me, God, and my neighbor.”
What Jesus tells us in this parable is that if we want to be in a relationship with God, if we want to be disciples and inherit eternal life, then we must love all of those neighbors that we see through eyes of faith along the Jericho Roads of life; and that love must be expressed, not only in words, but through deeds as well—or, as Jesus once put it, we must honor Him not only with our lips, but in our lives.
Finally, when it comes to those people to whom we are called to show mercy, we must understand that the road to God’s Kingdom must include those Jericho Roads of life and all those who for various reasons find themselves on that fateful road—battered, bruised, and needing mercy. We will never reach God’s Kingdom if, like the priest and the Levite in the parable, we cross the road to avoid these victims.
Between God and us, between God’s Kingdom and us, lying bruised and battered on those Jericho Roads, we are likely to encounter many people different from us, people we may dislike or disagree with for any number of reasons. You know what? God could care less! Because in God’s eyes, they are all our neighbors; all bear on their souls the divine image of Chapter One of Genesis; and all are deserving of our love.
Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus’ response to the lawyer echoes across the centuries to become for us a new commandment as we leave our homes every day:
“Go, and do likewise.”
July 21, 2019
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Tom Rosa, Celebrant
As we suffer through this current hot and humid weather, I suspect many are concerned whether it is a portent of things to come as the climate change issues are becoming possibly more apparent. But we have A/C now, [hallelujah!] compared to when heat waves of yesteryear were upon us. I think we should call for sainthood of Willis Carrier, who invented the first modern air-conditioning in Buffalo, NY, in 1902.
I want to spend a little time on the theme of our first reading from the Book of Amos before turning to the story of Mary and Martha.
Amos lived around 760 B.C.E. during a time of security and prosperity in Israel. There was no super power exercising authority over the coastal lands of the Mediterranean. King Jeroboam the Second extended the borders of his kingdom. This gave the nation extended control of trade routes and resulted in immense commercial prosperity and the establishment of a wealthy aristocracy, living in great luxury.
However, corruption was seeping into the life of the country. Merchants were taking advantage of those who had no redress. They shorted the measures of grain and food, while charging more and more for less and less. Those on the bottom of social strata were getting into debt and then having their property confiscated.
Amos speaks out against these crimes against humanity wherever, whyever, and however committed. They are abhorrent to God and under his judgment. As people of God, they should know better since God has revealed to them His love of justice and mercy. Amos says there is no distinction between crimes and sins, between wrongs against our fellow-men and deliberate affronts to God’s Law.
Furthermore the outward appearances of Israel’s extreme religion and cultic worship were divorced from the Law of God and devoid of spiritual benefit. Unproductive of moral and social justice, it had become empty ritual incapable of sheltering its adherents. God again warns His people of judgment toward the final end of His people.
Amos in a vision prays against total judgment, and his prayer is granted. He calls upon the fact that inevitable judgment is married to mercy; and God desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they repent and live. Salvation is possible. Yet the people do not radically change and repeat from generation to generation the crimes and sins until some 200 years later Israel is conquered and eliminated, carried off into captivity to Babylon.
What stirred my attention was that the relationship between God and His people, for good or ill, is reflected in the natural order. Amos’s prophecies were accompanied by an earthquake. The very land mourns for the sins of the inhabitants and is defiled by their iniquities and vomits them out in disgust. Nature itself is in disorder due to the negative actions of the people.
I find this something to think about seriously when the skies darken, and floods flash, and temperatures plunge or soar.
But we Christians have guidance in our quest for salvation. Once again Jesus focuses on our relationship to God and to each other. The story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel reading today is actually connected to last Sunday’s story of the Good Samaritan. Both are there to unfold the truth of the Summary of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
The Good Samaritan story is about doing what is right; and the Mary and Martha episode is about doing and also about listening, actually hearing with our hearts and minds the message of God’s love and mercy for ourselves and others.
As Jesus points out, having a relationship with God is to have an ongoing conversation in thought and word, through prayer. We benefit by knowing through this dialogue what God desires first, in order to act rightly and to do the deeds of love.
Just think about all the wonderful people—not only women either, but men too—who work in the kitchens and fellowship halls of churches all across the land. We might wonder about their conversation during the clean-up time after coffee hour this Sunday. Secondary indeed!
At Trinity Episcopal Church, Aurora, their Sandwich Board, done by volunteers from six churches, serves about 100-150 people each Thursday doing so for over 30 years, no questions asked. Several individuals who are there every week have told me that they do it, not because of the people’s need, but of their love of God and thankfulness in their own lives. Such hospitality indicates God’s presence in their lives.
So what does this story of Mary and Martha mean? That sitting and listening and praying and learning are more important, more valuable, more holy than cooking the meal or laying out the welcome mat? I don’t think so. These passages are a two-part story that Luke tells us about the heart of faithfulness, about how to inherit eternal life.
The story about the Good Samaritan taught us about loving our neighbor; and scholars say that this week’s story—this is so simple that it’s beautiful—is about loving God.
Hearing and doing, serving and praying; it is not an either/or response to our loving God. Yes, we need to take time for quiet to listen, hear the voice of God, the Spirit of God breathing freely in us and thus renewing our lives. Afterward we can then be fortified and emboldened to address the needs of others, the welfare of all people and the preservation of the values and deeds of this wonderful nation when at its best. It is not an either/or, but a both/and attitude. Amen.
July 28, 2019
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Today Tony Cartledge is a Baptist minister, but in high school he was a very talented, committed, and aggressive football player. Not only that, but Tony went to high school in Texas where high school football is practically a religion; and the sanctuary is the freshly mowed playing field lit up by those Friday night lights with partisan parents in the stands, hoping to see a hard work-week end on a high note. Now Pastor Cartledge recalls a pre-game ritual which took place in the end zone minutes before kick-off. He and the other Christian players—which in Texas meant pretty much everyone—would gather under the goal posts and say the Lord’s Prayer which appears in our Gospel today from Luke. The players would all join hands during the prayer, finishing with those familiar words, “ . . . for thine is the kingdom and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” At which point, all the players would raise their joined hands and, at the top of their lungs, together would shout, “Now let’s kill ‘em!”
While these pumped up, excited, testosterone-filled young men clearly did not intend to or desire to actually kill members of the opposing team, there clearly is a disconnect between the prayer and the pre-game battle cry. It’s not confined to sports—this entanglement of prayer with physical violence. As a former military chaplain, I have certainly prayed for the safety of young men and women being deployed, using not only the Lord’s Prayer, but also the prayer for the Armed Forces in our Book of Common Prayer on page 823, which asks God to “ . . . defend them day by day with your heavenly grace.” As anyone who’s ever served will tell you, defending oneself in combat quite often results in the killing of your enemy. This entanglement of prayer with physical violence is hardly new to any of the world’s three major religions—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—all of which trace their origins to the One God revealed in the Hebrew Bible. While I’m not as familiar with Islam and Judaism, certainly Christianity has its own history of linking prayer to violent acts by individuals and nations—the Inquisition and the Crusades come to mind—violent acts which certainly would not have found favor with the one we call the Prince of Peace. In fact, on the only occasion in the entire Bible where God speaks to us on how we should pray—I’m speaking, of course, of the Lord’s Prayer –there is no mention whatsoever of violence or defending oneself from violence.
In this simple prayer Jesus gave to his disciples then, and to all future disciples, something to remind us of our proper relationship with God and to prepare us for the coming of God’s Peaceable Kingdom where the lion shall lie down with the lamb and where swords shall be fashioned into ploughshares.
It’s been said that the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t so much tell us what to pray, as it gives us a structure for how we should pray, a scaffold, if you will, upon which we can place our own particular joys and concerns, our petitions, and our intercessions. In my daily prayer ritual, I place the Lord’s Prayer at the end, using it as a kind of envelope to lift up to God everything that has preceded it—putting special emphasis on “thy will be done” to acknowledge that God knows what’s best for us; and that, after listing all of my wants, needs, and desires, I am leaving it up to God to sort it all out and do what’s best for me and for those I’ve prayed for—all the time recognizing that while all prayers are answered, that in the eyes of God, “No” and “Not now” are perfectly acceptable answers, along with “Yes” which we often consider to be the only acceptable answer.
The prayer itself—not surprisingly—is perfect, saying so much in so few words. In the delightful treasure of a book, Children’s Letters to God, Lois writes, “Dear God, I like the Lord’s Prayer best of all. Did you have to write it a lot, or did you get it right the first time?” Well, Lois, God got it exactly right the first time; the problems start with our interpretation and our application of this treasure of a prayer. One problem is that it’s become almost too familiar; easy for our mouths to recite mechanically, while our minds gloss over its deeper meaning and its implications both for our lives and for the world which lives under the reign of “Our Father who art in heaven.” One technique I’ve found helpful, when it comes to things like the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed which are so familiar to us that they have become kind of “Ho Hum” in their application to our lives, is to hear them anew from a modern translation.
The Cotton Patch Gospel is the creation of Clarence Jordan, a New Testament Greek scholar; and it grew from his experiences in the racially charged atmosphere of the deep South in the 1960s. The result is a modern Bible translation with a decidedly Southern accent. Here is a portion of the Cotton Patch translation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Father, may your name be taken seriously. May your movement spread. Sustaining bread, grant us each day. Free us from our sins, even as we release everyone indebted to us.”
It gets you to thinking, doesn’t it? It starts with the familiar “Father,” reminding us we are all God’s precious children; but then, instead of “Hallowed be thy name,”--and when is the last time you used that word in a sentence—the Cotton Patch version asks that God’s name be taken seriously. In other words, may God’s name and God’s person always be important in our lives. In the Bible God’s name is not only very important, but is also a thing of great power, connected to God’s very essence and to His personality. Which is exactly why the third commandment tells us that we shall never make wrongful use of—meaning “take in vain”—the name of the Lord your God. In other words, “Take it seriously”—for God’s sake . . . and for yours!
But of course, as Hamlet observed in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, “Therein lies the rub.” Increasing numbers of people today, including a disturbing number of would-be “believers,” simply do not take either God or His name seriously. “Why?” we might ask. One answer I found quite disturbing, but which could be close to the mark, comes from best-selling author, Walker Percy, in his book, Love in the Ruins. The protagonist in the book, Dr. Thomas More, is a man feeling great bitterness toward modern life. At one point in the book, he recalls why he didn’t take his daughter to a Christian shrine, known for healing, when she was dying of a terrible disease. “I was afraid,” he confesses, “ . . . that she might be healed.”
Suppose you ask God for a miracle, and God says, “Yes.” How then do you live the rest of your life? Before we rush to judgment to condemn Dr. More for his heartless non-action, consider first his question, because it’s a good one: How do we live our lives after we have seen the essence and the personality of God so clearly? In More’s case, if his daughter had been cured, he would no longer be able to live life being angry and cynical, engaging in heavy drinking, lusting, and hating. A miraculous healing of his daughter might demand that he take God’s existence, God’s essence, and God’s personality . . . “Seriously.”
Because More was afraid of this possible outcome—afraid he would be unable to handle it—he never gave God the chance. God was dead for Thomas More, because he dreaded for God to be alive, because a living God would have to be taken seriously—would have to be “Hallowed,”--which raises for us two closely related questions.
Are we afraid of God’s involvement in our lives; and do we take God’s essence and personality seriously? Because if we are serious about God, then we won’t just pray, “Thy kingdom come,” or in the Cotton Patch Gospel, “May your movement spread”—we will also start to get serious about becoming one of the spreaders. We will ask God not only for that daily or sustaining bread, but we will also work to make sure that others have access to that bread as well. The list goes on, because if, unlike author Percy’s tragic character, Dr. More, we are not afraid of God’s being alive in our lives, then we must start to take seriously every petition in that oh so familiar Lord’s Prayer. As we conclude the prayer asking that God “lead us not into temptation,” what we are really asking, according to the Cotton Patch Gospel, is that God not allow us to become tangled up in temptation or evil, but instead will lead us away from these traps and then deliver us from anything which threatens to hurt or to divide us.
Finally, after revealing this prayer to His disciples, Jesus offers them two other bits of advice concerning prayer: First, be persistent in prayer, telling them the story of a person who bangs on a friend’s door until the sleepy friend opens the door and hands over some bread. The point being that the bread was finally given, not out of friendship, but due to persistence. In other words: “Keep on knocking!” Do this and then trust that we will always be heard and lovingly cared for—just not necessarily in the way that we anticipated or imagined.
The next thing Jesus tells us about prayer is that we must always expect answers: “Ask, and it will be given to you,”—although the exact nature of the “it” is, quite often, not exactly what we had in mind. “Search and you will find”—often not exactly what you were looking for—but, as the song lyric goes, “You can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, you just might find that you get what you need.” From God’s mouth to Mick Jagger’s pen.
With all this in mind, I leave you all this morning with a prayer some of you may have encountered before. It was said to have been found on the body of a Confederate soldier at the Devil’s Den, after the battle of Gettysburg. I commend it to you this day, hoping that along with the Lord’s Prayer, Cotton Patch version, it might help all of us to pray, not only unceasingly, but more effectively and to be more realistic in looking for God’s response.
“I asked God for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of others;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but got everything I hoped for;
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.”