Saturday, July 27, 2019

On Earth As In Heaven: Genesis 18:20-32 - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

20Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”
22So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32
Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” (NRSV)
Lord's Prayer by Ryan Stavely on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

There is no question in the Christian faith more troubling than “why didn’t God answer my prayers?

It breaks my heart when I hear how an unanswered prayer impacts someone’s faith. People say, “I must not have prayed hard enough;” or, “I must have done something wrong.” The worst is, “if I pray, I’m going to make God even angrier with me and things are going to get even worse.”

This problem grows even more complicated in light of the picture of God painted by our Old Testament reading from Genesis. God is determined to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their wickedness. We get a glimpse of how depraved their citizens are in Genesis 19: Abraham’s nephew Lot, who lives in Sodom, has just been visited by two angels. Suddenly, a mob is pounding on his door—demanding that he hand over the two visitors so that they can take turns committing gruesome acts against them.

Despite this, Abraham pleads with God to spare the cities for the sake of fifty righteous persons. Then 45, then 40, then 35, then 30, 20, and, finally, 10 righteous persons.

We all know what happens, but don’t take that to mean that up to nine righteous persons were destroyed with the wicked.

God does rescue Lot, who isn’t exactly a shining beam of righteousness.

Nevertheless, we’re still left with a terrifying picture of God. Unfortunately, this harsh, wrathful God is the only God some people know. And this “God” does have quite the fan club…

Have you noticed how many major American cities are likened to Sodom and Gomorrah? When they’re struck by an earthquake, flood, or hurricane, TV preachers declare that God is pouring out wrath against them. Can you really blame someone who believes they’re under God’s wrath?

But if God was so harsh and wrathful, Abraham would’ve been a fool to plead with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, no matter how many “righteous” people lived there. Abraham would’ve been annihilated for confronting God in this way.

But pay attention to how Abraham contends with God: “far be it from you to slay the righteous with the wicked!” Abraham appeals to the compassion and mercy that are fundamental to who God is. After all, Abraham and Sarah were chosen to be God’s own, apart from their own worthiness or merit. God made a covenant to make of them a great nation that will be a light for the world. Therefore, when Abraham prays, he pleads for God to be true to who God is. That’s not sinful, folks!

Even though God does ultimately destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham did not pray in vain.

Why God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and left so many other wicked cities and wicked peoples in the world, I cannot say—any more than I can explain unanswered prayers or why bad things happen to good people.

What we do know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God saves a sinful and fallen world for the sake of one righteous person—Jesus Christ. The cross welcomes you to come before God in prayer, at any time, for any reason.

The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray—because, like them, we need to be taught. Human prayer is feeble, faithless, and full of selfish motives. How often do you hear people boasting about how God gave them success and prosperity, because they trusted God, they did good works, and they persevered in prayer? Prayer is supposed to be a relationship with God, and they turn God into something like a weight loss regimen or get rich quick scheme—“do this, and this will be your result. It worked for me.”

Prayer is not all about you! It’s also about God, your neighbor, God’s creation—and your relationship to them all.

Prayer is not a chore, like brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. Prayer is the Christian of life. Prayer is a mindset and a willful determination for God’s grace and mercy to be revealed in you, for the sake of God’s purposes in the world. Don’t think for a second that you’re praying enough; that our church is praying enough; or that I am praying enough.

Does the church prayer list stay accompany you during the week? Are you reading the Word in Season? How does your bible-reading time compare with your screen time? In all your priorities, does prayer take precedence?

Prayer changes things. It doesn’t change who God is, and it doesn’t always mean that bad situations will get better. But prayer will change you—because God answers every prayer by drawing you closer into Christ, revealing his love, and leading you into joyful obedience.

And one more thing: it’s okay to not be okay with what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah—just as it’s okay to not be okay when your prayers don’t bring about the desired outcome. Just don’t stop praying—because every prayer is answered by God being true to who God is—being gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Host with the Most: Luke 10:38-42 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

38Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Supper by Tim Samoff on flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

My grandmother had a cardinal rule: when I visited her home, I could not leave on an empty stomach. Every single visit included a full-course meal, capped off with a slice of pie or cake with a scoop of ice cream on the side. Then she would send me home with bags full of leftovers and a trunkload of groceries she bought, just for me. She truly was the “hostess with the most-est!”

Two weeks ago, I visited her in the memory care facility she moved into late this spring. I noticed that she was anxious during my visit. The reason why: I hadn’t eaten yet. She was put at ease when I joined her in the dining room for dinner.

Hospitality was her gift—and spiritual gifts don’t go away with age.

Martha from today’s Gospel possessed this spiritual gift. It’s because of Grandma that am seeing Martha in a whole new light.

Martha was busy doing what had to be done. She and her sister Mary were hosting Jesus—a Jewish rabbi and his disciples—which demanded far more than just the good placemats. This was a big job and a big deal. But Mary was conversing with the guest she was supposed to be serving. Martha had every right to be upset. It wasn’t right for her to serve all thirteen guests by herself.

What we see in this short story is something we see all the time—in workplaces, among families, in organizations, and even right here in church: a small number of persons are running ragged, trying to do everything that needs to be done—while others are content to sit by and let them do it. We need a lot more Marthas in the church—male and female, young and old. Without Marthas, the church would not exist.

I don’t hear Jesus condemning Martha. She has not sinned. Jesus is stating a simple fact: “you are worried and distracted by many things.” That sounds like my life, too. How about you?

People have expectations of you. They’re counting on you to do your job; to take care of them; to be there when they need you. There are few words that hurt more, coming from the mouth of someone you love, than “you let me down.”

You have expectations of yourself. You must be a good Christian; a good spouse, a good parent, a good worker, a good citizen.

If all that isn’t difficult enough, there’s that overwhelming pressure to “be somebody:” to accumulate accomplishments, possessions, and experiences. Are we not culturally-conditioned to believe that the happiest people are also the most successful? Are not advertising and social media constantly reminding you on how much of the good life you’re missing out on?

Meanwhile, a vast majority of people in our society believe in God and love Jesus. But why are the churches so empty? Because people are worried and distracted by many things. It is then that your life in Christ suffers, your spirit breaks, and sin is born.

Yet, what we see in this tense moment between Mary and Martha is a teaching moment: because Jesus has come to this world, and to their home, to serve. The “better part” Mary has chosen is to be served by Jesus.

Remember: your salvation is not the result of your good works. It’s a gift of grace. You can only receive it. This is a truth that should be reflected in how you live—with a regular habit of receiving from Jesus what you cannot get for yourself. This necessitates detaching from all the worries and distractions (which is no easy task).

So don’t feel ashamed if the words “you are worried and distracted by many things” struck you in the heart. Hear it as Jesus graciously acknowledging that you are burdened and stressed—because he doesn’t want stress, worry, or ambition to rule your life. Jesus wants to rule your life, and for his grace to be what drives you. You cannot truly serve Christ apart from Christ serving you. The Christian life is a holy balance of living like Martha and living like Mary—and only Christ can cultivate that within you.

You are here this morning so that Christ can serve you. You’re his guest. He’s the host. This is his table; his Word; his Church. During the week, Christ will be creating little sanctuaries when he will serve you. These will include mealtimes; when you wake up in the morning or go to bed at night; and other quiet moments to pray and meditate on the Word without distraction. Not only will Christ speak to your soul and put your heart at ease, he will make you more ready to receive his service when you are busy serving.

The first step to being served by Jesus is detaching and letting go. To that end, I invite you to pray with me the welcoming prayer printed in your bulletin:
Welcome, Welcome, Welcome,
I let go of my desire for security. I let go of my desire for approval. I let go of my desire for control.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person, or myself.
I open myself to the love and presence of God and the healing action and grace within.

When you let go, Jesus serves. Situations may not change, but you change. Resurrection conquers the stress and worry—and all of life becomes more sacred.

Every day, Jesus is serving you. He is the host with the most. Don’t let a day pass where you are not choosing the better part.