Monthly Archives: July 2010

07-25-10 THORNY PRAYER ISSUES


THORNY PRAYER ISSUES


Luke 11: 1-13


 


Two Fridays ago, my class of doctoral students joinedProfessor Taylor in visiting a Masjid in Atlanta. Often called a Mosque inEnglish, it is the place where, five times a day, Muslims and interested otherpeople gather to offer prayers to Allah, their Arabic name for God. Why do Itell you about this? For just this reason: men, women: what are you usuallydoing on Friday at 1:00 p.m.? Are you taking a lunch hour as I usually am? Areyou at work and can’t leave, or at home watching TV or starting a nap? InAtlanta, we observed what many Muslims were doing: they came for an hour ofprayer. This was just one of five prescribed prayer times daily. As theyarrived, they respectfully took off their shoes and placed them in wooden nooksin the walls of their vestibule; the only other time I had seen so many shoesin such nooks was at a bowling alley! But the wood was beautiful there, and theshoes carefully placed. There was no chit chat, just purposeful movement. Menand women went into separate locations, in part because arms and feet actuallytouch your brothers or sisters in faith.We witnessed men, blue collar, white collar, and boys, going into aspecial purification room where they washed their legs and feet, arms and hands,and face. They then went in to a huge carpeted room where we observed themstanding and kneeling together with other men of the faith. They actuallyprostrate themselves with their face to the ground, their head touching thefeet of the man in front of them, and their feet touching the head of the manin back of them; their elbows touched the man’s elbows on either side of them.How many were there on a Friday at 1:00 p.m.? We counted 700, besides women andgirls in another room! Men prayed together, physically and fervently; women prayedtogether as well. We were moved by the reverence of their prayers.


 


Just three weeks ago I learned about prayer from aRabbi. Rabbi Amy Mayer of Temple Israel just up the street reminded me of twothings that Jews do and don’t do: First she said almost no one asks a rabbi topray for them! She says Jews believe they should bring their own prayers toGod, so synagogue services become a cacophony of a hundred people praying toGod at their own speed and for their own purposes. The second thing I learnedwas that Jews never cut God out of their spiritual life even when a prayerseems to go unanswered. I know some individuals and even some professors whocut God out of their lives when they prayed and believed God did not hear orrespond to them. “A Jew would never cut out God,” said Rabbi Amy. “We go backto God, crying out, getting angry, pleading, and asking, until we find theanswer God wants us to find. And most often, it is not the answer we arelooking for!” From Muslims I watched the power of reverent, corporate prayer.From Jews I learned to never stop knocking on God’s door! Now from Christians,we learn some things as well. Let’s listen to what Jesus tells his closestfollowers about prayer, paying special attention today to the eleventh chapterof the Gospel according to Luke.


 


First, Jesus sets the example of constant prayer. He prayed each morning, he prayed during hisjourneys, he prayed in the garden, and he prayed on the cross. Jesus prayedconstantly, sometimes with petitions, sometimes just talking with his Father,sometimes to give thanks and sometimes just to listen! Such reasons for prayershould be ours as well. Prayer is to give glory to God, as well as praise;prayer is to acknowledge God and to keep us from falling into a philosophy oflife that even some founding fathers had. Thomas Jefferson, it has been noted,was something of a Deist: that is, one who believes that God set the universein motion and created the laws of physics, now does not interfere with orchange any of it. Some Americans believe that, especially when they don’t thinktheir prayer has been answered. But as I showed the children, we’ll need to getbeyond the idea that prayer is like a gumball machine: put in your money andget out the result you want. People do that, of course, because of a line Jesusonce said and it is in our text today too: “Ask and it will be given to you;seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” This week inthe news an Agricultural Department employee who was accused of racism a weekago has received calls of apology because the quote on which the charge wasbased was taken out of context. Christians have a bad habit of taking one lineout of the Bible and making it the galvanized truth. But when you do that witha verse like: “Ask and it will be given unto you,” it turns God into awonderful gumball machine, or an overindulgent grandfather who gives youwhatever you ask, or a spineless parent who creates a child who has no means tomature because she was never told “no” as a teenager. God is not any of thosethings. Prayer with God is about relationship; about listening, not just aboutasking. Remember that strange part of our text in verses eleven throughthirteen; that part about scorpions and snakes and fish and eggs? InterpreterRaymond Bailey explains: “Luke draws on familiar images to make his point onparental care [concerning God.] There was an eel-like type of unclean fish inthe Sea of Galilee. A loving parent would not give to a child anything thatwould be harmful, even if it fit the category of the request. A baby cries forfood, but some food is harmful. A scorpion may draw itself into a ball andassume the appearance of an egg. The eel or scorpion might appeal to the child,but the parent would exercise caution on [their] behalf. A parent must be wiseenough not to be fooled, and our heavenly parent is wisdom itself.” So Jesusprayed constantly, but not about getting what he wanted; he prayed ultimatelyto know and do his Father’s will. Prayer is intended to be more aboutrelationship more than petition.


 


Second, we are in this world together. When Jesus gave the example that we now call the“Lord’s Prayer,” there was no first person singular pronoun in the wholeprayer. While we are most accustomed to asking God to grant one of ourrequests, the Lord’s Prayer is plural throughout: like with Muslims, it’s areminder to pray corporately, with one another, perhaps even touching shouldersor holding hands once in awhile. It invites us to find times to pray in thesame room now and then, but when we’re away, we remember how many others are inprayer with God at the same time.


 


Third, be persistent in prayer.  InBiblical times families would usually bed down on the family floor, perhapsnear a fire, for homes were usually just one room. Usually the father laid downnext to the door, and almost like the men I saw praying two weeks ago, or like arctictravelers with huskies, the father would have his children nuzzle close to himfor safety, and most often the mother was at the other end of the line; thechildren were in the middle. With a knock on the door, not only would thefather have to move, the children would have to be awakened to move as well, sothe first response to a request for bread at midnight is no. But if the neighborwas persistent, the man might give in a) to be hospitable, or b) to get thepersistent man to go away so the father could go back to sleep! Persistence inprayer makes a difference with God.


 


Fourth, read one verse in light of other verses. If you stop with “Ask and it shall be given untoyou,” people miss the shading that the next line adds: “seek and ye shall find”implies persistence; and the next part “knock and the door will be opened” alsosays that your request is not fulfilled right away, nor is it always fulfilledgladly, but there is a response because of the relationship the neighbor hadalready built with his neighbor. If a stranger pounds on a man’s door atmidnight it will first be assumed he is a thief.


 


So the fifth and final thing Jesus teaches us aboutprayer is this:  “Do not be a strangerat the door of your Father.” Godwants to hear from you; God wants to know you, not just as you were created,but as you have become; God want to hear your preferences, your choices andyour beliefs. Certainly Christians believe in prayer; but do we practice prayer to make it a sacred conversation, inviting God into our spaceand for a few focused moments, making it holy?  Instead of just throw away words, I witnessed others whobelieve in God make a time, place, and a posture for prayer. Today I havelistened to Jesus words and heard that he often sets himself apart for prayerwith his Heavenly Father. Today our text commends to us regular and perseveringprayer. Let prayer be constant, corporate, persistent, Scriptural, andfamiliar. Today let us reclaim holytime- once, twice, five times a day, or even more: when we can we praise,wrestle with, talk with, or even question God, who will be as involved in ourlives as we wish. Like Jesus in our facet glass window, God is knocking on thedoor of our hearts today.


Jeffrey A. SumnerJuly 24, 2010 


 

07-11-10 WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

 

This is probably the best known
parable in the Bible. The story of the Good Samaritan. Seeing it listed in the
lectionary for today gave me pause. After all, people have told this story
before. They have talked about the Priest, the Levite and the Samaritan until
they’ve become almost a bad joke. People have argued that this parable has the
same formula as that of a morality play.

And yet, this parable isn’t your typical morality
story, is it? I mean, if this parable really was just another morality tale, I
think the Samaritan would be the guy in the ditch. Then we’d have a classic
“love your enemies” story. You know the rules: help those in need and
get bonus points because it’s a Samaritan. But that’s not the way Jesus tells it.
In Jesus’ version, the Samaritan is the one who notices – who actually sees
– this beaten man and by seeing him is moved to pity. The
Samaritan, that is, is the one who recognizes that when it comes to the
question of who is our neighbor, there are no rules. Our neighbor, it turns
out, is
anyone in need. Where
does such vision come from? It apparently
doesn’t come from one’s ethnicity, one’s religion, one’s
training, or one’s station in life. How else can we explain that a
Samaritan saw this when the priest and Levite
did not? Having the eyes of faith to see all people are children of God and
anyone in need is your neighbor must be a gift of God, it must be a matter of
faith, it must start with seeing, and only then move to doing.

That I think is worth talking about. And to talk
about the Good Samaritan, we must start with the lawyer who brings this parable
about. He asks what was foremost on his mind “What must I do to get to heaven?”
Its a question many of us have asked at one time or another. Jesus turns the
question back upon the lawyer, as he tends to do, and asks what the Law says.
The lawyer gives the textbook answer “You shall love the Lord your God and your
neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says “See? You know the answer. So do it”

But then the lawyer gets crafty. “Yes, but who is my
neighbor?”

My neighbor.

Now, for the lawyer who tests Jesus, this identity draws lines around people
and protects us from one another, but it also puts some reasonable limits on
the possibly unreasonable demands of the Jewish Law he cares so much about
obeying. Give me some parameters, he says to Jesus, I mean, who would it be
okay not to
love? After all, I’m only human…just give me a list of which people I have
to take care of and who’s on the outside of that line I need
to draw around my community of care. Yes, yes, of course I know that I need to
love God – that’s a no-brainer – remember, I knew the answer to your question
when you asked me what’s in the Law (I am a lawyer, after all), but give me a
break, okay? Who all do I need to love just as much as I love myself? Who is
this neighbor whose needs and welfare need to be as important to me as my own?
The question itself implies, of course, that there are people who are not my
neighbor, people whom it’s okay not to love.

Now, we can’t expect this question to have a simple answer.  Do you think
the Jesus we know from the Gospels and from the past two thousand years of a
church struggling to be faithful and from our own personal and communal
relationship with him, is going to say, “Well, if you can manage to love
your family and friends and maybe throw a coin at a beggar every once in
awhile, that’s pretty good. Just be sure to worship regularly at the temple,
obey all the religious laws, and pay your pledge every year. Then you’re all
set – or as you put it, you’ll inherit eternal life, and you’ll go to heaven
when you die, because, after all, you will have earned it.”

No. Instead Jesus tells this oh so famous parable,
which never answers the lawyer’s question. Instead, following the parable,
Jesus asks a new question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a
neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus’
question is challenging, but it is not even in line with the question asked by
the lawyer. The question is no longer who my neighbor is, but who acted as a
neighbor to another in need. Neighbor is no longer about classification, but
about specific action.

According to N.T. Wright, “He wants to know who counts as ‘neighbor.’ For
him, God is the God of Israel, and neighbors are Jewish neighbors. For Jesus
(and for Luke, who highlights this theme), Israel’s God is the God of grace for
the whole world and a neighbor is anybody in need”  Jesus shifts the
focus in his parable from the intent of the lawyer’s question: the issue is no
longer love of God and love of neighbor, but exclusively the issue of love of
neighbor.

Don’t worry about who your neighbor may be. Worry
instead about whether you are acting as a neighbor; especially when the
likelihood, the strain, even the scandal of being one pushes us far beyond what
seems desirable or imaginable. This, Jesus says, will be the benchmark of
whether we love God and love our neighbor. Fail this? Walk by? Then disdain our
enemy who loves when we don’t? And we expose just how little interest we have
in following Jesus, and in doing what Jesus both does and commands. By
extension, we also make clear what little interest we have in the reality of
eternal life: Gods’ love-suffused Kingdom.

We all know the old joke: A minister had just been preaching about the need for
world peace and humanitarianism. After the service, one member remarked to
another on the lawn outside, “I love mankind. I’ve got a real heart for
humanity.” Then she added: “It’s just PEOPLE I can’t stand!” We
laugh, but I think we can all relate to this on some level. Yet Jesus’ vision
sees us as we are and as we are not. Love the world, but fail to love as the
neighbor we are meant to be on any given day – not least towards the
marginalized, the inconvenient, the unacceptable – and we fail in what matters
most.

“But,” the more educated among us might protest “The
Priest and the Levite
couldn’t touch
the man they thought was dead. It was against their laws.” Which is true. They
had legitimate reasons for acting as they did. Any contact with blood or a dead
body would have rendered them unclean according to their purity laws. No one
who was “unclean” could enter the holy places of the temple. So, walking over
and touching this dying or dead man, even just to see if he was alive, was out
of the question. It would have disqualified them from their religious duties.

Believe it or not, we’re not so different from them. Several years ago a group
of researchers conducted an experiment in which seminary students were each
told that they had been selected to help record a talk about the Good
Samaritan.  The problem was that the recording was to be done in a
building all the way across campus, and because of a tight schedule they would
have to hurry to get there.  On the path to the other building the
researchers had planted an actor playing a sick homeless man slumped in an
alley, coughing and suffering.  The excited students each hurried across
campus for their important assignment, and as it turned out, almost none of
them turned out to actually be Good Samaritans.  Almost all of them
hurried past the suffering man.  One student even stepped over the man’s
body as he rushed across campus to teach about the parable of the Good
Samaritan!

The seminary students, of course, were not bad
people.  They were just human.  Like the priest and the Levite, they
simply had other priorities that kept them from acting with compassion.
Knowing the right thing to do and actually doing the right thing are two
completely different things.  For instance we all value compassion. Yet
how many of us act on that value when we are busy, or distracted, or have other
things to worry about?

That’s what sets the Good Samaritan apart. He had plenty of reasons to do as
the priest and Levite did, passing by on the other side of the road. This
happened in a dangerous area. The dying man could have been a trap used to lure
him into an ambush by thieves. Any number of things could have gotten in the
way of his compassion yet he stopped. He did the unthinkable. He stopped,
putting himself at risk. He touched the man and bandaged his wounds, rendering
himself unclean. He put the beaten man on his own horse, slowing his journey on
the treacherous road. The Samaritan took him to an inn and cared for him,
devoting more of his precious travel time. He paid the innkeeper to take care
of him indefinitely, likely costing him a fortune. Remarkably, none of these
things got in the way of his compassion.

Rebecca J. Kruger Guadino adds another layer to this story: “If, indeed,
the priest and the Levite fear contamination, they do so because of laws that
have as their intent the protection of Israel’s holiness before a holy God. But
at what point does the quest for holiness violate God’s commands to love? Certainly
all of us in our own communities have regulations intended to safeguard our
community. At what point does our allegiance to these laws jeopardize the laws
the lives and well-being of our fallen neighbors? Or is it possible that loving
God and loving neighbor are at some point incompatible? If the purity laws lie
in the background of this story, then Jesus questions laws that purport to
honor God while dishonoring God’s creation.”

What is most important to God? When asked this
question, the lawyer didn’t respond with the laws of ritual cleanliness. He
answered “To love the Lord your God with all your heart and to love your
neighbor as yourself.” That takes precedence over everything else, even the
other laws. We follow the law, but this parable is a clear case where you can’t
follow the Law and this commandment. This commandment is what matters.

Mr. Rogers who taught many of us growing up, talked about neighbors a lot. He
taught children how to be neighbors to each other, how to care and how to listen.
Mr. Rogers once said: “The more I think about it, the more I wonder if God and
neighbor are somehow One. ‘Loving God, Loving neighbor’-the same thing? For me,
coming to recognize that God loves every neighbor is the ultimate
appreciation!” That is what matters beyond the laws: loving God and neighbor.

I want to take a moment here to look at the victim on the road. Does he seem
familiar to you? He does to me. We know that the beaten man comes from a very
high place, Jerusalem, to a very low place, the bottom of the road from the
hill. He’s risking suffering and death to get there,going alone on a very
dangerous road, and he’s eventually stripped, beaten, and left dying. His
suffering is even ignored by the religious leaders of the day. I don’t know about
you, but I see Christ in him.

If you think about it, he is the Christ-figure of the story. For ages
Christians have seen Christ in the compassionate self-sacrifice of the Good
Samaritan, but shouldn’t we see Christ in the one suffering as well? Jesus did
teach that whatsoever we do to the least of these, we do to Jesus himself. Are
we not called to recognize the face of Christ in the poor, the needy, the
outcast, and the lowly? We may not be able to force ourselves to act with
compassion, but we can at the very least open ourselves up to the possibility
that Christ is in every lowly, needy, or suffering person we meet. We can seek
to put ourselves in contact with more and more people who are living in need.
We can be friends to those in low places. This has been the calling of the
Church from the very beginning.

We are called to love our neighbors. To be neighbors
in a world that turns away. In a world full of excuses about why we can’t help,
we are called to care. We are called to see the neighbors suffering and to do
something about it. This is not an easy task, at all, but one we must work
towards. It is to that height that Christ calls us. So in the words of Mr.
Rogers: “In all that you do in your life, I wish you the strength and the grace
to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best
of whoever you are.”

 

Rev. Cara Gee

July 11th, 2010

07-04-10 CHRISTIAN KARMA: REAPING WHAT YOU SOW




CHRISTIAN KARMA: REAPING WHAT YOU SOW


Galatians 6: 1-10


 


The Urban Dictionary has some rich things to say aboutGalatians 6: 7-9. It includes these six definitions of the basic tenet “Youreap what you sow,” describing “The basic nature of God’s justice.” The firstdefinition: “Everything that you do has repercussions. It comes back to you oneway or another.” The second definition: “You cannot escape the consequences ofyour actions. What you do comes back to you.” Third: “You will see thelong-term effects of your actions.” Fourth: “KARMA- meaning the total effect ofa person’s actions and conduct help determine a person’s destiny.” I’ll comeback to that definition. The fifth one simply says: “What goes around, comesaround.” And the sixth definition: “Your actions all have consequences; Godwill not be mocked. God sees all. You do indeed reap what you sow.”


 


Let’s think about that phrase for a few minutes. If wethink about that phrase as a law of the universe, then you might be thinkingright now about exceptions that you have witnessed or experienced; you know-like taking retribution into your own hands because you didn’t think properpunishment had been doled out. It is justice out of control when a parent killsthe killer of their daughter, when a woman takes another woman’s infant becauseshe has failed to conceive one of her own, or a man takes another man’s eyebecause he was blinded by the first man’s malicious action. As the Hindu leaderGandhi once said, “An eye for an eye justice makes the whole world blind.” Isaid I would come back to the idea of Karma, which is a Hindu term. Today weremember that it is also a Biblical concept. Professor John A Hutchison wrotethese words regarding Hinduism in his classic textbook, PATHS OF FAITH. “One ofthe themes delineated in the Upanishads which overlaps both cosmology andethics and has very great importance for the future of Indian thought and lifeis karma-samsara. Karma is the lawof the deed; it occurs in many religious traditions as the perception thatmoral deeds carry their consequences ‘as you sow, so will you reap.’ (1995,p.82)


 


Those of you who have listened to the words of Jesusor the Apostle Paul before realize this so-called “law” is an agriculturalanalogy. It is generally a farmer who goes out to a field to sow; that is, tobroadcast seeds where he wants them to grow. In our day this is done withmechanical spreaders most often, but in Jesus’ day, a farmer would sow seeds byreaching into a bag and flinging them across soil that had been tilled, thatis, dug and loosened, so that the seeds would hopefully take root and grow.Jesus used that illustration in his parable of the sower, an evangelism messagethat says even if we tell the gospel to 100 people, and do it equally well toeach one, we cannot count on a 100% response. According to nature, or to God’s plan,or to detrimental conditions, some seeds grow, and some seeds just don’t. Theother way seeds are planted is one at a time, and even then, not every onegrows well. I remember that fact from my experience planting flower andvegetable seeds as a boy, and watching how slowly they seemed to grow, and howsome of the seeds never grew at all! Therefore, the phrase, “as you sow, soshall you reap” is based on an agricultural experience of probability, but not total predictability.  Theworld has examples of peoples and nations doing heinous actions in times of warand yet some countries and organizations have carried out their actions withoutlater equitable consequences. The world also has examples of nations helpingother nations, out of grace or generosity, only to find that when the firstnation began to be in need, the second nation does not reciprocate withkindness. We know of those examples. But those are more the exception than therule. In some neighborhoods, people seem to “help God out” in this regard byshunning those who do unkind or malicious things to others, trying to fulfilltheir “what goes around, comes around” sense of justice. There are other formsof retribution that are also implemented by some, such as boycott, warnings,and aggressive actions. But the agricultural basis of the statement: “Whatpeople sow, that shall they also reap,” has room for failure; failure to grow;too much or too little water, too much or too little sunlight, and birds oranimals eating what grows. What do we do when the world seems to be not fair,not equitable, or not just? Paul did the Christian thing: Paul put such justiceissues at the feet of God. It is Paul who reminds those who are tempted totest this principle that God is not mocked; it is Paul who implies that Godsees all, both good and bad, and that God keeps account of our actions. And onthat day when God sees whether we have sowed seeds of kindness or not; when Godsees whether we have been waiting for the master with our lives in order whenGod brings in the sheaves, God takes account of the harvest. The good seeds areused, and the useless seeds and weeds are burned. It is a judgment picture. Andit is worth our noting today.


 


So we have come full circle; we noted that inagriculture not everything grows equally that is planted; we noted that not allgood deeds done are rewarded by others in the world, anymore than all bad deedsare punished by others in the world. It is our hope, but human justice isflawed. That leaves divine justice; Christian doctrine puts all the deeds a manor woman does on the judgment seat of God. And although we are saved throughgrace and by faith in Christ as Lord, our responses to our salvation are surelymeasured as well. So we are charged with working the fields of God’s greenearth; and caring for the sky and the oceans and rivers of the world evenamidst an oil disaster. And we are charged with sowing the seeds of the Gospelof Jesus to all the world, knowing that not all our good work will havepredictable consequences, but it is what God calls us to do. Conversely, alllack of work or malicious actions are seen by the all-knowing, all-seeing eyesof God. And in the hands of God,we have every belief that what wesow whatever it is, we will reap.For those seeking to do harm,that is a warning from Scripture. For those seeking to do good, it is thereassurance that God this day, and all your days, rejoices over you! Offer untoothers what you would want others to offer unto you- it’s another rule of life… that is golden.


 


Jeffrey SumnerJuly 4, 2010