Sunday, September 30, 2018

Faithful and Righteous Prayers?

James 5:13-20

“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, ... The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” [James 5:14-15, 16]

If you have ever prayed for something and it happened, raise your hand.

If you have ever prayed for something and it didn’t happen, raise your hand.

Confusing, eh?

This is a really difficult text. It raises all kinds of questions about the nature of prayer, and more importantly, about the nature of God. Does God really favour the prayers of those who are righteous and faithful over those who aren’t? What exactly is a “prayer of faith”? Who exactly are the “righteous” whose prayers are powerful and effective? If our prayers aren’t answered, does that mean we are not righteous? Or that our prayer is not one of faith? I could say, like Garth Brooks, that “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers,” but that really doesn’t help when you’re praying for a loved one not to die. I could say that this is one of the great mysteries of God, and then my sermon would be done, but––sorry––I’m a “faith seeking understanding” kind of person. So let’s wade, faithfully and righteously, into the complexity of praying for God to intercede.

I say complexity because it’s complicated praying for God to intervene in our lives, not the least because we don’t live in isolation. The effects of what we ask for in our prayers extend far beyond ourselves, sometimes even around the globe. 

Take, for example, the thousands if not millions of prayers that went up during a national election in Germany in 1919. Faithful, well-meaning, and yes, righteous people of all political affiliations prayed fervently and earnestly that their candidate for the Weimar Republic’s National Assembly would win. These people truly believed that their candidate would be best for the country, and that God would bless the world through their candidate, and so they prayed for them to win. I really believe that those prayers, from all sides, were rooted in a deeply held faith and that those who prayed them really were honestly wanting God’s will to take place.

But if there were ever more far-reaching and devastating consequences than the ones that resulted from those elections and those prayers, I do not know what they would be.The chain of events after that election resulted in the eventual appointment of Adolph Hitler as the Chancellor of the Nazi Party and the subsequent establishment of death camps that killed more than six million Jews, along with gays and lesbians, Roma, and political dissidents. The world was plunged into World War II, and it ended only with the horrific atomic bombings in Japan that vaporized children in the streets.
So, shall we say that God answered the prayers of these faithful people, most of them Lutheran, on that fateful day almost 100 years ago? What are the implications of the prayers we pray today?

Take our simple prayers that God send rain, or sun, or whatever weather would be desirable for us. Even without getting into the complication that our climate system is globally connected and that rain in one place can mean drought in another, there is the simple reality that even in Alberta, weather that is good for some people is destructive for others. I might pray something so simple as rain to settle the dust and relieve my allergies, but that rain is devastating for farmers trying to harvest their grain. So should my prayer be powerful and effective? I’m pretty faithful and righteous. Some of those farmers don’t even go to church. And yet...

I could go on with lots more examples of prayer - the prayer for an organ transplant for a loved one who is dying is, at heart, a prayer for the death of the one who will donate that organ. The prayer for an ambulance to rush to the door is a prayer for it not to go to someone else’s. Our prayers for God to intervene in the events of the world are always prayers that have implications for others. Just imagine if the disciples’ truly faithful and truly righteous prayers that Jesus not be crucified had been answered. Sadly, when we pray for God to intervene in our favour, we are often unwittingly asking God to play favourites––to consider our prayers more faithful and righteous than someone else’s. Which really isn’t righteous at all.

So then how are we to pray? Because I know it’s not our intention to pray against others, or wish ill-fortune on others, or wish God to bring evil upon others. And we do believe that God hears our prayers and does respond to them. I’m certainly not advocating that we stop praying, or that we stop asking God to intercede in our lives. So how can we pray prayers that are righteous?

For me, the most faithful and righteous prayers are not the ones in which we ask God to change our circumstances so we can endure them, but ones in which we ask God to change us to endure our circumstances. I want to suggest to you that the most faithful prayers we can raise are ones in which we ask God to work in us, not in the world. Where we ask God for strength and patience and resilience and tenacity and whatever else we need to get us through the things we are facing. That righteous prayers are not ones where we ask God to act in the world, but where we ask God to act in us.

This hit home for me in June, when I as at our Synod Assembly. And this isn’t a very awe-inspiring story, and it won’t send chills up your spine or goose-bumps on your arm, but here it is. So, at the Synod Convention, I was asked to be the Parliamentarian, which means to be the person who knows all the rules of order for speaking on the floor and voting and all the Constitutional requirements for how to get things done at Synod Assembly. And on the Saturday, we were scheduled to have a big discussion and vote on the new Synod Constitution and the By-laws and all the things about how delegates get elected to National Convention. We were expecting there to be a lot of heated debate about it, and my job was to keep things fair and proper so that “good order” would prevail. In the midst of what could potentially be a vigorous family argument, I was going to have to be the mom.
And about half an hour before we were to start that section of the meeting, I got a terrible migraine. I felt it coming, and it was there before I knew it. And I was in a panic. How was I going to be fair and impartial with this stabbing pain through the top of my head. So, in a state of panic, I found my way over to the other side of the hall, to Dr. Faith Nostbaaken, a Diaconal Minister who is called to be a rostered minister of Spiritual Direction in this Synod. If there is anyone who is an elder in this church and a powerful channel for effective prayer, it’s her. And so I told her the situation, and I asked her please, Would she pray for me, right now? And of course, she led me to the side of the hall, and she put her hands on my head, and she prayed. And here’s what she prayed. She prayed that God would be with me. Check. She prayed that I would have strength for the rest of the morning. Check. And she prayed that my fear over not being able to fulfill my responsibilities would disappear. She prayed that I would put my trust in God, knowing that God was with me. She never, not once, prayed for God to take my headache away. But her prayer was powerful and effective. It worked. My anxiety evaporated, my heart unclenched, and I went up on the stage, headache still there, and God gave me focus and strength and resilience. I did my job.

I have no doubt that if Dr. Nostbaaken had prayed God to get rid of my headache, it would have worked. She has a gift of prayer. But my headaches are driven by pressure changes that are the result of weather shifts, and praying for my headache to be gone would have meant either praying for my body to rewire itself or praying for the weather to change, which would have impacted hundreds of thousands of people in that part of Alberta. Instead, what Dr. Nostbaaken prayed for was for God to change me. To change my heart, and my mind, not to change the weather system. To get me through my migraine. And her prayer was a prayer of faith, and the Lord raised me up.

Shifting from asking God to change our circumstances to asking God to change us is hard. I still pray, God, please don’t let that car hit me on the road. I still pray, God, please keep my children safe on the way to school. And I am sure you have your own prayers asking God to intercede in the circumstances of our life. The prayers that we pray on Sunday morning, written by people in the larger church for our use are frequently these kinds of payers. These are still faithful prayers - any time we turn to God, we are turning in faith, and in hope. And sometimes things happen that seem to be answer to these prayers, and sometimes things don’t. But I would offer to you this morning that the prayers that God always and unequivocally and unreservedly answers are those prayers inviting God to work in us, to get us through. God always comes when we invite God into our hearts, and God always gets us through the worst of our circumstances, even if they’re as serious as death. Sometimes it seems like God works in the world, and sometimes it seems like God doesn’t. But always we know that God works in our hearts, raising us up, and getting us through. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Going Out of Business

Mark 8:27-38

So, later in the service we’re going to officially welcome twenty-five new members. Some of them have been here for a long time and are just now officially transferring their membership, and some have been here for almost a year and have decided that it’s time to make Advent their church home. And so, to all of you, I say, welcome!

It’s very exciting when a congregation gets to welcome new members. It’s a sign that this is a welcoming and affirming place to be, it’s a visual reminder that God’s love is present here and drawing people in, it’s a reassurance that there is life in this place. Through new members, God brings new gifts and new energy and new life to a congregation, and so we celebrate that we’re doing great things and that we’re growing and that we’re successful.

Except that we’re not. Successful, that is. We, by which I mean Advent and the Lutheran church as it exists in Calgary, and Alberta, and all of Canada, are not successful. It might seem impolite to say this on a day when we’re celebrating new members, but it’s the truth. Churches are shrinking. Congregations are closing. Budgets are stagnating, if we’re lucky. The church-at-large is short-staffed, there’s not enough people making church ministry a career, and there’s no growth in our industry. The church is, in short, going out of business. So... welcome?

It should come as no surprise, though, that we’re dying, since the church is not a business, and we’re not supposed to be functioning like one. Growth, increase, expansion––all of these are business words, and they don’t actually have a place in our church vocabulary. And yet we are sorely tempted to use them to judge the success, or failure, of our work in the church.

This was Peter’s problem, in our Gospel reading for this morning, trying to judge the work of Jesus by the standards of the world. You see, Peter wanted Jesus to be the Messiah, by which he meant a royal son of David, a king, a mighty warrior who would come and sweep away the Romans and restore the people of Israel to the glory days when they conquered everyone on their land, and Jewish worship at the Temple in Jerusalem was the only kind of worship there was. Peter wanted Jesus to lead a movement of people who would become strong, and grow in numbers, and be respected by other countries, and be successful again.

Which is why Peter got so upset when Jesus started telling everyone that he was going to undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed. What kind of a business model is that? You can’t grow and get investors if you tell everyone the business model is to fail. Who wants to be part of that? And so Peter, naturally, tried to warn Jesus not to talk that way.

And Jesus warned him right back. “Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’” 

This is the model Jesus wants the church to follow, as unsuccessful as it is. When Peter started initially talking about Jesus being the Messiah, Jesus warned him and the rest of the disciples. (The Greek word for ‘sternly ordered’ is the same as the one for ‘rebuked’ and it also means warned.) And it seems to me that what he was warning them about was to stop talking about him being the Messiah, because he didn’t want anyone getting the wrong ideas about what he was there to do. Because he wasn’t there to lead the people to glory and success and growth. And he wasn’t calling them to that either.

This is really hard for us in the church to accept. I mean, I know we all get it, and we try to live out the whole “deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow me” on an individual basis, but as a group, as a congregation, this is really hard to follow. We are constantly tempted to  operate the same way the world does, by the business model, which is to focus on growing and expanding. We are constantly tempted to spend our time and our energies and our resources on programs that will bring people in, that will keep people here, that will get people involved so they stay. We see the church dying and we want to save it. We call on one another to give everything in order to save the church. We try our best not to die. We try our best to get ahead.

Peter and the disciples wanted to get ahead, and Jesus stopped them, warned them that they were heading down the wrong road. They needed to get behind him, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” They, and we, need to stop spending our energy on trying to get ahead, we need to stop following those who tell us that they will make the church successful, we need to stop investing in programs or visions or ministries that promise to save us. “For those who want to save their life will lose it.” If we, as a church, follow these leaders and these programs, we will lose ourselves. We will lose our time and our energy and our resources to making ourselves successful and to making the church get ahead, and we will lose who we are.

Because this is not what Jesus is calling us to do. Jesus is calling us to lose ourselves for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of the congregation. Jesus is calling us forget about getting ahead. Instead, Jesus is calling us to get behind. To get behind others, to get behind those who are struggling in the world, to get behind those who need help. Jesus is calling us to support others, not ourselves, even if it means our death.

For the church, this means welcoming and nurturing those who have nothing to offer us. This is why we take such pains, actually, to include children. This is why Jesus welcomed children. Not because they’re the future, not because they will grow and keep the church going, but because they actually have nothing to offer. Children take. God bless them, but they do. Children require a lot from us, as parents but more importantly as a church community, and they are not in a position to give back. And that’s why we welcome them. Because they need someone to get behind them and support them and that’s what Jesus calls us to do.

That’s why we welcome new members without asking them to make any commitments. We don’t have membership dues. We don’t require new members to join committees. We're tempted to, but we don't. We don’t make existing members go out and sign up new members every year. Because we are not in the business of getting ahead. We are in the business of getting behind, of helping those in need, even if it means losing our lives in the process. Even if it means giving up getting ahead.

But I think you know this, and I think this is why all of you keep coming to church. You’re not here because this place is the height of coolness. Sorry. You don’t come to Advent because it’s prestigious, because it’s going to get you a job, or earn you the respect of your friends or colleagues. You don’t come here to be seen, or to brag to the world that you’re a member of this ultra-successful club called the Lutheran church, or to say that you belong to a congregation that’s really getting ahead.

I suspect you come because, at its best, the church is a place where you experience what it is to get behind. To fall behind, even. At its best, the church community is the place where we put aside worldly notions of success, where––even just for a few hours once a week––we can stop spending all our time and energy and resources––our lives––on growth and success and achievement, where we can just be who we are and know that we are welcomed and loved and cherished by God, no matter what. At its best, the church is the place where we get behind others, and know that they’re behind us, and that together, we give life to others and receive life in return. It’s where we value kindness, and helpfulness, even at the cost of our own success.

At its best, the church is where we give our lives for the sake of the Gospel, even if it means our death, because we’ve experienced that giving one’s life for another means new life for all. This is what we see in Jesus, this is the gospel, the good news. Jesus gave his life for others, gave his life until there was no more to give, and the result was new life for everyone, including him. Jesus showed us that when we give our life so that others can live, we all receive new life. This is why he calls us to get behind him, to follow him, so that we might experience this for ourselves.

And so, the church, if it follows Jesus, will never get ahead. And that should never be our goal for it. Instead, our goal for the church should be that it is a place where we receive life, and where we are inspired to go out and create more places like the church in our day-to-day lives. To create more spaces in the world of kindness and helpfulness and falling behind so that others can get ahead. In essence, to create little models of the church in every corner of the world so that there is no more need for Sunday morning congregations. To put the church out of business because we’ve made the whole world a place where getting ahead no longer makes sense, where growth is not what defines us or our success, where losing our lives for the sake of others is the “normal business model.” This is what it is for the church to follow Jesus. This is why we are here.

So, welcome to you, new members! We’re going to do great things! We’re going to get behind, and we’re going to lose our lives, and we’re going to go out of business! Join us! And receive new life. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Test of the Syrophoenician Woman

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

I feel like our Gospel reading is burying the lead this morning. We’ve got this great set of stories telling us about how Jesus heals a woman’s daughter from afar, and then heals a man who is deaf and mute so that he can hear and speak again. These are wondrous things, that evoke feelings of awe at the power of God working in Jesus. But they bury the lead.

“Jesus said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’”

I need to let that stand for a minute, because this is the lead: Jesus just called this woman and her daughter dogs.

Last week, Jesus said that the prophet Isaiah condemns the Pharisees and scribes for their hypocrisy because they say they worship God but don’t take care of people in need. This week he tells this woman that it’s not her daughter’s turn to be healed. Last week, Jesus told his disciples that it’s what’s in our hearts that make us good or evil. Today, he insults the non-Jewish, non-Israelite, non-male (that’s what it means when the Gospel of Mark identifies her as a Gentile, Syrophoenician woman) by reducing her to the position of a non-human. After proclaiming from the beginning of his ministry that the kingdom of heaven has come near, after sharing the good news that God’s kingdom is one of healing and new life, after healing everyone who comes to him, Jesus shuts this woman out.

I wonder what the author of our second reading, the Letter of James, would have said about that. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” If you say “to the one who is poor, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” “What good is it ... if you say you have faith but do not have works? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” I mean, I know that we Lutherans are not huge fans of James, and that Luther himself wished it wasn’t even in the Bible, but at the same time, James has a point. As people of faith, we can’t say that we believe God loves everyone but then act to keep some people out. The religious hypocrisy is too much.
Which brings us back to Jesus. I think that what bothers us so much about this story about Jesus is the hypocrisy. It’s really hard to take. We’re bothered by the hypocrisy of Jesus––the incarnation of God’s love, the prophet who reminds his listeners that God is on the side of the marginalized––calling this worried-out-of-her-mind mother a dog.

Now some scholars have said that Jesus is actually using a diminutive that was common at the time, calling her daughter a puppy, and that it’s not as bad as it seems. Puppies are pretty cute. But a puppy is still not the same as a child, and Jesus would still be using a metaphor that makes the children of Israel more important in God’s eyes than the non-Jew, non-Israelite. 
Other scholars say that this is evidence that Jesus was truly human. That he was shaped by his upbringing, which was negative towards Gentiles and Syrophoenicians, and that he did actually change his mind after she challenged him. And I like this argument, I’ve used it myself, but I’m not sure we can excuse Jesus so quickly, since he himself just earlier points out and condemns the ingrained hatred of others. Jesus is pretty woke.

So what’s going on? I don’t think we who are appalled by Jesus’ response are crazy or over-reacting or blowing things out of proportion. And yet I also don’t think Jesus is capable of degrading someone so horribly. I simply don’t believe that Jesus can say one thing and do another. I don’t believe that his faith and his works are at such odds with one another.

So here’s a question: what if Jesus’ words are not meant to tell us something about Jesus, but are meant to tell us something about ourselves? Jesus is no dummy. He spent the last however-many days telling everyone around him, including the disciples, that God cares passionately for the sick and marginalized and those in need, and that God gets upset when we don’t do the same. Jesus knows his Scripture, he knows his prophets, he knows this to be true about God. He deeply believes it. He stakes his life on it.

But does his audience? Do his disciples? Do all the people who have been listening to him and following him around for the past however-many days believe it? Do they stake their life on it? The Gentile, Syrophoenician woman does. She believes what Jesus has said, so deeply, that when he says something that contradicts that, when he says something that implies that God does not care about the sick and the marginalized, she challenges him. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In other words, God’s love and God’s healing and God’s mercy are so abundant that there is more than enough for everyone, there is so much of it that it spills off the table so that everyone gets what they need. There are no restrictions to God’s love. Nobody has to wait for their turn because there might not be enough. There’s more than enough. And because this woman believes what Jesus has said earlier about God, she calls out the dissonance––the hypocrisy––of Jesus’ words.
But she’s the only one who does. His disciples, who’ve been hearing Jesus from day one, say nothing, and indeed, in the Gospel of Matthew where this story is also found, they try to get Jesus to send her away. Those whose house Jesus is in say nothing. We, the twenty-first century audience, say nothing.

You see, I think, as do a small number of biblical scholars, that what Jesus says to the woman is a test: Jesus wants to know if people are really listening to what he’s saying. He wants to know if people really believe the radical nature of what he’s saying about God, what the prophets like Isaiah have been saying for centuries––that God is on the side of the oppressed, and that God calls us to look out for the marginalized and include them, that God’s kingdom is made of up those who are sick and poor and unworthy and on the outside. Jesus wants to know if people are paying attention to what he’s actually doing––which is healing and feeding and welcoming and including everyone. And so he slips in this test. He wants to see if people are going to object to what he says. He wants to know if they themselves can see the hypocrisy of saying God welcomes everyone and then turning someone away.

And I’m sorry to say that I think the disciples failed the test. At least on this occasion. But the woman passed. And so did the writer of the Gospel of Mark, who includes this story. (The writer of Luke failed, this story doesn’t appear at all in the Gospel of Luke.) And I think we pass. At least, I hope we do.

If we do pass, though, it’s because God has opened our eyes and our ears to be sensitive to religious hypocrisy and because God has strengthened us to believe that God is who Jesus and the prophets and the psalmists say––that God executes justice for the oppressed, sets the prisoners free, watches over the strangers, upholds the orphan and the widow. And God strengthens us to stand up in defense of that. You see this isn’t a sermon about judging those who don’t see the hypocrisy and it’s not about looking down on those who say one thing and do another. This is about proclaiming that God is indeed who we proclaim God to be, and that therefore God is the one who points out hypocrisy to us, and that God is the one who strengthens us to say, as James does, that faith without works is dead, and as James says later in a verse that for some reason we don’t read, “I by my works will show you my faith.” God is the one who puts that little voice inside of us that makes us uncomfortable when religious people say one thing and do another. God is the one who strengthens us to speak out when we see hypocrisy and who empowers us to engage in the hard work of making our works align with our faith. God strengthened and empowered the Gentile Syrophoenician woman to approach Jesus and then to challenge his words, and God does the same for us. God opens the ears of those of us who are deaf to hear the words of injustice and God frees the voices of those of us who are mute to speak out about God’s love. God frees us from our hesitations, from holding back, and helps us to stand boldly in defense of God’s love.

I’m still uncomfortable with this Gospel reading, because I don’t know for sure if my interpretation is right. We never know these things for sure. But I do know that our discomfort in the face of hypocrisy is right. That agitation that we feel––either just in the back of our minds or roaring out of our hearts––when we see people being denied God’s love, in the name of God, is right. Because it is God’s agitation. It is God moving in our hearts, propelling us forward as people of faith to follow with integrity in the way of Christ. It is God empowering us to do what Jesus does, which is to offer words and actions of love and healing in the name of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.