Saturday, November 10, 2018

The saints who make us who we are, November 11, 2018

The saints who make us who we are,
November 11, 2018

Do United Methodists really believe in saints? Well, these are real people so it is not a matter of believing in them or not believing in them, but how we define them.
We don’t worship or venerate saints. In  Article 14 of our articles of Religion John Wesley wrote “The Romish doctrine concerning …worshiping, and adoration, as well of images as of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but repugnant to the Word of God.”
Given that, you might ask, why I am having a month of saints?!

That’s a fair question but it has to do with how define saints. I am defining saints different than our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.
In the Roman Catholic tradition becoming a saint is usually a long drawn out process. In an over simplified version it in includes  a petition by the people, a nomination by a bishop, an investigation by the Vatican which includes and a “promoter of the faith” also known as a devil’s advocate who tries to find the non saint-like behavior of the person.  There are three stages declaring them venerable, beatifying, and then canonizing them in to sainthood.  Between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches there are over 10,000 saints.
United Methodists don’t do that. The closest we have come is naming our churches after saints, and in 2012 declaring Dietrich Bonheoffer and Martin Luther King Jr. as Martyrs (someone who willingly died for their faith.)
That is not what I am talking about. In our United Methodist circles, a saint can be any of God’s people who LIVE THEIR LIVES AFTER THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST. They might be living or dead.  Last week we named saints who died in the last year and talked about the saints of this church on whose shoulders we stand.
While John Wesley spoke harshly of the veneration of saints, he recommended the study of the lives of saints because there is much to be learned from them.  That’s what I want to do for the next couple of weeks. I want to talk about some of the people who help me to live my life more like Christ. And I want to help you to reflect on the saints in your life. 

This week I have chosen 4 of my saints from various historical periods who have shaped my faith. Who would you put on your personal list?

 I start with Abraham.
Before God appeared to him Abraham was a pagan like his father.  He grew up in Ur of the Chaldees. We know that like his father before him, Abraham was an idol worshipper.  We don’t know any more details but we can guess that he was part of the popular religion of the region. The great Ziggurat of Ur, (Which is a little bit like a pyramid) was built to worship the moon God Nanaa.  The moon was the basis for their calendar, its phases symbolized the life cycle of birth life and death. Among the God’s of the area Nanaa was supreme because the moon was the source of fertility for crops, herds and families.
We don’t know what if anything Abraham knew about God when God spoke to him, But God appeared and God spoke and he told the idol worshipper to trust in God. Abraham was to pick up all he had; his family, his herds, and his servants and follow the Lord. In order to do that he would have to leave everything behind, including his religion.  It is the kind of decision that a lesser man (like me) would have considered carefully for months or years.  Not Abraham.
God said, “GO” and Abraham said “OK.”  What faith! What trust! I am one who values security, having a plan and a backup plan, knowing where I am going, and have a plan for when I get there, having a  little cushion in the savings account,  … you know what I mean. I am not a huge risk taker… but Abraham… Abraham calls me to not just believe in God with my mind, but to trust God with my life. He reminds me that sometimes God calls us to take a risk. Abraham was not planning on a word from God let alone a trip. God’s call came out of the clear blue sky…or in Abraham’s case I guess it was a dark starry sky. Abraham trusted God enough to say “Let’s go God.” “Here I am send me.”  That’s the way I want my faith to be.
Jesus said come follow me, and he meant now.
Jesus called Zacchaeus to come out of that tree and he did not mean tomorrow.
Jesus told the rich young ruler to go sell all he had… not some, but all.
Jesus said take up your cross and follow me.
I could be the patron saint of wanting to play it safe. But that is not what God expects. Abraham reminds me that God requires trust, complete trust. Abraham challenges me to be better than I am. Maybe Abraham challenges you too.

 I have also selected St. Brigid. Sometimes incorrectly called “Bridget” Brigid was new to me. But what she teaches is not. I like her story and I wanted to remind us that there are many women saints in our lives too. 
St. Brigid is a canonized saint of the Roman Catholic Church.  She was born in Ireland in 451 or 452 AD a contemporary of St. Patrick. Like Abraham, her father was not Christian.  Druidism is complicated because it is so diverse, but they often worship nature or trees. Stonehenge may have been a druid place of worship. Suffice it to say then, that Brigid was not born into a Christian family.
When she was young, she gave her life to God and became a nun. Soon she was named an Abbess, the leader of the Abbey in which she lived with the other nuns.  When she was consecrated as Abbess, the local bishop accidently used the service for consecrating a bishop rather than a nun.  It is particularly funny because she turned out to have more influence than some of the bishops under whom she served.
Brigid is known for her generosity, which seems appropriate on this Sunday before consecration Sunday. That’s what I admire bout Brigid.  She had an extraordinary generous love and she experienced great blessing. She gave away her mother’s butter, but when she prayed the churn was filled again. (You see the butter churn in the background of her picture.) Any presents given to her, were given to the poor, no matter what the original giver intended.  She sold furniture and anything that could be moved—even the holy vessels and vestments–to provide for the poor.  Her generosity inspired others.
And the best part is she never ran out of thing to give. It seems she gave and it was replaced, she gave and more appeared. She gave and she was blessed
Brigid reminds us of the importance of generosity. But she also teaches us that generosity is a blessing. Maybe you won’t get your butter back, but when you are generous you will find that the discipline of giving brings such satisfaction that you will want to give more and even more...  You all know the satisfaction of saying to yourself, “I was part of that.”
Brigid reminds me that giving is its own reward, but seeing the fruit of that giving whether it is the beautiful building remodeling, or the ingathering kits, or the fruit of ministry here is a special bonus reward because we get to say “I was part f that.”  I will remember Brigid when I complete my estimate of giving card next Sunday. I’d like to be more like her.

 The third saints I want to lift up are brothers and they have names you will recognize. John and Charles Wesley. Though they were different, I want to treat them together.
John and Charles were Anglican priests in a time when the Church of England was pretty stale.  The mid 1700’s was the industrial revolution. Culture was changing quickly and the church and faith were in many people’s minds in the margins of life. (Kind of like today)
One turning point even before John’s life changing experience at Aldersgate, was returning to England from Georgia (in the US) after failing at being a missionary to the Native Americans, John realized that he didn’t have real faith to share. “I went to Georgia to convert the indians, (sic) but woe, who shall convert me?”
John and Charles were not satisfied with faith on the margins. They put their faith and their relationship with the church squarely in the middle of their lives. The heartwarming at Aldersgate made faith personal. They started the holy Clubs. They got up at 4am to read scripture and pray. They created bands and classes to help others put their faith in the center of their lives. This became the Methodist movement and eventually the United Methodist church.
It is easy to let our faith slip to the side. It is easy to let many things get in the way of our relationship with God.  John and Charles taught us that a faith of the margins is not enough.  It takes practice, commitment, sacrifice, and intentional discipline to keep our faith front and center in our lives. I don’t know that I will ever get up at 4 am to read the bible for 2 hours, but I admire a man like John who can. I admire a man like Charles who has the discipline and gift to write 6000 hymns. (All of today’s hymns are written by Charles.) I admire a man like John who made the sacrifice to travel a quarter million miles in his lifetime… on horseback… in the 1700’s and still have the energy to preach 40,000 sermons. If am real generous with my math, maybe I’ll get to 3,000 in my career. 
John and Charles teach us about commitment to the gospel and disciplined discipleship. So they are two of the saints who make me who I am as a disciple of Jesus, and indeed make us we are as United Methodists.

 Finally, does anyone recognize this saint?  Doesn’t the name Evan Tallman mean anything to you?  No?   That’s OK he was my high school Sunday school teacher. Evan is one of a handful of people in those early days of my faith and my call to ministry who were a special encouragement, trusted advisors, and examples of what it means to be a disciple.
Perhaps your Sunday school teacher had a different name bet many of you have a Sunday school teacher who was a saint in your life
Evan taught me that faith is shown in love.  We came to class every week, like most teenagers, with our minds everywhere but Evan still loved us. He showed his love by listening and sharing and caring and by time we were done somehow he snuck in a lesson without us even noticing. With his unwavering love, he loved us into relationship with God.
Think back to your Sunday school teachers, which ones have been the biggest influences in your life.  They are saints to you.

 Abraham: faith as trust
Brigid: faith as generosity
The Wesleys: faith as discipline
Even: faith as love.
These are some of the saints that made me who I am.
On whose shoulders do you stand? Which saints have made a difference to you? Maybe they are from biblical times, ancient history, recent history, or even today.  They might be sitting here today. They might be long gone. Who are the saints who have shaped who you are as a disciple?
Be ready to name some of them out loud during this prayer.  I won’t try to pass the mic so shout loud and if you can’t hear give thanks for the saints in your life.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

I can pray 10/27 and 28

This week's message was performed by two youth in each service. The skit can be found at

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Saturday, October 20, 2018

I would like to pray… but I have several excellent excuses. 10/21/18

I would like to pray… but I have several excellent excuses.

James Moore’s book many years ago, Yes, Lord, I Have Sinned: But I Have Several Excellent Excuses. When I started thinking about all the excuses we have for not praying, that book immediately came to mind. Who among us has not said, “Lord, I wanted to pray, but I have several excellent excuses.” I doubt that our excuses seem so excellent to God.
I don’t even have to outside of my own life to make a list of excuses because I think I have personally used every excuse in the book.

•             I don’t have time
•             My mind keeps wondering
•             I’m too tired or I keep falling asleep
•             I’m so busy, I’ll get to you tomorrow Lord.
•             You know God, this is NCIS night
•             If I spend time with you I’ll be neglecting my family. You wouldn’t want that would you God?

I’ll bet you have used the same excuses… and maybe you have been even more creative with your excuses. Well, excuses are like Armpits. Everyone has one or two, but none of them are very pretty.
It seems to me that having an excuse is the first step to falling into temptation “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from Evil” is the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer in this series.
Unfortunately, the temptation to not pray is only one of the temptations we face every day, and it might not seem like the most important. On the other hand, our prayer relationship with God is the greatest tool we have against other temptations. So sliding into the temptation to not pray may be the beginning of an avalanche of giving in to all kinds of temptation.

There has been some discussion lately about the best way to express this line of the Lord’s Prayer. The problem is that praying “lead us not into temptation” makes it sound like God is in the business of throwing banana peels in front of us to trick us into sin. James is very clear about this in the first chapter
 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.”
The Pope took a lot of heat for suggesting that “lead us not into temptation is a poor translation He is wrong in saying it is a bad translation because the Greek word translated as “temptation” can be correctly translated either “temptation” or “testing.”
The Pope, however, has a point that our modern ears do not hear what is intended.
 The Bible teaches that God would NEVER “lead us to temptation.” While the traditional language which we inherited from the Anglican church and the Catholic church before it, is not wrong, perhaps the 1988 Ecumenical version which you find as number 894 in our hymnal helps us to understand a little better “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil”
  I also find the message Bible helpful here with it says “Keep us safe from ourselves and the devil.”
It is not God who leads us to temptation, but we need God to protect us from temptation, or if you prefer, protect us from ourselves.

With that cleared up, what is temptation then? James does a nice job defining it.

•             One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it;
•             then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin,
•             and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 

•             You see, temptation starts within us. It starts with our desire looking for an excuse.
•             When an opportunity presents itself, we use our excuse and satisfy our desire.
•             And when our desire (or will) overcomes God’s will, sin is fully grown.
 There is a very famous psychological test called the marshmallow test developed in the 60s’  A marshmallow is placed in front of a young child and they are told if they can leave the marshmallow alone 15 minutes they can have a second marshmallow. Then the adults leave the room. This study in self-control and temptation has been used to predict all kinds of things including academic and career success. The interesting thing is watching the kids resisting temptation, or in some cases not resisting!
The marshmallow is not evil by any means. No one is trying to trick them. The temptation comes from inside of them.
I don’t know about you, but it seems like I have a marshmallow sitting in front of me all the time. No one has to lead me to temptation. I can find it all by myself thank you very much!
Think about your greatest temptation:
•             Is it cheating on the important test? Or using someone else’s words in a term paper?
•             Is it lying about where you spent some of the family’s money last weekend?
•             Is it keeping your eyes from wandering to something you want, like someone who is not your spouse? Or that sports car? Of the new video game?
•             Is your marshmallow in the bottom of a bottle?
•             Is your marshmallow the pictures or videos on a computer screen?
•             Do you scarf down the marshmallow called not telling the whole truth on your taxes?
•             Do you make comments and judgments about others or groups of people based on the color of their skin or immigration status?
•             Or maybe your temptation is lying about cleaning your room or who started the fight?
We all face temptations. The important thing to know is that they do not come to us from a trickster God. They come from our broken and weakened hearts. So, as the Message says, we pray “Our father…Keep us safe from ourselves.”

There is also, however, real and present evil in the world. Sometimes it is in the form on a single person, but my experience is that it is more often a mob mentality.
•             Gang mentality racism or homophobia.
•             Greed that is willing to do anything to anyone in order to get to the top.
•             Fear that breeds hatred that comes out as contempt for certain groups of individuals.
•             Blind intolerance of anyone or anything different from your selected “normal”
We are not unfamiliar with mass shootings, terrorism, xenophobia, megalomania, genocide, and chemical weapons.
So we pray, "Keep us safe from ourselves and keep us safe from evil."

OK, That is all background so we understand the prayer.
The subject of the series is barriers to prayer.
We have talked about

•             I want to pray… but I don’t know how
•             I want to pray … but why
•             I want to pray… but there are no answers
•             I want to pray… but I don’t have anything important to pray about
•             I want to pray … but I am not good enough
•             Today I want to pray… but I have several excellent excuses.

I’ll admit this is one of my personal “favorite” barriers to prayer: the excuse. I am as guilty as any of you. It might sound like this:

•             Well, I am pretty crunched for time today, or its late tonight I’ll pray later.
•             I would pray but my attention keeps wondering and pretty quick I am making my grocery list. (or in my case I am writing the sermon)
•             I would pray but when I close my eyes I fall asleep
•             I would pray but I don’t know where to start.
•             I would pray but NCIS is on.

Let me just say, excuse, excuse, excuse, excuse, excuse. EXCUSE
O Lord, “Keep us safe from ourselves!
Lord, keep us safe from our excuses!
I’ll tell you. We have a bent to excuses. We have a bent to being tempted. Our hearts are bent toward caving into temptation. That is our sinful nature. And if we are honest sometimes we just don’t want to pray.
The truth is that any of the barriers to sin we have discussed in this series could be real barriers in and of themselves, but each can also be just an excuse.
Do you think God is likely to be happy with our lame excuses to not pray?
I don’ think so.
Jesus, however, gives us the answer in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our father… lead us not into temptation.” “Our father Save us from ourselves.” The truth is that prayer is the best answer to our resistance to pray.
 It is like physical conditioning. You go to the gym the first day and you can’t do much, but you wake up the next day with sore muscles. You can use the sore muscles as an excuse to not go back or you can use them as motivation to go work a little harder.
The same is true for prayer which is not unlike a cardio workout for the soul. You can let your excuses keep you away, or you can let them be a call to prayer. Pastor Rick Warren says, "Every temptation is an opportunity to do good." Every time we are tempted we stand at a fork in the road. It might be that the only route we want to see is the falling into temptation side of the fork… but there is that other fork that is harder to see… it is the fork of resisting temptation, saying no to temptation, saying no to our excuses. All it takes is one prayerful step toward that road and we are on our way to God.
 Bill Thrasher in A Journey to Victorious Praying goes one step further. He says if we are tempted we should pray for someone else who is tempted the same way. He says we should ask God to give us a “prayer burden “or a deep concern for someone else. If no one comes to mind, ask God for a name. And this works. When I am tempted to anger, for instance, praying for someone who might be angry with me, or maybe not even me… focuses the negative energy of the temptation on something positive. The poet and hymn writer William Cowper writes the lyrics, “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees.”
 One of the best answers to temptation is praying. The answer to any of our excuses is praying. Pull yourself together and pray. If you believe in the power of prayer as I do, you know that God can blow up any excuse you can make up. If you believe in the power of prayer like I do you know that God can move that mountain that you think is keeping you from praying if you just reach out to God. If you just let God. 

 With the exception of the doxology at the end, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen” which is only recorded in some late manuscripts of Matthew and only shows up in the footnotes of study bibles. We have worked our way through the Lord’s Prayer. Along the way, I hope we have addressed your biggest barrier to prayer.
In addition, we have learned some things about us and God.
We have examined the three ways we need to know God: as the intimate heavenly father, as transcendent holy one, and as king in whose kingdom we seek to live.
We have also seen three things we need to know about ourselves: we are dependent on God’s Provision, pardon, and protection. In other words, we need God for even the smallest things, we need God’s forgiveness. We need God’s protection from temptation.

Take this prayer with you, my friends… and may it grow in you so that you can grow in Christ.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

I want to pray but… I’m not good enough Carroll FUMC October 14, 2018

I want to pray but… I’m not good enough
Carroll FUMC
October 14, 2018
 Have you heard the saying, "Almost ain’t good enough"? (Pardon the grammar) I’m not sure where it originated... but in high school, if someone said, "well, I ALMOST made it" we would respond, "Well, almost ain’t good enough"
That is true in a lot of things. Almost getting the bronze medal doesn’t count for much. It just “isn’t good enough. “
Almost getting the job “isn’t good enough.
Almost getting the car stopped before hitting another car just is not good enough.”
In this season of political commercials we are reminded that a politician almost doing the right thing just should not be enough to get them reelected.

When you think about it, though...sometime almost IS good enough.
A baby almost walking elicits great praise. Sometimes almost is good enough.
If a child comes home from school with a spelling test with the score of 97%... they might say, "I ALMOST got them all right". and of course, we would be very happy with the almost perfect score. In that case, sometimes almost IS good enough.
The person who sets a goal to lose 50 pounds gets stuck at 30 pounds almost made their goal but most of us would celebrate their victory with them. Sometimes almost is great.

 Some people have the idea that they aren’t good enough. They think that God’s willingness to listen and ability to answer our prayers is dependent on our being good enough. They might say, “I don’t pray because I haven’t been to church for a long time,” “I feel like a hypocrite.” “I don’t have enough faith.” Or just plain,” God won’t answer my prayer. I’m not good enough.”
Perhaps you have felt that way yourself. Maybe you don’t say, “I’m not good enough” but maybe you have said:
“Who am I to ask God for anything? God knows what I am really like.”
“I haven’t prayed for so long I can’t go to God now.”
“That seems so selfish… I can’t pray for that.
“I don’t know what to say… I don’t know those fancy words.”

My friends, if there is one message about which Jesus is very clear is that God’s love is not reserved for those who are perfect. I
•            t’s OK if you aren’t perfect.
•            It’s ok that you feel like your life has not been quite good enough.
•            It’s OK that God knows who you really are.
•            It is OK that you don’t know all the fancy words.
•            It’s Ok that you don’t quite know where to start. It really is OK.

Truthfully, if I waited until I was good enough to pray, I would never pray. pray. Actually, none of us would.
None of us, because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Did you hear that? ALL! Including me and including you.

“I ain’t good enough”
“You ain’t good enough.”
“All of us together ain’t good enough” … “BUT GOD"

Hear that? … BUT God.
But God
 1. We aren’t good enough
“But God, is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us” (Ephesians 2:4).
 2. We can’t live God’s way ourselves,
“BUT God will give you another Helper . . . I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:15–18).
  3. We are sinners “But God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  4. We cannot live the Christian life by self-effort “but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

  Do you see that” But God.” WE aren’t good enough but God’s love is good enough that God accepts us anyway.
WE aren’t loving enough BUT GOD IS.
WE aren’t faithful enough BUT GOD IS.
WE don’t deserve forgiveness, BUT GOD IS.
  That is why the 5th phrase of the Lord’s Prayer is so important “Forgive us our trespasses… or sins.” Are we good enough? NO, But God is. Jesus invites us to pray that simple prayer, “forgive us our trespasses,” as a way of humbling ourselves before the grace of God.
It is not news to God that we need forgiving, it is not a condemnation of us, but it is a NOT SO SUBTLE reminder to us that prayer includes honestly humbling ourselves before God, confessing our sins, and asking forgiveness by the grace of Jesus Christ.
Notice where this phrase is located in the prayer that Jesus taught. It is not at the beginning of the prayer as though we have to be forgiven first. In fact it is almost at the end. But it is important. … important enough to include in the only prayer about which Jesu said, “When you pray, pray lie this…”

So you think you aren’t good enough... you’re right BUT God is plenty good enough.
There is one other thing here.
AS we receive grace and forgiveness we need to remember that no one else is good enough either, BUT God is. God is good enough to offer forgiveness to the whole world,
  Are you forgiving others as god forgives you? Are you treating others with grace? Are you praying that you will treat them with grace? The fact that you are not good enough on your own is not a problem for God but be careful how you pray… “Forgive us our trespasses AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESSPASS AGIANST US.” Praying “forgive us our trespasses” humbles us before God, but praying “as we forgive those who trespass against us” is an acknowledgement that we can’t expect others to be “good enough” either. It is an acknowledgement that we are all in the same boat and if forgiveness is available to us, it is available to all; even those who hurt us. If forgiveness is available to all it is available to all …and it is not up to us to withhold it. WE must forgive if we want to be forgiven

Do you remember the story about the unjust servant in Matthew 18? It is on page 20 in your new testament if you want to look it up.
A man was taken before the king because he could not pay his debt. The king forgave him his large debt and set him free. On the way out of the palace the servant met a man who owed him 50 cents he loaned him for the pop machine. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded payment. The man begs for forgiveness and the servant will not forgive him so he has him thrown in jail.
Now the kicker… listen to this… The king calls the first servant back, takes back the forgiveness, and throws him in jail along with his friend. He takes back the forgiveness.
Now listen “Forgive us our trespasses AS WE FORGIVE those who trespass against us” AS WE FORGIVE!     We will only be forgiven to the same degree that we forgive others. To put it bluntly… if we don’t forgive others we can’t be forgiven. And to work the circle back around to the beginning of the sermon if we tell those who have harmed us that “almost ain't good enough,” I don’t forgive you. …, what do you suppose we will hear from God? Maybe something like ‘Then I can’t forgive you.”
This sentence of the Lord’s Prayer has been called the most dangerous prayer in history because we are asking Go to treat us the way we treat others. Or to put that in a scriptural context not only did Jesus teach “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He also taught “Do unto others as you want GOD to do unto you.” Hearing that, does anyone suddenly have the urge to go forgive someone? If not, maybe you should because I dare say we all have someone about whom we still have hard feelings. Even though we may have forgiven, we many of us still have some bad feelings toward them… And as long as we imprison them in our unforgiveness or hard feelings, we are also imprisoning ourselves.
When it comes to forgiving completely, “Almost ain’t good enough”

We started out with we aren’t good enough BUT GOD says, “I love you and want you to come to me in prayer anyway.” So we pray with humility and we pray for grace in our treatment of others.
 Whether you think you are good enough or not, whether you are as forgiving as you should be; the bottom line is pray anyway. Because you may not be who you and God want you to be today, but prayer is the only way to open yourself up to the forming and transforming power of God. No matter where you are… just pray.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

"I would pray but ... god doesn't answer my prayers"

Watch the service here

We have heard some powerful stories of answered prayer today haven’t we? That is only scratching the surface. Probably every one of us has a story we could tell. These were chosen because they were pretty clear examples of how God answers prayer.
On the other hand, every single one of us also knows what “not-yet-answered” prayer is like. I prefer “not-yet-answered” to unanswered. We have all had the experience of praying and praying and waiting and waiting, and pleading and begging and it seems that nothing happens. Our most common response to so-called unanswered prayer is to blame God or guilt ourselves which just builds a wall between us and the only one who can answer prayer.
I often hear things like, “I prayed and prayed and God didn’t seem to care. If God cared, he would have healed my child.” Accusing God of not caring builds a wall between us and God.
I often hear things like, “I pray, but God doesn’t hear.” I’ll tell you, I know the feeling of having my voice echo back at me as if I was prying into a bucket. But to blame God for not listening builds a wall between us and God.
I have heard, “God must not be as powerful as I thought because God couldn’t get me that job I really wanted.” Can we really jump from “I didn’t get the job” to God can’t do it? That is a pretty big leap. And it just builds a wall between us and God.
If we keep thinking of “unanswered prayer” as a problem we continue to build bigger and bigger walls between us and God. That’s why I prefer “not-yet-answered” prayer.

We are not the first people to struggle with this.
How long did Abraham and Sara wait for a child? They got so impatient at one point that they took matters into their own hands and Ishmael was born. After 25 years … I said 25 years Isaac was born and God made good on his promise that Abraham and Sara would have a child.
In Psalm 66 that we read today, the Psalmist is trying to figure out why his prayer was not answered and he admits that there may be sin in his heart.
Job, who was among the most righteous of men, is the classic story of believing God wasn’t listening.
Although it is not technically prayer, we see in the gospels that Jesus sometimes denied the disciple’s requests.
At the transfiguration, the disciples tell Jesus “Let’s build tents and stay here to worship you.” Jesus replies no, I have other plans.
In Luke 9, we read about a Samaritan village that did not receive Jesus. James and John asked for fire to come down and consume it. Jesus said something like “I hope you are kidding! That is really not going to happen.”
In Mark 11, Jesus says “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
But when Jesus himself prayed so earnestly that his sweat was like “drops of blood falling to the ground,” he asked “Father let this cup pass from me. Please don’t make me go to the cross. God get me out of this, please!” Was Jesus prayer answered? Well, it would seem not, because 24 hours later he was in the tomb.
Did you ever think of that? Even Jesus who in the mystery of the incarnation was God in human skin… at least this one time, even Jesus’ prayer was not granted. Our struggle with not-yet-answered prayer seems to be is nothing new and we are in the best of company.

However, I want to reframe this today. You may be disappointed that I don’t give you a magic wand to wave in prayer, or magic words, or enchanted beans, or the deepest answers to this universal question. But I think it will be most helpful if, instead of talking about this as a “problem,” I talk about answered prayer as the intersection of a miracle and a mystery.

First, the miracle.
 We have to abandon the idea that prayer is a transaction as though God works for Amazon; we plug in our credit card number and God sends us whatever we order. We have to give up the idea that prayer is a system of merits and rewards in which we trade our goodness for access to God’s power.
You might say, I don’t believe that, but our trouble with not-yet-answered prayer betrays otherwise. I know where we get the idea of prayer as transaction. It is from passages like Mark 11:24 “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” That passage makes God sound like a cosmic vending machine. I want us to look a little further to see an expansion and clarification of that passage like John 15: 7 “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” John says the same thing “ask and you will receive” but the abiding language helps us to see prayer as a relationship.
When we give up the idea that prayer is somehow magical and embrace the miracle of prayer as relationship, it changes everything.
The first miracle is that God wants to be in relationship with us. It is an absolute miracle that the almighty God, the creator of the universe and each of us, the almighty and powerful God WANTS to be in relationship with us. But that is the wonderful character of God. From the mystery of the relationship within the Trinity to God’s desire to “Make people in our own image,” to God’s repeatedly seeking covenant with the people of Israel, to God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. The first mystery is the wonderful mystery of a God who wants to be in relationship with us.
The second mystery is that we are able to be in relationship with God. We who cannot comprehend the width or length, or heights or depths of God’s love[1] are created in God’s own image for one reason and one reason only. So that we can be in relationship with God.
Prayer then, is no longer a transaction. It is a relationship. Prayer can no longer be thought of like a business deal. It must be thought of as the miraculous relationship between creator and created, between father and son or daughter, between divine and human. Prayer is relationship.
So, think about all of the relationships in your life. Your parents, your children, your neighbors, business associates, and especially marriage partners. What does it take to maintain those relationships? What does it take to develop a relationship? How do we improve a relationship? Communication is the key to every relationship. Verbal, non-verbal, in writing, or by phone, by text, by email; every relationship is based on communication. All relationships exist on a continuum from being total strangers, to acquaintance, to friend, to partner, to the most intimate of relationships like marriage. And the way relationships develop, the way they grow, the way any relationship moves ahead on the continuum is by communication. I tell marrying couples that communication is the most important and the most difficult part of their relationship. The same is true for our relationship with God. 
Jesus makes it sound so simple “abide in Jesus.” Be in relationship with Jesus.
But think again about your many relationships. Are any of them easy? Are any simple? NO. Let me tell you no relationship is simple. Not even our relationship with God. Prayer is both the most important and most difficult part of our relationship with God. It takes time. It takes energy. It takes commitment. It takes persistence. But it is worth it because prayer (regardless of any results or no results) just the ability to be in relationship with God and prayer is nothing short of a miracle. The miracle of prayer.

I said we were going to reframe not-yet-answered prayer in terms of a miracle and a mystery. The miracle is our ability to be in relationship with and communicate with God. The mystery is God’s will and plan for us. To us, God’s ways are always a mystery.
Jesus acknowledges the mystery in the prayer that he taught the disciples. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s plan or God’s kingdom are a mystery far too deep for us to comprehend. God’s will is mystifying to us. I’d say that was true even for Jesus. At the rock in the garden, he prayed “if it be your will.” Apparently, God’s will was something of a mystery to him too.
What is God’s will in this situation or that? What is God’s will for this person or that? Is it God’s will that this person live or die? I don’t know. You don’t know. Apparently, even Jesus didn’t know some things. God’s will is a mystery.

If we reframe prayer as the miracle of divine relationship, and mystery of the divine will. Answered prayer, then, happens at the intersection of this miracle and this mystery.

How does that help us when it appears that our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling? How does that help us when our loved one dies anyway? How does that help us when we pray so hard that our sweat falls like drops of blood and we have nothing to show for it?
First, don’t give up. If your prayer has not happened yet, do not assume it can’t or won’t. God does not work on our timelines or on demand. Don’t give up. God says “my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”[2] Don’t give up. Don’t become fixated on the one not-yet-answered prayer. Don’t give up. Don’t let it become a wall between you and God, and don’t give up. Don’t give up on your prayer, and most importantly don’t’ give up on prayer in general. Keep the lines of communication open. Don’t give up.
Second, don’t try to place blame. Some will tell you that not-yet-answered prayer is your fault because you don’t have enough faith or you didn’t say the magic words. Don’t believe them. Others will tell you that God failed you. Don’t believe them. Some will tell you that there is no point in praying because God doesn’t care. Don’t believe them. I know blaming someone is the popular thing to do these days, everyone believes we need someone or something to blame. Don’t believe them.
Third, rather than give up or play the blame game go back and engage the miracle that is prayer. Not-yet-answered prayers should call us back to prayer. Not-yet-answered prayer should make us want to go back to God. Not-yet-answered prayer should encourage us to engage even more fully in the miracle of prayer. It should drive us more deeply to the heart of God. Seeking deeper and deeper communion with God and asking God to help us by shaping us to be more and more like him. As we grow closer and closer to God, our prayers will be shaped and molded to look more and more like God’s will. Engage in the miracle and you may find God changing your heart, changing your mind, changing your priorities but that’s ok. Being in relationship will change a person. So let not-yet-answered prayer be a call to engage even more deeply in the miracle of prayer.
Finally, Let not-yet-answered prayer be a reminder that God is God and you are not. Celebrate that the mystery. Celebrate that “God’s ways are higher than our ways and God’s thoughts higher than our thoughts.” Celebrate the mystery. Celebrate that we don’t understand all things, but we do understand one thing. Whether our prayers are answered the way we expect or not. We are loved more than we can imagine. God’s eternal love is a mystery beyond any human comprehension. Celebrate the mystery. We call that celebration AWE. Whether we understand God’s answers or not, we can celebrate that mystery by standing in AWE.
So, let’s stand in awe as we sing, "Lord, Listen to your children praying."

[2] Is 55:8-9

Sunday, September 23, 2018

I would pray but… isn’t it just like talking to myself? September 26, 2018 FUMC

I would pray but… isn’t it just like talking to myself.
September 26, 2018
Have you ever browsed the self-help aisle at the bookstore?  Here are a few choice selections…
Act Like a man, Think like a Lady… by who else but Steve Harvey,
 How to Poo on a date, the lover’s guide to toilet etiquette.
 How to write a “How to write” book.
 Or how about  How to lose a person’s interest in 10 seconds: the secret to having no friends by 2012
Really? Now, these are not representative of all the self-help books, but they illustrate how silly the self-help industry has become.
 Christianity is not a self-help religion. Our faith is actually based on the premise that we can’t help ourselves. When it comes to important things we are completely dependent. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”(John 15:5)
I would never deny that there are ways to improve our lives and I would never deny human free will. From a Christian perspective, however, “self-help” is an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp,” “Christian self-help” makes no sense.

 So, what are we to do?  We would do well to know the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous: “Admit that we are powerless.”
Imagine you are totally paralyzed and can do nothing for yourself but talk. And suppose a strong and reliable friend promised to live with you and do whatever you needed to be done. How could you show your gratitude to that friend if a stranger came to see you?
Would you honor his generosity and strength by saying, “I can do it myself” and trying to get out of bed to carry him on your shoulders like an MVP at the end of the game?
No! You would say, “Friend, please come lift me up, and would you put a pillow behind me so I can look at my guest? And would you please put my glasses on for me?” And then you would say something like “Thank you.  I don’t know what I would do without you.”
From that, your guest would see the generosity and dedication of your friend.

Friends, the truth is, as Jesus says, we can do nothing without him… at least not anything important. That doesn’t stop us from trying though does it?
We are driven by the urge to self-help. We try to live life on our terms. We try to fix ourselves, try to make our own decisions, and like 2-year-olds we cry, “I can do it myself.” But the truth is we are more paralyzed and powerless than we even realize.  Jesus doesn’t say “apart from me you can’t do much.”  He says “apart from me you can do nothing”… nada…zilch… zero. 
On the other hand, in Matthew 19 Jesus looked at the disciples and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Take your pick… nothing or all things… powerless or all power.  It is up to you.

 Even since I have started this series on prayer I have heard folks describe how strange prayer seems.
“Isn’t prayer just like talking to myself?”
“It is hard to talk to an invisible person.” 
“I just feel self-conscious and don’t know what to say.”
Let me tell you, prayer is as far from talking to yourself as you can get.
Prayer has nothing to do with talking to an invisible person.
There is no reason to feel self-conscious. Over ½ the people report praying daily, and ¾ pray at least once a month.

Last week I said that we were made to pray… this week I want to add we need to pray. Until we admit our powerlessness, we are alone…trying to do it ourselves. Once we admit our powerlessness, we can reach out to the one who is more powerful than we can imagine.

 Our story from Acts is a great example. Paul and Silas were in jail.  Let me tell you why. On Paul’s second missionary journey he left Caesarea and headed for modern day Turkey. As he made his way through turkey he seemed to be blocked in every direction. Then he had a dream of a  man from Macedonia standing on the shore calling to him.  He immediately set off toward Macedonia, modern-day Greece. There he met and baptized Lydia.
When he got to Philippi, there was a slave girl who worked for her master as a psychic. She kept bothering Paul. He eventually cast a demon out of her and she was no longer psychic.  Her master was furious and brought Paul up on some trumped up charges. The man incited the crowds against Paul and Silas and they were stripped, beaten, and imprisoned in a maximum security cell with leg irons and extra guards.
That’s where our scripture reading picks up. At midnight, they were still praying and singing.  The other prisoners were amazed… and probably a little irritated that they couldn’t sleep.
Then the miracle… as they were praying and singing there was a great earthquake… and every door in the prison flew open.  No accident I would say. I smell the hand of God there.  The prisoners could have run, but they didn’t.  When the jailer saw the doors all open he was about to take his life before the governor did it for him.  Paul said, “No, we’re all here.  No one has run.” 
The guard was amazed at the faith of these men and he asked, “What must I do to be saved.” They began to tell the guard about Jesus. The jailer took them to his house where they taught about Christ all night. In the morning they baptized his whole family.  The message Bible says “it was a night to remember.” I’ll bet it was.
But notice how powerless they were… in prison,  maximum security, leg irons, guards… powerless. Paul and Silas could have lost hope.  They would almost certainly die there, right?  Powerless.
They prayed. They didn’t lose hope.  They prayed and sang. Prayed and sang!
They were powerless. But they prayed right there in front of the guards and prisoners and everybody. They prayed because they believed in the power of prayer.
And what happened… an earthquake. Not just an earthquake. A huge powerful earthquake. And suddenly everything was different.  Paul and Silas were no longer prisoners. Neither were the others in jail.  The guard thought life was over but his life was saved, physically and spiritually by what? The power of prayer.  Paul and Silas’ prayer set in motion this whole chain of amazing events that ended with everyone being free, everyone being saved, everyone coming to Jesus.
 Prayer changes things. In this story, it changed everything, but it can change your life too.

What imprisons you? What has you cornered? What keeps you from being the best you can be? What holds you back? What doors won’t seem to budge?
Is it your attitude? A relationship that sucks the life from you?  Your job or one of your classes? The tricks your brain plays on you with depression or anxiety?  Is it an addiction? A compulsive worry? What is the name of your prison? Is it “unforgiveness,” “grief,” “fear,” “pain,” “envy?”  What shackles your legs and keeps you from jumping for joy? Is it business? Is it regrets? Is it .. good grief I don’t know. What is it that you need to change in your life?
Admit that you are powerless.  Admit that you need to pray. And let the power of God lose through prayer.
Don’t get me wrong. Prayer does not absolve us from doing everything we can including learning, and growing, and medical care, and taking responsibility, and doing our best. But my point is no matter how much you do you can’t change the world, other people, chronic illnesses, unforgiving friends, or a thousand other things.  You can’t change those things but God can… if we pray.
Maxie Dunam asked a question 35 years ago that has just haunted me. It has also driven me to an unshakable belief in the power of prayer. He asks “What if, there are some things that God will not or cannot change until people pray?” Just consider… what if?
 Far from talking to yourself or talking to the invisible man, prayer is the key for you to unlock the most powerful force in the universe. Prayer is the means by which God works in you, through you, around you, because of you, and even in spite of you to do his will on earth just as it is in heaven.  Prayer is the door through which God accesses your human imagination, your will, your knowledge, your cooperation, your relationships in order to make us and the people around us more like him. And prayer is the power by which God takes people like us and changes the world.

Your choice… sit in prison feeling sorry for yourself… or unleash the earthshaking, door jarring, chain breaking, prisoner freeing, life-changing power of prayer into your life and world. What will you do?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

September 16

I am not posting a text week because God worked on the sermon so drastically since I wrote it on Thursday.  Please go to the facebook feed  to watch the service to see this week's sermon. 

When it is posted on the website ( I think Vimeo) you can watch there too