Praying – and Acting – Boldly

I am indebted to retiring Bishop Murray Finck of the Pacifica Synod of the ELCA, whose wise words were the inspiration for my work below.  The idea that this prayer is one of persistence paired with action is his.

Sermon for July 24, 2016                   Bethlehem Lutheran Church               Mary Shaima

Text:   Luke 11:1-13

11He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3   Give us each day our daily bread.
4   And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

5 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” 7And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

 

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“Lord, teach us to pray.”

The disciples ask Jesus to “teach them as John [John the Baptist] taught his disciples.”

A simple enough request.

But there’s a seemingly small cultural detail here that is actually critical to the story: Hebrew culture at that time held that religious masters taught their students a short prayer that acted as a sort of “badge” to identify them as a student of the particular master.  Jesus’ disciples are very likely following that cultural norm, looking for a verbal identifier that they might share as students of this master.

Jesus – as is his custom – answers them to a far deeper extent, beginning by giving them the Lord’s Prayer.

Interestingly, though, the prayer that he teaches them has in itself become a verbal identifier for followers of Jesus.  “The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us,” as we also refer to it, is the most common prayer shared among Christians around the world and across the centuries.

In my conversations with many of you over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about this prayer and how easy it is to recite it from memory without truly engaging in praying it.  That can certainly be seen as nothing more than a verbal identifier.

But looking at this lesson within the context of Jesus’ teachings on discipleship within which we find ourselves, we can see that Jesus has a lot more to say than just answering a first-century version of a text.

(Which admittedly is a very amusing thing to ponder.  One can imagine today’s version of the Fourth Petition about daily bread manifesting in a text as “I can has cheeseburger?”)

But maybe that’s kind of the whole point here.  This prayer ISN’T just a verbal identifier.  It’s NOT just something we memorize in confirmation and then recite by rote for the rest of our lives.  Maybe this prayer IS meant for us to think about it in terms that make sense to us.

And maybe it’s meant to be a lot more too.

I used to wonder why this reading in the lectionary doesn’t stop after the Lord’s Prayer.  That would make my job a lot easier, right?  Just stick to what we know.  But after sitting uncomfortably with this lesson for some time now, I have come to realize that the portions from Luke that FOLLOW the Lord’s Prayer are what give it life.  These portions talk to us about both persistence, and being proactive.

When Jesus talks about the neighbor who asks late at night to borrow something for his guest, I’m reminded of when my son was very little, and I was still working from home.  I’d be deeply engaged in typing a legal brief, trying to make sure I had all the details correct.  This little voice would start next to me.

“Mom.”

(I was, as I said, paying attention to legal details and wanted to get to a place where I could break away.)

“Mom.  Moooommm.”

“Mom.  Mom.  Mom.  Mommy.”

And on and on, until I finally turned to him.  “Yes, Timmy?”

Tim modeled persistence.  He did not give up until I answered him.  He even texted me a funny video in the same vein not too long ago!

Here’s the thing with this story.  It’s a bit confusing until he Jesus sums it up in Verse 9: “Ask and you shall receive.”

The point here is not whether our friends, or us for that matter, would actually get up like the friend in the story.  Rather, it is that we have the freedom to be persistent and bold in our prayers to God.  In our first lesson, Abraham’s repeated requests to God – “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord” – are a good example.

Look at the sentence structure:  Ask, and you shall receive.

There are no qualifiers here.

It doesn’t read “IF you ask THEN you shall receive.”

No, it cuts right to the chase.  Ask and you shall receive.  Period, dot, end of sentence.  It’s the Nike approach to life: just do it.

Martin Luther claims this boldness in the Small Catechism, in his explanation of the Introduction of the Lord’s Prayer: “in order that we may ask him boldly and with complete confidence.”

Consider these petitions.  There are no qualifiers here, either.  This is a bold and direct prayer that asks God to be at work in this world.  It is also a bold and direct prayer by which we enter into deeper relationship with God, and by which we make a commitment to respond in action.

When we pray “hallowed be your name” we are asking God to be about things that bring honor to God’s name, just as much as we pray that WE might be about the same things.

When we pray “your kingdom come” we are realizing that we are in an “already/not yet” existence – remember, Jesus has been repeating “the kingdom of God has come near you” – and so we are asking God to continue to make that kingdom a reality.  At the same time, we are praying that our actions would be ones that embody the ideal of the kingdom of God.

When we pray “your will be done” we know that God’s gracious will is not dependent on whether or not we pray for it; as Lutherans one of our central beliefs is that God acts first.  But by praying this petition we are reminded, Luther tells us, “we ask…that it may also come about in us and around us.”  When we pray this petition, we are actively engaged in ongoing discernment: what is your will, O God?  What would you have me to do?

When we pray “give us this day our daily bread” this is where we really see the clear call to action as well as persistence.  Luther notes that “daily bread” extends to “everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies” and goes into an extended and particular list in the Small Catechism.  Our actions to provide food to the hungry, to house the homeless, to care for all children, to effect peace – these are ways that we pray this petition by our action.  As the hands and feet of Christ, we proclaim through our prayer-action that the kingdom of God has come near.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said, the gospel to a hungry man is a piece of bread.

When we pray “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” we embody love of neighbor, which Jesus called the greatest commandment.  The variety of translations is particularly helpful here.  The text from which we read translates thus:  “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”  Scholars tell us this is the most accurate translation from the Greek.  What does it mean that we ask God to treat our sins in the manner in which we treat those indebted to us?  This is a radical and bold call to a very counter-cultural way of thinking and operating.  Even when we consider the King James translation, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” it carries the same meaning.  A wise person once pointed out to me that this is the only conditional in this prayer: we are asking God to treat US based on the way we treat OTHERS.  What does that look like?  I think it’s something worth some real thought.

When we pray “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” it might be helpful here as well to look at the more accurate translation “save us from the time of trial”, because this is a place where our English language can be less than helpful.  Our cultural norm of temptation is, I think, bluntly stated by the bumper sticker which reads “Lead me not into temptation.  I can find it myself.”  I want to suggest that we abandon this way of thinking, regardless of the words we speak.  “The time of trial” is far more encompassing of the slings and arrows that come our way and that assault our world day after day.  We may be at fault for some of these things – but we may also NOT be at fault.  We may simply be trying to get through a day that began with an appliance malfunction, and that ended with the phone call we’ve been dreading.  In this petition we pray that God will continue to keep God’s promises and walk with us.  We also pray for our own persistence in the face of trials, and that we might model persistence when walking with our neighbor through their trials.

Dear brothers and sisters, what does it look like when we pray this prayer boldly?  When we LIVE this prayer boldly?  When after we have spoken it, we go out into the world and take the chance of living into the reality this prayer imagines?

Perhaps as well as praying for a friend who is sick, we would visit them.  Bring them a treat.

Perhaps as well as praying for an end to violence, I would visit a police station and let them know I am praying for them.  Get to know my neighbors, including my neighbors of color, and listen to their joys and struggles.  (And, I would bring all of them treats too.)

Because sometimes prayers are treats.

Sometimes, prayers are words.  Words spoken in confidence, in fear, in desperation, and in joy. Words spoken alone, or words spoken here together as the body of Christ.

Sometimes, prayers are silence.  Or sighs too deep for words.

And sometimes prayers are actions.  Actions of peacemaking.  Actions of truth-telling.  Actions of love.

Dear friends, prayer is another one of those “both/and” things.  Jesus has a theme going here, that is for sure.  We pray with our words, and we pray with our selves.  We are persistent, and we are proactive.

God calls us to embody what Paul writes to the church at Colossus:

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

It is for us to live into that for which we pray boldly, and live even more boldly.  Luther allegedly said “grace abounds – sin boldly.”  This is what I think he actually meant – when we are centered in Christ, we are bold to say the prayer Jesus taught us, and we are bolder still to go out with God and live that prayer into being.  And if we mess up – well, grace abounds!  Try again, another way.  GRACE.  ABOUNDS.

Jesus tells his disciples, and he tells us:  Here is a good prayer.  But it is not just words in your mouth.  When these words in your mouth become mercy and justice in your hands, then the prayer is fulfilled.  God is with you, and pours the Spirit upon you.  So pray boldly.  Act even more boldly.  Grace abounds!

Thanks be to God.

Gathering as Spirit-Work

 

Every time we gather as a community in Christ, we believe it is by the working of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit calls us together as the people of God.

This could be for worship – for service – or for fun!  But it is the Spirit at work that generates the energy to make it happen.

The “Gather” portion of worship is one that probably sees the most change from season to season, or even week to week.  Very little is considered essential here – only a Greeting and a Prayer of the Day.  Depending on local context and custom, this may be augmented with announcements, an entrance or gathering hymn, confession & forgiveness, and a number of other possibilities.

As a liturgist – someone who studies and prepares worship for the people of God in this place – I have specific questions that I ask when I am shaping and curating the Gather portion of worship.  I’ll want to know what season of the church year, as well as what season of the calendar year, we are in.  What are the lessons today?  What is the general mood in the community?  The answers to these questions help us decide if we’ll sing a Hymn of Praise, or perhaps have a Thanksgiving for Baptism.

As I work on my diaconal project this summer, I have collected more ideas to help shape this and other parts of worship – they are the things I’ve been referring to each week as the “seeds for thought” in the project.  You may recall they are the things we discover in worship, and the skills we develop in worship.

When we gather as the people of God, we discover awareness in new ways:

  • Awareness of the presence of God. Being reminded that it is God’s Spirit that brings us together helps us discover this.  But other things do as well, including the building itself, the sense of community, and the sacraments of Baptism and/or Holy Communion.
  • Awareness of the presence of one another. This might seem obvious – we’re all in one place together!  However, in our highly individualized society this is something that people tend to retreat from; when we engage in worship together we become aware not only of one another’s presence, but our cadence in speaking, how and when we take a breath, and the vigor of our singing.  We also might hear the quiet noise of an oxygen tank, or the happy noise of a little person.  All of this brings us into a heightened awareness of the body of Christ.
  • An awareness of who’s not here.  This could be the couple who always sits in the fourth pew from the front on the right, and you haven’t seen them for a few weeks.  It might be the person who you thought might have recovered from surgery by now.  It might be the family with young children that visited last month.  It might be our next-door neighbors, or the folks in your community who some might call “other.”  What might this look like in your context?  What does it suggest?

When we gather as the people of God, we develop particular skills as well:

  • Skills of pastoral care. Certainly, pastoral care is a large part of the call of the pastor and other called ministry professionals.  But it’s also a part of everyone’s call – what we also know as vocation, which is the work we carry out in the world in response to God’s grace in Christ.  As Lutherans, we also see vocation as something that happens as a result of our baptism.  As we gather, we greet one another and ask how our week has been.  We might help a visitor find the restrooms, or get them a hearing device if they need one.  “Pastoral care” is a phrase that really means being Christ to one another.
  • Skills of evangelism. In our tense political environment, any derivative of the word “evangelical” seems to carry baggage.  This is too bad!  Evangelii, the root word, means good news.  When we in the ELCA speak of “evangelism” we are speaking of sharing the good news.  This takes a myriad of forms!  As we gather, this skill is one that we learn to help us share and tell our stories and the stories of our faith.  It’s also a skill that helps us learn to listen to others’ stories.  Think of “good news” as simply that:  GOOD NEWS.  Something you hear that is good.  No strings attached!  Hint: pastoral care is a beautiful form of evangelism.
  • Skills of remembering. As we gather for worship, we might remember all kinds of things.  The words we speak, the actions we do together, the architecture of the building – all can carry memories for us.  But perhaps this is our first time in church.  There are no memories here.  Gathering gets memories started, and this is usually what I tell “seasoned professionals” when the question is raised of doing something different all the time.  I don’t think getting rid of EVERYTHING that some of us know by heart is a good thing.  Those words have been with us for centuries for a reason.  But in a both/and world (my favorite) I think it’s particularly effective for us to utilize worship elements that have been around for a very long time, as well as elements that are as new as possible.  What we can do to help develop the skill of remembering, is to enable learning about these elements whenever possible.
  • Skills of recognizing the communion of saints. “The communion of saints” is a thing – it’s not just a phrase in the ecumenical creeds.  The communion of saints is all the saints the Spirit has gathered for worship in this time and place – AND all the others that the Spirit has gathered in other times and places, all over the world – PLUS the saints that have died.  It’s a very powerful picture.  Artist John August Swanson has interpreted this as “The Procession” in which folks of all times and places are gathering in procession.

http://www.johnaugustswanson.com/default.cfm/PID=1.2-22.html

  • The Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco has an icon painted completely around its rotunda, entitled “The Dancing Saints.”  These are folks who have gone before us – as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr. and Julian of Norwich – with Jesus leading the dance.

dougs-st-gregory-of-nyssa-rotunda_mg_6320

Christ dancing DSC00916 (1000x750)

In the part of our worship called “Gather” each of the things we do together involves the things we discover and the skills we develop.  These things help us to enter fully into God’s presence and each other’s presence.  They are reminders that we are church – we are Lutheran – we are church together – and we are church for the sake of the world.

My favorite gathering hymn at the moment is a modern Dutch text wedded to an old Dutch tune:  “What Is This Place”  (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #524; text, Huub Oosterhuis, tr. David Smith; tune, A. Valerius, Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck, 1626, arr. Adrian Engels).  I think you will see in this evocative poetry images of much of what I’ve written above.

What is this place where we are meeting?

Only a house, the earth its floor.

Walls and a roof sheltering people,

windows for light, an open door.

Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here

and know our God is near.

 

Words from afar, stars that are falling,

sparks that are sown in us like seed:

names for our God, dreams, signs and wonders

sent from the past are all we need.

We in this place remember and speak again what we have heard:

God’s free redeeming word.

 

And we accept bread at this table,

broken and shared, a living sign.

Here in this world, dying and living,

we are each other’s bread and wine.

This is the place where we can receive what we need to increase:

our justice and God’s peace.

 

Thanks be to God for sending the Holy Spirit to gather us into such a place!

Some of Bethlehem’s ministries that I see as growing from “Gather” are our support of Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran World Federation, our Wellness ministries including yoga and tai chi, and our Chancel/Altar Care group.  You may have ideas on this too!

Thanks for reading.  Blessings on your week.

Both/And

 

Sermon for July 17, 2016, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Encinitas, CA.

Text:  Luke 10:38-42

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

 

A somewhat familiar text, is it not?

I don’t mean familiar in terms of familiarity with this particular section of Luke’s gospel.  I mean familiar in terms of the picture on the surface of sibling rivalry (not to mention a bit of triangulation, just to spice it up a bit).

Sibling rivalry is an age-old device of literature, a guaranteed way to establish conflict in a story, all the way back to Cain and Abel.  Those of us of a certain age might recall that infamous Brady Bunch episode, where Jan is jealous of her older sister:  “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”

You may have heard this story as Jesus chiding Martha for being too busy, or Jesus pitting Martha against Mary.

But these are distractions.  They keep us from the one thing.  This “one thing” is neither the contemplative life NOR the active life.  It is something deeper.

I want to suggest that there is far more going on here.  This story comes to us in the midst of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.  We’ve had teachings the last few weeks on discipleship – both the gifts and the costs – and Jesus pauses here to examine another facet of discipleship.

The story immediately preceding this in Luke’s gospel is the parable of the Good Samaritan, which asks “Who is my neighbor?”  It’s the parable of selfless service given by the one least expected to do so.

So in that vein, one might wonder: why would Jesus consider Martha’s service “less than”?  Didn’t he himself come to serve?  Hasn’t he been talking AT LENGTH about the importance of serving the neighbor?  What gives, Jesus?

But if we turn these words over a few times, this is where we start to see that the story is layered.  Jesus is saying far more than just the words translated to us on the page.

Last week when Jesus said “go and do likewise” he said it to the LAWYER.  Not to those who might be expected to “do likewise.”  Jesus has already begun to dismantle the gender roles and status quo that prevent people from living fully into who God has created them to be.  With Mary and Martha, Jesus keeps going down this road.  Instead of a word that compares – and therefore diminishes – Jesus brings a word that liberates and ultimately, completes.

Martha was the householder, and therefore the one according to Torah who was obligated to provide hospitality to the traveler.  This was an integral part of how God’s people lived together.  It’s hard to argue with that obligation; it’s a good way to operate.  However, the role of server had come to be identified in the household by way of gender terms – relegated to women.  The role of the student, the learner, on the other hand, was not just relegated, but RESTRICTED to men.

Now, in this story we aren’t entirely sure that welcoming Jesus meant welcoming all the disciples as well.  But let’s imagine for a moment that it did – that Martha’s house is now full.

That Mary is sitting in the company of MEN at Jesus’ feet.  That she is not doing what is expected of her.  That she is out of bounds.

Martha, on the other hand, is keeping Torah and extending hospitality.  She is doing precisely what is expected of her.  She is in bounds.

But Jesus doesn’t work in boundary-defined ways.

Jesus did not tell the seventy, when he sent them out, that they could only say “the kingdom of God has come near to you” to the people who received them.  NO.

That proclamation was for EVERYONE.

So here Jesus proclaims that sitting and listening at his feet is for everyone.

It’s a both/and dichotomy, both men AND women.

But make no mistake, when Jesus says all can sit at his feet, he is also saying that all can serve.  All can help welcome the guest.  All can set the table.  All can replace the toilet paper roll (thankfully there is no mention of the endless debate about paper over or paper under).  In short, ALL can participate FULLY in the kingdom.  Both. And.

Both/and was a dream when I was younger.  I remember the marches for civil rights.  I remember organizing for women’s rights.  I’m not that old (really I’m not!) but for perspective, the year I was born women had only had the right to vote for forty years.

Full inclusion and participation in our society by all people is still beyond us to a degree, laws notwithstanding.

But 2000 years ago, Jesus proclaimed full inclusion and participation.  Not as a political agenda, but as a natural progression from the freeing word of the gospel.

Jesus holds this teaching together with the importance of being centered in the Word.  The Greek is “logos” which really means living Word, personified and incarnate in Jesus the Christ.

This “centered in the Word” – this is the one thing.  Centered in the living Word.  Centered in this Jesus who proclaims when he unrolls the scroll in the synagogue that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…..to set the captives free…..to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Centered in the Word is what it means to be free.  Centered in the liberating grace of God through Christ who sets us free.  Free to listen.  Free to act.  Free to serve.  Free to rest.  Free to discern and ask questions.  Free to break out of the restrictions that limit and oppress.  Free to live fully as a child of God, and use our gifts in all the ways we feel called to do.

And free to make plenty of room for others to do likewise.

But this freedom seems far off sometimes.

Our world today is an out-of-control version of Martha’s state of being in this story.

Our world is indeed “distracted by many things.”

There isn’t much room being made for folks to be free.

We are “distracted by many things.”  Things that obscure our vision.  Impair our hearing.  Impede our pathways.

Things that make us AFRAID of one another.

Dear sisters and brothers, I don’t need to reiterate the ever-growing list of these distractions.  We are painfully reminded of it, every day.  We KNOW what the “many things” are.

Yet in the midst of the distractions of this chaotic word, now as then, Jesus continues to remind us of the one thing that holds us together.

The one thing, the “better thing” that Jesus mentions isn’t a particular choice of action OR contemplation.  Those are both legitimate choices at particular times, within a life that is centered in the risen Christ.  Centered in and sent out from an encounter with the living God.  This is the one thing.

When that is our center, then the idea that we are ALL freed to serve the neighbor strips away the gender roles, the societal expectations, the SHOULDS that keep us all from discerning deeply and faithfully what God would have us do.

In my training to become a diaconal minister – a deacon – action and contemplation are expected to be held together.  They are complementary; one without the other is incomplete.  The word “deacon” comes from the Greek diakonia, which means “service among others”.  That service is incomplete without a centeredness in Christ.  The action of service is paired with the reflection of contemplation and worship, so that each serves the other.

This is why, before we go out on Bethlehem Serves Day in August, we spend time in worship together.  It’s also why we talk about the day and share pictures from it the week after.  And this is the crux of my entire diaconal project:  our worship of the Triune God, our time in contemplation together, forms and transforms us for service to the neighbor.  For worship rendered as action in the world.  One leads to the other, and back again – and they continue in cyclical fashion.  Action, and reflection.

Jesus speaks a word this day that removes the “shoulds” from our lives, and envisions the “coulds.”  Instead of comparison, Jesus points us to completion, to fullness.

This is a word that gives us space to be, and prompts us to make such space for all.  A space that holds first the logos.  The living Word.

On the days when the distractions are many and increasingly terrifying, let us be reminded of the one thing that is the essential element of discipleship: to be centered in Christ.  To take a step back, and take time to rest.

To breathe deeply.           To listen.

And then, from that center – go forth to serve.

Let it be so.

Word

 

I’ve skipped a week here on the blog because we just wrapped up Vacation Bible School (VBS) last weekend.  A week of 15-plus hour days can wipe you out!

But of course the reward is seeing so many kids (over a hundred!) hear and understand that they are beloved children of God.  And the double reward is realizing that without our teenagers, VBS wouldn’t even happen.  They are largely responsible for the leadership and design of the entire week.  The best part?  At the end of one of those 15-hour days, they were gathered in the “Kid Vid” room playing Settlers of Catan and eating Klondike bars.  I love those kids.

So this week, I’m back on track.  Tomorrow I’m preaching on the Lukan text of Mary and Martha, and I’m going in a different direction than the usual one of dissing Martha for being, well, a Martha.  Instead, I see the text as liberative.  More on that in my next post.

The section of worship I’m focusing on today is Word.  This is the second part in the Gather-Word-Meal-Send framework, and as I’ve already mentioned, baptism, prayer and peace sit over and weave through all four.

The part called “Word” is where we listen and respond to the logos, the living Word of God.  While many of our discoveries and developments in liturgy thus far have been vigorous and active, our seeds today are more contemplative – appropriate for our gospel text.

What do we discover when we listen and respond to the Word?

*We discover how to listen for God in Scripture.  This can be quite a challenge.  Is God speaking directly?  Through a person?  In nature?  In my preaching class, one of the critical questions we’re taught to ask of the text is: what is God saying and/or doing in the text?

*We discover how to listen for God in every conversation.  This can take the form of what some call “God moments” where the incarnate Word is manifested in the everyday conversation and activity of our lives.  It’s also a way to listen deeper when the conversation is difficult.

*We discover how to listen for God in silence.  My congregation has begun to have Centering Prayer every Monday at 4:30 PM, and many people are enjoying the discipline of sitting together in silence, following a rule of centering prayer.  We have also started making intentional space for silence in worship – for example, between the second reading and the gospel acclamation, or after the sermon.  This was something I observed and learned when I taught music and worship at a Catholic school – the priest emphasized that it was important to take a few moments to let what had been proclaimed sink into our hearts.

What skills do we develop when we listen and respond to the Word?

*We develop skills of listening.  This is a critical skill that is not well-developed in our society today.  As racism has begun to rear its ugly head again in the United States, our brothers and sisters of color have implored us to begin being allies by simply listening.  So many times we hear two or three words of something and think we’ve got to jump in with our ideas, our opinions, or our solutions.  This isn’t helpful; we cannot possibly know their experience.  Developing the skill of active listening is invaluable.

*We develop skills of telling.  By this I mean we learn how to tell the story.  It might be the story in the Scripture reading, or it might be another story.  “Go and tell” said Jesus.  Here’s the difference, though, when we tell a gospel story: we are telling good news.  There are stories in the four gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and there are also gospel stories that tell good news outside of those four books of the Bible.  Hint: you’ll find such gospel stories in some very unexpected places.

*We develop skills of discerning prophetic hope.  This might seem like a distant thing, only accessible to one who can speak in a prophetic voice.  But I think that in our listening and responding, we begin to live the Word, and it is that lived, incarnate experience that helps us make the connections between Word and life that are essential for that prophetic hope.  It might be one word in a reading, or it could be an entire chapter of a book, but the repeated listening combined with experience reveals hope in new ways and in new places.  I like to imagine what it might look and sound like if two generations read a passage of Scripture to one another, and then each spoke of what they heard in it and what hope they found in it.

*We develop the scope of truth, revelation, history, and tradition.  These four categories of our life together might seem easy to define at the outset, but diving into the Word week after week brings us to new horizons with each one.  We learn that truth is not limited to what Jesus might say – it encompasses actions and what he doesn’t say as well.  In listening to stories from the prophets of the Old Testament, we realize that revelation isn’t limited to the last book of the New Testament.  This is one of the reasons why good Bible studies are so invigorating – you find yourself wrestling with the text in ways that are challenging as well as liberating.

All of these come into play in our texts this week, in a variety of ways:

In the Old Testament lesson, we read of the visitors to Abraham and Sarah.  This is an aspect of tradition (hospitality to strangers was expected) but it’s also a story involving revelation – that Sarah will have a baby.

In the Colossians reading, the expansive description of Jesus the Christ brings us truth and revelation, “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.”

The gospel account of Mary and Martha touches on all four: Jesus speaks truth when naming how one can be “distracted by many things.”  The history and tradition are present in the gender-restricted roles of server and hearer, but the revelation comes in Jesus’ assertion that the one thing, being rooted in and listening to the Word, is for all people – not just men.  Likewise, being in service to the neighbor is for all people, not just women – as we saw in last week’s parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus said “go and do likewise” to the lawyer – even though he was of an upper class, and male, he was created for service, as are we all.

When we say “Word” it’s not limited to the printed words on the page.  The Gospel of John tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  (Emphasis mine.)  This is the Greek word logos – the living Word of God, Jesus.

Bethlehem has a number of ministries that seem to me to be generated in Word:  Liturgical Arts – Readers – Global Music Ensemble – Children’s Chimers – Good News Singers – Handbells – Second Sabbath.

What other ministries might you see as coming from Word?

Hymn writer Ruth Duck has penned beautiful words that sit in the space between the hearing of the Word and the doing of the Word:

 

You are called to tell the story, passing words of life along,

Then to blend your voice with others, as you sing the sacred song.

Christ be known in all our singing, filling all with songs of love.

 

You are called to teach the rhythm of the dance that never ends,

Then to move within the circle, hand in hand with strangers, friends.

Christ be known in all our dancing, touching all with hands of love.

 

You are called to set the table, blessing bread as Jesus blessed,

Then to come with thirst and hunger, needing care like all the rest.

Christ be known in all our sharing, feeding all with signs of love.

 

May the One whose love is broader than the measure of all space

Give us words to sing the story, move among us in this place.

Christ be known in all our living, filling all with gifts of love.

 

“You Are Called to Tell the Story”, text by Ruth Duck, b. 1947.  © 1992, GIA Publications, Inc.  All rights reserved.

Peace-Sharing (Beyond the Handshake)

 

Last week we looked at prayer as something that weaves through and is integral to all of our worship.  Sharing peace operates in much the same way.

It’s present in one form or another – literally or as an attitude – throughout our liturgy.  We know it, of course, by what we do after the prayers and before the offering is collected and the table is prepared.

But I want to help us think about what sharing peace looks like besides that point in worship.

What do we discover when we share peace?

*Proclaiming reconciliation as something just as necessary as daily bread.

This is a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry on earth.  He is clear about what is the greatest commandment: love your neighbor as yourself.  Notice that there’s two dimensions to that love: not only loving your neighbor, but loving yourself.

This isn’t a narcissistic, self-absorbed kind of love – rather, it is accepting that you are a beloved child of God.  That’s a type of reconciliation in itself, and it’s what we mean when we talk about being reconciled to God.  It’s important to remember that it is not OUR action that does the reconciling, but God’s.  Our action in Confession and Forgiveness acknowledges that God always moves first towards us and forgives, loves, and reconciles.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves means that we understand the loving and reconciling movement of God is not only towards us, but towards every person.  That is the basis for reconciliation with one another.

(Note: I want to make it clear that in the case of toxic/dangerous relationships or situations, reconciliation is a far more complicated matter and cannot be either assumed or forced.)

*Forgiveness as the ultimate unity of grace and truth.

“Truth-telling” is a term that is being used quite a bit these days.  As we utilized it in discussions in seminary, it meant speaking truth about situations but within the context of community.  In other words, we know it is important to be honest and truthful in our words and actions, but we also know that a sense of care needs to accompany that truth.  Scripture calls it “speaking the truth in love”.  Unfortunately, that in itself can be used as a weapon to advance one’s own interests.  The community aspect is critical.  If a community can make space for truth-telling in a healthy atmosphere, that space continues to expand to make room for grace – God’s gift of love and forgiveness to us in Christ.  I see it more as an ongoing process than a one-time event.

*The ability to enter into community.

By sharing peace, we initiate the creation of making space and room for our life together.  This happens all the way through worship, from the time we arrive at our worship space to when we leave.  It’s a way of living fully into our sign out front that proclaims “all are welcome.”  True welcome, real hospitality, always involves sharing – not only material things but our existence.

This doesn’t just happen when everything is going well.  When we share a peaceful existence regularly with others, we discover how deeply that communal existence goes when we need support in difficult times.  When we share peace regularly, we have words “at the ready” for the times when we don’t know what to do, and we have actions when there are no words.

 

What skills do we develop when we share peace?

*Skills of admonition and truth-telling.

As I mentioned above, this is an ongoing process, and one that has to be accompanied by care and love.  Whether it’s in community or one-on-one, if we frame this learning within the context of sharing peace then we establish a gracious and caring framework first.

*Skills of forgiveness.

These are probably the hardest skills to develop, but they are critical in all of life.  This is distinct from “forgive and forget” which can keep us from the learning that comes from life experiences.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean we forget something – it means we release that thing’s ability to have a negative impact on us.

*Skills of ongoing cultivation of relationships.

A couple of Sundays ago we had “name tag Sunday” where we put our name AND our favorite vacation spot on the tag.  I watched folks circulate a bit more during sharing of peace, and I heard lots of conversation afterwards with people who got to know one another based on a shared favorite spot.  When we understand “sharing peace” more broadly, it opens lots of possibilities.

*Skills of dis-empowering systems of oppression by peaceful means.

This past weekend, Elie Wiesel died at the age of 87.  Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the author of Night that recounted his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  His life’s work became speaking against oppression and indifference – working to peacefully dismantle oppression.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi emphasized non-violent, peaceful resistance as the means of disempowerment of oppressive systems.  I also think of the actions undertaken in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu convened the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Through a peaceful venue of truth-telling, space was made for reconciliation.  It has been a difficult road, to be sure, but the significance of a starting place of peace cannot be overstated.

*Practice of virtues of mercy, forbearance, honesty, humility, patience, and courage.

These might not come to mind on Sunday morning when we share the peace.  However, when we take that sharing out into the world, we are called into a vast array of places and situations to be a voice and presence of peace.  We practice on Sunday to serve through the week.

Jesus reminds us in scripture, in the Sermon on the Mount, that we are to “first be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  Bringing an offering for the work of the church in the world is important, but just as important is face-to-face, interpersonal connection – in other words, RELATIONSHIP.

Sharing peace helps us learn to build relationship and community here as a community of faith, and then do likewise outside our walls.  It is the active realization of, and our deep belief in, the potential for our prayers to take hold in our world; to live what it means to say, “the kingdom of God has come near to you.”

I came across this quote from Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro that for me states it clearly:

“Hospitality is essential to spiritual practice.  It reminds you that you are part of a greater whole.  Putting others first puts you in the midst of life without the illusion of being the center of life.”

It’s another way of expressing what Pastor Laura preached on Sunday: being centered instead of balanced.  If we are centered in Christ, then we are in the midst of life by Christ’s freeing us to love and serve the neighbor.

It takes “sharing the peace” to an entirely new level.