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Gifted

Preached October 13, 2013

Texts:  John 14:15-17, 25-27; Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13

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In two weeks – on the last Sunday in October – the Protestant Church will celebrate Reformation Sunday.  We don’t generally mark the day much in our congregation, except perhaps to sing the great Martin Luther hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  But it is a part of our history, nonetheless.

The day remembers Martin Luther’s posting of now-famous 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The theses challenged the status quo and called for renewal within the church, and sparked what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation was build around three core beliefs:

  • Sola Scriptura – the Bible is the final Christian authority.
  • Sola Fide & Sola Gratia – salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone – not earned through good works
  • Solo Christo – Jesus Christ is the only intermediary we need to approach God; our relationship with God does not depend on another human person.

This last point is often called “the priesthood of all believers,” drawing on language used in 1 Peter 2:9:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  

Following Martin Luther’s lead (and the teachings of Scripture!), we in the Protestant tradition believe that we can approach God directly. We can pray directly to God, and listen for God’s voice.  We do not have to send a representative, as the Israelites sent Moses up on Mount Sinai in Exodus; God can and does speak to any and all of us “regular people” right down here on the ground.  We have God’s ear.  We are “a royal priesthood…a people belonging to God.”

We have tended to forget, however, the other side of  being a priest.  Moses approached God on the people’s behalf – but he also spoke to the people on behalf of God.  Priesthood goes both ways – carrying people to God, and carrying God to people.

1 Peter recognizes this two-way nature of priesthood:   we are priests “so that we may declare the praises of him who called you…”  And just a little bit further in the passage, it adds:  so that others “may see your good deeds and glorify God…” (1 Pet 2:12).

This means that every one of us – ordained or not, new to following Jesus or lifelong Christian – every one of us is a minister and a priest.  Every one of us has a role to play in bringing the world to God, and God to the world.  Every one of us has a God-given gift to share.

Yet somehow, as the church grew in complexity and bureaucracy, we lost sight of this truth.  Somehow along the way, ministry became “the pastor’s job” and church became a place we go rather than who we are.

You know, I wonder sometimes if God looks at us and shakes his head with the sort of combined bemusement and frustration that a parent feels when a toddler opens a gift and then wants to play with the box instead.  You know what I mean:  when you’re sitting on the floor trying to show a child the lights and sounds of their new toy, and they are more interested in the wrapping paper!

I suspect that is how God feels when we consider church as another place we go, rather than who we are.  I suspect that’s how God feels when he gives us Spirit-inspired gifts, and we fail to use them because “I wouldn’t be good at it,” or “surely there are enough other people to do the job,” or “my life is too full to make time for another committee.”

Thankfully, God accepts that we will be distracted, and continues to draw our attention back to the gifts we have been given.  Jesus told his disciples, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

Sometimes the Holy Spirit reminds us of our gifts with that little tug inside whenever we hear about a particular need or ministry.  Or maybe the Holy Spirit reminds us with the passions that rise up in us – passion to feed people, or to care for children, or to bring healing.

This morning, we were reminded again through the membership vows, in which we promise to uphold the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service.  And we were reminded by the words of Ephesians, where it says that each one of us is “called” and “prepared…for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:4, 12).

The Holy Spirit continues to remind us that followers of Jesus – all of us, not just a few – are called and prepared and gifted for service to God, and to the world!  The Bible teaches that when we follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit plants and nurtures within us particular gifts that build up the Body of Christ and point other people toward God.

Some of those gifts are named in Ephesians – gifts of evangelism, telling others good news about God’s love; pastoring and teaching, nurturing the faith of others; prophecy, speaking truth clearly in a world of many meaningless words.  There are other gifts listed elsewhere in Scripture – gifts like:

  • assistance or “helps”, caring for the day-to-day, behind-the-scenes jobs;
  • administration, bringing order to our work together;
  • healing, leading others to wholeness and health;
  • leadership, guiding and equipping others for service
  • discernment, hearing God’s voice in the midst of the clamor of our lives
  • mercy, caring for hurting people with compassion and gentleness
  • giving, joyfully sharing the resources we have
  • hospitality, making others feel welcome and invited in

And the list could continue!  No scholar that I know of argues that the lists of gifts in the Bible are exhaustive; they are examples, but the Spirit may give many other gifts too!

The point is that there are particular gifts that you bring to this Body that are needed for us to “come to maturity” as the Body of Christ in this place and time (Ephesians 4:13).  For our congregation to grow and flourish and multiply – as healthy, mature things do – then each of us must use our gifts in service to others.  Every single one of us has a part to play.

And the best part?  The best part is that when we find our place – when we use the particular gifts God has given us to serve others and build up the Body of Christ – then our service becomes a joy.  It fills us up and energizes us for more, rather than draining our energy away.  It may take a great deal of effort, but it isn’t hard.  We serve naturally and joyfully when we use our God-given gifts.

Next Sunday, on Laity Sunday, we celebrate the gifts that God places in each one of us, and the ways that we come together to accomplish a common mission.  We will share an update on our Miracle Sunday offering and the next steps for our Emerging Vision.  You’ll see the way that some of our members are discovering and using their gifts in leading us toward the future.  And you’ll be invited to discover and use your gifts as we grow and mature together.

The invitation today is to pray through the week about how God is calling and preparing you for works of service in our life together.  Go to a home group (see times and places in your bulletin) and talk about the varieties of spiritual gifts.  Affirm in someone else the gifts you see in them.  And we’ll see you next week!

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Where Your Treasure Is

Preached October 6, 2013

Texts:  Proverbs 11:24-28; Matthew 6:19-33

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51 women are fresh back this morning from the 2013 Women of Faith weekend in Pittsburgh.  It was an event with great bands, musicians, and speakers…with powerful preaching…those girls can preach!

Saturday morning began with preacher Sheryl Brady.  She came out dressed in pink, with streaked blonde hair and high heeled boots.  She was all energy!  She preached, she sang, she shouted, she bounced all over the stage – she brought it!  And she finished to a standing ovation. 

As the crowd found their seats again, the next speaker was introduced:  Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian (cha-VI-jin).  He came on stage in blue jeans and a black shirt, and went straight to the podium, where he arranged his notes carefully and slowly opened his Bible.  Then he looked up at the crowd and said:  “I want to know whose bright idea it was to put the Presbyterian after the Pentecostal?!”

I have to say, I feel a bit that way this morning!  The preaching and the worship and the music at Women of Faith were inspirational – and made even better by being together with 50 other women from the congregation.  It was a great weekend!

And somehow, I’m supposed to stand up this morning and follow all of that?  And not only follow it, but follow it with a sermon about money?!?  Whose bright idea was this, anyway?! 

Ah, well.  But here we are – three weeks into our Disciple’s Path series, looking at the ways that we follow Jesus in the United Methodist tradition.  In the first two weeks, we considered how we support the church with our prayers and our presence.  This week, we look at the ways we support the church with our gifts – most specifically, our financial gifts.

You know, we said in week one that asking for a volunteer to pray out loud is the fastest way to suck the air out of a room.  Well, let me tell you, the second fastest way is to bring up the topic of money in church. 

There are all kinds of reasons that we feel uncomfortable talking about money.  Here are a few I hear often:  “Finances are a private matter.”  “No one should know who gives what.”  “We wouldn’t want to make anyone feel badly because they can’t afford to give.”  “What I give is between me and God.”  And I could go on…

But here’s the thing, folks.  Money is too important in our lives and our world not to talk about it!  In fact, our resistance to talking about money demonstrates just how important it really is.  A couple of years ago, I heard a speaker challenge the church’s silence on the subject of money with these words: 

“When one finds oneself in the presence of one’s god, the first human response is silence.” 

He went on to describe the ways that people responded to the presence of God in the Bible: 

  • At the burning bush, Moses hides his face in fear (Exodus 3).  
  • When Isaiah has a vision of God on the throne of heaven, he realizes the utter inadequacy of human words and cries out, “Woe to me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6).
  • When Zechariah the priest saw an angel, he learned he would father a son named John – but he couldn’t share his good news because he was struck silent (Luke 1:22).
  • When Paul encountered the risen Christ on the Damascus Road, his eyes and mouth are glued shut for three days (Acts 9).

And so it goes.

“When one finds oneself in the presence of one’s god, the first human response is silence.” That ought to make us think twice when we argue that finances are a private matter, one that shouldn’t be spoken of in church.

So then what should the church have to say about money? 

First, I think we need to admit that money has power over us.  Jesus knew it:  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” he tells his disciples, and us (Matthew 6:21).  Not, “where your heart is, your treasure will follow.”  But, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” 

In other words, the way we use our money will shape our hearts and souls.  We like to think it is the other way around:  we use our money to support causes that we care about.  We “vote with our dollars.”  Our money expresses our heart.

But the Bible warns us that our heart will follow our money, not the other way around.  If we spend our money on excesses that go far beyond our needs, our heart will turn toward luxury and excess.  If we spend our money on things – whatever they are – then those things will be precious to us. 

That is why giving is so important.  The point is not that the church needs money.  The point is that we need to give!  Giving changes us, because our heart is trained to follow our treasure.  Giving loosens the power of possessions in our lives.  Giving may also be the very first step that some of us take toward “loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.”  Sometimes, we give because we love God – but often we give out of obligation and find ourselves falling deeper in love with God as a result.

Let me tell you a bit of how giving has changed our family.  A few years ago, Rob & I attended a fundraising dinner for Imagine No Malaria – the United Methodist effort (working alongside the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others) to eradicate deaths from malaria on the continent of Africa.  We knew the purpose of the banquet before we arrived:  to raise money for disease-fighting efforts in Africa.  We went knowing that we would be asked to give.  And we discussed, ahead of time, how much we could give.

That night, we heard that a woman or child in Africa dies of malaria every 30 seconds.  We learned that malaria is treatable, and that a combination of proper infrastructure, medicine, education and communication can eliminate the effects of this deadly disease.  We heard stories from people who had contracted malaria while traveling, and how it impacted their lives.  We saw video of mothers nursing their sick children and crying out for someone to help them.

And then the pledge cards were distributed.  And since we had already discussed, in advance, what we were prepared to give, I excused myself for a moment and left Rob at the table to fill in the card.

When I made my way back across the room a few minutes later, he handed it to me and said, “Is this okay?”  I glanced at it, thinking he was asking if he wrote our new phone number correctly, or something like that.

I soon realized that wasn’t what he was asking.  When I got to the “Pledge amount” line, he had written an amount that was SIX TIMES the amount we had agreed upon.  I stared at the number.  I stared at him.  And I said, with a deep breath, “Okay.  If you want to.”

God moved Rob’s heart to give that night, and he responded.  I just kind of came along for the ride.  But here’s the thing:  since we made that pledge, my attentiveness to the needs of people across our globe – but especially in Africa – has multiplied at least as much as our pledge did that night. 

Ten years ago, when I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to go to Africa with my roommate, to visit orphanages there and to gather with other Christians.  I frankly did not want to go.  I wasn’t all that excited about visiting an unfamiliar country, with foreign foods and language and culture.  Africa – Zimbabwe, to be exact – was her passion, not mine.

But now, I’m invested.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  In the last three years, I have spent time with Zimbabwean clergy who have visited Western Pennsylvania.  I’ve learned more about the political struggles of some African nations.  I pray for peace and health on that continent.  And someday, I will travel to Africa, and I will be honored to visit their churches and share the struggles and the joys of lives so different from my own.  It won’t happen until my kids are a bit older – but I certainly won’t turn down the opportunity if it comes again.  My heart is there, now, because my treasure went there three years ago and my heart has gradually followed.  I have learned to love my neighbor by first giving to my neighbor.

Of course, I should say that we also give to whatever local church we are a part of.  As members of the United Methodist Church, we promise to support this congregation with our gifts, and we do. 

The Bible holds up a tithe – 10% of our income – as an example of faithful giving.  I know that there are all kinds of questions we could ask about tithing.  Do we tithe on our gross or our net income?  Do we tithe strictly to the church, or can we direct some of our tithe to other worthy causes?  What if we can’t afford 10%?  Or for that matter, what if we could afford to give more than 10% – shouldn’t we do that, too?

Those are questions we need to talk about in the church – and you can join in those sorts of conversations in Sunday School and Disciple’s Path home groups.  But beyond all the specifics, this truth remains:  We need to give, because in the act of giving, our hearts are softened toward God and other people.  So we support this congregation with our prayers, and our presence, and our gifts. 

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 

Showing Up

Preached September 29, 2013

Texts:  John 15:9-17 & Colossians 3:12-17

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We continue through the Disciple’s Path series this week, talking about what it looks like to follow Jesus, particularly in the United Methodist tradition.  We support this congregation with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.

Last week, we talked about prayer (and hopefully, not just talked about it, but actually prayed!).  This week, we look at the second of the membership vows:  to support this congregation with our presence.

So basically, our question this morning is, “Why are you here?”  What made you get out of bed this morning when you could have slept in?  What made you steer your car here to the church rather than to brunch or to the golf course or to the mall?

I imagine our answers area as varied as we are.  Some of us had to be here!  Some of us wanted to be with friends.  Others enjoy the music, or the beauty, or the food.  For some of us, it’s just what you do – our week wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t start it at church.  Some of us are here looking for answers, or for peace.  And the list could go on.

I have another question this morning, though.  What happens when the reason we came no longer rings true?  What happens when Alastair is away and the choir is small, or when hurt feelings creep in between us and our friends, or when we hear more questions than answers in the sermon?  Why bother with church then?

That is a question that has been asked frequently in recent years, especially by younger Americans.  One 24-year-old woman named Sarah recently wrote about why she, in her words, “lacks enthusiasm for church.”  Among her reasons were these:

  • Because the people who teach me and who ask me hard questions and who I want to live like and learn from are outside of my church.
  • Because I met, or perceived – rightly or wrongly – more hypocrites in the church than I sensed anywhere else. [1]

She also refers to music that feels “simplistic or whiny” and preaching that “didn’t so much make me think as fed me other people’s thoughts.”

And you know what?  She’s got some good points (she makes 22 of them, in total!).  So why bother with church, anyway?

We find one answer, I think, in Jesus words to his disciples in John 15.  The chapter begins with the image of a vine:  “I am the vine, and you are the branches…abide in me, and you will bear fruit…apart from me, you can do nothing.”  We hear in this passage (and rightfully so) the need to remain connected to God.  We hear our soul’s deep need for relationship, for a spiritual life.

To this point, our young author Sarah would agree.  We do have a longing for God – a “God-shaped” hole in us, as the saying goes.  But does abiding in God require us to be in church?  Sarah doesn’t think so.  She writes:

The awareness that my deepest moments of worship will come this afternoon, on a training run in breezy sunshine with my iPod and audio Bible, nags me.

She is right.  We can experience God elsewhere.   So once again – why bother with church?

My answer would be because, frankly, we don’t have much choice in the matter.  If we are abiding in Jesus – if we’re a branch along the vine – then we are side-by-side with other branches whether we like it or not.  God may meet us anywhere, anytime, in any way – certainly.  But when God begins to work in our heart and we begin to walk with God, we’ll find ourselves drawn into relationship with others who are walking with God, whether we like it or not.

We may wish it was otherwise.  We may not have anything in common with these people!  We may not like their style of music or their political persuasions.  We may think they are shallow or hypocrites.  But you know what?  We are still connected to the same vine.

As author Eugene Peterson puts it, “The church is God’s thing, not yours!”  Peterson writes:

You say that you have almost nothing in common with these people.  But isn’t that just the point?  You have nothing in common with them; but God does.  This just happens to be the way that God goes about making a kingdom, pulling all sorts and conditions of people together and then patiently, mercifully, and graciously making something of them.  What he obviously does not do is pre-select people who have an aptitude for getting along well and enjoying the same things.  Of course you don’t have much in common with them.  The church is God’s thing, not yours.[2]

That’s pretty much what Jesus tells his disciples in John 15:16:

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last.

And why did Jesus choose them – and us?  Because he loves us – and because he wants us to love each other.  To take care of one another.  To watch out for one another.

Jesus knew that abiding in God – staying deeply connected, keeping that relationship with God strong – was not easy.  He knew there were all kinds of things that we might turn to in our efforts to fill that God-sized hole in our hearts – things like busyness, or food or drink, or one unhealthy relationship after another.  Jesus knew there were plenty of distractions, reasons we might loose our grip on faith – grief too deep to carry, pain we can’t make sense of, just plain apathy.

Jesus knew that any leaf along the vine would occasionally need the canopy of protection that other leaves offered.  He knew that abiding in God would require some encouragement and support from other people from time to time.

And so he gave the command:  Love each other as I have loved you (John 15:13).  In his last days with his disciples, knowing he will be leaving them soon, he tells them, “Take care of each other.  Stick together, you’ll need each other.  Love one another.”

Obeying that command is not always easy.  Sometimes it is difficult because we disagree – sharply, deeply.  Sometimes it is difficult because we don’t feel loved ourselves – so how and why should we love others?!  Sometimes, it is just downright inconvenient to set aside our agendas in order to care for the needs of another person.

The author of Colossians knew that caring for one another wasn’t easy – why do you think he wrote, “Bear with one another, and forgive one another whatever grievances you may have against one another.”

And yet, we are called to care.  We are called to love.  And we are called by God to do so as one branch of many along the common vine of Jesus, as part of a community of Jesus followers.

And that means showing up, because while we can do a lot of things from a distance, there are some things that only happen when we are together.  We can’t feel a hug through the computer.  We can’t taste a virtual bread and cup.  We won’t notice that the woman who sits at the other end of our pew was missing for three weeks in a row and might need a phone call.

It also means being willing to move beyond the relative anonymity of Sunday morning worship.  In a crowd of 100, it is possible to slip in and slip out without really connecting with anyone else.  But supporting the church with our presence means actually sharing life together – going beyond the small talk, to really be present with another person.  Abiding together means putting roots down together.

Those kind of relationships rarely happen in Sunday worship.  They require smaller groups – like Sunday School, Covenant Groups, even choir and committees when the members provide support for one another and join in service to others.

Sharing life together means knowing people well enough that we can ask the kind of hard questions that Sarah wrote about.  It means sharing the deep moments of life, and looking past the superficial to know each other’s hearts.  It doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a few days together at a retreat or event (though those are good ways to get started!)  This kind of loving one another happens in the day-in-and-day-out sharing of life that requires us to show up again and again and again, whether we feel like it or not.

There are plenty of reasons for any of us, young or old, to “lack enthusiasm for church” on any given Sunday – or Wednesday, or Saturday, or whenever it is that we gather to share life and learn to love.  We are called to show up anyway – to abide in the vine that connects us to Jesus, but also to one another.

When we do show up, sometimes it feels like we are just going through the motions.  But sometimes, the words of the hymns give voice to our hearts’ longing, or the congregation speaks our faith when we cannot.  Sometimes hearing someone else’s struggles and triumphs helps us in the midst of our own.

But we don’t show up because it helps us.  That part is gift, grace.  We show up because we are connected to the vine, and the vine winds through this real, broken, powerful community of people trying to follow Jesus together.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…[So] Love each other as I have loved you.


[2] Eugene Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, 26.

Preached September 22, 2013

Texts:  1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, Matthew 6:5-8

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When we take membership vows in a United Methodist Church, we vow to support that congregation with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.  Today we talk about that first vow:  to support this congregation of the United Methodist Church with our prayers.

Prayer is a funny thing.  Most of us do it – whether we go to church or not.  Actually, many more of us pray than go to church.  Pew Forum research suggests that 8 of 10 adults in the United States pray regularly,[1] with 6 in 10 saying they pray daily.[2]  Among younger Americans – 18 to 29 – only 20% believe going to church is important, but more than 60% say they pray at least weekly.[3]  The Wall Street Journal even reports that most people who claim “no religious” also say they pray regularly.[4]  And of course, you know the bumper sticker that says, “As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools.”

Clearly the church does not have a corner on the prayer market!   Author and storyteller Walter Wangerin, Jr. says in his book Whole Prayer:  Speaking and Listening to God,

Prayer will never rust for want of use.  People will pray.  There are so many terrors in the world that, spontaneously, they will pray.  So much remains unknown…[there is] sickness and sorrow, hungers of mind and heart and body, anxieties and frights…people will pray.[5]

But then Wangerin goes on to ask:

But of all who pray, how many pray poorly?  How many grow restless over a period of time and despair of prayer – not because the thing itself is ineffectual, but rather because their practice of the thing is cheap and incomplete?[6]

Prayer is a funny thing.  Many of us do it, but few of us feel we do it well.  Trust me on that one – few of us feel like we do it well. Think about it – is there any faster way to suck the air out of a room than to ask for a volunteer to pray?  Feet shuffle, heads duck, eyes wander.  Prayer in those moments seems like a pop quiz for which we know we are unprepared.

When prayer comes up in conversation – as it sometimes does in this job! – you tell me that you don’t know how to pray, or that you can’t pray as well as someone else.  And folks, you aren’t alone. A recent poll says only 16% of clergy are content with their prayer life![7]  We don’t have it figured out either.

So we vow to support the church with our prayers.  And pray, we do – the majority of us, every day!  But yet we lack confidence that we do it well.  Did I mention prayer is a funny thing?

Wangerin suggests that the reason prayer seems so odd, so familiar and yet so foreign, is that the last we learn of prayer, most of us, is in our childhood – the rote bedtime and mealtime prayers of children, and the simple, spontaneous cries of childhood needs.  This isn’t actually a problem – for children pray well, knowing their dependence on others for help and the give-and-take of asking and receiving.  Learning about prayer in our childhood is a good, healthy thing.

The problem is that, as we grow to adulthood, we become quite used to our independence, and impatient with admissions of weakness or need.  It is harder, many of us would say, to accept help than to offer it.  Our stubborn self-reliance prevents us from continuing the comfortable, continual rhythm of conversation with God that we learned in our childhood, when we were more willing to ask for help, and then trust that it will come.  In our adult life, prayer becomes, instead, about saying the right words, using the right language, appearing competent and eloquent.

It becomes, in other words, about doing it right – which takes us to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.  Jesus draws a contrast here between hypocrites who pray with flowery words from the street corners, and those who pray quietly to God in the stillness of their own home.  Jesus confirms our grown-up suspicions:  there are wrong ways to pray, and right ways.

Upon first glance, it is easy to assume that the contrast of wrong and right is between public and private prayer.  In the context of Matthew 6, though, Jesus’ focus is more on the attitude of the heart – it is a contrast between blustery bravado and childlike trust.

The word translated hypocrite quite literally means “stage actors” or “people wearing masks.”  Its connotation is not intentional deception, but more of a false piety, or we might say, “putting up a good front.”  But God doesn’t want us to hide behind stage makeup.

What God desires, Jesus tells us, is the kind of real-life honesty that comes behind closed doors, in the intimacy of our own home.  Don’t pray with your game face on; pray the raw realness of life.  Use words when they come, but don’t worry about getting the right ones.  Wangerin reassures:

We may talk as we are able…ponderous religious phrases are fine.  But so is lousy grammar fine.  We may babble or roar or weep or sigh…fine!  And we may speak with any part of our beings:  spoken words…physical gestures…kneeling, bowing, curling into a posture of helplessness, laughing out loud and clapping our hands.  There may occur in our hearts a warm intensity of love, a holy suffusion of tenderness.  These speak too.[8]

It isn’t whether the words of prayer are spoken out loud or silently that matters.  Or for that matter, whether they are written or drawn or screamed or breathed.  We do self-guided prayer retreats here at the church during Advent and Lent, and there are opportunities to walk our prayers through a labyrinth, to draw our prayers, to kneel, to write, to sing.  There are many different ways to pray.

It isn’t right words that matter, but real words. Honest words.  Authentic words.

And then, when we have spoken, it matters that we listen.  Actually, Wangerin says there are four distinct parts to prayer:

  • We speak – God listens – God speaks – We listen

When we cry and sing and speak and write our prayers, and then move on thankful for the cathartic opportunity to get that off our chest, we’ve missed the point of prayer.  When we shout our prayers from the street corners and then assume the prayer is over, as if a curtain has come down on the show – they we’ve missed the point of prayer.

Whole prayer – complete, real prayer – really only happens when, as Wangerin says, we complete the circle by listening for God’s response.  If we speak, we can be assured that God will listen and respond.  We speak, God listens, and God speaks – the first three parts of prayer come naturally.  But, Wangerin says, “Without our truly listening, prayer will seem to have failed because communication, remaining incomplete, did in fact fail.  The circle stayed broken, and love was left unknown.”[9]

I said at the beginning that most of us pray, but don’t feel like we pray well.  I suspect it is this listening part that we feel most insecure about.  How, exactly, do we listen for God’s voice?  What does it sound like?  How do we know it is God?

There are a few specific answers to those questions:

We know, often, by reading the Scriptures.  That is why, if you are following along in A Disciple’s Path, you’ll see that prayer and Bible Study are combined in a single chapter.  They really are two sides of the same coin – pouring our heart out to God, and then listening through the words of Scripture for God’s response.

We also hear God’s voice, God’s answer, in the words of others, the circumstances of life, the deep-seated convictions of our own spirit.  Wangerin says that “all the elements of creation and all the details of human experience can be the elements of the divine response.”[10]

So we learn God’s voice in Scripture, and we hear it through our reason, our tradition, our experience.  But mostly, we learn God’s voice through practice.  By actually praying – including making time to listen.  Paying attention.

We can practice prayer alone in our rooms, as Matthew 6 says.  We can also practice it in small groups, as the disciples did when they gathered in Acts.  And we pray for ourselves, those we love – but also for the church, our leaders, our world.  Prayer expands our vision.

In the context of our membership vows, our promise is specifically to uphold this congregation with our prayers.  That means being connected enough to the life of the congregation to know our corporate needs, and talking to God about them.  And it means shaping our life so that we can listen for God’s voice not only on our own behalf, but also on behalf of the community.

When we live in that kind of prayer together – rejoicing always, praying continually, giving thanks in all circumstances – then the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 will be true of us:

The God of peace [will] cause us to be completely dedicated to him, and keep our spirit, soul, and body intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming.  The one who calls [us] is faithful and will do this!

We speak – but that is only the beginning.  Then God listens, and God speaks!  Praise be to God!  Will we listen?

Guest post by Rev. Dean D. Ziegler
Preached on August 25, 2013 at Coraopolis United Methodist Church
Texts: Gen. 50:14-21 & Matt. 18:21-35

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If God asks you to do a thing, you can be sure that doing it will bring you life, even though it may feel for a time like you’re dying. Forgiving is like that. Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins others commit against us, Jesus taught us to pray. It is one of the hardest tricks in the book!

There are three ways this petition has been translated down through the centuries. Forgive us our debts, forgive our sins and forgive our trespasses. While it might be interesting to unpack the subtleties of each term, let us simply say that in spite of the various emphases, they all come down to the same thing: we need forgiveness, and we are commanded to forgive. That is what we will focus on this morning.

Aren’t you glad God forgives your sins? Of course! But why, oh WHY, did Jesus put that tiny, two-letter word, “as” in there? Forgive our sins AS we forgive sins others commit against us. That’s conditionality. Turns out, Jesus has definite opinions about this. He told a terrifying parable about a man who was unforgiving towards a fellow debtor, and forfeited, as a result, the forgiving of his own debt. Jesus stated flat out that if we will not forgive others, God will not forgive us.

Now immediately we have a problem because that flies in the face of a teaching we hold critical to the whole salvation message, namely that God, in Jesus, forgave us unilaterally and unconditionally, BEFORE we even acknowledged our need for it or could do anything to justify it. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” Paul explained in Romans 5. This same Jesus, looking down from the cross into the hateful, very UN-forgiving faces of his enemies prayed that his Father forgive them, “for they know not what they do.” He did not pray “Father, make them forgive before it’s too late so that they can have a chance later to be forgiven by you.” No, Jesus died for still-sinning sinners, not for self-reformed sinners.

So how do we reconcile these two? Does God declare unconditional, unilateral forgiveness for the human race at Calvary, then contradict that elsewhere by saying, “Ha, just kidding. No forgiveness for YOU unless you have first forgiven everybody else who has wronged you.” Clearly, there must be a better answer than to see this as a flat-out contradiction.

In fact, there’s a single interrelated spiritual reality. Here is that reality: only with forgiveness can there be life. Forgiveness is the only way to stop the runaway train of sin’s evil force and offer a way out of impossible situations. There is no double standard. As we relate to God, so we relate to others. Jesus here strikes dead the notion that we can somehow humbly, gratefully receive forgiveness from God but proudly and coldly refuse it to others.

If God put forth forgiveness as the only way to deliver fallen humanity out of death into life, then we have no other hope of entering life than to do as God does. Annie Dillard once wrote,

“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to see the stars, you will find that darkness is required. The stars neither require it nor demand it.”

If you want abundant life, real life, you have to accept the conditions. You have to accept the terms. Want forgiveness? Learn to forgive.

I hope this morning that no one here would be so foolish as to say you do not want God’s forgiveness. But forgiving those who have sinned against us – that’s much harder! Let see then how this difficult task is an open door to life and freedom.

First of all, we must say that forgiveness is for real sin. I tip my hand here in favor of praying “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who SIN against us.” “Debts” and “trespasses” can suggest relatively minor issues. But sin always sows death. Sin sows death – in relationships, in families, in communities, in society, even in the earth itself. What we receive from God, is forgiveness for real sins: brutality, deceit, betrayal, violence, abuse, murder, greed, cowardice, disrespect, abandonment – you name it – all the appallingly down-and-dirty things we humans regularly do.
We cannot avoid the corresponding truth that forgiving others must mean forgiving real sins as well – it will mean forgiving acts of rage, brutality, and greed, deceit, dishonesty, violence, adultery, abuse, abandonment, torture, murder – all the appallingly down-and-dirty things other human beings do to us.

Now it’s right about there that our feelings seize up. Because there’s another belief we cling to and that is the idea of justice – the scales of justice must be balanced. We feel that. We believe that. We need that for the world to make moral sense at all. Is forgiving a just thing to do? How can that be fair?

I want to recount for you the story of a man’s crisis of forgiveness that will force us to wrestle with the question of its rightness. The story is of Simon Wiesenthal, a Jew from Poland imprisoned by the Germans in WWII. P. Yancey summarizes his story in, What’s So Amazing About Grace,” drawing from Wiesenthal’s own book, The Sunflower.

Here is a man who watched his grandmother shot dead by Nazi soldiers on the stairway of her home while his mother was carried away, a man who ultimately saw 89 of his relatives die at the hands of the Nazis. He himself had tried to commit suicide when he was taken captive. Wiesenthal survived not only his suicide attempt, but improbably, the war itself. Consider this man’s experience: On a bright, sunny day Wiesenthal’s prison detail was cleaning rubbish out of a hospital for German casualties when a nurse approached him. “Are you a Jew?” she asked, then signaled him to follow her. Apprehensive, Wiesenthal followed her up a stairway and down a hall until they reached a dark, musty room where a lone soldier lay, covered in bandages. White gauze hid the man’s face, with openings cut out for mouth, nose and ears. The nurse disappeared, closing the door behind her to leave the young Jewish prisoner alone with a dying Nazi. The wounded man was an SS officer, and he had summoned Wiesenthal for a confession. “My name is Karl,” he said from within the bandages. “I must tell you of this horrible deed – tell you because you are a Jew.”

Karl began his story by reminiscing about his childhood faith, which he had lost when he was in the Hitler Youth Corps. He later volunteered for the SS, served with distinction and had recently returned, severely wounded, from the Russian front. Three times as Karl tried to tell his story in weakened voice, Wiesenthal pulled away as if to go. Each time the soldier reached out to grab his arm and beg him to stay.

He wanted to talk about something that had happened in the Ukraine. In a town, abandoned by retreating Russians, booby traps killed 30 soldiers in Karl’s unit. As an act of revenge, the SS rounded up 300 Jews, herded them into a three-story house, doused it with gasoline, and set it afire. Karl and his men encircled the house, with guns drawn to shoot anyone who tried to escape. “The screams from the house were horrible,” he said. “I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, no doubt the mother. With his free hand the man covered the child’s eyes—then jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from other windows fell burning bodies. We shot….

All this time Wiesenthal sat in silence, letting the German speak. Karl went on to describe other atrocities, but he kept circling back to that young boy with black hair and dark eyes falling from a building, target practice for the SS rifles. “I am left here with my guilt,” he concluded at last. “In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough. “What I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left…. I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”

Silence! … Two strangers all by themselves, caught in the crisis of forgiveness. A member of the super race begged to be forgiven by a member of the condemned race. Wiesenthal tells us what he did. “I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands. At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.”

Wiesenthal survived the concentration camp. But he could not forget the SS trooper. He wondered for a long time whether he should have forgiven the soldier. He wrote to rabbis, theologians, philosophers, priests – anyone who might have insight and asked them all the same question: “Did I do right or wrong?” But Wiesenthal did not put the question just to the theologians and philosophers, but to every reader who picks up his book. Here are the closing words:

Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and my mind, There are those who can appreciate my dilemma, and endorse my attitude, and are others who will be ready to condemn me for refusing to ease the last moments of a repentant murderer.

The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision. You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?”

Of 32 distinguished writers, religious thinkers and philosophers only six could bring themselves to say he should have offered forgiveness to the repentant man. One philosopher wrote, I think I would have acted the way you did – refused the request of the dying man…. One cannot, and should not go around happily killing and torturing and then, at the last moment, simply ask, and receive, forgiveness. The easy forgiving of such crimes perpetuates the very evil it wants to alleviate.

Cynthia Ozick, a novelist, was even more blunt… Often we are asked to think this way: vengeance brutalizes, forgiveness refines. But the opposite can be true. Forgiveness can brutalize…. The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered…. Let the SS man die unshriven. Let him go to hell.

Philip Yancey writes, “In a world of unspeakable atrocity, forgiveness seems unjust, unfair, irrational.” And so it does. When we forgive someone, we give up our right to get even. We suffer the wrong with no hope of balancing the scales of justice and we willingly, no, willfully get on with living in spite of the pain unfairly suffered.

This seems almost too much to do or ask. Why should we give up our hatred, our contempt, our power – the energy of our anger – when our lives have been so deeply disrupted by unfair suffering? And yet, the question haunts. Is it right NOT to forgive? Jesus gave his answer and without qualification urged it upon us. “Forgive, just as you are forgiven.” “How many times, Jesus?” Peter once asked, “as many as seven, the perfect number?” “No, Peter – SEVENTY TIMES seven”. Oh.

But what of the question of fairness? Without discounting the profound evil suffered by innocent victims of psychopaths, or even incredibly selfish family members, former friends, or betraying co-workers, we must consider that the question of fairness cuts both ways. Yancey puts forth the simple question, “Which carries a higher cost, forgiveness, or unforgiveness?” In, Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes says, “Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a [broken world]. Our sense of fairness tells us people should pay for the wrong they do. But forgiving is love’s power to break nature’s rules.” What if forgiving is the fairest alternative a victim of undeserved suffering has got?

Consider the alternatives: Vengeance leaps to mind. Revenge – balance the scales of justice! But in real life, the scales of justice can never be balanced. Most losses are permanent. Loss of a friendship, loss of trust, loss of reputation, loss of a marriage, loss a loved one in a crash caused by a drunk driver.

Whatever hurts we did not deserve, usually they are irreparable. It’s an impossible goal to right the scales. If we wait for justice before we can have a future, we will wait forever!

What about the emotional satisfaction of retaliation? Well, it certainly feels good for time. But it’s a recurring itch that is never quite satisfied. Taking revenge never really helps us to not hurt anymore. In fact, revenge seems to keep the hurt in the forefront of our lives. We want the “SOBs” to pay – again, and again! And that usually brings new hurts because of counter-retaliations and escalating rounds of aggression. Lew Smedes nails it. No one ever gets even in the pain game because no two people in the history of the world ever measured pain with the same scale.

The greatest fool’s quest ever set out upon is the quest to “get even.” In the Middle East, Russia, Egypt, Africa, in America’s race relations, in family feuds – we see round after round of hostility that have, sometimes, hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history behind them. Each new atrocity points to a former atrocity somewhere in the past that is now, the new attackers claim, only being avenged.

Is forgiveness more unfair than a virtually unending succession of oppressions, uprisings, counter-oppressions, wars and reinforced hatreds? Perhaps the strongest argument for forgiveness is the alternative, a permanent state of unforgiveness.

Is forgiving fair? In the end, forgiving is the fairest of all possible responses, because it sets people free. It puts a stop to endless rounds of payback. It also allows us to get on with life and lay aside the heaviness of a perpetual victim identity. “I’m the one who was cheated so cruelly! I’m the one who was attacked and wounded so viciously!” Which translates all too often into, “I’m the one who has no future now because of what happened to me.” When we forgive, we buy back our future. We rescue it from an unchangeable past, unchain it from an irreparable loss. Forgiving in the end is fairest of all to the victim because of its creative power to move us away from past pain. (Indebted to Smedes and Yancey here)

Forgive and forget? You don’t really forget. But you remember in a new and different way! That action is at the very center of our faith in the sacrament of communion, which in turn calls to mind the Jewish celebration of Passover.

There is unfair pain all over the landscape in both stories – the Exodus and Calvary – but it is not the unfairness that we focus on as we remember. No, what we memorialize is how God delivered us alive out of it all! The miracle we celebrate in remembering is our survival and renewal! In spite of what happened, because of God’s power and grace, we have a future and a blessing! That was Joseph’s discovery when he considered his brother’s cruel betrayal and abandonment. God worked in spite of his brothers’ sin against him. Forgiving forces us to “live higher”.

Do you need God’s forgiveness this morning? No doubt. All of us need forgiveness daily. Thank God we are forgiven and set free through God’s amazing grace.

Do you struggle to forgive someone this morning? Know that in forgiving, you do not condone or excuse the sin. You do not step up for more abuse when you forgive. But you do rise to life by trusting yourself to God’s care even as our Lord Jesus did on the cross.

Forgiveness has great power. It may or may not lead to reconciliation. But it can set the forgiver free, if not the forgiven, and possibly both.

Is there a work of forgiveness that you still need to accomplish?

Are you able to enlarge your frame of reference and trust God to be your keeper and refuge?

Will you claim, by faith, the goodness and blessing that God is ready to work in you in spite of what has happened, and focus on that in your life?

Ask God to empower you to forgive!