Walking With

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Preached September 15, 2013
Text: Philippians 3:10-14, Mark 12:28-34


Yesterday morning, I hosted a meeting of the Board of Ordained Ministry for our United Methodist Annual Conference here in Western Pennsylvania. The “BOM” as we call it has a number of jobs related to clergy evaluation and credentialing, but one of our most exciting roles is to receive new candidates for ordained ministry.

The best part of interviewing candidates for ministry is hearing their stories – listening to what God has done in their life, and what God is doing right now. When the Board finishes a weekend of interviews, I am absolutely exhausted – but also renewed and encouraged by the faith stories that were shared and the faithfulness of God in so many different lives.

I remember, too, when I was going through the ordination process myself. You don’t get far in the process without becoming comfortable with telling your “call story,” as they refer to it. You tell that story – the story of God’s faithfulness in your life, and the ways you’ve experienced God’s calling or God’s leading – to your own local church; to the District Superintendent; to your assigned mentor; on your seminary applications; to the District Committee; to each other in seminary; and finally, two or three or five years into the process, you tell it to the Board of Ordained Ministry. By then, you’ve told it so many times that you can mutter it in your sleep.

Except – except that you really can’t, because it is a continually developing story. Each time you tell it, there is a little more to add, a little more that you are learning as you walk further down that path of faith.

My own call story – which is really just one piece of the broader story of faith that we each could tell for ourselves – always began with growing up in a parsonage. Going on hospital visits…teaching the kids when I was just a young teen myself…youth retreats and mission trips…

It continues through my college years, when I said I wasn’t going to be a pastor, but then realized one day that my interests – my double-major in psychology and communication, with a minor in religion – looked an awful lot like a pastor’s profile. Huh. What to make of that?

Then there was my first job after college, public relations, successful – I traveled with the CEO on the corporate jet for goodness sake! – but couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted to be more involved in people’s lives, wanted to help people live well rather than just helping them spend money.

When I started seminary, that’s pretty much where my call story ended. It didn’t have a clear direction or an obvious end point. Maybe something like hospital chaplaincy. Maybe.

In seminary the calling expanded, unfolded. I heard women preaching for the first time that I remember. I knew female clergy growing up – but I don’t recall ever hearing one of them preach! Hearing a women’s voice from the pulpit for the first time was part of my call story. So was coming to realize that I really preferred the theology classes over the counseling classes – maybe chaplaincy wasn’t quite the right fit after all. The Holy Spirit continuing to work, to shape, to lead.

Maybe academic, teaching…but found it was too detached, too theoretical for my way of thinking…

This guy dragged me to Chicago… ☺ …and would you believe it, I found I really loved urban ministry…and liturgy…and teaching in the local church…maybe an associate pastor position, where I can teach and lead but not really have to preach every week…

When I interviewed with the Board of Ordained Ministry, that was pretty much where my call story ended. If I were to continue the story today, it would include the unexpected call to be a solo pastor here, rather than serving first as an associate, as I expected, and it would include the ways that I am learning about God and faith as I live into marriage and parenting. My faith story continues – as does yours – throughout my life.

The Disciple’s Path series that we are following through the fall this year is all about sharing those faith stories. It is about learning what it looks like to walk a path of faith that continues throughout our lives, and sharing that journey with one another along the way.

Discipleship – following Jesus, learning to love God and love our neighbors – is not something we do, and then we’re done. It is a journey that is marked by particular waypoints – baptism, conversion, confirmation, membership, for example – but these are not the goal of the journey of faith; they are not the destination. A lifetime of walking with Jesus is the goal. A lifetime of loving God and loving our neighbors, as Jesus describes in Mark 12.

We use different language to describe that goal. Some of us can tell about the moment of our conversion, for example. For others of us – myself included – conversion is not so much a moment as a process, a gradual unfolding, until one day you wake up and realize it is happening. Some of us, as I have done, tell of a sense of calling. You might not feel comfortable with that language, but maybe you could tell of fulfilling your passion, or using your gifts, or doing your duty, for God.

Whatever the language, it is the endpoint of walking fully with God and one another that matters. That’s what being a disciple of Jesus – a follower of Jesus – means at its core: walking with God and one another in love.

In A Disciple’s Path, they define a disciple as a

“follower of Jesus whose life is centering on loving God and loving others” (A Disciple’s Path: Companion Reader, p. 20).

The emphasis is on the word “centering.” It is not centered – as if it one’s life is fully, completely focused toward the center – but centering, recognizing the need for “lifelong, …continuing transformation by the grace of God.”

John Wesley used language of “going on to perfection.” In the Methodist tradition we speak of grace that leads us to perfect love. We speak of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying grace. God’s grace goes before us – prevenient grace, that is present in our lives long before we even recognize it. God’s grace makes things right – justifying grace that restores us to right relationship with God and each other. And God’s grace continues to guide us, make us more loving – sanctifying grace, that keeps working on us, growing us, shaping us into better people, more fully the people God created us to be.

Some people use the metaphor of a house to describe prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. Prevenient grace, the metaphor goes, invites us up onto the porch. It is the sidewalk that leads us to the house, the welcome mat at the door. Justifying grace is the doorway we step through when we enter the house – the place where we go from “outside” to “inside,” from “enemy of God” to “friend of God.” And sanctifying grace happens in the rooms of the house, in the living, cooking, eating, sleeping, sharing life together that goes on within the house.

It’s not a bad metaphor. We could also borrow the athletic language that the Apostle Paul uses in Philippians, when he says, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me…” (Phil 3:14). Using that language, we might think of grace in terms of running a marathon. Prevenient grace would go before us to clear the path, justifying grace qualifies us to run the race, and sanctifying grace urges us on to the finish line. But all of it – from start to finish – is an expression of God’s deep love for us – God’s love that, as the saying goes, “loves us just the way we are, and too much to leave us that way.”

Whatever language we use, this fall we have opportunity to share the journey of faith together. Some weeks ago, there was a news story of a Marine who came alongside a 9-yr-old boy during a 5K race. The boy was struggling to finish the race and had fallen well behind his original running buddies. He asked the Marine, “Please, sir, would you run with me?” and the Marine responded by slowing his pace and shortening his gait to run beside the boy, encouraging him on to the finish line.

Sometimes, walking with one another can make all the difference. I think that’s a pretty good description of discipleship, really: walking with God and one another. As United Methodists, we do that by sharing some common practices: prayer, being present in worship, giving of our gifts, serving others, and witnessing to our faith. Those are our membership vows in the United Methodist tradition – we commit our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. And those are the practices we will look at more in depth over the coming weeks.

For now, though – I encourage you to review your own journey of faith this week, and to share it with someone else. Use whatever words come most naturally – but don’t be afraid to tell what God is doing!


Following Jesus

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September 8, 2013

Text:  Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Luke 5:27-32


How many of you have heard of TED talks?  TED is an organization that shares “ideas worth spreading” through short, memorable lectures on just about any subject you can imagine.  The talks are given live at conferences, and shared for free on the Internet at TED.com.

Those who know of TED talks – have you seen the talk by Derek Sivers called, “How to start a movement”?[1]  Sivers describes – in less than 3 minutes – how a social movement begins.

He uses a video clip to illustrate his point.  At the start of the video, people are gathered on a hillside, lounging on blankets or walking along with bags slung over their shoulders.  It has the feel of a beautiful summer day on a college campus or at a public park.

At the center of the screen a man stands, shirtless, on the grass.  People continue to walk by, spread blankets, lounge on the grass.  And then the man in the center begins to dance, right in the middle of the crowd.  It is a goofy, awkward dance, arms waving over his head, turning in circles.  People glance his way, and a few hastily gather their things and walk away.  Sivers points out, at this point, that a leader has to have the guts to stand out, be willing to look ridiculous and be ridiculed for it.

But then – another man jumps up and joins in the dance.  The leader isn’t quite so alone anymore.  Here Sivers points out that the “first follower” has a crucial role – he is the one who shows everyone else how to follow.  “The first follower,” Sivers says, “is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.”

After that, it doesn’t take long for another person to join in, and another, and another.  The leader no longer stands out, as the dance grows; new dancers imitate the first followers, and the dance morphs and changes as more and more join.  Before long, the whole crowd has become one big dancing mob, seemingly having the time of their lives.  A movement has begun.

Sivers uses the dancing crowd to illustrate principles of leadership in the business world, and to demonstrate the “tipping point” at which an idea takes root and spreads.

When I see the video, though, I can’t help but think of the invitation that Jesus gives to his disciples:  “Follow me.”  I think this silly little video of a dancing crowd is a pretty good illustration of what it means to follow Jesus in a world that values getting ahead, being successful, and being in charge.

Jesus certainly didn’t have a problem with the “courage to stand out and be ridiculed” piece of being a leader, did he?  Everything he did and said set him apart from the world around him:  Blessed are the poor.  I have come not to be served, but to serve.  Take up your cross.  Unless you become like the least of these…you shall not see the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus’ message is far different than the world’s message of bigger, better, more.  And Jesus friends – the ones he chose to hang out with – weren’t the successful, powerful types, either.

In Luke 5, Jesus offers the invitation, “follow me,”  and then goes right on into a tax collector’s house and sits down at the table with unclean, socially outcast people that most of us would never be caught dead with in public.  Follow him there?  I don’t think so!  The religious people – the good, church-going folk – were appalled!  I can hear the conversation now:  Inappropriate. Ridiculous.  Scandalous!

But Jesus was confident in his mission:  “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

So he issued the invitation:  Come.  Follow me.  Repent.

That’s a big call, for so few words!  And Levi – along with Peter, James and John earlier in Luke 5 – show us what it looks like to answer that call.  “Levi got up, left everything behind, and followed him” (Lk 5:28).  And the others, “as soon as they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus” (Lk 5:11).

We are here in a Christian church some 2,000 years later because Jesus invites us into relationship with God – and also because Peter, James, John and Levi accepted the invitation to follow.  We are here because we felt God tugging at our hearts, and also because a neighbor invited us somewhere along the way.  We are here because the Holy Spirit planted seeds of faith in us, and also because our mothers or fathers or grandparents talked to us about faith the way that Deuteronomy 6 instructs God’s people to do with their children.  We are here to follow Jesus, and also to share our faith journey with other followers.

At the end of Sivers’ TED talk, he concludes by saying, “If you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow.”  That’s what we are to be about as Christian people – following Jesus with courage and conviction, and showing others how to follow too.

This fall, we begin a study called, “A Disciple’s Path.”  It invites us deeper into relationship with Jesus – invites us to follow him more closely, more fully.  And it does so by inviting us into relationship with one another, so that we can follow together.  That’s why we are asking you to not only be here on Sunday mornings, but join a home group for six weeks, where you can build relationships and learn to follow together.  You don’t have to “drop everything” to join a homegroup, but I hope you’ll at least find a couple hours a week to be together with other Jesus-followers this fall!

While the “A Disciple’s Path” curriculum is newly published, its content isn’t really new.  It comes right out of our Methodist roots, when John Wesley organized followers of Jesus into small groups that cared for one another, read the Bible together, prayed together, and served the community together.  Out of these small groups, a movement began that eventually became The Methodist Church.

The Methodist movement was not a separate “religion” as I sometimes hear (“What religion are you?”).  It was thoroughly Christian, seeking to follow Jesus alongside Anglican, Catholic and Protestant Christians.  What was unique, though, was the way that John Wesley and the Methodists devoted themselves to authenticity and connection through meaningful relationships; to making a significant difference in the community, to understanding faith holistically as both personal and social.

In the early days of the Methodist movement, Wesley said:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.[2]

There are those who fear Wesley’s words have come true – that churches in America today “only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.”  There have been times, in our own lives personally and as a congregation, when that has been true of us.

We continue to believe, though, that church really does matter.  That following Jesus changes the way we live our lives, and raise our children, and live in our communities.

As a congregation, we are praying and talking and planning for the next movement of faith that God is inviting us into.  We believe God is inviting us to be a part of something new – of a new movement of faith that, consistent with our Methodist heritage, fosters authentic, connected relationships; is significant to our lives and communities; and understands faith holistically.  You’ll be hearing a lot more about those four values – authenticity, connection, significance and wholeness – in the weeks and months ahead.

The first step, though, is to renew the “doctrine, spirit and disciplines” of our faith, and to “have the courage to follow and show others how to follow” Jesus.  Won’t you join us on that journey?

[2] Dated August 4, 1786.  From “Thoughts Upon Methodism” in The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, Volume 7.

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Preached September 1, 2013

Texts:  Matthew 6:13, Psalm 121


Today we end our series on the Lord’s Prayer with the final line of Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 6:  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Of course, the final line that we recite is actually, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever,” – but that line is not included in the Biblical text in either Matthew or Luke, the two places where this prayer appears in Scripture.  This doxology – a churchy word for spoken or sung praise to God – seems to have been added to the prayer by early Christians.  There are Latin manuscripts of the New Testament that include it – but the earlier Greek text does not.  Original or not, it has been part of this prayer for centuries, and is widely used today – recited in unison by Protestant churches like ours, spoken only by the priest in Orthodox traditions, and attached to an entirely different prayer in the Roman Catholic tradition.

So…a bit of textual history there for those who “geek out” on such things.  (To borrow a term from Nate, our new associate pastor.)

But to return to our main text for today:  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

This is, textually, the most complex phrase of the Lord’s Prayer.  The complexity centers around the translation of two Greek words:  the word translated “temptation,” which can also mean test, trial, or experiment; and the word “evil” which may refer either to evil in general, to a particular evil person, or to a personal Devil.

Taking into account the nuances of these two words, some believe this line refers quite literally to a time of trial before the courts of Rome, asking God to deliver Jesus and his followers from evil and oppressive rulers.  Others believe Jesus is giving his disciples permission to ask God to escape the kind of testing that God asked of Abraham (by commanding the sacrifice of his son Isaac) or Job (who lost his family, health and possessions in what seems to be a grand experiment between God and the Devil).  And still others argue that Jesus means, “Don’t give us more than we can handle, God; when you test us, at least keep us from being swallowed up by evil.”

So there are multiple layers of meaning to this line:  Keep us out of the corrupt courts; don’t mess with us by experimenting with our lives or faith; or, “when the hard times come, don’t let them swallow us whole.”

Underneath these layers, though, this petition that Jesus taught to his followers really means one simple thing:  Please, God, keep us safe!  It is a plea for help from God, help specifically in the face of things that threaten to overpower us.

In fact, the whole Lord’s Prayer is really pretty simple. Jesus teaches his disciples to depend on God for sustenance (daily bread); for relationship (forgiveness); and for safety (deliver us).  Jesus teaches his disciples to pray about the basics in life, the essentials.  Prayer doesn’t need to be complicated; it doesn’t need to use fancy words or address deep, complex issues.

As Anne Lamott says, prayer is basically calling out, “Help.  Thanks.  Wow.”

Help, she argues, is the first and most basic prayer we can pray.  She describes our desperate need for God to deliver us from the trials and tests of life:

It is all hopeless. Even for a crabby optimist like me, things couldn’t be worse. Everywhere you turn, our lives and marriages and morale and government are falling to pieces. So many friends have broken children. The planet does not seem long for this world. Repent! Oh, wait, never mind. I meant: Help.[1]

I find that last line revealing:  “Repent!  Oh, wait, I meant:  Help!”  The call to repent suggests that the testing or trial is our fault somehow, that it is our responsibility.  It isn’t so much that God leads us into temptation, but that we find it ourselves.

It reminds me of a team-building activity my kids did at camp this summer:  lined up along a rope, blindfolded, follow where the rope leads.  Requires trust that the guide won’t lead you into trouble.  But one boy – a bit older than the other kids, probably a bit too confident in his own abilities – kept getting ahead – walking too fast, pulling the rope instead of letting it pull him – and he got into trouble.  He ran into the person in front of him, he tripped over a rock, he stumbled into a tree.  It was his own fault – he wasn’t led there, but he ended up there anyway.

As the book of James says:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. (James 1:13-14)

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” may sometimes mean, keep us safe from ourselves!  That is how The Message paraphrases this verse:  “Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil…”

Lamott would say that it is just fine that the trials we ask to be delivered from are really of our own making.  She writes:

There’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.

“And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”[2]

Jesus teaches his disciples to turn to God when they reach bottom:  deliver me, God.  Help!

The Lord’s prayer assumes as a given that there is evil in our world.  We may encounter it as hatred or abuse of power, or as systemic injustice; or it may come from within our own hearts; but it is there.  The Lord’s Prayer leaves us no room for denying evil, pretending it doesn’t exist.

But nor does it allow us to wallow in it.  Yes, life is hard.  Yes, it will sometimes overwhelm us, like a wave knocking us off our feet.  But God protects us.  Ask for it.  Pray it.  “Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from evil.”  In other words, “Help, God!”

By God’s grace, the prayer “help” gives way to “thanks.”

Thanks, Lamott writes, is the prayer of relief that help was on the way. … It can be [the] pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. … The full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.

It’s amazement and relief that you caught a break; that your family caught a break; that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.[3]

And then, sometimes, when we least expect it, help and thanks break into praise.  “Help, God; deliver us!” breaks forth into, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever!”

Wow!  Breathe in the beauty of creation, the joy of relationship, the love of God, and say, “Wow!”  This prayer has a reverberation to it, Lamott says – wowowowowow – and “The pulse can soften us” like the rhythmic drumming of massaging hands on sore muscles releases the tightness.[4]  Wow is the prayer of wonder, and “Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath.”[5]

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.  Help!  Thanks!  Wow!

[1] Help Thanks Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, New York:  2012), 11.

[4] Help Thanks Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, New York:  2012), 83.

[5] Help Thanks Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, New York:  2012), 81.

Our Daily Bread

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August 11, 2013

Texts:  Matthew 6:11, Psalm 145:15-19


“Give us this day our daily bread.”

This is perhaps the most straightforward petition of the Lord’s Prayer:  give us what we need, God.

It is also the only petition of the Lord’s Prayer that refers to physical needs.  It’s inclusion reminds us that we are embodied people who have physical needs – and that God cares for those needs.  They are not somehow less important, less significant than our spiritual needs – though the church has sometimes suggested as much.  When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” he is affirming the validity of their material needs.  He will say a bit later in Matthew 6 (31-32), “Don’t worry…Your heavenly Father knows that you need [food, drink, and clothes].”  Our physical, material needs matter to God.

So the first thing this line teaches us – for remember, this prayer was given as an example, a model, to teach us how to pray – the first thing this line teaches us is that it is okay – good, even! – to go to God with our physical needs.  The proverbial “praying for a parking spot” may be a bit much, but there is nothing at all wrong with talking to God about the material needs of our lives.  When the physical needs of life consume our thoughts – a job, a house, food on the table or bills to be paid – it is right and good to take those needs to God in prayer.

That being said, most of us in 21st century America do not, literally, need to depend on God to provide our next meal.  Rarely do we know true hunger pains.  So how do we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” when our refrigerators are full and our store shelves are well-stocked?

Perhaps our prayer ought to be more like the ancient Hebrew prayer, recorded in Proverbs 30:8b-9:

Give me neither poverty nor riches,

but give me my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?”

Or, I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

Give me neither too much or too little – but give me my daily bread.  This may be the most straightforward petition of the Lord’s Prayer, the most concrete and down to earth – but I would suggest that it is also the most difficult part of the prayer to pray whole-heartedly.

It is hard because it directly challenges both our affluence and our self-sufficiency – two values that are at the very core of our American culture.

A culture of affluence teaches us to constantly strive for more, bigger, better.  We are continuously confronted with opportunities to upgrade everything from our cars to our phones – people even upgrade engagement rings to a bigger stone! We may not think of ourselves as affluent – many of us live paycheck to paycheck – but we nonetheless live in a society that lifts up affluence as the goal.

When affluence is the goal, is it nearly impossible to feel as if we have enough.  And being content with enough is at the very core of the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Like the Israelites who collected manna in the desert (Exodus 16), daily bread implies just enough to meet the day’s needs – not excess to store away for tomorrow.  That kind of contentment with enough flies directly in the face of a culture of affluence.

Contentment with enough also implies dependence.  Excess allows us to believe that we provide for ourselves, that we are self-reliant and independent.  But having just enough for today requires us to acknowledge our own limitations and our dependence upon God to provide.  As Proverbs reminds us, it is easy, when we have plenty, to disown – or just plain get distracted from – God.  Dependence draws us back and keeps us connected to the God who supplies all our needs.

So we pray with the author of Proverbs:  “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me my daily bread.”

But the Lord’s prayer, as Jesus taught us to pray it, makes one small but significant change to that ancient prayer.  Jesus teaches not “give me” but “give us” our daily bread.

Here, the prayer becomes downright radical.  It is not only that I trust, myself, that God will meet my needs.  It is not only that I acknowledge my dependence on God and learn to be content with what I have.  To pray “give us our daily bread” requires that I also pay attention to the needs of my neighbors.

If we are to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” then it matters that 870 million people – 1/8th of the world’s population – is undernourished.[1]  It matters that in our own country, 1 in 5 children – and 1 in 3 African American and Latino children – are at risk of hunger.[2]

“Give us this day our daily bread” takes on an entirely different urgency when food is not readily available.  In many areas of Africa, families prepare each year for what they call wanjala – “The Hunger Season.”  The Hunger Season is a period of time – sometimes weeks, often months long – that comes before harvest.  It is the time when last year’s store of food has been depleted and humanitarian aid is used up.  The Hunger Season comes every year, just as surely as spring, summer, fall or winter come to us.

Families prepare for the Hunger Season by intentionally cutting back on the food intake of healthy adults, so that children and the elderly might have enough to stretch through the lean months until the next harvest.  Even so, many die through these months simply from lack of calories.

I began today by affirming that God cares about our material needs, and there is nothing shameful about praying for the things we need.  By the same token, God cares for the very real, physical needs of hungry children and adults throughout our world.  And if we are followers of Jesus, then we must care too.  We cannot pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” without acknowledging and addressing the needs of others.

That means we must learn to live with less – even when the media and culture tell us we deserve more.  It means we must learn to limit our desires; to be content with what we have, so that others may have what they need.  It means we learn to recognize and give thanks for our blessings – to be grateful for daily bread!  And it also means we learn to share those blessings more freely, more generously – giving of our time at the food pantry, for example, or of our money to an organization that addresses hunger locally or globally.  It means that we work to address the root causes of poverty, and the injustices built into our economic system.  It means challenging the idea that making a profit matters more than paying living wages, and standing up against the assumption that poor people bring poverty upon themselves.

This kind of work cannot be done alone.  It requires the support of a community of faith committed to wrestling with these sorts of questions and concerns together.  It requires sharing life together, a life that values different things than the society in which we live values.  And it requires constantly, continuously praying together:  “Give us this day our daily bread,” and learning to live that prayer one day at a time.

“Give us this day our daily bread” may be the shortest, most straightforward petition of the Lord’s prayer, but it also perhaps the most difficult to live into.  It addresses our hearts’ deepest values and the world’s greatest needs.

It is not our job to solve the problem of poverty or to end the Hunger Season on our own.  But it is our job to pray as Jesus taught us, “Give us this day our daily bread,” to trust God to meet our own needs, and to join God in the work of meeting the needs of others.  We do so with the promise from the book of Revelation that when the kingdom of God is fully realized,

“Never again will [any] hunger, and never again will they thirst” (Rev 7:16).

[1] United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization statistics, 2010-2012.  From http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm

[2] US Department of Agriculture Report, “Food Security in the United States, 2010.”  From http://www.bread.org/hunger/us/facts.html

God, Take Control!

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Preached August 4, 2013

Texts:  Matthew 6:10, Psalm 145:10-14


“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”  Matt 6:10

We don’t think in “kingdom” terms much in 21st century America.  Perhaps this prayer, prayed in our day, would read instead, “Your party win, your agenda be passed, in the halls of Congress as it does in the West Wing.”  Or…something like that.

It feels much more crass, more confrontational, when put in the context of our own political system, doesn’t it?  But it is perhaps closer to the original impact of these words.  This part of the Lord’s Prayer – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” is inherently political and subversive.  It unsettles the powers-that-be, and challenges the established order.  Right or wrong, when Jesus’ disciples heard these words, they would have imagined a political revolution, and a physical kingdom.

It is easy for us, some 2,000 years later, to shake our heads at their narrow view of the Kingdom of God.  We generally don’t give much thought to their longing for political independence from the Roman Empire.  From our vantage point, it seems clear enough to us that the Kingdom of God is more a spiritual reality than a physical one, more metaphor than literal.

Except…it’s not.  That next line – “on earth, as it is in heaven” – makes it clear that whatever the Kingdom of God is, it is certainly not some other-worldly reality that is separated from the concrete realities of life.  Rather, the Kingdom of God is something concrete, coming to be in time and place, in the real world.

So how is it that the Kingdom of God comes on earth?  For what do we pray when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?”

Most basically, we are saying:  “God, take control!”  Take control of our world, our politics, our nation.  Take control of our environment, our woods, our mountains, our oceans.  Take control of our schools, our cities, our youth.  Take control of our lives.  Take control!

There is a certain desperation expressed here.  “God, the earth is a mess.  Our families are a mess.  Our lives are a mess.  Won’t you take control, and bring some order to this chaos?!”

Jesus knows that the Kingdom of God is not always evident to us.  As he continues to teach his disciples, he will tell them, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…the smallest of seeds.”  Or, “The kingdom of God is like a bit of yeast, mixed into a large amount of flour…”

These parables seem to say:  The Kingdom of God is here, sometimes almost unnoticeable because of its smallness, its hiddenness.  God is in control already; but it may not always be visible.  There will be times, looking around, when you will wonder how it could possibly be.

But there is also a certain confidence in praying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”  By Matthew’s 6th chapter, Jesus has already told his disciples repeatedly, “The kingdom of God has come near.”  He doesn’t say, “The kingdom of God is coming” – as if it were a future reality to be hoped for someday.  But, “The kingdom of God has come.”  That Kingdom has arrived, already, on earth!

Like a seed that has taken root, or a bit of yeast mixed into the dough, God’s kingdom will grow and spread.

With each right decision, each moment when our hearts yield to the Holy Spirit, our lives begin to come under the will of God.  With each hurt forgiven, each relationship restored, our families begin to come under the will of God.  Each time resources are poured into peacemaking rather than weapon-making, our nations begin to come under the will of God.

In those moments, when we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God on earth, we find ourselves feeling most alive, most aware of God’s presence, most confident in God’s promises.  They remind me, a bit, of the days of pregnancy, when a flutter (or a kick!) from inside reminds a woman life is indeed growing inside her, even if it is not yet fully visible to the rest of the world.  They are moments of hope and beauty and joy.

But even with those moments, living in the time between the planting of the seed and the flowering of the plant is not easy.  Jesus experienced the full weight of this “already-but-not-yet” aspect of the Kingdom of God in the Garden of Gethsemene.  There, just before his arrest (which will lead to his death by crucifixion), Jesus prays, “If this cup cannot be taken from me, then Your will be done.” (Mt 26:42)

What does it mean for us to pray with Jesus, “Your will be done”?  Is it simply to accept the hardest, most difficult things in life as “God’s will”?  Is it to trust that however unfair life may seem, God must have some higher purpose that we cannot know?

Perhaps there is some truth to that.  Certainly, God’s ways are higher than our ways.  But I think that when Jesus says, “Your will be done,” in the Garden of Gethsemene he is praying something more than, “help me accept this awful, unfair thing as your will, God.”  I think, rather, he is praying, “No matter what comes, let me still live as you would have me live.  Let my words and actions reflect your character.  Let me love no matter how unlovable people act toward me.  Let me forgive when I’d rather strike back.”  “Not my will, but thine, be done.”

That’s not easy.  But it is possible, because Jesus has already provided us with evidence that the Kingdom of God has taken root and is growing in our world.

To pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” is to ask, then, that the character of God – shown to us in real, concrete ways on earth during Jesus’ life – would also control our lives.  And if our lives are ruled by such qualities, then our homes and families will be too – and our neighborhoods – our towns – even our whole world.

“Thy kingdom come…” is both a profoundly big and profoundly small prayer, reaching out to the greatest social ills in our world and also down to the deepest places of our hearts.  The hope that we strain toward, the seed we trust is already planted and growing within us, is the promise of God’s reign in our own hearts; in our closest, most intimate relationships; and in the whole complex web of relations among human beings and with the natural world.  So we pray and hope and live:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”