Monthly Archives: July 2019

“Prayer: A Way of Life” 07.28.2019 Sermon

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Luke 11:1-13 • July 28, 2019

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

A young boy – fourth or fifth grade – was kneeling beside his bed one evening, offering his bedtime prayers. His mother overheard part of the prayer as she stood outside the bedroom. Part of his passionate and persistent prayer included, “Let it be Tokyo! Please dear God, let it be Tokyo!”

Mom walked into the room for a goodnight kiss when he had finished. She asked him, “What did you mean, ‘Let it be Tokyo’?”

The boy said, “We had a geography test today and I was praying to God that God would make Tokyo the capital of France.”

Does that sound like any of your prayers? Or at least familiar to some of them? I know it sounds a bit like some of my prayers.

What’s your earliest memory of prayer?

Who taught you how to pray?

This may surprise some of you, but I don’t remember ever receiving formal training on prayer or how to pray. At least not in the way that this unnamed disciple is asking Jesus to do for him in our gospel reading today.

I think my first memory of prayer is probably this bedtime prayer. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord, my soul, to take.”

Or I remember a meal prayer from the Catholic tradition of my childhood – “Bless us, oh Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.” I actually remember offering that prayer once as the table prayer for an event here. I invited everyone to join me in saying it. At the end of the prayer, all I saw was the blank stares of a whole lot of Lutherans who had no idea what prayer I had just offered.

I also have fond memories of watching my German-Russian immigrant grandparents pray the rosary at St. Phillip Neri Catholic Church in Napoleon, ND. Sometimes prayed in German. Sometimes in English. Often some hybrid combination of the two languages. Even though my grandfather arrived in the United States as a young man, his first language was German until the day he died. He did learn English in order to survive in the US, but I do not believe it ever became his primary language.

Over my lifetime, I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on prayer, attended conferences and spiritual retreats that have impacted my prayer life deeply, and I even have two hours of every day blocked off on my calendar specifically for prayer.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that I don’t recall ever asking someone to, “teach me how to pray.” like this disciple asks Jesus to do. And to be honest, I think prayer, has been, and continues to be, a journey for me. A deep and sacred journey that we call faith that will one day culminate in meeting Jesus face to face. Until then, I continue along the way. And some days are better than others when it comes to prayer.

I’ve referenced the book “Help. Thanks. Wow. The Three Essential Prayers.” in many places in recent years. I continue to see it as one of the better books on prayer that I’ve come across in the last decade or so. Anne Lamott is the author. She has a way of expressing faith and the spiritual journey that really connects with me. Her simple, yet profound, 102 page book is a brilliant exploration of prayer.

She opens the book with a chapter called Prayer 101 and says, “I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe,…, there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.” [pg. 1]

“Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.” [pg. 4]

“Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy – all at the same time.” [pg. 5]
“Prayer is talking to someone or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.” [pg. 5-6]

Lamott concludes the Prayer 101 chapter by saying, “…prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.” [pg. 7]

For my own faith journey, what I think I see prayer becoming more and more each day, is less a prescribed format that we must follow in order for God to hear our prayers and more as a way of life in which prayer is constantly unfolding in every part of my life.
Prayer is less about an activity that I carve out of my busy schedule and more of a rhythm that is simply part of my everyday journey.

Every conversation I have is prayer.

Every thought I have is prayer.

Every move I make is prayer.

Everything I touch is prayer.

I believe it is beautiful and holy and sacred, the many times we pray during a worship service – the confession and prayer of the day, the Prayers of God’s People, our songs and hymns, the Lord’s Prayer.

My hope though, as one of your pastors, is that the prayer we share as a community when we gather for worship is not the only time you and I think about praying. My hope is that the prayer we offer when we gather as a community of faith sends us into the world to live all of our lives as living examples of prayer.

The great 20th Century theologian CS Lewis, once said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

I believe Lewis’ insight is central to what Jesus teaches us about prayer in the gospels. Jesus is trying to show us how prayer is actually lived out along our faith journey. Frankly, if all we believe about prayer is that it’s about getting what we want when we want it, and how we want it, we might be missing the point of what prayer is all together – at least according to what Jesus teaches us about prayer.
Or as another theologian asked this week, “Does prayer make things happen, or change my perceptions of what ‘is’ already?” [www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-06/july-24-17th-Sunday-ordinary-time]

What I believe Jesus says about prayer, is that prayer re-centers us on the fact that the Holy Spirit is already present.

That the Holy Spirit is already with us and is a gift from God.

That our prayer life – and our persistence in our prayer life – encompasses all that we say and do.

And that this prayer life is already bringing us closer and closer into relationship with each other and in relationship with God through our savior Jesus.

In other words, maybe the answer to our prayer is the fact that God is already with us.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, prayer isn’t only something we are supposed to set aside time to do, that is if we are ever actually able to fit it into our already over-scheduled lives.

It’s not something we should do only when we need something from God or want God to do something for us.

Prayer isn’t simply about memorization and then making sure we are using those memorized prayers at the correct time and in the correct way.

Prayer is how we live out our lives of faith as the Holy Spirit breathes through us.

May you and I be blessed as we live out our lives of faith.

Lives of faith that begin and end in prayer. And all God’s children say.., Amen.


“Awareness of Our Neighbor: A Sermon” 07.14.2019

Luke 10:25-37 • July 14, 2019

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

A pastor, not this pastor, by the way, decided to skip church one Sunday morning and go play golf.

He called his Associate Pastor early in the day and told them he wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be at worship. His plan was coming together perfectly. And to make it even more perfect, he drove to a golf course in another city, so nobody would know him.
He teed off on the first hole. Just as his club hit the golf ball perfectly, a huge gust of wind caught the ball, carried it an extra 175 yards and dropped it right in the hole. A 452-yard hole in one.

An angel looked at God and said: “What’d you do that for?”

God smiled and said, “Who’s he going to tell?”

Someone shared that story with me recently on one of my social media sites. And since many of you are not connected with my pastoral ministry online, I thought it’d be a cute story to share today. Honestly, I’m not sure if it has anything to do with today’s gospel at all.

Today’s gospel and the themes weaving throughout our worship together this week are probably familiar to you. Or at least a little familiar. After all, the parable that we know and love as the Good Samaritan is one that extends far beyond the reach of Christianity.
Entire organizations in our society are built around this parable of Jesus – think the Good Samaritan Society that seeks to provide care to some of the most vulnerable in our communities.

United States Presidents and other world leaders have used this parable as an example of national pride and concern for fellow citizens over countless centuries.

And faith communities like our very own congregation often model their mission and ministry out of this parable. How else can we explain the Good Samaritan fund in Good Shepherd’s annual ministry financial plan? Or the fact that even our mission statement echoes its truth. We believe that, as a congregation, we are called “to share the Shepherd’s love with all of God’s children.” In all that we say and do together as a church, this parable is at least part of our work together. Our mission statement doesn’t just say that we should share God’s love only with people from Bismarck who are members of Good Shepherd or only with people whom we deem worthy of God’s love or only with Christians who are also Lutheran or only with people who are citizens of the United States.

All means all for Jesus throughout the gospels and this parable states that truth very directly.

And so we try, as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, to the best of our God-given ability to live up to that “all” in the mission God has called our congregation, and congregations like us around to the world, to live out in God’s creation.

Brothers and sisters, this is good. Very good. It’s no wonder why this parable is called good. It’s no wonder why this parable has been a blessing to God’s people for 2,000 years.
But here’s something to note. Did you catch that Jesus never says anything about “good” in this parable? He doesn’t call the Samaritan good. Not even once. And he doesn’t say the lawyer or the priest or the Levite are bad either. Or good.

Pastor Eugene Peterson believes that the parables of Jesus are narrative time bombs designed to explode people into new awareness.

Maybe that’s why this parable has become known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan over the last 2,000 years or so. Once in awhile, God’s children need something that causes us to explode a little in order to be moved into a new awareness as it relates to our faith life.

The parable before us today is not simply about doing good when you feel like it, it’s about taking care of your neighbor. Treating everyone as the beloved children of God that they are, wherever they are, whoever they may be.

I’m guessing that you all are a lot like me. We all think we are or at least want to be the Samaritan in this story. It’s a lot better to see ourselves in that role and gives us another opportunity to make fun of and judge the behavior of the lawyer or the priest or the Levite.

Truth be told though, you and I often act more like the lawyer, asking Jesus who really is our neighbor. God can’t possibly love everyone, can he? We need clarification about just who our neighbor actually is before we are going to even think about doing anything for someone else.

Or, we are like the priest, afraid to get our hands dirty to do something good for someone we do not know. Someone different from us. Someone who’s not Lutheran. Or maybe even not Christian. We go out of our way to go around that neighbor in need. Someone who actually knows them can help. Someone who’s part of their community. At least that’s what we often think or say.

Or we are like the Levite, and simply walk by, because the one who needs our help doesn’t actually deserve our help. Why can’t they just pick themselves up and get a job, help themselves for a change?

Let’s take another look at the gospel before us today. And in the spirit of Eugene Peterson’s language, I’ll put a little more fuel on the fire for the narrative time bomb this parable gives us today, shifting us into a new awareness.

A man fell into a pit and couldn’t get himself out.
A subjective person came along and said, “I feel for you down there.”
An objective person came along and said, “It’s logical that someone would fall down there.”
A Pharisee said, “Only bad people fall into a pit.”
A mathematician calculated how he fell into the pit in the first place.
A news reporter wanted an exclusive story on his pit.
A fundamentalist said, “You deserve your pit.”
An IRS man asked if he was paying taxes on the pit.
A self-pitying woman said, “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen my pit.”
A charismatic said, “Just confess that you’re not in a pit.”
An optimist said, “Things could be worse.”
A pessimist said, “Things will get worse.”
Jesus, seeing the man in the pit, took him by the hand and lifted him out. (from Barbara Johnson, Ecunet, Homiletics, July-September 1995)

At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, a man, who is identified by Luke as a lawyer, asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The lawyer offers a list – “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

The lawyer then asks Jesus what I believe is a genuine and faithful question – “And who is my neighbor?” The Parable of the Good Samaritan is how Jesus addresses the lawyer’s follow-up question. A follow-up question that may be the heart of what I believe the Spirit is trying to say through this sermon today.

Jesus shares the parable and then answers the lawyer’s follow up question with another question. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer, and you and I say, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus says to the lawyer, and to every child of God who has ever claimed to be a follower of Jesus since that day, “Go and do likewise.”

In her 2004 Christmas message, Queen Elizabeth II refers to this parable as being a story about “tolerance and respecting others.” She summarizes it in this way. “Everyone is our neighbor, no matter what race, creed or colour. The need to look after a fellow human being is far more important than any cultural or religious differences.” [Short Stories by Jesus, by Amy Jill-Levine, pg. 79]

Maybe God – through our savior Jesus – is coming to you today as the one who is in the ditch; or maybe God is coming to you and inviting you to be the one who shows compassion and mercy; or maybe God is even coming to you and me today as children of God who need to be reminded who our neighbor is in the first place, so we’ll finally stop beating them up. Or worse yet, walking by and ignoring them, leaving them on the side of the road to die alone.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we see our neighbors along this journey we call faith, I hope and pray that we are bold enough to respond to Jesus’ call for mercy. To “go and do likewise.” Because that indeed is good, good news. As Martin Luther instructed us about five centuries ago, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.”

And, oh yea, if I ever do get a 452-yard hole in one – I guarantee you, that I will share that good news with you too! Even if it happens on a Sunday morning.
Amen.