2/28/2016 Sermon – How to Pray #4 – “Unity”

Log BuildingDid you know, that in the late 1700’s, during the Revolutionary War, our church building was used as a hospital?  Not this building, but the first one that was here on this same spot, which was very primitive.  Can you picture that?

Now, medicine back then was not the same as now, and in most wars until WWII, more soldiers died from disease than actual battle.  But I wonder if you can imagine this space as a hospital, people in physical need, maybe in pain, being cared for, and the people caring for them.  The very first hospitals were created in Europe and were not established by local governments; they were ministries of churches.

It’s always seemed to me that the image, or metaphor, of a hospital isn’t a bad one for a church.  Some of us come in wounded, or with some illness that we wish we didn’t have.  We each have a story.  And as we worship, we realize how God is with us, especially through the ones who find joy in the ministry of caring.  God brings us together and unifies us to be a force for caring.

God is creating something extraordinary among people who believe.  Something supernatural happens when we come together to pray.  You can achieve a sense of togetherness or teamwork in a lot of ways – but none of those things have the power for change that comes from prayer.

In the Gospel of John, just after Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples, and just before he is taken away to be tried and crucified, he prays.  Jesus prays.  He prays for himself and then he prays for his disciples, the people he is about to leave behind…

John 17:20-26.  ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ 

  • Jesus has prayed for our unity, that we be “completely one.”
  • Other people will believe in Jesus because of our unity. Their lives will be changed because of what they see in us.  What they see is not natural for our culture; it’s an act of God.

DSC_5598 (2)God is big on unity.  God in Jesus, Jesus in us, us with each other.  You cannot have healthy faith on your own.  You cannot play baseball by yourself.  I suppose you could, but how much fun is that?

As believers, we cannot be alone very long, before our faith starts to become weak and suffer.  This is because the presence of God in our world is expressed through us.  The Holy Spirit come to us and is in us when we believe, and this is a connective force.

When people believe in Christ, they have gifts to share.  And believers are stronger when they are sharing those gifts with each other.  Where God is in control, there is unity.  There is love.  Jesus prays that the oneness of that relationship is obvious, and it preaches to people who don’t believe, so that they believe!  People are craving the kind of love God offers through Jesus, and people see it through the unity of believers.

To keep the relationship healthy, to keep the unity healthy, there are things which need to happen.  It’s not a bad idea to compare it to a healthy marriage.

  • In a healthy marriage, we share, we mingle our lives. Conflict is just around the corner when we stop sharing the things that are important to us.
  • In a healthy marriage, we create good times for each other. We have fun.  We talk.
  • In a healthy marriage, there is tolerance for differences. The longer people are married, the more they adjust to each other.  Keep in mind that the other person may not need to change to make you happy.  In the church, there always has to be room for personality differences.  One of the old slogans of the United Church of Christ is “In essentials unity, in non-essentials, diversity, in all things charity.”

Just to contrast, it’s easy to find reasons why marriages don’t work, nearly all of which have to do with not spending time with each other and talking.

Think of one thing you can do to improve your relationship with God.  A time of quiet? Reading your Bible, maybe with a devotional guide?  Make a plan for how you will accomplish that.

Think of one thing you can do to improve your relationship with your spouse, or the people in your family.  Make a plan for how you will accomplish that.

Think of one thing you can do to improve your relationship with your church family.  Make a plan for how you will accomplish that.  Whenever possible, find way to be with the church family in a large group or a small group, maybe at a meal, working on a mission, singing in a group – so many possibilities.

Where is God?  God is in Jesus and when we believe in Jesus, God is in us.  There is this supernatural connection, this transformation thing going on when we have faith.  It may not feel like it all the time, but when we are together, that’s what’s happening.  We can’t do it without each other.

Every week, we pray that God’s will is done on earth, and we are the tools God uses to make that happen.  We have a job to do.  Listen to this parable… (I’m not sure where this story comes from; if you know send me a note  – revjcn@gmail.com)

DSCF0017The Life-Saving Station. On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks are common, there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted volunteer members kept a constant watch over the sea and, with no thought of themselves, went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. This wonderful little station saved many lives and it became famous.  Some of those who were saved and people who lived nearby wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work.  New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea.  So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building.

Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely because they used it as a sort of club.  Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in this club’s decorations, and there was a symbolic lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held.

About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.

Many people are drowning, for all sorts of reasons.  God needs you and me to find ways to be the saving hands and feet of Jesus.  Together.

Prayer

God, the kind of love we want and need can come only from you.  You can change hearts and change lives, and our hearts are so empty without you.  We come to you to be filled.  We trust in you; our faith is in your son Jesus.  As you fill us with your Spirit, help us see your world as you see it, hear what you hear, feel what you feel.  Help each of us – and our church together – live a life that truly reflects your message of hope in Jesus.  Amen.

2/14/2016 Sermon – How to Pray #2 – “Accident Forgiveness”

Clapping Hands 2We’re continuing our series on prayer this week and this morning, I’d like to return to something we heard Jesus say last week.  In the gospel of Luke, he was teaching his disciples to pray, and toward the end, gave this important little instruction:  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Jesus knew that we would have sins, and that we would feel that there are those in our lives who have sinned against us.  In the same sentence, Jesus tells us to confess sin, asking for forgiveness, and to forgive others.  Which part of that sentence is hardest for you?  Asking God for forgiveness, or forgiving someone else?  Jesus makes the assumption that we will do both at the same time when we pray.

God is looking for relationship with us when we pray, and God needs that relationship to be honest.  We spend so much of our prayer lives thanking God for things, thanking God for daily bread, asking God to intervene in situations, that confession and forgiveness are easy to forget.  I have found myself, maybe once a month, going to Psalm 51 for some guidance, and I’d like to recommend that you mark this page in your Bibles as well…

Psalm 51.  To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
   blot out my transgressions. 
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
   and cleanse me from my sin. 

3 For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is ever before me. 
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
   and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
   and blameless when you pass judgement. 
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
   a sinner when my mother conceived me. 

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
   therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
   wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
   let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 
9 Hide your face from my sins,
   and blot out all my iniquities. 

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and put a new and right spirit within me. 
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
   and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and sustain in me a willing spirit. 

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
   and sinners will return to you. 
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
   O God of my salvation,
   and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 

15 O Lord, open my lips,
   and my mouth will declare your praise. 
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
   if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased. 
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
   a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 

I hope you caught the introduction to that psalm:  “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”  No other Psalm has words like those at the beginning.

That’s a short description of one of the most unpleasant stories in scripture (2 Samuel 11).  David the Psalm-writer and king wasn’t just an adulterer; he was an accomplice to murder.  When he was confronted, he had a lot to confess.

There are a few key phrases in that Psalm that I’d like to lock into; important words to be saying to God as we pray.

Have mercy on me, O God….  (v. 1)

This kind of prayer, confession, can only begin with an attitude of humility.  I have known people whose sense of pride will not allow them to admit that they are ever wrong.  Maybe you have known some of those folks.  But if our prayer life is to be healthy and effective, that is not how it is between God and us.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (v. 3)

We don’t gloss over our sins.  We own them honestly with God, and when possible we make amends with people we may have wronged.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (v. 6)

Honesty and truth are the cleansing agents that God uses in us to make us changed people who can listen to the wisdom of God in our secret places.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (v. 10)

The clean heart gives God space to work.  We are asking God to replace our spirit with God’s spirit.  And this is all for a purpose…

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. (v. 13)

Do you see how the focus moved from David’s “secret heart” to sharing with other people who might have the same problem? Most of us hope that nobody ever finds out what our real problems are.  David chose not to keep his story to himself.  He knew that sharing was the only way to his own recovery. And that is how God hopes that the rest of us learn to live this way:  your story of personal failure might be someone else’s salvation. 

1977 01 - Beetle crashOnce upon a time in the last century… Kathy and I were visiting relatives in Indiana.  On a very cold day – like this morning – we were headed home, making good time on State Rt. 6, until a big green Plymouth slid through an intersection in front of us and we knocked its back wheels off.  I’m always amazed it wasn’t worse, since this was before the days of seatbelt laws and we weren’t wearing ours.  The cuts and bruises healed and we don’t have permanent scars from crashing an old-style VW bug at 50 miles an hour.  But for me, it left a different kind of mark.  On country roads, I still get nervous coming up to intersections.  Traveling on some of the nearby country roads during the winter is a time of prayer for me.

The police said that because there was a stop sign down at that intersection (there had been another accident the day before), nobody was at fault.  Our insurance company gave us a check for our car, which was totaled.

But then, a while later, we had trouble getting new car insurance when we moved, because in the insurance world, there was no such thing as an accident with no one to blame.

Now, insurance companies brag about offering “accident forgiveness,” but it may not mean what you think it does.  It just means that they may not raise your premium after your first accident.  You may still have trouble getting new insurance when you need it.

That’s the way the world works.  And that’s how we think God works.  We are guilty as charged and we think God is keeping a file.  And it’s true that God does have standards.  But it’s also true that God has a deeper love for us that we can comprehend.  So deep that God willingly gives his son Jesus for us, so that when we have faith in him, our sins are eternally forgotten.  We ask for forgiveness. God forgives.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s done.  The second time you confess the same sin, God wonders what you’re talking about.

Maybe you’ve had an experience that left a scar.  Something happened.  It left a mark. Maybe the mark was more internal – you can’t get it out of your mind.  Maybe it was more than just an accident.  Maybe it really was your fault.  Maybe you need to let yourself off the hook.  In any case, it left a mark.

Through Christ, God has come in your place to take that burden you’ve been carrying.  And you are forgiven.  Your sins died on that cross with him.  Really, they did.  If you need to make amends with someone, go for it.  And as you have come honestly before God, you are forgiven. Let it begin with, “Lord, have mercy on me…”

Prayer 

God, we are more desperately in need of your mercy than we are willing to admit.  Our lives are in need of an inner house-cleaning. And so we come to you, the God who loves us more than we will ever know.

Father, Your Word tells us that if we forgive those who have sinned against us, then You will forgive us.  And so today we choose to forgive.

Heal our emotions that have been wounded and teach us the path toward toleration and acceptance.  Thank you for the love and mercy you continue to extend to us.  Please remind us every day to use Your power living on the inside of us which helps us in all things.  Amen.

2/7/2016 Sermon – How to Pray #1 – “When You Pray…”

prayer
Prayer before lunch. Zimbabwe, 2009 – CN.

If Jesus were to come into the room before the service this morning and choose to sit next to you, what would you say to him?  Really, what would you want to say?  That’s a way to think about our new series for this month about one of the most important things that you can do with your life – prayer.  Very simply – prayer is relationship with God, and this morning, Jesus will help us know how to think about that relationship.

Luke 11:1-4.  He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

2  He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.  3  Give us each day our daily bread.  4  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

 Then Jesus has some more to say about this relationship God wants with us…

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

I want you to hear, one more time, a key part of what Jesus just said:

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Wow.  We can ask for anything?  Sure.  It doesn’t mean that God will give or do what we want.  The prayer Jesus is talking about leads to relationship.  That’s why Jesus goes on to say,

how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

The Holy Spirit is God living in us, living in you and me.  Can’t get much closer than that.  That is God’s deepest desire, to be living in us.  That is what God is hoping we ask for.

Prayer is not…

  • Prayer is not magic. We cannot summon God as though He were a genie, waiting to grant our wishes without regard for our circumstances or the consequences.
  • Prayer does not make demands. While we can make requests of God in prayer, we dare not make demands. God is the Creator of the universe and does not take orders from us.
  • Prayer is for our benefit, not God’s. We need a relationship with God, available to us through Jesus Christ and engaged primarily through prayer, because we were made to function best when we are in a proper relationship with our Creator.
  • Prayer is not a guarantee against suffering. “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33); “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).

[Adapted from:  http://www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/faith-in-life/prayer/prayer]

When I say, “Our Father…”  Your mind starts to make your mouth finish a prayer.  You may not know it, but you’re quoting scripture – five verses from the gospel of Matthew (6:9-13).  The Lord’s Prayer.  Specifically, you’re quoting the King James version of the Lord’s Prayer.  When I have led worship in nursing homes, people will often be able to say this prayer (and Christmas carols!) when they have forgotten many other things.

But we’ll look, for a few minutes, at Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.  Maybe it should be called “The Disciples’ Prayer,” because the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray.  Jesus responds not just by telling them what to say, he teaches them an attitude toward God – and each other – through prayer.  The attitude is what’s important.

Clapping Hands 2Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come. (Luke 11:1)

Jesus starts by telling them to say “Father…”  he actually says “Abba” – a name for God nobody had heard before.  Actually, it’s much more informal than “Father.”  Papa or Dad.  This is someone we have an intimate relationship with, not just Almighty God somewhere on the other side of the clouds or locked away in the Temple.  Their relationship was based on formal religious ritual, but this God the Father reaches out for an embrace.  This is someone who knows us, who knows where we are on life’s journey, who knows where all our scars are, who knows what our talents are and what we’re good at in school.  Someone who accepts us as we are, “warts” and all.  Someone who knows what we need and wants to help us get it.  Someone who doesn’t expect some sort of flowery, articulate oration when we pray.  To make this point, Tony Campolo used to say…

Imagine that you’re sixteen or seventeen and you need the car.  You find your dad in the recliner in the living room and you say, “O great owner of the house and the wheels in yon driveway, O great giver of the very breath with which I speak:  Surely, you have given me good and wonderful things all the days of my life, especially that computer last Christmas, and for these things I will be thankful forever and ever.  I humbly come to you in this time of need asking, nay, beseeching thee for the keys to the Volvo.”

I think God is happy when we pray, but how would your dad feel if you talked to him like this all the time?

The most effective prayers come from the depths of our souls when words don’t come easily.  “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”  (Romans 8:26)

The very first word is a breakthrough.  Abba.  Jews never call God by name.  It is too holy to speak.  But Jesus teaches his people to name God by relationship.  Abba, Father.  Papa, Dad.  Personal, but with the authority of a good parent.  They had never heard you could be personal with God, and a lot of us might have that impression too.  Some people have trouble with the “Father” word, for different reasons, that often miss the point of God’s deep wish to be close and personal.  A relationship of love and care and forgiveness.  If that does not describe the relationship you had with your earthly father, don’t let it keep you from this Father we’re praying to.

This Father has great power.  Abba, your name is hallowed, or holy.  God’s name has power.  That’s why we don’t use it carelessly.  That’s why the commandment says, “do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

This father whom we pray to has the power to bring a kingdom, or bring us into a kingdom.  Jesus talks about the kingdom more than anything else, and in Luke’s gospel, the kingdom is the circle of relationships made up of God and all the believers.  The kingdom is inside and outside these believers.  Because of their relationship with God, these are people who see the world in a different way, and the world is changing because of them.  The kingdom has come and the kingdom is coming, and every week we keep praying for it to come.  God’s kingdom is always coming and growing around us.

Each of us, and all of us, have prayed countless times for God’s kingdom to come.  And I believe God answers prayer.  So let’s stop and think about whether that’s happened. Has God’s kingdom come – for you, for us?  Has faith increased for you, has your relationship with other believers grown?  Because we pray this, God is changing you and me, and changing our world.

Think about the ancient meaning of kingdom.  The purpose of a kingdom was power, but for the common person, it was also protection.  If Christ is your Lord, your king, you have the ultimate protector.  You have a safe place to be when trouble comes.

Dominican Republic. CN - 2008.
Dominican Republic. CN – 2008.

Give us each day our daily bread.  (Luke 11:3)  God wants to give us a kingdom, and Jesus expects us to pray for it, but God also wants us to be thankful for something as simple as “daily bread.”

Literally a gut instinct; you eat, you pray.  The more thankful you are, the more praying is as natural as eating.  I think that’s the attitude God wants us to have about “our daily bread.”  But most of us have such a surplus of food (and other things), so there is a natural diminishing of being thankful to God that we have something to eat.

And it’s more than just being thankful about the food that happens to be in front of us at any particular time.  It’s a trust thing.  It’s understanding that life is fragile, and that at every moment we are breathing, and even if we are not breathing, our lives are in God’s hands.  God will take care of us.  God, we trust you to give us daily bread.  Not something we think about until bread is hard to find.  And if we have enough bread, I believe that God needs us to find those who are praying for daily bread, and be and answer to this prayer for them.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  (Luke 11:4)

The last part of the prayer is about relationship and about reconciliation.  We are less than perfect, and we live in an imperfect world.  We wish we could be better people, better husbands and wives, better children, better parents, better friends.  But we fall short of God’s standards and short of our own standards.  So we have something to say to God and to each other: “…forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”  Let that sink in for a moment.  The least we can do is accept that everyone around us is imperfect too, and struggling with the same sin we are.

And do not bring us to the time of trial. (Luke 11:4)

It could also be called a time of testing – God’s judgment day.  We are praying, “Help us live in a way that doesn’t call us into your judgment.”  It’s no coincidence that this part of the prayer comes right after the prayers for forgiveness.  If we expect God to forgive us, then we need to forgive and accept others.  God expects this from us.

This prayer was just four sentences long, and it’s an invitation to have an honest, open, trusting relationship with God, a lifestyle of sharing and forgiveness, and a new way to live.

Prayer

Father, we love you and trust you.  We know you are with us, taking care of us even when we’re not thinking about it.  You are with all of us.  We know we’re not everything we should be, we accept that about ourselves and others.  We know you’ll help us live in a way that will make you proud of us.  These things we pray in the strong name of Jesus.  Amen.