8/27/2017 Sermon: “Jesus at Prayer”

Over the summer, we’ve traveled with Jesus to different places and found him in different situations.  Especially in his relationships with people, he was not one-dimensional.  He went to the shore – that was where he called his first disciples and began teaching them how to fish (for people!).  He went to parties and we learned that whenever he is around, water might turn to wine – he makes life fulfilling.  He took a trip to the mountains, to show us who he is (God), and not to be afraid of the cross – he will overcome and we will overcome the worst things of life with him. All along the way, wherever he goes, Jesus heals – making us whole, and giving us a ministry of healing.  Something else that Jesus does, wherever he goes, is pray.  All the time.  He finds a private place and spends time with God, his father.

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?  Can you make a mental list?

It’s not such a silly question; if you can’t see God as a person, which is one of the reasons Jesus came, then your relationship with God isn’t nearly as close as it could be.

One of the most important things that you can do with your life is prayer.  Very simply – prayer is relationship with God, and this morning, Jesus will help us know how to think about that relationship.  He’s about to give us a prayer tutorial.

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.”

Sound familiar?  That’s Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.  Just a little simpler, right?  (compared to Matthew 6:9-13)

Now Jesus has some more to say about this relationship God wants with us…  (listen closely!)

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 see, 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.  In prayer, we can ask for anything?  Sure.  It doesn’t mean that God will give or do whatever 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. The most integrated relationship two people could have. That is what God is hoping we ask for.

Let’s think for a minute about what prayer is not:

1. Prayer is not magic. God is not a genie, standing by to grant wishes.  God is always paying attention to the circumstances of our lives and either does – or allows – what’s best for us.  Prayer does not change other people, although God may choose to get their attention somehow.  It’s more likely that God the Spirit will change your own attitude to make you more forgiving and tolerant.

2. Prayer does not make demands. Of course, God wants to know our requests, but it’s important to remember that God is the Creator of the universe and does not take orders from us.

3. Prayer is not a guarantee against suffering. Jesus actually said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33); and ” 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).

4. Prayer is not an opportunity for us to show off. Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men” (Matthew 6:5). God is not counting the words.  Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple.

[Based on 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).  In worship from week to week, we’re quoting the King James version of the Lord’s Prayer.  So, Luke’s version might have sounded a little odd.  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 toward each other – through prayer.  The attitude is what’s important.

Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Jesus starts by telling them to say “Father…”  – a name for God nobody had heard before.  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 (or in church).  Formal religious ritual has it’s place, but this God the Father reaches out for an embrace.  You don’t have to be in church to connect with God the Father. This is someone who knows us, 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)  These prayers are not scripted.

The very first word is a breakthrough, straight from Jesus.  Abba.  Jews never call God by name.  God’s name is too holy to speak.  But Jesus teaches his people to name God by relationship.  Abba, Father.  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: 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.  The name of God 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 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.  God needs us to be a partner in growing the kingdom.

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.

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.  You might be used to saying, “Lead us not into temptation,” but the original words are the same.  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.


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.  Help us live in ways that change our world – for your glory.  We pray in the name of Jesus.  Amen.


8/13/2017 Sermon: “Jesus at the Party”

Central Park, Manhattan. CN – 2010

John 2:1-11.  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

First, a little story:

Sedona, Arizona. CN – 2003.

Sally was driving home from one of her business trips in Northern Arizona when she saw an elderly Navajo woman walking on the side of the road. As the trip was a long and quiet one, she stopped the car and asked the Navajo woman if she would like a ride.

With a word or two of thanks, she got in the car. After resuming the journey and a bit of small talk, the Navajo woman noticed a brown bag on the seat next to Sally. “What’s in the bag?” asked the old woman.

Sally looked down at the brown bag and said, “It’s a bottle of wine. Got it for my husband.”

The Navajo woman was silent for a moment, and then speaking with the quiet wisdom of an elder said, “Good trade.”

When you think of a typical picture of Jesus – you know, the kind that hang on so many church walls – it’s hard to imagine that he had emotions.  But according to the Gospels, Jesus wept more than once and he got angry more than once.  Personally, I don’t think the crowds would have stayed around long if those were the only emotions he showed.  It’s logical that he laughed and told jokes.  He showed what it’s like to be joyful.  People felt good for being around Jesus.

Can you picture Jesus at a wedding?  In every middle-eastern culture, there is a tradition of dancing at weddings. So, did Jesus dance?  I think Jesus danced.  And having Jesus at a wedding had other benefits, right?

In the Gospel of John, turning the water into wine was the first sign of who Jesus is.  Might seem like a parlor trick, something that we might think of as being trivial, but it produced faith – his disciples believed.  It was a sign of who he is; he is God.

I don’t think Mary knew what Jesus was going to do; I think it was surprise to her too.  He turned the water they had been using on the outside (for washing) into something good you could use on your insides.  It’s not so much that he made the choice to turn water into wine as much as… in his presence, with him at the party, a good thing becomes awesome.

The jars are empty because all the people at the party have been washing feet and hands.  Then the servants re-fill the jars and Jesus turns the water into wine, and apparently, really good wine.  The stuff they had been using for washing became good for drinking.  It had only been good for the outside of a person, now it was good for the inside.  It’s a sign.  It’s a hint.  Who is this? Jesus took the tradition and made it better.  One minute they had empty traditional, unsanitary stone jars, then suddenly, with Jesus at the party, they had more good wine than they could ever drink, at least 120 gallons (unless this was the “mother of all” wedding feasts!)  Before, all they had were clean hands and feet, now they’re satisfied on the inside.  That’s what Jesus does.  That’s what God does.  And this is God.

What Jesus does is bring joy.  Do you know the difference between joy and happiness?

Here’s a little piece written by a young woman named Chloe Anderson…  You may not agree with everything, but she has some good thoughts:

“Joy and happiness—two emotions that can generally be indicated by the same signs: smiling, laughing, high energy, etc.

However, although these two feelings look similar on the outside, two totally different things are happening beneath the surface.

Now, mind you, I haven’t always viewed them this way. I had always believed that joy was simply just a stronger version of happiness. Happiness was just decaf joy. Joy was just happiness on steroids… You get the gist.

It wasn’t until I took a choir trip during my senior year of high school that this belief completely changed for me. It was only hours before the concert, and our director was trying to get us to sing one of our songs with the right feeling. The song was a simple one, titled “Sing for Joy!”

He told us that he wanted us not only to look happy while we sang the song, but to look joyful. To help communicate this to the rest of the choir, he asked us what we thought the difference between joy and happiness was.

I ended up never answering his question, because my mind was too busy in the process of being blown. It was re-analyzing everything it had ever known.

You see, my knee-jerk reaction was: “Oh, that’s easy. Joy is just a much stronger feeling of happiness.” Then I started thinking, and I realized that wasn’t true at all.

You see, happiness is something that we can have, but things like sadness, depression, or anger can invade us until, eventually, all of that negativity conquers out our happiness.

But joy…

Joy cannot be conquered, because joy is the conqueror. Joy is not smothered by too much sadness but, instead, drives it out.

Joy cannot be overcome by even the sharpest pain, because joy is what we can grasp onto in spite of pain. It is not afraid. It is unshakable. It is indomitable.

And joy is this way, I believe, because it comes straight from God (this is where the woman of faith part comes in). He gives it to us in the morning after we suffer even the darkest of nights. He pours it on us with love when we are hurting. We can use it as our armor against any situation or circumstance that we go through.

Remember: if life has you down and feeling defeated, don’t just try to be happy. Be joyful—in the good times, in the bad, during rain or shine, unshakably, fearlessly and indomitably.

“For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favor is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” -Pslams 30:5 KJV

The Greek word for joy is “chara.” It means gladness, calm, delight or joy.  [from the same root as] the word for grace–“charis.”  Charis is “that which bestows on occasion pleasure, delight, or causes favorable regard.”

When grace and truth came in the person of Jesus, so did joy.  True joy.  Real joy.  Genuine joy.  Not superficial feelings of happiness.  While we may use the words interchangeably, there is a difference between joy and happiness.

Happiness is based on circumstances, but Joy is rooted substance.  Happiness may be about things.  Joy is about Christ.

Happiness is external, but Joy is internal.  Physical and material things may make us happy, but joy comes from the heart. The soul.  The inner person.

Happiness is based on chance, but Joy on choice.  The word “happy” comes from an old English word “hap” which means luck, chance or accident.  Joy is a decision. A determination of the will.

Happiness is  temporary, but Joy is timeless! Feelings of happiness will ebb and flow, but joy is constant. Unbounded! Unmoved! Eternal!”


God wants to know, “What’s your empty tradition?”  Jesus wants to fill it with life.  He wants to change the old stuff and fill it with himself.  The empty tradition could be the things we do at church, unless Christ fills them.  It could be the things we do at school, unless Christ fills them.  It could be any of the empty habits we have that are so hard to break.  Every empty tradition we change has to have something to take its place, and that’s what Christ does.  It’s very difficult to stop a bad old habit unless we replace it with a good new habit.

The people in AA know this.  They know everybody needs a higher power, and that we can’t help ourselves without that higher power.  Christians have the advantage of knowing who that higher power is.  Christ is just waiting to be asked to change our water into wine.  He’s ready to give us the kind of joy we’ve always needed.


O God, sometimes we feel empty, just like stone jars.  Cold and lifeless.  We follow our traditions without even thinking what they mean.  But we want to be filled with life.  We want you to make us new.  We want your kind of joy.  So send your Spirit into our lives so that when our friends and family ask us, “What’s new?” we will know that the change they see has happened through our friendship with you. Amen.

8/6/2017 Sermon: “Jesus at the Beach”

Flowers next to the Sea of Galilee, near  ancient Capernaum.  (Matthew 5-7). CN – 2011.

Do you like being near water?  I love being in a place where we can see water.  Myself, I very much like looking at the water, but not so much being in it!  We’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in places that were close to a shore a couple of times – even had our own small boat for a short time.

So, I confess that I’m partial to stories of Jesus being at the shore.  He did much of his ministry – and lived – near the Sea of Galilee (a big freshwater lake).  This is just one “Jesus at the Beach” story:

Luke 5.  Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee), and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Let’s see how that might have played out….

So, the film clip picks up the story after Jesus was forced to get into a boat to teach a crowd. He’s getting backed into the water.  Ah – some boats.  These boats work in pairs; that’s how they fish – they circle a net between them and pull it in.  That’s still how the fishing is done on the Sea of Galilee.

Sea of Galileee. CN – 1989.

Just before this, Jesus had gone to Peter’s house and healed his mother-in-law from a sickness – that got his attention.  Peter’s house is on the shore – a crowd gathers and Jesus begins to teach. Peter lets Jesus into his boat and it wasn’t long before he was doing a whole different kind of fishing.  It’s a great metaphor Jesus used: “from now on you will be catching people.”  I love it that Jesus never said, “Peter, you need to stop being a fisherman now.”  He said, “from now on you will be catching people.” I’ll bet he winked when he said that.

I believe that we are all called to ministry in one form or another – to catch people.  I mean it.  If you have ever told God that you believe in Jesus, or told God, “I have faith in you,” God planted a calling in you through the Holy Spirit.  God gave you something to do, some ministry.  It might be public; it might be private.  God will bring someone to faith because of you.

Peter had the same reaction to his calling that everybody else has when they come face to face with God.  Peter says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  (Luke 5:8)

If Jesus got into my boat, I would have felt the same way. Lord, I am a sinful man.  Let me count the ways.  With Jesus around, I recognize how unclean I am, and I have an instinct to clean things up.  Fortunately, that’s not what I do.  Cleaning me up is what God does.  Jesus does not leave Peter.  He does not leave you either.  When you confess the sinful state of your life, God has room to work.  What’s important to know is that…

Faith is not about you making yourself into a better person.  It’s about allowing God to have control. 

That story was about Peter meeting God and God using Peter to change the world.  God did amazing things with Peter and the most amazing thing about that is that it was Peter.  Maybe the most unlikely person ever.

But it wasn’t just about him; it’s about us.  God reaches out to us.  God finds us. God has a job for us, and this church, and all of us – the most unlikely people ever – and this is how it works:

1.)  God accepts you, just the way you are.  People meet God. Actually, God comes into our world looking for us. God uses people and circumstances to reach out to us.  I know people look for God all the time, but it actually works the other way around.  God comes looking for you.  And finds you.

You’ve heard Peter’s reaction already.  In one way or another, when you know you are in the presence of God, you feel inadequate.  To some degree, you might feel guilt.  You think about things you’ve said, things you’ve done, things you wish you could go back and fix.  You want to stand before God a clean person, but it’s impossible.  Nobody can escape the guilt, and it doesn’t help to ignore it.  We can’t say, “Don’t think about it; don’t worry about it.”  We know inside ourselves that we can never meet our own standards.  It doesn’t even help to be “religious.”  We cannot make ourselves clean in the way God wants us to be clean; only God can do that.  But before God can make us clean, we have to understand that we are unclean, or at least not as clean as God.  The discomfort is not a bad thing.

You think to yourself, “I am not worthy.”  And it is exactly that response that makes you ready for the adventure God has in store for you.  Jesus doesn’t say to Peter, “I agree; indeed you are not worthy!”  Instead he says, “Do not be afraid…” Jesus doesn’t come to condemn.  He comes to heal and fix what’s broken, to make you strong, so you can partner up with God to change the world!

Galilee fisherman. CN – 1989.

2.)  God gives us a job to do.  Jesus said to Peter, “put your nets back in the water.”  The deep water. At that point, it is not Peter who’s doing the fishing.  It’s God.  It’s Christ.  Jesus brought the fish into those nets, not Peter. In a sense, God took the thing Peter could do and made him better at it.  God uses what you can do, not what you can’t do.

Peter had some fishing to do.  Peter was sent out to bring other people to Christ.  One minute he’s pulling in bass, or whatever, and the next, he’s told he’s going to preach (that’s what he ended up doing).  How would you feel?  Intimidated?

And it’s never convenient, and practically never easy.  After a bad night of fishing, Peter is tired and there’s this guy in his boat talking to a crowd.  He was probably too tired to say no.  He wants me to go fishing in the place where I spent the night, the place where there was no fish.   And what’s different now?  Jesus was in the boat.

There’s something I want to point out about that fishing story.  Jesus did not stand on the shore and loudly ask, “Could I have couple of volunteers for an object lesson today?”  Jesus never does that.  He looks you in the eye and says, “Put out your nets. Now.”  He doesn’t ask for volunteers. He doesn’t need you to volunteer; he needs you to respond to your calling.  Your calling might be in the church or somewhere else.

We have a calling.  That thing we do that brings the presence of Christ into someone’s life.  As believers, we have a purpose to bring Christ into our lives and the lives of others.  I think it would be safe to say that we live in a world that is not impressed by this purpose.  But God has called you to put out your nets.

God calls St. Paul’s United Church of Christ (or your church) to put out the nets – get ready to fish in a different way.  Jesus needs us to help change the world, starting with where we are.  We have to remember that we don’t do this on our own.  God is doing it through us, and all we have to do is say, “Yes, God, use me, and use us.  We have faith to expect amazing things.”


O God, standing next to you, we understand who we are: people who are hungry, looking for bread, people who are only human, who need a savior.  Forgive us for not recognizing who you are.  Help us step away from our pride and our false sense of strength so that we can understand that all the good things we have come from you.

Now give us a message to bring to the people of our town and our world.  Help us catch them for you.  Help them be drawn to you through us. Amen.