Sunday, July 21, 2013

Jesus Is the Brains of Our Outfit

Preached at Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends
July 21, 2013

God gave me a song on Tuesday of last week as I thought about Yearly Meeting.  I hummed it cheerfully and worshipfully, and then realized I was singing this: “It’s time to play the music, It’s time to light the lights, It’s time to meet the Muppets on the Muppet Show tonight. It’s time to put on makeup, It’s time to dress up right, It’s time to get things started on the Muppet Show tonight.”  As I chuckled over the incongruity of this song with the seriousness of our purposes here this week, I moved on in my mind to this line: “Why do we always come here, I guess we’ll never know, It’s like a kind of torture To have to watch the show.”

The Muppet Show included so many divergent personalities and agendas (I think particularly of Sam the Eagle and Gonzo the improbable Turkey) and frequently incorporated explosions, unexpected intrusions, diversions and hecklers. 

I began to think we might be able sincerely and worshipfully to open YM sessions with the Muppet theme song and that the Muppet Show might be an appropriate metaphor for the part of the Body of Christ called Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends. We are all part of the show—performers, organizers, audience—all brought together to participate in the kingdom of God together—perhaps even to party together. (I plead with you to see me as Kermit, not Miss Piggy.) The incongruity between who we actually are and the way God sees us working together as part of the one Body of Christ is worth a response of laughter and an even more important response of awe and wonder and gratitude.

At least one of the times Jesus showed up after his death and burial, he made a point of displaying his wounds to prove his identity. The glorified physical body of Jesus still carries those wounds.  The Church is the body of Jesus in the world since the ascension; this is both a metaphor and a spiritual truth. We too, the body of Christ spiritually, carry wounds, and we count on the power of the resurrection to glorify us and our wounds to bring glory to God.  This is one way the Church reflects the resurrected Jesus—wounds abound, yet through these shine the glory.

An Old Testament picture that points to this truth is the story of Gideon, the pitchers of Gideon’s small army with the torches inside, which the warriors broke to reveal the hidden light.  A New Testament picture is the cracked pots of Paul—1 Cor 4:5-7—“we publicize not ourselves but the chosen and anointed messenger of God, Jesus, our owner; and we are your servants to further Jesus’s interests.  Because God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts to enlighten us, to give us the truth that the face of Jesus Christ shows us the glory, the praiseworthiness of God. And we have this storehouse of truth in frail clay containers so that the excellence, the superiority of the power, the energy to do good things, may be recognized as God’s, not ours.” 

And we share in St. Paul’s personal experience: “that in my weakness, God’s Grace is sufficient, that God’s strength is made perfect through weakness, and I can glory, I can rejoice that I am weak, broken, infirm, wounded so that the power, the energy of Christ may enter into me and take possession of me.  Therefore I willingly choose weakness, lack of capacity, insults, calamities, harassments and persecutions, entrapment, and anguish in order to advance Jesus’s interests. For when I am powerless, then I am strong and able to accomplish good things.” (2 Cor. 9-10)

The cracks in our clay are how Jesus gets into us and how Jesus shines out of us.  This is true individually, and it is true of our lives together.

Sometimes we are actually blind to how Jesus uses our weaknesses or those of other people to advance His purposes.  Like Paul, we want Jesus to fix us up so we can do more for Jesus, as we see it.  We also want Jesus to remove the horrible flaws in those around us so that we don’t have to deal with them and we don’t have any conflict.  And yet what we have just read suggests that Jesus has other purposes for where we come up short of our ideal as individuals or together.

Remember that together, Christians are the body of Christ on earth since Jesus physically ascended.  Jesus is the Head of this body—not the executive director, not the CEO, not the president, not the superintendent, not even the Presiding Clerk, but the actual brains of the outfit.  Jesus chooses who is included in his body.  Jesus chooses.  The rest of us do what we’re told by the Head.  And yet, we are weak and we see through a glass darkly, and we run headlong into conflict.  What then?

Paul speaks to our condition. 1 Cor 11:17-19, 31-33: “Now this I am telling you is no commendation, namely that you come together, not usefully, making things better, but instead making things worse.  I hear that when you gather publicly as a church, there are divisions, tears, schisms among you, and I partly believe it, because there must be dissension, diversity of opinion and aims, so that those who are authentic and genuine, full of integrity, will be recognized and known among you…If we would just doubt ourselves, be willing to question our own opinions and aims, if we would just judge ourselves, we would not be judged or censured. But when we are judged or censured, God trains and disciplines us so that we will not be condemned as alienated from God. Therefore, when you come together to celebrate Jesus’s death and resurrection, and to commune with God, wait for each other to catch up.” Wait for each other to catch up.

This reminds me of some lines from a love song by Bruce Springsteen: “if as we’re walking a hand should slip free, I’ll wait for you, and if I fall behind, wait for me…So let’s make our steps clear that the other may see, and I’ll wait for you, if I should fall behind, wait for me.”

1 Cor. 12:3-7, 12-27
“I tell you, no one can say ‘Jesus is the Lord, Jesus is the person to whom all things belong, Jesus is the person to whom I belong, Jesus is my Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.

“There are distinct gifts, charismas, but only one Holy Spirit gives them. And there are diverse ways of serving others, but only one Lord Jesus directs the servants.  And there are distinct, diverse kinds of works, but only one God works all God’s works in and through individuals and groups. But the Spirit is obviously present in each person to help individually and to bring people together usefully to make things better.

“For as a body is one and at the same time has many members, and all the members of that body, though there are many, are one body, so also Christ.  Truly therefore, in the one Holy Spirit, we are all immersed into Christ’s one body; Christ’s one body overwhelms us.  This is so whether we are Jews or Gentiles, whether we are slaves or free, whether we are Quaker or everyone else.  Christ’s body includes us across divisions.  We have all been given the one Holy Spirit to drink into our whole selves. 

“Because a body is one and at the same time has many members, if the foot says, ‘I am not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,’ is that therefore true?  And if the ear says, ‘I am not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,’ is that therefore true?  A body needs more than a hand, more than an eye in order to live.  God has put all the parts together according to God’s best idea and for God’s delight.

“And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you.’ Nor can the head say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you.’ In fact, some of those parts of the body that seem weaker than others are actually necessary, and some that embarrass us are worthy of great honor, and some that we think ugly are actually lovely. The parts WE think lovely are the parts that are strong and sufficient, without need, but God has commingled the body together and given abundant honor to the needy, weak, insufficient parts, so that there should be no tearing, no dissension in the body but rather the various members should care for and promote the interests of the other members.  When one suffers, all suffer; when one rejoices, all rejoice.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one has an assigned part.”

Last year, we came to yearly meeting after the letter from OneGeorgeFox had jarred us into awareness of significant differences in our yearly meeting, chasms that for many looked unbridgeable. Would we survive as a single yearly meeting, and if so, what would we look like together?  The past year of tension has been anguish, and yet we have been patient to see what God will do.  This year, the conflict is still present, and again we will talk about how we are not like each other as we address the revisions to Faith and Practice.  The potential is still here for tearing apart, for dissension, for schism within NWYM.  We feel trapped in a narrow place.

If we listen well to Paul, we know that this is the exact moment when the power of God can be revealed through us. This is the crack in our clay that the light of Jesus can shine into and shine out of.  This is the persistent ache in our body about which God has told us, “My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” We have the choice individually and as a congregation, as a yearly meeting to lean into the truth that “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts to enlighten us, to give us the truth that the face of Jesus Christ shows us the glory, the praiseworthiness of God. And we have this storehouse of truth in frail, clay containers so that the excellence, the superiority of the power, the energy to do good things may be recognized as God’s, not ours.” 

There is much good we do. We send ambassadors who take Jesus with them to other countries.  We reach out for Jesus’s sake with showers, laundry, clothing, and meals to those who live outside on purpose as well as those who are looking for a permanent home. We make outsiders welcome in our churches and our communities.  We make it possible for young people to experience the ministry of our camping programs.  We help young people go to college and seminary.  We help those coming out of prison re-enter the outside world.  And we are doing all these things together as a yearly meeting.  Each ministry of an individual church is something we are all doing as part of the body of Christ.  We care about and for each others’ churches as well as the individuals we know and love. We are compelled to share the good news that Jesus Christ is alive and present today to teach us himself; to share that we identify ourselves as Friends of Jesus when we do what Jesus tells us to do individually and corporately; and to share that this Friendship is open to all. We confess that Jesus is God’s anointed, God and human together in one person, whose death and resurrection bring us into a family relationship with God Almighty and with each other.

Let us add to the good we do an affirmation of commitment to each other, commitment to caring for and promoting each others’ interests, weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice.

Let us add to our speaking, our doing, our studying, and our faith the central goodness of love, agape.  As Paul wrote, “Love is long-term, not losing heart, suffering hard times and troubles with patience, slow to anger, slow to punish; love uses kindness. Love does not boil over with zeal or envy or anger; love does not brag; love is not puffed up with pride; love does not act disgracefully; love does not demand its own way; love does not burn with anger; love does not count up evil.  Love cannot thrive in injustice but rejoices together with truth and openness. Love protects and endures, love trusts, love hopes, love abides.  Love is never powerless, is never without effect” (1 Cor. 13). Love instead is always powerful, always effective.

As we spend a few minutes in silence so that we can hear from Jesus, the brains of our outfit, please feel free to come forward to pray if you want to.  I will close this time with a blessing.  After the service, we will meet in the dining hall for ice cream, after the manner of Friends.

This yearly meeting is where we gather to love each other, to listen to Jesus together, and to make plans to obey what Jesus tells us to do.  We’re getting ready to take our show on the road.  So…

It’s time to play the music, It’s time to light the lights, It’s time to get things started on the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Friends-relational, this is what we call our yearly show!

(All scripture quotations are based on Strong’s Concordance.)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Prayer in the Teaching and Life of Jesus

Preached at South Salem Friends Church
July 7, 2013

When we want to get to know Jesus better, we go to the Gospels and read about what he said and did.  Then we have to think, because what Jesus said and what Jesus did do not always seem identical.  So then we have to be willing to ask what truth is there for us in the disconnect, because as Christians, we believe that Jesus came from God, that Jesus was God as well as human, and that when we see Jesus speaking and acting in the Gospels, we see who God is.  So here’s one riddle to work through, and it has to do with prayer.

First misunderstanding: Prayer should always be private.

We see that Jesus would withdraw to deserted places and pray (Luke 5:16). Furthermore, in Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus gives advice to his followers about prayer.

“When you pray, don’t be like those who pray so that people can see them praying.  These hypocrites stand on street corners or in synagogues and pray out loud so that others will see them.  The attention they get is their only reward.  But when you pray, go into your private room, shut the door, and talk with your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees you praying privately will reward you.”

(We do not now recognize how explosive the teaching that God is “your Father” was at this time.  Watch for how often Jesus connects prayer with this intimate familial relationship to God Almighty.)

Now many folks have read this and felt like Jesus was forbidding or devaluing public prayers.  But this cannot be so, because Jesus himself prayed aloud in front of other people. 

Jesus prays aloud:  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to infants, yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Matthew 11:23-24).

Looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to his disciples to pass out to the crowd (Matthew 14: 19). He took the loaves and the fish, and after giving thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples to give to the crowd (Matthew 15:36). He regularly gave thanks for food. There are other times also when he prays publicly. Therefore, we need to learn how and when to pray publicly.

Second misunderstanding:  Prayer should always be spontaneous and original.

Back to Matthew 6: “Also, when you are praying, don’t heap up empty phrases as those who worship false gods feel they have to; they think that only if they repeat their requests over and over will they be heard.  Don’t be like them.  You have a Father who knows what you need even before you ask.”

Many folks have read this and concluded that repeating a set or liturgical prayer is not the best way to pray, even though the most famous of these, called The Lord’s Prayer, immediately follows. As Luke tells it, Jesus 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.” He said to them, “When you pray say: Father, hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial” (Luke 11:1-13 ). Jesus himself used a “set prayer” in his cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” a shorthand reference to Psalm 22 (Matthew 27:46). Therefore, we need to feel free to borrow the prayers of others when they express our need and our trust in God.

Third misconception: if we get it right, God will grant our requests.

In Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus teaches further about prayer.  Ask, he says, seek, and knock.  The asker receives, the seeker finds, and the door opens for the one who knocks. “Think of God as a parent like you.  Would you give a stone to a child who asks for bread?  Would you give a snake to a child who asks for fish?  So if you, evil as you are, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will our Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Many folks have read this and felt like this guarantees that they will get what they pray for, particularly if they quote this to God.  But that cannot be exactly what this means, because Jesus himself asked God for something that he didn’t get. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane to be spared from death on the cross.  God did not answer this prayer.  Instead, God answered the second half of the prayer, which was “not my will but your will be done.” “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what you want (Mark 14: 36).
Therefore, we cannot conclude that when we experience hard things, it is because we do not have enough faith.  Instead the passage challenges us to believe that God is expressing God’s will through our lives, and that in our suffering is nutrition for our whole selves.

Fourth misunderstanding: if we get several other people to agree to pray for the same result, God will give us what we ask for.

“If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20). Intriguingly, the immediate context for this is conflict or wrongs done between Jesus’s followers.  “If anyone sins against you, go and point out the fault, etc.”  This suggests that we must remember in conflict with another that coming to talk to that person directly brings Jesus into the conversation.  Jesus is right there.  The point may be that when the two in conflict can agree to ask for the same thing from our Father, God gladly answers their shared prayer.

Fifth misconception: it is inappropriate to ask God for the same thing more than once.

Jesus teaches persistence in prayer through several parables—the unjust judge and the persistent plaintiff and the neighbor who needs bread from the person who has already gone to bed.  These are funny stories that encourage us to keep asking God to meet our needs—for justice, for daily bread, just as in the prayer Jesus taught the disciples.

Sixth misconception: having faith means getting what we want in prayer.

Jesus taught that prayer itself is an act of faith.  It is not “a done deal,” not like adding baking powder to the biscuits.  Instead, having faith means we believe in the giver of good gifts, our Father, and so we ask.

Additionally, Jesus taught that when we pray, we need to forgive in order to be forgiven. And Jesus taught that our attitude in prayer is humility and asking for mercy, not self-congratulation and bullying God.

So in one central incident, let’s see how prayer works for Jesus.

John 11 Back Story:
Lazarus has died, and Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep and he must go wake him up.

He says: “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there so that you can learn to trust. Now, let’s go to him.”

Jesus arrives back in Bethany.  Lazarus has been dead and entombed four days.  Martha, his sister, meets Jesus, and says “If you had been here, Lazarus would not have died.  But even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give to you.”

Jesus says to her, “Your brother will stand up again. “ Martha responds, “I know he will rise in the resurrection at the end of time.”

Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and I am life.  All who trust in me, even if they die, shall live, and all who live and trust in me shall never die. Do you trust me on this?” She replies, “Yes, Lord, I trust that you are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into our world, our universe.”

Lazarus’s other sister, Mary, also comes to meet Jesus, and she greets him similarly to Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus sees her tears, and the tears of the whole crowd, and he also weeps. 

They walk to the tomb where Lazarus is lying dead, and Jesus asks them to roll away the stone from the opening.  Martha says, “Lord, he’s been there four days and now stinks.”

Jesus says to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you would trust, you would see the positive judgment, the glory of God?”

This is the part I want to emphasize:  after they roll away the stone and while the stink of death is in their nostrils, Jesus lifts up his eyes to heaven to talk to our Father.

Jesus says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I know you always hear me.  But because these people around me don’t know that, I said it aloud so that they may trust that you have sent me.”

Then he shouts, “Lazarus, come out.” And from the opening in the earth, Lazarus shuffles out, looking like a mummy.  Jesus says, “Release him and let him go.”

Many onlookers trust Jesus as being the one sent by God on that day, but some go to tell his enemies what Jesus had done.

What can we learn about prayer from this passage?  First, we learn that when Jesus said to pray in a closet, he obviously didn’t mean all the time.  Here he is praying out loud just so that the crowd can hear.

Second, we learn that Jesus knows there is nothing magic about praying out loud.  It doesn’t make it more likely that God will do what we ask.  Instead, he prays out loud to demonstrate his faith that God has told him to come to Bethany and return Lazarus to life.

Third, we learn that Jesus doesn’t take a long time to explain things to God.  He just acknowledges to God what God has told him to do, and in his prayer explains to the crowd why he is praying aloud: so that they can believe God sent him to do this work, so that they can see he has faith that God is his Father.

Fourth, it is clear that a whiz-bang miracle like this one is not enough to win everyone to trusting in our Father God who sent Jesus to show us what God is like.  Some will still work against this truth.  It is not enough that a person rises from death into life.  So we don’t have to succeed in getting what we specifically ask for in order to prove to people that God is real or that they should also be following Jesus.  

Fifth, Jesus’s prayer here is an acted parable for all of us about what our public prayers are for:  They are to demonstrate our faith that God has sent Jesus to do the work of setting people free from spiritual death into abundant spiritual life.  We are a part of the crowd that unbinds people and lets them go free. 

So we have read what Jesus said about prayer and we have seen him pray.  We have learned that Jesus did pray privately, but he also prayed publicly, including thanking God for food and blessing it, that he sometimes used the prayers of others, that Jesus prayed on purpose so others would witness that he and God were in a son/father relationship, that Jesus prayed for spiritual and for physical needs, and that even for Jesus, prayer itself was an act of faith, as it also is for us.

Luke 10:21 At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Jesus shows us that prayer is important, so I encourage you to be people who pray in private, in public, for spiritual needs, for physical needs, using spontaneous prayers or prayers written by others, but for sure, be praying people. If any of you lack wisdom, ask God for it; God gives it liberally without scolding; pray to the Lord of the harvest of souls to send workers to bring them in.  Pray often, and pray simply, just like God’s little children.