Believe It or Not, God Answers Prayer

1 Samuel 1:9-11 New Revised Standard Version

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

1 Samuel 1:19-20 New Revised Standard Version

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

1 Samuel 2:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

2 Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2  “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.

3  Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

4  The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

5  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

6  The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

7  The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

8  He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

9  “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.

10  The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king,     and exalt the power of his anointed.” 

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Have you ever played Monopoly?  We did, my brother and sister and I.  I don’t know how old we were when we received the game, probably for Christmas.  We choose playing pieces, threw dice and tried to accumulate properties.  The best part of the game was passing “Go” and collecting $200.  I was seldom able to buy property, let alone put on a house or a hotel.  

The original game was invented by Lizzie Magie in 1903 as a way to demonstrate that an economy which rewards wealth creation is better than one where monopolists work under few constraints. It makes me wonder what Mrs. Magie would think of our government’s current sweetheart deals with corporations.  

The system that the board game illustrates is a closed system.  Once the money is gone, it’s gone. There is not enough for everyone; some players end up with piles of pastel-colored money and some end up bankrupt. 

Hannah lived in a closed system.  The only way to be a real woman, to be a good wife, to have someone to take care of you when you lost your marbles was to have children. Hannah sadly had a closed womb in a closed system.  

In some ways she was blessed; her husband loved her and he had been able to have children through his other wife, so he had, metaphorically, passed Go, and collected the $200, that is, he had children who would care for him in his old age and who would carry on his name. But Hannah was not part of that.  She was without property and sentenced to the jail of barrenness and abandonment.

Have you ever been closed off from a system, from people, from happiness, through no fault of your own?  Have you ever been prevented from reaching your goals, from using your talents to the best of your ability? 

That prompts three more questions

Did you turn to God in prayer?

How has God saved you, helped you, encouraged you?

And—how have you thanked God?

Hannah turned to God in prayer.  She gave birth to Samuel. And, in thanksgiving, she turned Samuel back to God, so that Samuel could grow up to serve God in full devotion. Samuel did, in fact, serve God his whole life, as one of the prophets who led the Israelites into the greatest years of their nation. Samuel anointed the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.  David became the ancestor, the great, great ad infinitum grandfather of our own Savior, Jesus.

God answers prayer. The answer is not always apparent to us. Hannah probably died before Israel became a monarchy. She did not know that a Messiah would someday arrive, directly descended from her womb.  

God answers prayer by making us the bearers of Good News.  

We do not always know how God uses us. Sometimes we can reflect on our lives and see where we touched someone with kindness, when we inspired someone, how we changed someone through what we thought was simply doing the right thing. Give God some credit. Just as God opened Hannah’s womb, God opens our hearts to make  God’s Kingdom present in the lives of our communities. Sometimes we serve within our own communities, with a helping hand, with a friendly conversation.  We never know how much good we do. A helping hand can allow the good deed to be paid forward. A friendly conversation can lift a person out of despair and banish their loneliness. Sometimes we serve beyond our communities, by our personal choices, such as choosing leaders who build God’s kingdom rather than their own, by making decisions that protect God’s creation or God’s people. 

As the recipients of God’s greatest gift, God’s Son, Jesus Christ, we are freed from the bonds of sin to stretch our abilities and talents and even our timid inclinations to bring others into the Kingdom. 

Let me reiterate: Hannah turned to God in prayer.  I don’t know how prayer works.  I don’t know why God doesn’t answer every prayer the way we thing it should be answered. But I know that God answers prayer in such a way that God’s Kingdom is established here and now, where it is most needed. The Kingdom isn’t needed in heaven—-everything is perfect there already. The Kingdom is needed here and now, the blessings of the Kingdom, the gifts of the Kingdom are needed in our own time, in our own place. The hungry need to be fed NOW.  The oppressed need to be freed NOW. The homeless need to be sheltered NOW. The hopeless need to be inspired NOW. The ugly, the disgusting, the losers need to be loved NOW.  That is what the Kingdom looks like.  Our forefathers wrote the Declaration of Independence with a kind of kingdom in mind. The second sentence reads : 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness can not be pursued like a goal. Happiness is established not by the individual, but by the community. That is how we Christians operate: in community. We call that community the Kingdom. 

Hannah had only one earthly resource to help her achieve happiness, her husband, Elkanah.  He did not have the ability to give her the much wanted child, Samuel. God did.  Hannah turned to God in prayer. God answered not only Hannah’s prayer, but the prayer of salvation for all God’s people. 

Let us turn to God in prayer, not to ask for what we think we need but for what God needs. Let us ask God to make us instruments of peace and plenty.

I learned this lesson from my father.  Everyday he would rise early, get dressed, go out the back door and face east.  Everyday, he prayed, “God, what do you have for me to do today?”

That is how the Kingdom is established, by each of us praying, daily, in our own way to be the workers in the Kingdom that God is building. That Kingdom is possible because sin and death have been vanquished by the greatest answer to prayer ever, the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation of God on earth, we have the privilege and the power to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. How? Take it to the Lord in prayer. Amen.  

Tempatation Geneis

Genesis 39  Contemporary English Version

39 The Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, the king’s official in charge of the palace guard. 2-3  So Joseph lived in the home of Potiphar, his Egyptian owner.

Soon Potiphar realized that the Lord was helping Joseph to be successful in whatever he did. 4 Potiphar liked Joseph and made him his personal assistant, putting him in charge of his house and all of his property. 5 Because of Joseph, the Lord began to bless Potiphar’s family and fields. 6 Potiphar left everything up to Joseph, and with Joseph there, the only decision he had to make was what he wanted to eat.

Joseph was well-built and handsome, 7  and Potiphar’s wife soon noticed him. She asked him to make love to her, 8 but he refused and said, “My master isn’t worried about anything in his house, because he has placed me in charge of everything he owns. 9 No one in my master’s house is more important than I am. The only thing he hasn’t given me is you, and that’s because you are his wife. I won’t sin against God by doing such a terrible thing as this.” 10 She kept begging Joseph day after day, but he refused to do what she wanted or even to go near her.

11 One day, Joseph went to Potiphar’s house to do his work, and none of the other servants were there. 12 Potiphar’s wife grabbed hold of his coat and said, “Make love to me!” Joseph ran out of the house, leaving his coat there in her hands.

13 When this happened, 14 she called in her servants and said, “Look! This Hebrew has come just to make fools of us. He tried to rape me, but I screamed for help. 15 And when he heard me scream, he ran out of the house, leaving his coat with me.”

16 Potiphar’s wife kept Joseph’s coat until her husband came home. 17 Then she said, “That Hebrew slave of yours tried to rape me! 18 But when I screamed for help, he left his coat and ran out of the house.”

19 Potiphar became very angry 20 and threw Joseph in the same prison where the king’s prisoners were kept.

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At first glance, this might seem to call for a sermon on the dangers of adultery.  But this is story is not about adultery.  It is about power, about the abuse of power. But there’s more. This story is about temptation.  But there’s more: ultimately, this is a story about God’s care and concern for us.

It is easy to label these characters—Joseph, Potiphar’s wife, and Potiphar—as the good guy, the evil woman, the clueless employer. But. just like all of us, they are equal in God’s eyes.  They each have their own life journeys that brought them to the attention of the writer of Genesis.

We know quite a bit about Jospeh.  He was the son of Jacob and Rachel, grandson of Issac and Rebekah, great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  He was the eleventh-born of Jacob’s twelve sons, but the first-born of Rachel.

We know that he became Jacob’s favorite, thus becomng an object of scorn to his older brothers. We know that Jacob had a beautiful coat of many colors made for Joseph and that ultimately, the brother’s jealousy of Joseph caused them to sell him to slave traders. Joseph ended up in Egypt and was purchased by Potiphar, an Egyptian government official. Joseph impressed Potiphar so much that he put Joseph in charge of his entire household. We also know that he was quite handsome, quite attractive. Joseph was well-built and handsome, 7 and Potiphar’s wife soon noticed him.

What do we know about Potiphar’s wife? From the Bible, not much. But in the Quran telling of the story, she has a name: Zuleikha.  

What do we know about Potiphar?  He was the Captain of the Guard. We know that he was so impressed with Joseph that 

6 Potiphar left everything up to Joseph, and with Joseph there, the only decision he had to make was what he wanted to eat.

This could indicate that Potiphar didn’t take much interest in his household, including his wife, but that is conjecture.

The Quran’s version gives us some interesting details that put Zuleikha in a more sympathetic light. In this version, her contemporaries spread gossip about her actions, so she invites them over to see Joseph for themselves.  Another source, a medieval Hebrew commentary clarifies why she wanted the gossipers to see Joseph for themselves.  

A story about Zuleikha is told (in Sefer haYashar), where she was mocked by other aristocratic Egyptian ladies, her circle of friends, for being infatuated with a Hebrew slave boy. Inviting her friends to her home, Zuleikha gave them all oranges and knives to slice them with. While they engaged in this task, Zuleikha had Joseph walk through the room. Distracted by his handsomeness, all the ladies accidentally cut themselves with the knives, drawing blood. Zuleikha then reminded her friends that she had to see Joseph every day. Following this incident, her contemporaries no longer mocked her.

What can we learn from that?  

My first thought is that we all have excuses for every sin we commit.  Zuleikha’s excuse was that Joseph was incredibly handsome and, therefore, irresistible. It wasn’t her fault that he was so amazingly desirable. How many sins have you excused yourself from because the temptation was too great or you weren’t thinking or because the means justified the end?

Following that reasoning, are we to be excused from committing some sins because the temptation was so great?  How often do we excuse ourselves by apologetically saying, “I’m only human.” How often do we follow the example of Zuleikha?  According to legend, she was compelled to make excuses not just to her husband, but to her community.  

Why do we make excuses for our sin?  Because we are creatures who know right from wrong and we know innately that we are created and called to do what is right, what is righteous in the sight of God. We are moral creatures.  We are compelled to choose what is good, not just in the sight of those who would judge us, but in the sight of God. When we give in to sin, we make excuses.  We don’t ignore our sin—we apologized for it. 

We say together and privately the Lord’s Prayer. We say it so often that we have it memorized.  It is so common that we can be in a public place, like a funeral, a mixed batch of various denominations, and still pray it in unison.  It is that important, that common that we can pray those seven petitions with strangers. Jesus taught us that there were only a few things for which we needed to pray.  Of all the things we could pray for, Jesus says these seven short sentences cover all we need.  One of these sentences asks God to deliver us from evil, or, in contemporary language, save us from the time of trial.  Save us from having to choose between right and wrong. Save us from being tempted by that which we know is evil, save us from making mistakes that go against what is best for humans because they go against how God has created us. 

The hero of this story is Joseph, of course.  He resisted temptation. The role model for us is Joseph. He resits temptation.  The lesson in this story is not “do not commit adultery.”  The lesson is “resist temptation.”  Be like Joseph. Resist temptation, even if it lands you in jail.  

How often have you given yourself credit for resisting dessert? How often have you resisted returning rudeness for rudeness?  How often have you resisted getting even? How often have you resisted shaming another person behind their back?   

These are personal situations, often without huge repercussions, but  another petition is fulfilled: your kingdom come. The kingdom of God comes about through our actions.  The kingdom of God is not about a bureaucratic structure. It is about our relationships with the people of God.

Who are the people of God?  All people. Lead us not into temptation—don’t tempt us to hurt someone. Don’t tempt us to deny God’s will. Don’t tempt us to follow celebrities whose actions are contrary to God’s will. 

This story shows us that resisting temptation is possible and desirable.  And, we know, from the reading of the rest of Genesis, that Joseph, through the grace of God, became second in command in Egypt (Genesis 41:44

The king told Joseph, “Although I’m king, no one in Egypt is to do anything without your permission.”) and, in a twist of events, Joseph was even reunited with his family.

That is why this is also a story of God’s care and concern. God helped Joseph to rise above the sins committed against him. Even though Joseph was forcibly removed from his country and his family, God gave Joseph gifts, in his case, the gift of dream interpretation, and Joseph was released from prison.  How many times have we, unlike Joseph, given into temptation, and yet God has rescued us and returned us to  a state of righteousness.   Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are constantly returned to the good life, the task of building the Kingdom, the reality of living in the Kingdom. 

We can apologize to each other, but to God, we repent. We promise God that we will, with God’s help, resist, temptation, that we will turn back from sinning, that we will turn to following Jesus.  The only role model we need is Jesus.  The Bible is the story of God’s people falling prey to temptation and resisting temptation. But the Good News is that Jesus arrived, not only to show us how to live, but to rescue us from sin. God’s mercy is not an excuse to sin freely, knowing that we will receive forgiveness. God’s mercy is the reason we truly try to be the people God created. God’s mercy is the power of love that sustains us, that keeps us striving to bring about the kingdom.

May God’s kingdom come, not by our own good will, but by the will of God who gives us the power to resist temptation.  Amen.  

  1. medieval Hebrew midrash
  2. Wikipedia Potiphar’s wife

No sermon, but still a message

Dear friends, 

I spent Saturday evening with dear friends and then spent the night at the ever gracious Ponderosa Bed and Breakfast. (Mark and Sarah).  The dear friends were the Class of ’67; the older we get, the more we love each other.  My congregation took over worship ( all I know is that it included Lynn accompanying Grace on the accordion), so I was able to worship at Zion in Muscatine—my first time since my ordination.  

Rev. Willie Rosin preached on the Unjust Steward, nobody’s favorite text and, like a great mystery, brought us to the exciting conclusion: it’s all about grace.  

Perhaps you don’t know that the reason Mark Perisho is so LUTHERAN is that back in the day, when he was dating Sarah, he asked her if he could bring Seth and Shannon (5 & 8) and go to church with her. The sermon, one way or another, delivered the message of grace—something Mark had never heard before in his years of attending church. He will tell you his story anytime you ask—or don’t ask. 

My homiletics professor, Dr. Sam Giere, always judged our sermons by asking one question: “Did Jesus Christ have to die for this sermon to be preached?”  More and more  I think  the question should be “Will the listener hear the message of God’s grace?”  Perhaps “the world” needs to hear more about grace and less about atonement. Granted, the grace was arranged through the death and resurrection of JC, but stopping with the message of resurrection seems like a long shot for most of us.  We’re hoping for a little more time between now and our own personal resurrection, aren’t we?
Grace is what we received yesterday, what we need today, what we will receive tomorrow, what we need to acknowledge in our relationships, both physical and metaphorical.
Heaven has been the carrot on the stick for Christians for centuries, but if you don’t believe in heaven, then that carrot has no allure. But grace.  Everyone appreciates grace, even the unjust steward (which Rev. Rosin compared to a snowbird farmer having a crappy farm manager and a bunch of desperate renters)
So, be like Mark and rejoice in the grace of Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Alternative Facts                                                                  Genesis 2:15-3:7 

Genesis 2:15-3:7  Contemporary English Version

15 The Lord God put the man in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and to look after it. 16 But the Lord told him, “You may eat fruit from any tree in the garden, 17 except the one that has the power to let you know the difference between right and wrong. If you eat any fruit from that tree, you will die before the day is over!”

18 The Lord God said, “It isn’t good for the man to live alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.” 19-20 So the Lord took some soil and made animals and birds. He brought them to the man to see what names he would give each of them. Then the man named the tame animals and the birds and the wild animals. That’s how they got their names.

None of these was the right kind of partner for the man. 21 So the Lord God made him fall into a deep sleep, and he took out one of the man’s ribs. Then after closing the man’s side, 22 the Lord made a woman out of the rib.

The Lord God brought her to the man, 23 and the man exclaimed,

“Here is someone like me!
She is part of my body,
    my own flesh and bones.
She came from me, a man.
    So I will name her Woman!”

24  That’s why a man will leave his own father and mother. He marries a woman, and the two of them become like one person.

25 Although the man and his wife were both naked, they were not ashamed.

3  The snake was sneakier than any of the other wild animals that the Lord God had made. One day it came to the woman and asked, “Did God tell you not to eat fruit from any tree in the garden?”

2 The woman answered, “God said we could eat fruit from any tree in the garden, 3 except the one in the middle. He told us not to eat fruit from that tree or even to touch it. If we do, we will die.”

4 “No, you won’t!” the snake replied. 5 “God understands what will happen on the day you eat fruit from that tree. You will see what you have done, and you will know the difference between right and wrong, just as God does.”

6 The woman stared at the fruit. It looked beautiful and tasty. She wanted the wisdom that it would give her, and she ate some of the fruit. Her husband was there with her, so she gave some to him, and he ate it too. 7 At once they saw what they had done, and they realized they were naked. Then they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves.

8 Late in the afternoon, when the breeze began to blow, the man and woman heard the Lord God walking in the garden. So they hid behind some trees.

9 The Lord God called out to the man and asked, “Where are you?”

10 The man answered, “I was naked, and when I heard you walking through the garden, I was frightened and hid!”

11 “How did you know you were naked?” God asked. “Did you eat any fruit from that tree in the middle of the garden?”

12 “It was the woman you put here with me,” the man said. “She gave me some of the fruit, and I ate it.”

13  The Lord God then asked the woman, “What have you done?”

“The snake tricked me,” she answered, “and I ate some of that fruit.”

14 So the Lord God said to the snake:

“Because of what you have done, you will be the only animal
    to suffer this curse— For as long as you live, you will crawl on your stomach and eat dirt. 15  You and this woman will hate each other; your descendants and hers will always be enemies.
One of hers will strike you on the head, and you will strike him on the heel.”

16 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “You will suffer terribly when you give birth. But you will still desire your husband, and he will rule over you.”

17  The Lord said to the man, “You listened to your wife and ate the fruit I told you not to eat. And so, the ground will be under a curse because of what you did. As long as you live, you will have to struggle to grow enough food.

18  Your food will be plants, but the ground will produce thorns and thistles. 19  You will sweat all your life to earn a living; you were made out of soil, and you will once again turn into soil.”

20 The man Adam named his wife Eve because she would become the mother of all who live.

21 Then the Lord God made clothes out of animal skins for the man and his wife.

22  The Lord said, “They now know the difference between right and wrong, just as we do. But they must not be allowed to eat fruit from the tree that lets them live forever.”  23 So the Lord God sent them out of the Garden of Eden, where they would have to work the ground from which the man had been made.

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Alternative facts” was a phrase used by U.S. Counselor to the PresidentKellyanne Conway, during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer‘s false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. When pressed during the interview with Chuck Todd to explain why Spicer would “utter a provable falsehood”, Conway stated that Spicer was giving “alternative facts”. (Wikipedia)

Alternative facts are not a new idea.  They have been a convenient way to deal with inconvenient truths for millennia.  

Children quickly become experts at “alternative facts.”  

Who started this fight?  Who made this mess? Who climbed on the counter and ate all the cookies?  

The answer is seldom an admission of guilt.  Answers range from “nobody” to “the dog” to “a strange man came in while you were in the garden.”  

 Alternative facts are purposeful. Alternative facts are used to guide us away from truths that jeopardize the speaker’s purpose or agenda.  

The Bible is not immune to alternative facts. In many cases, the alternative facts arise not from the text itself, but on how writers and scholars interpret it.  

Such is the case with Eve, the first woman introduced to us.  For whatever reason, she has been re-formed into a negative character and an example of all that is wrong with the world.  Eve is blamed for the introduction of sin into the world because she listened to one of God’s creatures, because she shared a bite of fruit with her partner, because she was the first to endure the consequences of being human instead of God. 

It is traditional in studying literature to juxtapose Eve against Mary, the mother of Jesus. Eve represents evil and Mary represents goodness.  Yet, there is little evidence in the text to support this gross exaggeration. This dichotomy is the creation of later interpreters, famous people, like Jerome and Augustine, who just may have been wrong

Eve did not taste the fruit because she was evil. She was tricked by the snake, who, according to the text, was simply being the snake. There is no suggestion of Satan being disguised as a snake. Furthermore the fruit, like everything else in the garden, was beautiful, and up to this point, nothing had been forbidden except this appealing fruit. We might as well blame the fruit for being attractive.

I want you to contemplate Eve’s positive traits.  

Eve was created as Adam’s full partner. She was not created as his employee or slave or servant.  She was not oppressed by him. He was thrilled to have her as his partner. ( https://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/main-articles/second-creation Second Creation by Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

)

20: None of these was the right kind of partner for the man. 21 So the Lord God made him fall into a deep sleep, and he took out one of the man’s ribs. Then after closing the man’s side, 22 the Lord made a woman out of the rib.

The Lord God brought her to the man, 23 and the man exclaimed,

“Here is someone like me! She is part of my body, my own flesh and bones.

In fact, Eve is a typical  of Israelite women, most of whom were partners with their husbands in farming households.

She appreciated the beauty of all that God had created.  She did not misuse or abuse any of the life around her.

She wanted to be wise.  What is wrong with wanting to be wise? Nobody wants to be stupid. The serpent, in his evil way, offered her what she did not have: wisdom. Centuries later, King Solomon prayed for wisdom and God granted it. How many times do we pray for wisdom?  Eve did not aspire to power or glory; she wanted to be wise, to understand the knowledge with which she was created. 

Eve was generous. She shared the fruit with Adam, who said nothing about the fruit being forbidden.  He took a bite without a thought.  Later, when God asked him about eating the fruit, he blamed Eve.  

It’s interesting to note that the text does not mention sin. The word is disobedience. Sin is not mentioned until in Genesis until Cain kills his brother, Abel.

Eve became the mother of all people.  20 The man Adam named his wife Eve because she would become the mother of all who live.  Eve did not become a salesman for sin. She became a mother, a grandmother, our traditional ancestor. She remained with Adam, loved him, gave birth to his children. She knew full-well that sharing her body with her husband would result in the pain of childbirth, the pain of raising children in an imperfect world. She did not run away.

God did not curse Adam and Eve. God cursed the snake. 

It behooves us to remember when this story was written. It was written at a time when the listeners were subsistence farmers. It was written at a time when life was not only precious but precarious. The elements of the story reflect everyday life of the people who told and later recorded this story.  They answer the question we ask ourselves: “Why is life so hard for us?”

16 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “You will suffer terribly when you give birth. But you will still desire your husband, and he will rule over you.”

17  The Lord said to the man, “You listened to your wife and ate the fruit I told you not to eat. And so, the ground will be under a curse because of what you did.
As long as you live, you will have to struggle to grow enough food.

18  Your food will be plants, but the ground will produce thorns and thistles.

19  You will sweat all your life to earn a living; you were made out of soil, and you will once again turn into soil.”

And so it goes.

We are blessed with the memory of Eve, with her creation, with her embracing partnership with Adam, with her commitment to motherhood.

Let us have our eyes opened with the wisdom of Eve, even when it brings us pain.  Amen.  

Authority vs. Power

1 Timothy 3  New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

3 The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. 2 Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.

1 Corinthians 12: 14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect, 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Mark 10:35-45 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Appoint us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to appoint, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; instead, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”

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Authority.  What is authority? What is an authority figure? How does one obtain authority? 

For the last few weeks, I’ve been reviewing what I learned from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Living Together. Bonhoeffer explains seven ways that we Christians can minister to each other.  We can listen to each other, we can share our sorrows, we can see each other through the eyes of Jesus.  The last ministry he explores is the “ministry of authority.”  This is surprising, considering that last week we learned about the the “ministry of meekness.” If we practice meekness, we always remember that we are no better in any way than anyone else. Meekness is the most basic form of equality. So how can we practice meekness and authority together? Doesn’t once cancel out the other?

I daresay each of has been raised with a kind of authority that is different from the authority that Jesus taught and that Bonhoeffer described. Your first experience of authority was probably the word, “No!” Based on my current expereince with a toddler granddaughter, authority is all I have to use to protect her from her daredevil attitude toward living life as she sees fit.  Part of my authority is that I can still pick her up and carry her away from whatever danger entices her. 

The older we get, the more authority figures dominate our lives. Parents, older siblings, then teachers and coaches, then employers.  Parallel to our real-life encounters are the authority figures presented to us in the wider world: athletes, celebrities, law enforcement, all the way to the citizens elected to run a government that seeks to keep us organized and protected. 

The more times we disagree with the actions and decisions of these authority figures, the more we resent authority of any kind. We conflate authority with power and we find ourselves in a subliminal struggle against that power. However, there is a difference between power and authority.  Power depends on force or violence. Authority, on the other hands means agreeing to let someone or something be in charge.

That difference is the difference that makes Christian authority logical.  In fact, if we look at authority as a mutual understanding, authority and meekness are not opposites at all.  When we see each as being equal in all ways, forgiven sinners, created in God’s image, our authority is genuine. We are living by the same rules. We know what we are talking about, we know our motives, we know our reasons for speaking and acting, because we share that the authenticity, that truth. The only power that matters is the power of God and that is the force of love, not fear.

Bonhoeffer says:

Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out.  

Think of a cake.  I have a couple eggs, some flour, some sugar, some baking powder, some vanilla, some butter, some milk.  I give each of you something to eat.  I give two of you each an egg, I give another the flour, another the sugar and so on. I invite you to eat this delicious dessert.  But it is not delicious; it is not even dessert. It is tasteless, with a variety of textures, none of which is pleasing.  

However, if I mix and bake those ingredients and cut the result into equal pieces, each of you has something to enjoy. No one is gagging on raw egg, no one is trying to swallow dry flour, no one is puckered up from the taste of baking powder or vanilla.

That’s how Christian community works. We incorporate all the ingredients into our activity—caring, sharing, listening, loving.

As we’ve learned from this series of ministries, a Christian community runs counter to the community that dominates our daily lives. We know vey well that we are not equal in power to the banker, the sheriff, the school board, the supervisors.  We agree with them, not because we all share the same ideas, but because they all have power over us.  That is the difference between power and authority.  If I don’t cooperate with the banker, I can lose my property.  If I don’t agree with the law, I can be fined or imprisoned.  If I don’t agree with the school board or the supervisors, I have to vote them out. Why the difference? Because, basically, we are prone to sin and the most tempting sin of all is power—power over people. 

It goes without saying that this can happen anywhere—in a family, in a school, in government, and even in how we entertain ourselves. 

Bonhoeffer warns: 

Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed it poisons the Christian community.  

How often do we admire someone for their talent, for their wealth, for their skill.  That admiration leads to adoration, which can lead to idolatry, which can lad to tyranny.  

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t admire a person’s great singing voice, a person’s ability to shoot a ball through a hoop or a person’s ability to teach.  Even as we are created in God’s image, we are each created with unique gifts. Paul addresses this in the early church in 1 Corinthians 12:  

20 As it is, there are many members yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 

We are each needed in this body of the Church. No one is extra, no one is useless, no one is unimportant.  Again, because we are meek, because we are all equal in the most basic way, as children of the Creator, no one is greater, not even the pastor. Look at Paul’s job description for a bishop:

2 Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.

In other words, the expectations for the bishop are the same as those of every other member.

Jesus explains this to the disciples after John and James jockey for exalted positions in heaven.

 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; instead, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 

 Any authority we might have is dependent on our service to others. 

This service extends beyond these four walls, of course. It extends beyond the people gathered here. We don’t forget each other as we head back to our homes. Our community has no boundaries. What we do outside of our time together IS our business—but not the business of observing, watching, gossiping. Our business is caring for each other. 

Bonhoeffer brings up the point of trust. He suggests that we can trust each other because we are acting not out of power or manipulation, but out of love.  Christian life is not a potluck dinner with a hidden agenda of determining who is the best cook. (How many cooks are silently judged by what they bring to a potluck?)  Christian life is not a ball game proceeding under the momentum of scoring the most points. Christian life is steady; the rules are consistent; the result is that everyone is the winner, even as we acknowledge that we are losers, in need of a God who created us, in need of a Savior who redeems us, in need of a Spirit who guides us.

Does this sound like we have no freedom, no individuality, no call to participate in what the world offers?  Rev. David Lose addresses this dilemma:

…I’ll ask again: who will you serve – the voices of the culture that say that you can be free – indeed, must be free – on your own and at any cost, or the voice of Jesus that calls you to find your freedom and, indeed, your true self, through service to neighbor. (http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/pentecost-21-b-who-will-you-serve/)

Theologian D. Mark Davis also comments on this issue of freedom: 

If we see Jesus – not as a singular Messiah who goes to the cross so that we don’t have to, but as the one who calls us to follow him in his way to the cross – Mark 10:45 will move us from a personalistic, safe approach to discipleship and toward a daring, self-giving approach to discipleship.(https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2015/10/saving-and-losing-ones-lifesoul.html)

How many of us have sung words to the effect that we are free from sin? How many of us have eaten the meal that reminds us that Jesus freed us from sin?  But this freedom that Jesus offers is much more than freedom from sin. Following Jesus gives us the opportunity to be free to love and to receive love. Following Jesus frees us to be in community, to be surrounded by what we most crave: belonging, being appreciated, being cared for.

Jesus’s words make sense to us if we listen to him with the ears of the Spirit:

43 …whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”  Amen.

520.  Dearest Jesus, at Your Word.

712. Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service

542 O Living Bread from Heaven

Meek? Me????? Colossians, Romans, Matthew

Colossians 3:12 New Testament for Everyone

These are the clothes you must put on, then, since God has chosen you, made you holy, and lavished his love upon you. You must be tender-hearted, kind, humble, meek, and ready to put up with anything.

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 Romans 12: Be sincere in your love for others. Hate everything that is evil and hold tight to everything that is good. 10 Love each other as brothers and sisters and honor others more than you do yourself. 11 Never give up. Eagerly follow the Holy Spirit and serve the Lord. 12 Let your hope make you glad. Be patient in time of trouble and never stop praying. 13 Take care of God’s needy people and welcome strangers into your home.

14  Ask God to bless everyone who mistreats you. Ask him to bless them and not to curse them. 15  When others are happy, be happy with them, and when they are sad, be sad. 16  Be friendly with everyone. Don’t be proud and feel that you know more than others. Make friends with ordinary people. 17 Don’t mistreat someone who has mistreated you. But try to earn the respect of others, 18 and do your best to live at peace with everyone.

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23 Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:

The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.

They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help.  Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.

But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. 10 None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. 11  Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. 12  If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.

13-14 You Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. You won’t go in yourselves, and you keep others from going in.

15 You Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You travel over land and sea to win one follower. And when you have done so, you make that person twice as fit for hell as you are.

23  You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These are the important things you should have done, though you should not have left the others undone either. 24 You blind leaders! You strain out a small fly but swallow a camel.

25 You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You wash the outside of your cups and dishes, while inside there is nothing but greed and selfishness. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of a cup, and then the outside will also be clean.

27  You Pharisees and teachers are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You’re like tombs that have been whitewashed. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. 28 That’s what you are like. Outside you look good, but inside you are evil and only pretend to be good.

29 You Pharisees and teachers are nothing but show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You build monuments for the prophets and decorate the tombs of good people. 30 And you claim you would not have taken part with your ancestors in killing the prophets. 31 But you prove you really are the relatives of the ones who killed the prophets. 32 So keep on doing everything they did. 33  You are nothing but snakes and the children of snakes! How can you escape going to hell?

 Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself.  He will know that his own wisdom reaches the end of its tether when Jesus forgave him.   

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Self-esteem.  One of the catch-phrases when I was teaching was self-esteem. We were told that every child should have positive self-esteem. 

What did that mean?  I think we thought every child should be proud of himself, that a child should never feel bad about who he was or what he could accomplish.

Those chickens have come home to roost. Two traits emerged from that philosophy.  One is a pride that borders on arrogance.  The other is an avoidance of anything even the least bit challenging.  

Let me give you a couple current events: 

“An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” the legislation by Sen. Manny Diaz (R) reads. “An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” 

Similar purges are taking place in other states.

An NPR story last month reported that bills introduced in Georgia “would ban teaching concepts that cause ‘guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress’ because of a student’s race, sex or identity.”

Please note that these are current events in the ongoing history of our nation. It’s not just politics. Remember the basic definition of politics: how groups of people make decisions together. We all engage in politics—we all make decisions together.  

Jesus’s take on politics was simple: “Follow me.”  What Jesus said is what we do.  

And yet, we are so filled with self-esteem that we can’t let go of our hunger for pride and our fear of discomfort and accountability. 

For the last few Sunday’s, we have been contemplating Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on how to minister to each other. Perhaps the individual congregation is the last bastion, the only place where it is safe to minister to each other.  

We’ve considered the ministries of listening, helping, of keeping our mouths shut, and proclaiming, the  ministry of sharing in each other’s misfortune.  Today, we consider the ministry of meekness. Next Sunday, we’ll look at the ministry of authority. 

What does it mean to be meek?  Meekness is included in the Beatitudes as a virtue. Matthew 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Eugene Peterson puts it this way in his translation, The Message: “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

To be meek is not about being a doormat. To be meek is not about being invisible. To be meek is to acknowledge that you are no better than anyone else, that you are no different from the person who is standing by the side of the road with a sign asking for money, that you are no different from the politician whose work you despise, that you are no different from the most acclaimed athlete, no different than the most popular musician. 

 To truly act on this knowledge means that we also honor our neighbors, our friends, all people.  We are not meant to reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator, but instead to raise everyone up. Jesus often spoke against people trying to prove their worth against the unworthiness of others. 

From today’s reading: 

23  You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

And from John: 

John 5:44  The Message   41-44 “I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda. I came with the authority of my Father, and you either dismiss me or avoid me. If another came, acting self-important, you would welcome him with open arms. How do you expect to get anywhere with God when you spend all your time jockeying for position with each other, ranking your rivals and ignoring God?

What is the danger of ranking ourselves above others?  We inspire not admiration but jealousy, fear, resentment. And how is the kingdom of God built with fear and jealously and resentment?  It isn’t. When we act like we’re better than anyone who is different from us, who frustrates us, annoys us, we are tearing down the kingdom of God.

And one more thing: we are all sinners, in need of God’s grace. If nothing else levels the playing field, that does. The prince and the pauper, the president and the voter, the coach and the batboy, the person who stands on the stage and the person who walks between the rows to pick up the trash, you, me, everyone we will ever meet—all of us are sinners in the need of God’s grace.

This goes against our natural, cultural inclinations. We live among institutions that promote being the best at everything.  We live in a society that encourages us to be more, do more, have more.  

  How do we save ourselves?  We can’t.  But take some advice from Paul:
14  Ask God to bless everyone who mistreats you. Ask him to bless them and not to curse them. 15  When others are happy, be happy with them, and when they are sad, be sad. 16  Be friendly with everyone. Don’t be proud and feel that you know more than others. Make friends with ordinary people. 17 Don’t mistreat someone who has mistreated you. But try to earn the respect of others, 18 and do your best to live at peace with everyone.

Life with Jesus is not a contest. Jesus, with all the power in the universe, did not just preach and teach meekness.  He showed us what it is like to be meek: to be meek is not to give up. To be meek is to live with the greatest confidence, with the faith we all cherish.

I want to close with a piece written for a prison ministry in North Dakota. 

Entering into the project God proposes for our life requires that we restrict the space of egoism, reduce the presumption of self-sufficiency, lower the heights of pride and arrogance, and that we overcome laziness, in order to traverse the risk of love, even when it involves the cross.

Hymns

Lord Jesus Christ, be Present Now

Jesus, the Very Thought of You  

Will You Come and Follow Me 

Count Your Blessings

Sources: 

  1. https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/590554-bill-to-ban-lessons-making-white-students-feel-discomfort-advances-in/
  2. https://kappanonline.org/wexler-no-anti-crt-laws-dont-actually-outlaw-lessons-that-might-make-students-uncomfortable-russo/
  3. Sr. Kathleen Atkinson Ministry on the Margins  Bismarck ND

Hold ’em or Fold ’em                                          Ephesians 4:15-31: Matthew 5:1-10

Ephesians 4: 15 Love should always make us tell the truth. Then we will grow in every way and be more like Christ, the head 16  of the body. Christ holds it together and makes all of its parts work perfectly, as it grows and becomes strong because of love.

17 As a follower of the Lord, I order you to stop living like stupid, godless people. 18 Their minds are in the dark, and they are stubborn and ignorant and have missed out on the life that comes from God. They no longer have any feelings about what is right, 19 and they are so greedy they do all kinds of indecent things.

20-21 But this isn’t what you were taught about Jesus Christ. He is the truth, and you heard about him and learned about him. 22  You were told that your foolish desires will destroy you and that you must give up your old way of life with all its bad habits. 23 Let the Spirit change your way of thinking 24  and make you into a new person. You were created to be like God, and so you must please him and be truly holy.

25  We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth. 26  Don’t get so angry that you sin. Don’t go to bed angry 27 and don’t give the devil a chance.

28 If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need.

29 Stop all your dirty talk. Say the right thing at the right time and help others by what you say.

30 Don’t make God’s Spirit sad. The Spirit makes you sure that someday you will be free from your sins.

31 Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude. 32  Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ. (Contemporary English Version)

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Matthew 5: 5 1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (The Message)

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I’ve been sharing with you the last few weeks some ideas I’ve gleaned from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together.  The last chapter lists ways we can care for each other as a congregation.  Bonhoeffer lists seven practices that can help us live in harmony with each other.  They are: 

The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue

The Ministry of Meekness

The Ministry of Listening.

The Ministry of Helpfulness

The Ministry of Bearing

The Ministry of Proclaiming

The Ministry of Authority

We’ve explored three of those ministries: listening to each other, helping each other and bearing with each other in hard times. When I first started this series, I thought I’d just address a couple of these topics, but now I’m intrigued by the remaining four: they seem to contradict each other. So today, we’ll explore the ministries of Holding One’s Tongue and The Ministry of Proclaiming and try to discover how one can both not talk and talk. How can I keep my mouth shut and still proclaim the Good News?  

Bonhoeffer was not talking about how we operate in the world in general.  His purpose is to teach us how to get along with each other within our Christian communities, among each other in our own congregation. That makes his teachings personal to us, sitting here in the pews or reading at home.  

The ministry of Holding One’s Tongue can be restated in your mother’s words: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.”  Bonhoeffer teases this familiar saying out 

When this discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discover.  He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus doing violence to him a a person.  Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be.

In my words, we need to ditch preconceptions and stereotypes. If I see each of you not as a needy sinner (slacker, busybody, racist) but as a creation of God, a deliberate being created in the image of God, I am freed to discover and know the Child of God that you are. If I see you the way Jesus sees you, I can love you without question, without judgement.  

Thanks to Google, I found this perfect poem: 

I See Christ in You

When others demand that you act a certain way,
And do certain things the way they prefer,
And you follow your conscience and act in Godly ways,
I see your poverty of spirit.
I see Christ in you.

When you lament about the good old days,
When people were kind, gracious, and caring,
Because today all you see is mean-spiritedness,
I see you mourn.
I see Christ in you.

When you are barraged with criticism,
And never receive appreciation for your talents,
Yet refuse to defend yourself because it would do no good,
I see your strength to be meek.
I see Christ in you.

When you are belittled for trying to do the right thing,
For caring too much about how what you do impacts others,
And you do the right thing anyway,
I see your hunger and thirst for righteousness.
I see Christ in you.

When you pray for those who hurt you mercilessly,
Who care only about themselves,
And don’t care for you at all,
I see that you are merciful.
I see Christ in you.

When you try to do your best,
For the glory of God, giving all credit to him for your talents,
Keeping His will at the forefront of all you do,
I see your humility.
I see Christ in you.

When you try to make peace,
And those in power seek war,
So that they get what they want from this earthly life,
I see a peacemaker in you.
I see Christ in you.

When you are persecuted for your behavior,
Because you shine the light of Christ,
And evil cannot hide from such a light,
I see your persecution and weep.
I see Christ in you.

If this reminds you of something you’ve heard before, it is based on the Beatitudes—the “blessed are’s.”  

If I see Christ in you, any unkind and unnecessary words will not even occur to me, ideally.  I will have no reason to criticize you I can see only the goodness of Christ in you.

On the one hand, Bonhoeffer advises us to hold our tongues. Then, he ask that we proclaim, that is that we speak deliberately.  You might think that holding your tongue is challenging, but proclaiming, in my estimation, is more challenging. By proclaiming, he means using the Good News of the Gospel in our conversations with each other, both in happy times and hurtful times.

If we are truly followers of Jesus, then we need to use the words of Jesus when things go wrong, when we disagree, when things go well, when we happy. Why can we do this? Because we have so much in common: we are sinners AND we are saved by the grace of God.  We are equals.

Bonhoeffer recognizes that this could be awkward or even dangerous. If I am hesitant or insincere, how can I say the right word? If I only offer words and not help, am I convincing? What if I am impatient and don’t listen in return, how can my words be healing? 

Sometimes, we don’t include Jesus in the conversation because it sounds weird.  I was blessed to grow up in a family who comfortably and consistently acknowledge the presence of God in daily life.  Even today, when we look at a flower or a child, we remark on the role God had in creating the flower or child. 

Sadly, the only time many  people include God in the conversation is at funerals and visitations. And most of the stuff they say is false.  How many times have you heard someone say, “It was God’s will,” or “God wanted them to be in heaven” or some such claptrap.  We don’t know God’s will or wish beyond God’s own promises for us. Death is the enemy. Death is not God’s will.

There is also the danger of using proclaiming to force our own beliefs on others. One of the things that makes this country great is the constitutional right to follow the faith to which one is called. We cannot expect the other person to receive our witness if we use it as a club instead of a gift. 

There are also times when we must, or should, speak to each other when we see the other in trouble.  Sometimes this trouble is self-imposed and we should, in Christian love, help the person to see his own sin.  That sounds presumptuous.  Didn’t Jesus say, take the log out of your own eye before you attempt to remove a splinter from someone else’s eye. In other words, look after your own sins.  But look at it this way:

We can speak to each other as sinner to sinner, and reach out to the one who is troubled and confused. We can do this because we share the knowledge of God’s grace and mercy. We do not criticize as much as we offer help, one of the ministries. And quite often by reaching out, we give our friend the freedom to finally speak about their troubles and to ask for help.  Maybe you are the only person, approaching in Christian love, who has shown any kind of love at all to the person.Your soft words may be the source of comfort.

Maybe Kenny Rogers was talking about these two ministries when he sang 

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em

Know when to fold ’em.”

May God give us the wisdom to know when to hold our tongues and when to proclaim God’s loving, merciful Word.  Amen. 

I see Christ in You: Copyright 2016 Virginia Lieto  About the author: In addition to being a Catholic blogger, Virginia Lieto is an adjunct professor, teaching two undergraduate courses for Saint Joseph’s College of Maine’s Online Theology Program. She is the author of Adventures of Faith, Hope, and Charity – Finding Patience; a children’s book that teaches both children and adults, the value of the virtue of patience. She is also a public speaker on the Catholic faith

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together . Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition. 1930. Trans. John W. Doberstein

398. Holy Spirit, Truth Divine

800. Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart

582. Holy Spirit, Ever Dwelling

The Ministry of Bearing                                    Galatians 6: 1-10; Matthew 25: 31-46

Galatians 6  The Message

6 1-3 Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.

4-5 Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.

6 Be very sure now, you who have been trained to a self-sufficient maturity, that you enter into a generous common life with those who have trained you, sharing all the good things that you have and experience.

7-8 Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life.

9-10 So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.
+++

Matthew 25: 31-33 “When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

34-36 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

37-40 “Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

41-43 “Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

44 “Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

45 “He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’

46 “Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”

+++

Again, I am drawing inspiration from the book Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  We’ve reflected on the ways we minister to each other in the context of our congregation. Two Sundays ago, our topic was the Ministry of Listening.  Last Sunday’s topic was the Ministry of Helpfulness.  Today we study the Ministry of Bearing.

This is bearing in the sense of carrying a heavy load, in the sense of having a weight on our shoulders. 

Each of us bears burdens. There are many verses in the Bible that allude to the burdens people bear.   

The books of the prophets share the burden that God’s people are to God:

Isaiah 1:2-3 The Lord has said, “Listen, heaven and earth!The children I raised have turned against me. 3  Oxen and donkeys know who owns and feeds them, but my people won’t ever learn.”

Other verses remind us of the burdens the prophets bore. Jeremiah and Isaiah brought the word of God to people who would not listen.

Jeremiah 8:18-19 I’m burdened with sorrow and feel like giving up.19  In a foreign land my people are crying. Listen! You’ll hear them say, “Has the Lord deserted Zion? Is he no longer its king?”

Isaiah 6 9  Then the Lord told me to go and speak this message to the people: “You will listen and listen, but never understand. You will look and look, but never see.”

Jesus recognized the burden the priests of the temple put on the people they served but expecting them to obey every law perfectly: 

Luke 11:46 Jesus replied: You teachers are also in for trouble! You load people down with heavy burdens, but you won’t lift a finger to help them carry the loads.

Bonhoeffer gives us a different perspective on carrying burdens.  He says that being a member of a Christian community means that we bear not only our own burdens, but that we bear the burdens of others. 

What does it feel like to bear a burden? Burdens come in the form of worry, concern, anxiety, responsibility. Burdens come in the form of hardship, stress, difficulty and misfortune. Burdens can feel like a physical weight, even though the burden resides is the heart and the mind.

Burdens keep us from sleeping, from smiling. Burdens make us tired and angry. Burdens prevent us from seeing the whole beautiful world, from seeing good, from seeing happiness. Burdens prevent us from feeling joy, from feeling compassion. 

So, why would we want to take on more worry, more responsibility?

Because we are Christians. 

Bonhoeffer: 

The brother is a burden to the Christian, precisely because he is a Christian. For the pagan the other person never becomes a burden at all. He simply sidesteps every burden that others may impose upon him.

Remember Jesus’s list of ways to follow him?

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

That’s how we share each other’s burdens.  

Visiting someone in prison was never a possibility for me until a few years ago. The closest I had come to visiting someone in prison was taking my students on a field trip to the law enforcement center.  I remember one time the deputy who took us around was new to the job and didn’t know all the protocols. He took us into an office where the names of the all the prisoners were listed on a chalkboard. One student remarked,”Oh, there’s my step-dad.” We shouldn’t have seen that, but that made me realize that anybody could know somebody in prison. 

In the last five years, I have had occasion to visit two friends in jail. Both had committed crimes. This has taught me something about bearing the burdens of others. 

I did not commit any of the crimes, but I found myself bearing the burdens of others. 

This is where it gets interesting:

Again, Bonhoeffer: 

We may suffer the sins of our brother; we do not need to judge. 

We suffer the sins of our brother, our sister, our parent, our child. How often have you suffered, not because you did something wrong, but because someone else screwed up, because someone else said or did something that caused pain beyond the person’s action. 

Our natural reaction is to resent the person, to blame the person, to scold the person, or sometimes, to return the hurt.

Bonhoeffer says we should be thankful for the burden of the other’s sin because the hurt we cause through our own sins is shared and absorbed by the community.

This is a mercy for the Christian; for when does sin ever occur in the community that he must not examine and blame himself for his own unfaithfulness in prayer and intercession, his lack of brotherly service, of fraternal reproof and encouragement, indeed, for his own personal sin and spiritual laxity, by how he has done injury to himself, the fellowship and the  brethren?

He who is bearing others knows that he himself is being borne, and only in this strength can he go on bearing. 

In other words, we are not carrying the burden of judging the other’s sin, the other’s unkind word or lack of understanding or neglect of duty.  We don’t concern ourselves with the other’s intention or even the depth of our pain inflicted on us by the words or actions of another. We expect others to overlook our sins, so we share pain and worry with our community without judging why in they are in such a sorry state.

I’ve learned that in my prison visits.  I am visiting as a friend, as a companion, not as a judge.  I can’t teach them anything about the crime and the consequences that they don’t know already.  I can share with them the burden of loneliness, of being the victim of fights, of being afraid for their lives, of being hungry for good food, of wanting to watch television or read books that appeal to them. I can share with them the burden of remorse, the burden of wondering about lost friends, the burden of loss of a normal life. I can share with them the Word of God, for who is finally willing to listen more sincerely than the person who is thirsty for Good News? 

 This sharing of each other’s burdens is nothing new.  Bonhoeffer wrote these words in the 1930’s, while he was teaching in an underground seminary in Germany.

John Fawcett wrote similar words in 1782:

3 We share our mutual woes,

our mutual burdens bear,

and often for each other flows

the sympathizing tear.

Paul wrote the same thing 1, 970+ years ago: 

Galatians 6  The Message

6 1-3 Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.

This is not a new idea.  Granted, it is rare.  My guess is that many Christians leave the church because they cannot bear each others’ burdens or because they found no one to bear their burdens with them.

We know, we believe as Christians, that we do not bear any burdens alone.

Matthew 11:28
If you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, come to me and I will give you rest.

1 Peter 2:24 Christ carried the burden of our sins. He was nailed to the cross, so we would stop sinning and start living right. By his cuts and bruises you are healed.

Again, it comes down to “Love God.  Love your neighbor.”

Let us carry each others’ burdens, not out of duty, but out of love.  Amen.

+++

 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together . Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition. 

659. Will You Let Me Be Your Servant

656. Blest Be the Tie That Binds

551. The Spirit Sends Us Forth to Serve

Even if You Don’t Have To                         Acts 9: 36-42

Acts 9: 36 In Joppa there was a follower named Tabitha. Her Greek name was Dorcas, which means “deer.” She was always doing good things for people and had given much to the poor. 37 But she got sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Joppa wasn’t far from Lydda, and the followers heard that Peter was there. They sent two men to say to him, “Please come with us as quickly as you can!” 39 At once, Peter went with them.

The men took Peter upstairs into the room. Many widows were there crying. They showed him the coats and clothes that Dorcas had made while she was still alive.

40 After Peter had sent everyone out of the room, he knelt down and prayed. Then he turned to the body of Dorcas and said, “Tabitha, get up!” The woman opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet.

Peter called in the widows and the other followers and showed them that Dorcas had been raised from death. 42 Everyone in Joppa heard what had happened, and many of them put their faith in the Lord. 

+++

I’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. The purpose of the book is to teach us how to live together in Christian community.  One chapter of the book is devoted to ministry—how we care for each other.  Each of us is a minister to the congregation. Bonhoeffer describes seven ways we can minister to each other. Perhaps the one that comes most naturally to us is the ministry of helpfulness.

Bonhoeffer’s take on helpfulness is comprehensive.  First of all, we should be willing to help even in the smallest ways, no matter how trivial the need may seem. He emphasizes that nobody is too good to help, nor is anyone undeserving of help.

 He also comments that “One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.”  In other words, we may have to sacrifice to help someone else. We should be prepared to be “interrupted by God.” “God will constantly disrupt our plans by sending us people who need help.  That is hard to accept because we live in a culture that encourages us to be organized and have every minute scheduled. 

 Bonhoeffer: Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God’s love and mercy.

 Our helpfulness proclaims the Gospel.  To that end, I want to share some stories with you. The first is the story of Dorcas.

Dorcas was helpful to her neighbors, especially to the widows. Widows in the time of the early church were dependent on the mercy of others.  We don’t know if Dorcas was a widow or not, but we can surmise that she was wealthy because she lived in a two-story house. “37But she got sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room.”  And she had enough money to buy fabric and thread to make clothing for the other widows. Because she was wealthy, she had no obligation to hang out with poor people, poor widows. But she did.  She made them clothing. What gives one more dignity than a nice outfit? 

Why were the widows in such deep mourning when she died?  Because they’d lost their source of clothing?  I think Dorcas meant much more to them.  I think she was a leader among them, a source of social interaction, and, probably, a source of food.  I imagine her home filled with these friends—for she must have treated them as friends to deserve so much devotion—and when friends get together, friends share food.  She didn’t have to welcome these women into her home. She didn’t have to do anything for them.  But she did.

This idea of helping people out of generosity rather than obligation intrigues me.  How many times do we help someone not because we have to, but because we want to?  

I asked on my favorite social media platform, Facebook, about being helped by someone.  I posted “Tell me about a time when someone helped you when they didn’t have to.”  I received some beautiful answers and I want to share them with you.  

+++In 1997 my Grandpa was very ill. I was a sailor on the USS Barry. We had just left for deployment a couple weeks earlier.  The first help I got was the opportunity to go home (we were in Greece). At Rota, Spain one of the civilians got me on the plane when another one had told me no. So there is the second help. Then there is the third. It was Chief on her way home for Christmas. Her command had just hosted the Barry Chiefs & she heard I was on the Barry. She made sure I was taken care of until we landed in Norfolk.  She taught me about box lunches on a military flight and how to get a hotel room. I’m forever grateful for those that helped.  I made it home one day before Grandpa passed away.

+++ I was a single parent with a baby, had active Crohn’s Disease, lost my job, a kid rear ended us and totaled my car. So sick, no job and no car. I ended up on welfare. I could get into a program to help me finish college, but I didn’t have a car. Some one I knew, but not that well, offered to sell me their work car, a 1979 safety orange Ford Pinto for $400, and he let me make $40 a month payments, with no interest!  

That car was life changing! I was able to go back to college and got my degree in early childhood education and started and grew my childcare business. I was blessed to be able to be a stay at home mom for my daughter and give her some stability growing up. All because someone saw my need and offered to help. I’ll forever be grateful.

+++After my Brain Injury, my 9th and 10th grade religion teacher came to the hospital to pray while I was in a coma (obviously I don’t remember but was told). He drove an hour to the hospital. Then when I was at a rehab hospital and couldn’t walk, he would come and push my wheel chair on walks outside. He was so giving! I couldn’t walk or talk so he would just go wherever I pointed.

+++A lady and her daughter stopped to help me in rural Louisiana when my car overheated, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. They took me to a mechanic in the next little town, he reconnected a hose, wanted $50.00 – cash only – and they paid him! Then they left and I never saw them again. I consider them angels.

+++A friend of mine once helped me by not doing or saying anything! Late one night after my husband had his brain aneurysm I was coming home late from the hospital. I was overwhelmed, scared, worn out! I showed up at her house where she welcomed me in with a hug and just listened while I bawled! I left calmer and my head in a better spot! Sometimes it’s just a spot on your couch!

 +++When recovering from a broken leg, I got a packet of creatively ‘homemade’  get well cards from a group of women living on a cell block in a federal prison in West Virginia.  They felt like they knew me through a former member of my church.

+++My step father loved me. He did not have to.

Dorcas did not have to spend her time or her money on poor people.  She did not have to open her home to people who lived below her status.  The death of any person is sad, but the death of a person like Dorcas is heartbreaking. 

We know that death is inevitable, but some deaths affect us more deeply than others. Perhaps what is left for us at that death is the example that we can emulate. 

I have shared very little with you about Dorcas, but you need to know that there are Dorcases everywhere. And you need to know that you have been or will be like Dorcas—helping because you can, not because you have to.

When God interrupts our routine with a phone call, with an inconvenience, with a broken person or a broken car, let us remember that we are all ministers to each other. Amen. 

Listen            Job 29; Deuteronomy 5:1; Isaiah 6: 8-9

Job 29  

Job said: 2  I long for the past, when God took care of me, 3  and the light from his lamp showed me the way through the dark.

4  I was in the prime of life, God All-Powerful was my closest friend, 5  and all of my children were nearby.

6  My herds gave enough milk to bathe my feet, and from my olive harvest flowed rivers of oil.
7 When I sat down at the meeting
of the city council, 8  the young leaders stepped aside, 9 while the older ones stood 10 and remained silent.

11  Everyone was pleased with what I said and did. 

12  When poor people or orphans
cried out for help, I came to their rescue.

13  And I was highly praised for my generosity to widows and others in poverty.

14  Kindness and justice were my coat and hat; 15  I was helpful to the blind and to the lame.

16  I was a father to the needy, and I defended them in court, even if they were strangers.

17  When criminals attacked, I broke their teeth and set their victims free.

18  I felt certain that I would live
a long and happy life, then die in my own bed.

19  In those days I was strong like a tree with deep roots and with plenty of water, 20 or like an archer’s new bow.

21  Everyone listened in silence to my welcome advice, 22  and when I finished speaking, nothing needed to be said.

23  My words were eagerly accepted
like the showers of spring, 24  and the smile on my face renewed everyone’s hopes.

25  My advice was followed as though I were a king leading my troops, or someone comforting those in sorrow.

Deuteronomy 5:1-3  Contemporary English Version

 Moses called together the people of Israel and said:

Today I am telling you the laws and teachings that you must follow, so listen carefully.  

Matthew 13  Contemporary English Version

13 That same day Jesus left the house and went out beside Lake Galilee, where he sat down to teach. 2  Such large crowds gathered around him that he had to sit in a boat, while the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he taught them many things by using stories. He said:

A farmer went out to scatter seed in a field. 4 While the farmer was scattering the seed, some of it fell along the road and was eaten by birds. 5 Other seeds fell on thin, rocky ground and quickly started growing because the soil wasn’t very deep. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched and dried up, because they did not have deep roots. 7 Some other seeds fell where thornbushes grew up and choked the plants. 8 But a few seeds did fall on good ground where the plants produced 100 or 60 or 30 times as much as was scattered. 9 If you have ears, pay attention.

10 Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you use stories to speak to the people?”

11 Jesus answered:

I have explained the secrets about the kingdom of heaven to you, but not to others. 12  Everyone who has something will be given more. But people who don’t have anything will lose even what little they have. 13 I use stories when I speak to them because when they look, they cannot see, and when they listen, they cannot hear or understand. 14  So God’s promise came true, just as the prophet Isaiah had said,

“These people will listen and listen, but never understand.
They will look and look, but never see.

15  All of them have stubborn minds!
They refuse to listen; they cover their eyes.
They cannot see or hear or understand.
If they could, they would turn to me, and I would heal them.”

16  But God has blessed you, because your eyes can see and your ears can hear! 17 Many prophets and good people were eager to see what you see and to hear what you hear. But I tell you they did not see or hear.

18 Now listen to the meaning of the story about the farmer:

19 The seeds that fell along the road are the people who hear the message about the kingdom, but don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches the message from their hearts. 20 The seeds that fell on rocky ground are the people who gladly hear the message and accept it at once. 21 But they don’t have deep roots, and they don’t last very long. As soon as life gets hard or the message gets them in trouble, they give up.

22 The seeds that fell among the thornbushes are also people who hear the message. But they start worrying about the needs of this life and are fooled by the desire to get rich. So the message gets choked out, and they never produce anything. 23 The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and understand the message. They produce as much as 100 or 60 or 30 times what was planted.

+++

I ran across a book review the other day. The name of the book is Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us. The author is Mark Yaconelli  One thing the reviewer said stuck with me.

Yaconelli maintains that it’s not the stories themselves that bring healing; it’s the feeling of being heard and understood by someone who cares enough to enter into your life through listening. 

More about that later.

Earlier in the week, I’d been reading a book, Life Together, by Dietrich B.  Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer also devoted some time to the act of listening. 

A third instance occurred in my daily readings from Fr. Richard Rohr.  All last week, each devotion featured a different perspective on listening.

 So, after running across this topic three times in one week, I decided it must be important. 

Life Together is about living together in a Christian community, a Christian congregation like ours.

The fourth chapter of the book is about ministry, but it’s not a job description for the pastor. Bonhoeffer describes how Christians minister to each other.  The first ministry he lists is the Ministry of Keeping One’s Mouth Shut. After that, he lists the Ministry of Meekness, the Ministry of Helpfulness and several others, including the ministry of listening.  

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.

They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Listening can be a greater service than speaking.  That is hard to believe, isn’t it?  Speaking is our way of communicating, of expressing ideas and opinions.  Without speaking, how would we know anything about anybody?  But, think about it. If no one hears what you say, what good do your words do?  That brings me back to Mark Yaconelli’s claim that the result of listening—being heard—brings healing. 

During the COVID lockdown, we all learned new ways to do business.  As a member of the programming committee at Our Lady of the Prairie, I had to learn how to engage people in our programs when we couldn’t gather in person.  Fortunately, we had the technology to offer meetings electronically, through ZOOM. This was also the year of the derecho, so everyone had stories to tell.

At The Prairie, we focused on three groups who had been affected by the year’s events.  We chose groups who had been uniquely affected.  Our first group was farmers who had suffered damage to their properties and their livelihood.  The second group was composed of students who were affected by schools being closed. The third group was retail people who had been affected by loss of business and the risk of daily exposure to COVID.

Our purpose was to inform the general public about how these groups had been uniquely affected. But the true benefit was that the speakers were able to tell their stories without interruption.  We allowed no questions or comments until the very end of the presentations, so that the listeners really had to listen. So often, when we have something to say, we an’t even find an audience.  To provide an audience to these presenters provided them with an opportunity for healing.

 Your handout today lists a series of multiple choice questions. On one side are the questions and on the other side is an explanation of the answers. As you can see, there are various ways to listen, to respond to someone’s story. In our scriptures today, we see various ways to respond. 

The entire book of Job is about speaking and listening.  Job is miserable. Job’s friends come to visit him.  The first part of the story is about Job listening to his friends and his friends listening to Job. They are all frustrated because, perhaps, they are more interested in their own words.

A book that was required in seminary, The Lost Art of Listening,  gently explains this difficulty: 

 Most failures of understanding are not due to self-absorption or bad faith, but to our own need to say something. We tend to react to what is said, rather than concentrating on what the other person is trying to express.

Another difficulty is not liking what the speaker has to say.  We might hear something that would cause us to change our minds or the way we live. This was the case in the time of Isaiah. Jesus ran into the same problem and quoted Isaiah.

These people will listen and listen, but never understand.
They will look and look, but never see.

Jesus explains further

All of them have stubborn minds! They refuse to listen; they cover their eyes. They cannot see or hear or understand.

If Jesus felt that same frustration, it’s not surprising that we feel like no one understands us.  Especially in these times, when events become words that cause more events, our refusal to listen can only bring more discord. 

Bonhoeffer lived in a time that has been compared to ours, so perhaps his words are applicable to us. He claims that as a Christian community, each person is an “an indispensable link in a chain.” Each link is necessary to keep the chain unbroken, to keep the community strong.

Listening with integrity and sincerity is challenging, especially if we disagree with what is being said.

Richard Rohr quotes a Sikh activist, Valarie Kaur, who has made a commitment to listen to those with whom she disagrees. 

Deep listening is an act of surrender. We risk being changed by what we hear. When I really want to hear another person’s story, I try to leave my preconceptions at the door and draw close to their telling. I am always partially listening to the thoughts in my own head when others are speaking, so I consciously quiet my thoughts and begin to listen with my senses. . . . The most critical part of listening is asking what is at stake for the other person. I try to understand what matters to them, not what I think matters.

I want to look at a couple of these sentences more closely.

“Deep listening is an act of surrender.” My feeling is that we live in a culture where surrendering to anything is a shameful act.  Surrendering to another person goes against our cultural indoctrination.  To make ourselves vulnerable puts in a position of being hurt, of being injured.   

The most critical part of listening is asking what is at stake for the other person.”  How can I refocus from my own beliefs to the beliefs of the other person when I have a hard time understanding how that person can think the way they do? And yet, I have to.  One of the questions I have learned to ask, when I’m baffled by the other person’s statements is, “Can you explain that to me?” Or simply stated, “Tell me more.” 

Jesus is good at that, without even being asked.  When the disciples can’t understand the Parable of the Sower, for instance, Jesus retells it with detailed explanation. “18 Now listen to the meaning of the story about the farmer:” and then he explains each part of the parable.

The whole parable is about listening.  Who listens and who doesn’t.  Who only half-listens and forgets. Who is distracted.  Who doesn’t really care.

Our culture has made not listening easy.  We can choose which news network to watch and ignore any that show us a different point of view.  We can demand only certain books be read in schools. We can assume that everyone should think like we do. Perhaps the most harmful voice is the voice that claims it is the only voice that should be heard. When other voices are silenced or the speakers are punished, is anyone listening? 

Who will listen to us?  Easy answer: God.  But listening has to be two ways. How do you listen to God? What opportunities do you give yourself?  You worship with fellow Christians.  You read Christian writing. How do you listen to God in the quietness of prayer?  This week, I challenge you to listen for God, to watch for God in your life, in the lives of others around you, in the faces of strangers. Let us seek the courage to truly listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Amen.

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  “I’ve had a terrible headache all afternoon.” 

  1. Maybe you should take some aspirin. 
  2. Maybe you shouldn’t drink so much coffee. 
  3. Gee, that’s a shame. 
  4. Gee, that’s a shame. When did it start? 
  5. I’ve had a headache, too. Maybe it has something to do with a change in atmospheric pressure. 

“I can’t decide what to wear.” 

  1. Why don’t you wear—. 
  2. Nobody is going to care what you wear. 
  3. I know, it’s tough to decide. 
  4. I know the feeling. What were you thinking of wearing? 
  5. I know what you mean. I can’t decide what to wear either.

“I hardly slept at all last night.” 

  1. Maybe you need to get more exercise. 
  2. You fall asleep every night in front of the TV; no wonder you have trouble sleeping. 
  3. That’s too bad. 
  4. That’s too bad; any idea why? 
  5. I didn’t get much sleep myself last night.

  ———

In each of these examples,

  1. is advice, 
  2. is criticism, 

(3) is an empathic comment that closes off conversation, 

(4) is an empathic comment that opens up conversation, 

(5) is talking about yourself. 

Is there a pattern to the responses you typically make? Practice making empathic comments that invite people to elaborate or go deeper with what they are saying.

  1. Nichols, Michael P.. The Lost Art of Listening, Second Edition: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships (p. 95). Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition. I included the whole chapter because it sounds like a typical rant of anyone over 40.  Nothing new under the sun. 🙂
  2. “Listen” appears 23 times in Job and 57 times in the book of  Psalms. 
  3. Mark Yaconelli  Broadleaf Books as quoted in Christian Century, July 22,2022.
  4. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together . Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition. 
  5. Nichols, Michael P.. The Lost Art of Listening, Second Edition: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships (p. 3). Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition
  6. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  7. Courageous Listening  7/26/22, Center for Action and Contemplation 

Pray without Ceasing?  No Problem.       1 Thessalonians 5: 12-27; Romans 8: 26-27

 Pastor Dianne Prichard                                                          Sunday, July 24, 2022

1 Thessalonians 5:12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

Romans 8:26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

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The Thessalonians passage beseeches us to pray without ceasing. Sounds good on paper.  But what to pray?  Where do I start?  It’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it, to pray every waking hour? And prayer itself can be challenging. For what may I pray?  What words should I use?

 In these challenging times, prayer can be a desperate plea for help, a last-ditch effort to find safety. Yet when Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians, they were not living in fear, but in anticipation. In the first century, the promise of Jesus to return to earth and rescue everyone was still very real. The Gospels were still being written as Paul shared the Good News with the Thessalonians.  It was common knowledge among the followers of Jesus.  Eventually the words were written into the gospels:

John 14:1-3  Contemporary English Version

14 Jesus said to his disciples, “Don’t be worried! Have faith in God and have faith in me. 2 There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I wouldn’t tell you this, unless it was true. I am going there to prepare a place for each of you. 3 After I have done this, I will come back and take you with me. Then we will be together.

 We know that Jesus spoke of his return because his disciples asked him for a date: 

Matthew 24:3   Later, as Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him in private and asked, “When will this happen? What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the world?”

Jesus responded: 

Mathew 24 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

The Thessalonians knew these promises and they were getting impatient. If Jesus was coming back to get them while they were still alive, he’d better make it soon. And what if someone who believed had already died?  Would Jesus resurrect them and take them back home, too?  “Jesus,” they may have asked, “what’s taking you so long?” 

Paul’s answer: Keep on keeping on.  While you are here on this earth, follow Jesus as usual. 

…admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.

Then he adds:

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 

This is about attitude. Professor Paul J. Griffiths (Duke) calls this an “attitude of gratitude.” He suggests that we think of prayer as basically the acknowledgment of gift, the gift of life, of Creation, Love. Why are we not constantly full of gratitude?

For us, he says, prayer is occasional. 

We speak occasionally to God. But for the Christian tradition, for the most part, this is an impoverished understanding of prayer. It is not wrong, it is just inadequate. 

Why don’t we pray continuously?   Griffith’s theory is that: 

We separate life into compartments. There is the work compartment, the personal life compartment, and the religion compartment, to name just three, and the walls that separate them are thickly impervious.

Think of the compartments of your life. Is your faith just one compartment? Work. Play. Family. Caregiving. Shopping. Paying bills. Cleaning.  

What if we prayed without ceasing in every compartment of our lives, what would that prayer look like?  On to our next passage.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

These two passages came together for me not out of an attitude of gratitude, but out of an attitude of worry.  I do not know what to pray for. What can I ask for that is not presumptuous or ridiculous or impossible?  World peace?  A cure for cancer?  Protection for my family?  Enough food for every citizen of Creation? Good weather?  So, I turn to this passage from Romans and find reassurance that God hears my prayer even when I don’t know how to say it.

If I pray without ceasing these days, it is without my words, thoughts formed by worry and fear.  I know, I know. Don’t be afraid.  The Bible says it a hundred times.  But in my sinful weakness, in my faltering faith, I am afraid. You know what?  God has me covered. God knows what to do with me, in me, for me.  

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  

God’s will be done. Amen.