Power Play Genesis 39

Genesis 39 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

39 The Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, the king’s[a] 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 her hanging onto his coat.

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.

While Joseph was in prison, 21 the Lord helped him and was good to him. He even made the jailer like Joseph so much that 22 he put him in charge of the other prisoners and of everything that was done in the jail. 23 The jailer did not worry about anything, because the Lord was with Joseph and made him successful in all that he did.


I belong to a Facebook group of pastors who preach the same scriptures I preach. It’s a great place to discuss how we are going to interpret the text for the coming Sunday.

About a week ago, one of the members was complaining about another pastor who only preached issues like immigration and racism and poverty. He was so happy when that pastor was replaced by someone who preached only the sacrifice and love Christ.

My first reaction was “Guilty as charged.”

My second reaction was “What a great way to protect yourself from the sufferings of others!”

My third reaction was, “What did Jesus do?”

As far as I can tell, Jesus did not just talk about scripture—-which he had memorized since he was a child. He could have. He could have played the part of rabbi, looking only at what was on the scroll in front of him. I think preachers are expected to fulfill a similar role: “Preacher, just read me the word of God. Don’t bring in all this extraneous stuff. I come to church to get away from all the crap on the television.” “Stick to the Bible.”

Jesus stuck to Scripture, but He believed that Scripture was more than an academic pastime. Scripture was only the beginning. Jesus used Scripture in two different situations. One was to show how he was the fulfillment of prophecy. The other was to remind his hearers that God had given commandments that were still applicable.

So how are we supposed to use Scripture? Is it for entertainment? Is it because we “love to tell the story?” Is it for guidance? Is it to hold us accountable? I lean in that direction. Why? Because Jesus put Scripture into action. Jesus summarized the commandments of Scripture in two sentences. Love God. Love your neighbor. Then Jesus went on to put his words into action. He did not stay in the synagogue—-that would have been an easy thing to do. He could have attracted crowds there But Jesus never stayed put. And he never separated himself from the people, except to find time for prayer and conversation with his Father. He hung out with all kinds of people from temple rulers to centurions to lepers. He got his hands dirty, he risked his reputation, he put himself in danger.

If Jesus had arrived in this century, where would we find him? Watching the news? Or in the news? Would he be making news by breaking rules that oppressed the poor and elevated the powerful? Would he be favored by one network over another?

My question is not “What would Jesus do?” My question is this: “What should I do?”

The selection of this Scripture for September 23, 2018 could not be more timely nor could it be more deadly. Is this coincidence? Am I supposed to ignore this coincidence?

Mrs. Potiphar has accused Joseph of rape. Dr. Ford has accused Judge Kavanaugh of attempted rape. What’s the difference? Woman accuses man. Same story. What’s the difference?

The difference is power. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? The one with power.

Potiphar is the king’s official in charge of the palace guard. Joseph is sold to Potiphar, who soon acknowledges and appreciates how God helps Joseph to survive and succeed.

How did Joseph get in this predicament? That is a fascinating story, but briefly, his brothers sold him as a slave and told their father, Jacob, that he’d been killed by a lion. Very possible for a young man walking out to find his brothers in the pastures. Jospeh ends up in Egypt, ends up making, in some rather miraculous ways, a good impression on Potiphar, who gives him a job and keeps promoting him.

Joseph is also very good looking and single. Mrs. Potiphar is possibly bored with Mr. Potiphar, possibly looking for someone more attractive than Mr. Potiphar. Joseph fills the bill. She is obsessed with Joseph. After getting nowhere with Joseph, she, scorned, humiliated, and furious AND powerful sets Joseph up to be arrested and killed. Potiphar has a little mercy on Joseph, because after all, Joseph has been a God- send to him. So he only puts Joseph in prison. Again, God finds ways for Joseph to be restored to Potiphar’s good graces and the story has a happy ending.

But what about current events? God thrived on current events! God influenced current events. God WAS current events: creation! the flood! the birth of a baby to old people! Jesus was current events! Jesus made the news in Galilee and Judea. All media was oral back then. Word of mouth was the printing press of the time. You can bet people were hearing and talking about Jesus. And what was Jesus doing? Eating with sinners! (taxpayers) Being in the same room with a dead person! (Jairus’s daughter!) Touching lepers! (Mark 1)

So. What should I be preaching about? Jesus touching a leper in the first century or about how we can be Jesus in the twenty-first century? What’s in the news today?

I’m focusing on just one item that’s clogged the news this week, and that’s probably because I’m a woman. And yet I sympathize with Joseph. Joseph was wrongly imprisoned. If such a heinous crime were not in the news right now, we could talk about how well God cared for Joseph, how Joseph escaped from this blasphemous charge of assault, how God made sure that Joseph was restored to his rightful position.

On the surface, the story is woman accuses man. But the bigger story here is who has the power. The one with the most power wins. Mrs. Potiphar won. I’m predicting that Judge Kavanaugh will win.

I went to a training a few weeks ago. It was for pastors. The title of the presentation was “Start by Believing.” The purpose of the presentation was to teach us pastors how to respond to someone who comes to us and says, “I’ve been assaulted.” Most pastors don’t have a degree in counseling, nor a specialty in counseling assault victims. Why was the title, “Start by Believing” so important? Because, traditionally, women (96% of assaults are against women, 4% against men) are not believed. They are asked how much they had to drink. They are asked why they were “there,” whether it be a party, a street, or their own homes. They are asked what they were wearing. They are asked what they said. The purpose of each of those questions is to help the investigator figure out why the woman was assaulted. The hidden agenda implies that the assault is the victim’s fault. The even more hidden agenda is “Maybe you are lying.” “Maybe it’s all your fault.” The fallacy of this method of investigation is that it says right from the beginning, “I don’t believe you.” The implication is that “You deserved this,” “It’s your fault.”

If I begin the conversation with “I believe you,” I am giving the victim back some of the power ripped from her (or him.) I am giving the victim credit for her integrity, for her trauma, for her grief, for her shame.

Why do I think you need to know this? Chances are, no one is going to come to you to confess this act of violence. Chances are, you won’t ever have to talk to anyone who has been a victim of assault. But life is strange and people are protective. Chances also are that all of you have been on one side or the other of this situation. And chances are you didn’t know what to say or do. That is the case before the senate judiciary committee right now. Why didn’t Dr. Ford report this when she was 17 years old? Why doesn’t Judge Kavanaugh remember this incident? Who was there for either of them?

Jesus was known for hanging with sinners. But he also hung with the victims of sinners. We are never far from sinning ourselves or being sinned against. Why can I say that? We refer to it every day of our lives when we repeat the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Jesus wouldn’t have included it in that prayer if it weren’t a daily concern.

The more I thought about the wrongdoing in this story, the more I wondered if the assault was the real issue. And what do you need to hear from me? Am I focusing on the wrong sin? What is the real issue here? It is lying. It is not assault. Mrs. Potiphar lied. Either Dr. Ford or Judge Kavanaugh is lying.

And the danger, the lie I have fallen prey to is using Scripture for my own purpose. The issue of sexual assault is important to me. The timing of this Scripture and the current events seem made for each other. And yes, Scripture is always timely. There is never a day or situation which does not have a parallel or an example in Scripture to any of the conflicts we face.

But what is the real sin, the real conflict in this sad story? It is lying. And when we lie or are lied to, the situation becomes messy and complicated and causes more pain.

Why do we lie? To protect ourselves, to protect those whom we love, to protect ourselves from our own actions or the actions of others.

So, this sermon is peripatetic; that is, it wanders. But that’s one way we come to understand Scripture, that is how we strengthen our own faith. We wander, we wonder, we ponder the words in our sacred Scripture. We study Scripture not because we are students of ancient texts, but because we are followers of Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are constantly forming and reforming our faith.

Who will suffer the consequences of assault? As far as we know, only Joseph suffered, Mrs. Potiphar probably went on to harass another servant. Who will suffer the consequences of an act committed nearly 40 years ago? We know that both parties will suffering. Both parties are professionals with excellent reputations. Yet someone is lying. O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!

The happy ending of this passage from Genesis is that God did not desert Joseph. Joseph certainly kept God busy. He made his brothers jealous, he was sold into slavery, he was thrown in jail, and yet, if you read through the rest of Joseph’s story, he lived happily ever after and was even reunited with his dear father and his brothers. Sadly, his mother died giving birth to his younger brother, but that younger brother played a part in reuniting the family.

We keep God busy, too. Fortunately, the Ten Commandments are not presented in scorecard format. They are guides for us, guides to keep us walking in the right direction, guides to show us what to do and what to say and what to think. God never deserted Joseph. God never deserts us. Let that knowledge encourage us all the more to never desert God. Amen.


Trust Genesis 12: 1-9

Today’s lesson is the story of possibly the most important event in human history.

God created. After that God re-created and re-created. God’s perfect creation kept falling apart because of one flaw: human sin. The first time, God banished Adam and Eve from the most perfect part of Creation: the Garden of Eden. That didn’t work; human beings forgot about God and went in the wrong direction. Next, God destroyed most of the human population, saving only a remnant in the form of Noah and his family. In a few generations, it became obvious that humans still rejected God. God needed a new strategy.

Let us be clear: God did not fail. Humans failed. God never neglected the people of God’s creation. The people neglected God. God could not give up.

The new strategy went from focusing on everybody to focusing on one man and his wife and family. God chose Abram. Why did God choose Abram? Abram was ten generations removed from Noah. Abram was just a guy. Up to now, there were no chosen people, no Jewish nation. There were just people. Again, God sought a new way to restart a relationship with people. God looked at the love of his creation, human beings, and chose Abram to reestablish a relationship between God and human beings.

12 The Lord said to Abram:
Leave your country, your family, and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will become famous and be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless anyone who blesses you, but I will put a curse on anyone who puts a curse on you. Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you.
4-5 Abram was seventy-five years old when the Lord told him to leave the city of Haran. He obeyed and left with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the possessions and slaves they had gotten while in Haran

Why did Abram accept this offer, obey this command? God’s negotiating points were pretty impressive:
—Abram’s descendants will become a great nation. This was especially impressive, considering Abram and Sarai remained childless.
—Abram will become famous.
—Abram will be a blessing to others.

However, before all that would happen, Abram has to uproot his family for an extended, permanent vacation to an unknown destination. By this time in his life, Abram is fairly successful. He has cattle, sheep, servants, so it seems incredible that Abram would want to leave his well-established, successful life for something unknown and unpredictable.

No GPS. No Yelp reviews of restaurants and hotels. No Walmarts along the way to restock supplies. No AAA.

God made promises, promises that seemed like wishes.
Children. Fame. Blessing.
—How could he and Sarai have children at their age?
—What would God expect him to do to become famous? Fight battles? Build monuments?
—Blessing—-he was already blessed with wealth, with cattle and sheep and servants.

What motivated Abraham? Trust in God.

Paul idolizes Abraham and uses him as an example for all believers.
Romans 4: 18 God promised Abraham a lot of descendants. And when it all seemed hopeless, Abraham still had faith in God and became the ancestor of many nations. 19 Abraham’s faith never became weak, not even when he was nearly a hundred years old. He knew that he was almost dead and that his wife Sarah could not have children. 20 But Abraham never doubted or questioned God’s promise. His faith made him strong, and he gave all the credit to God.
21 Abraham was certain that God could do what he had promised. 22 So God accepted him, 23 just as we read in the Scriptures. But these words were not written only for Abraham. 24 They were written for us, since we will also be accepted because of our faith in God, who raised our Lord Jesus to life. 25 God gave Jesus to die for our sins, and he raised him to life, so that we would be made acceptable to God.

We know that Abraham trusted God his entire life, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Issac. That is one of the strangest stories in the Bible, and not one to emulate, but it is the ultimate example of trusting God.

When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram went as far as the sacred tree of Moreh in a place called Shechem. The Canaanites were still living in the land at that time, 7 but the Lord appeared to Abram and promised, “I will give this land to your family forever.” Abram then built an altar there for the Lord.
8 Abram traveled to the hill country east of Bethel and camped between Bethel and Ai, where he built another altar and worshiped the Lord. 9 Later, Abram started out toward the Southern Desert.

Once Abraham and Sarah and the whole entourage left their secure, established home in the city of Haran, they never stayed in one place for long.

Imagine selling your home and putting all your possessions into an RV and not having a permanent address. I do have friends who have done this. They travel from National Park to National Park doing volunteer work. But Abraham never had the security of a National Park System, let alone the knowledge of his next parking place. Abraham trusted God.

I said earlier that Abraham’s decision to obey God was the most important event in human history. It wasn’t because he gave up the security of a permanent address. It wasn’t because he was the best man God could find. It was because God’s outrageous promises were kept. Abraham and Sarah had a son. That son had two sons. Those two sons had more sons. In three generations, the twelve tribes of Israel were established through the twelve sons of Jacob, grandson of Abraham and Sarah, and his family. And from those families grew a group of people who stayed connected to God. The relationship was often imperfect and erratic, but it lasted. From that relationship came more descendants, from shepherds to kings of Israel and Judah to a teenage girl in a little town by the name of Nazareth. From the calling of Abraham to birth of a baby to that teenager to a ministry like none other to a resurrection to us sitting here today, humanity has been affected by that single, initial relationship with God.

Today we affirm our commitment to that relationship in the words of hymns: “Trust and Obey” “Jesus Saves” “Wonderful Words of Life” “Count Your Blessings”

Those beautiful words and the joy of singing them can lull us into a complacency that belies the work of being a Christian. What impossible tasks has God called us to? How have we been challenged to maintain our relationship with God? Abraham, by accepting God’s challenge, became a foreigner, an outsider. What is God pushing us to do? Where will our journeys take us? Through loss, through sorrow, through anger—yes, those are part of our journey. But, like Abraham and Sarah, we are committed and we pray that God gives us the strength to trust God. Even when we stumble, even when we turn away, God lifts us up and welcomes us. We can trust God. Let us live so that God can trust us. Amen.

Floods and Promises Genesis 6-9

Genesis 6:5-22 Contemporary English Version (CEV) 5 The Lord saw how bad the people on earth were and that everything they thought and planned was evil. 6 He was very sorry that he had made them, 7 and he said, “I’ll destroy every living creature on earth! I’ll wipe out people, animals, birds, and reptiles. I’m sorry I ever made them.” 8 But the Lord was pleased with Noah, 9 and this is the story about him. Noah was the only person who lived right and obeyed God. 10 He had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11-12 God knew that everyone was terribly cruel and violent. 13 So he told Noah: Cruelty and violence have spread everywhere. Now I’m going to destroy the whole earth and all its people. 14 Get some good lumber and build a boat. Put rooms in it and cover it with tar inside and out. 15 Make it four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. 16 Build a roof on the boat and leave a space of about eighteen inches between the roof and the sides. Make the boat three stories high and put a door on one side. 17 I’m going to send a flood that will destroy everything that breathes! Nothing will be left alive. 18 But I solemnly promise that you, your wife, your sons, and your daughters-in-law will be kept safe in the boat. 19-20 Bring into the boat with you a male and a female of every kind of animal and bird, as well as a male and a female of every reptile. I don’t want them to be destroyed. 21 Store up enough food both for yourself and for them. 22 Noah did everything the Lord told him to do. Genesis 8:6-12 Contemporary English Version (CEV) 6-7 Forty days later Noah opened a window to send out a raven, but it kept flying around until the water had dried up. 8 Noah wanted to find out if the water had gone down, and he sent out a dove. 9 Deep water was still everywhere, and the dove could not find a place to land. So it flew back to the boat. Noah held out his hand and helped it back in. 10 Seven days later Noah sent the dove out again. 11 It returned in the evening, holding in its beak a green leaf from an olive tree. Noah knew that the water was finally going down. 12 He waited seven more days before sending the dove out again, and this time it did not return. Genesis 9:8-17 Contemporary English Version (CEV) 8 Again, God said to Noah and his sons: 9 I am going to make a solemn promise to you and to everyone who will live after you. 10 This includes the birds and the animals that came out of the boat. 11 I promise every living creature that the earth and those living on it will never again be destroyed by a flood. 12-13 The rainbow that I have put in the sky will be my sign to you and to every living creature on earth. It will remind you that I will keep this promise forever. 14 When I send clouds over the earth, and a rainbow appears in the sky, 15 I will remember my promise to you and to all other living creatures. Never again will I let floodwaters destroy all life. 16 When I see the rainbow in the sky, I will always remember the promise that I have made to every living creature. 17 The rainbow will be the sign of that solemn promise.


I’ve had a wooden toy ark for a couple years. It is a replica of one I played with in the church nursery when I was three years old. The original—the one I played with, would go for auction from $500-$800 dollars. Mine is second generation. The original company, Peter-Mar, closed after World War II, but the lithographs and patterns were purchased by someone who continued to make the toys. These replicas are now sold on auctions for much less than the originals, but they’re still pricey because they are so beautifully made.

The story of Noah and the ark has been a favorite children’s Bible story for centuries. What could be easier to understand than animals marching into a big boat and floating for forty days until the big, bad flood dried up!

However. When I read the whole story, I think about why God sent the flood. I think about the multitude of consequences of flood. If we read and study the whole story, the flood story is not suitable for children. Frederick Buechner wonders if we make this a children’s story because so we can avoid what the story is really about. It’s not about a zoo on a boat. It’s about God’s broken heart and God’s anger and God’s disappointment and God’s decision to flush humanity from the earth with a flood. This is about a God who will not allow evil or wickedness to destroy God’s beloved creation.(1)

It is important to remember that God sent the flood. The flood was not a natural disaster. The flood was a deliberate attempt by God to wipe out everything God had created, from the slimmest blade of grass to the largest elephant.

Have you ever knitted an afghan, got to the fortieth row and found a mistake in the thirtieth row? You can try to go back and fix it, but nine times out of ten, you might as well rip the whole thing out and start over.

That was the position God was in. He had created this magnificent planet with millions of living things, from plants to fish to animals to mountains and rivers. And God had created human beings, intricate, complicated, amazing human beings. These human beings were busy, dedicated, engaged human beings. But they had chosen to use their energy for evil. The scripture passage does not tell us exactly what horrible things human beings were doing back in those days, but we have enough experience with life that we can imagine. Think about the ten commandments and all the ways we can break them. The world had become a place of violence rather than a place of peace and beauty. God was ready to give up.

Except: God noticed Noah. Noah exemplified the man God had originally created in Adam. Noah was the only person who lived right and obeyed God. One person, with a wife and three sons, out of all the people on the earth, lived a life that was pleasing to God.

Think about all those people who weren’t Noah, who were living their lives day today, working, eating, sleeping, playing. They had plans and hopes, they had families and friends. But in God’s eyes, they had become a disaster, a disappointment of the highest order. God didn’t know what to do. The only thing God could figure out was to start over. God gets do-overs. So, God decided to get rid of this universal mistake and, to God’s credit, God planned on starting over, rather than giving up. He used Noah, Noah’s family, and a select group of the animals from mosquitoes to elephants , to try one more time.

Think about the forty days while Noah et al floated above the rotting earth. What did God have to look at? listen to? How about the screams of animals and people who were drowning? How about the cries of those who were starving because there was no food? What about the curses of those who blamed God for their eternal predicament? It can’t have been pleasant. It wouldn’t have been too pleasant on the ark either. All the animals needed to be fed. I don’t think it’s necessary to figure out the logistics on that. If Noah took only two mice, what did the cats eat after their first meal or how did the mice survive? Did everybody eat hay? And when animals eat, they also leave that digested food in a nice pile on the floor. Who was the lucky person that cleaned out the pens everyday?

Many songs and stories and poems have been written about Noah and the ark. My favorites are the poems about the wife of Noah. Was she ready to kill him after the first ten days? Did she cheer him on when he was discouraged?

The point of the ark story is not to figure out the logistics of having lions and gazelles, coyotes and rabbits on the same boat. The point is not even to think about the repopulating of the earth. The point is to see God, to know God, and to know that God never gives up on God’s creation. The point of the ark story is the rainbow in the sky. God promised that God would never try to destroy all living things on earth.

I find it ironic that in the twenty-first century, we are very aware that the earth is being destroyed. The destruction does not come from the hand of God this time, but from hands like ours. Here is one terrifying prediction.

For every degree that the planet warms up, food production falls by 10 – 15 percent. That means that if its 5C warmer by 2100, there will be 50% less food for a world population that has doubled in size.(2)

Many of the world’s nations agreed in The Paris Climate Accord to work toward limiting climate change to less than 2 degrees change in the average global temperature.(3) However, because the permafrost in our northern climes is melting, that will probably not be possible. What difference will make that make? Well, if your great-great-great grandchildren are going to visit Miami, they’ll have to learn how to breathe underwater.

Of course, we’ll be long gone by then, but call it a 100-year flood or climate change, even now, we’re experiencing stronger weather events, stronger wind, more frequent flooding and longer stretches of drought. Will God rescue us this time? Who did God put in charge after the flood? Humans. Humans, not God are responsible for food for humans and animals, and for the security of humans and animals.

How have we done as a race of people? Have we cared for creation, from the smallest stream to the largest glacier? From the tiniest frog to our beloved elephants and giraffes?

God made a promise that God would never again try to destroy the human race. Instead, God experimented with other ways to lead wayward children back to his way. He came up with the final solution 2,000 years ago. That solution is the antithesis of destroying life with a flood. That solution is saving all life, through a very different method. God sent his child, Jesus, to rescue us, not from evil but to eternal life.

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary Saint Paul, Minn.. puts this most eloquently: And finally, when human sin and corruption have become so great that they threaten to overwhelm the world again, it is God himself who enters into the waters — into the waters of a woman’s womb, into the waters of the Jordan, to show once and for all that God is passionately committed to God’s creation.(4)

We cannot save ourselves. We can trust that God will rescue us, even if it means we have to die to be rescued. But God loves us so much, so unconditionally that God found a way for us to be in God’s presence for eternity. That still leaves us in charge of God’s creation during our lifetimes.

Fortunately, the other thing that Jesus did was teach us how to live without the violence that triggered God’s original destruction. Jesus gives us daily instruction in how to combat evil, how to prevent violence. Of course, not everybody listens to Jesus. Some of the most violent rhetoric I see hear in the media is spewed from the mouths of Christians who advocate hatred of and elimination of those who disagree with them, who advocate for destruction certain groups of people, be they different because of spiritual practice or skin color or hometown. And sometimes I don’t listen to Jesus. It is too easy to make fun of someone whose argument seems lacking in logic. It is too easy for me to dismiss opinions that conflict with my own. It’s too easy to take care of my own needs and wants and dismiss the opportunities I am given to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Good timing on today’s scripture.

Floods, never ending rains, have become a part of our daily lives. In other parts of the country, record-breaking fires consume thousands of acres. Wars continue, people starve, illness claims children before they can grow up to fulfill their potential. If we believe God’s rainbow promise, if we commit to the covenant that God made with us humans, we know that it is not an angry God who sends these disasters: it is an angry world, a world of violence born out of human sin. In ancient times, people believed that natural disasters were sent by angry gods; the only natural disaster sent by our God happened beyond human memory.

What still remains of that massive destruction is the promise that God is committed to saving us instead of destroying us. God chose to save Creation, God chose to renew Creation. God chose us to care for Creation. May we share our love for God by caring for not only each other, but by caring for this beautiful earth and its living creatures. Amen.





Prayer: What and Why?

I’ve had a wonderful time preparing our sermons these last few weeks as we have studied the Lord’s Prayer. I’ve learned so much and I’ve felt good about what I’ve been able to share with you. But underlying my delight in finding meaning in each petition has been my own fear, my own doubts.
This Sunday’s sermon is supposed to be the culmination of all we have learned about this magnificent prayer that we pray so faithfully. But my own faith has felt false, fake. I have questioned my authority, my ability to lead you, to instruct you.
I fussed over the topic of prayer all week. I wrote to six of my friends about my doubts about prayer. I fussed about what to share with you about my frustrations and my lack of faith. I doubted my own integrity and authenticity.
What if I’m not sure exactly what I believe? How can I dare talk to you about what you believe? What if I say something that shakes your faith?
I was raised not to doubt. I was educated, through Sunday School and Confirmation and by my parents, about the stories of the Bible, about all the nuances of the Catechism. The one line that appears over and over and over again in Luther’s Small Catechism is “This is most certainly true.” I’ve been thankful to Luther for clarifying the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Sacraments for me. I didn’t ever have to figure out on my own what it meant to believe in the Holy Spirit or what the Eighth Commandment required or why the Lord’s Prayer is the ultimate prayer. Luther did all the work. Other scholars have done similar work.
Nowadays, I read a lot of articles and books on faith, on Christianity, on Scripture, on religion. Some of us share a devotion to certain subjects, like the Hawkeyes, politics, cooking, gardening, sewing, knitting, traveling. I’m stuck on religion, which is a good thing, since that’s what you want to hear from me. Like having any interest or hobby, this means I know less about a lot of other stuff and a lot about religion.
And like any interest or hobby, there is always more to learn. But having doubts about my topic of choice puts me in an awkward position. If you have doubts about the Hawkeyes, there’s always next year, a new coach, new players. As a rule, there’s not much new when it comes to religion. But there is much to learn.
The challenge of religion is that it requires a different kind of mindset, namely, faith. Faith in what? Faith that God cares for us. Faith that God does more than observe us from a distance. Faith that God is deliberately involved in our lives. And the one that troubles me: faith that God answers prayer.
David Lose, pastor and seminary professor, addressed this issue in one of his columns. It is reassuring to me because it means that others have struggled with prayer, especially unanswered prayer.
Unanswered prayer, in light of these verses, creates a huge crisis of faith. It puts honest believers in a bind between wondering whether God failed or they did. Most of us, believing it unfaithful to fault God, blame ourselves instead. We must not have had enough faith, or we didn’t have a sufficient number of other Christians praying for us, or we just didn’t pray the right way.
I’m not the only one. But knowing you’re not alone in your struggles doesn’t make it easier. Knowing that other people have migraines doesn’t make yours hurt any less.
Here is part of what I wrote to my colleagues as I struggled with my doubts:
I need your faith. My sermon is about the importance of prayer. It’s hard for me to write about the importance of prayer because the traditional angle is “ask and ye shall receive.” I find that very misleading. What prayers have been answered?
How many “answers” are cosmic luck? I am writing to several of you and I can think of prayers tragically unanswered—children hurt, dead; spouses suffering; dysfunctional parents, siblings, children; ecological train wreck; professional humiliation and frustration.
Are prayers supposed to be answered or do they serve a different purpose? When Jesus said ,”ask,” what were we supposed to ask for? The kingdom on earth. Daily bread. Forgiveness (with a catch). Protection.
Here I am after twenty years of haphazard, sporadically intentional engagement with scripture, the daughter of a man with great faith and of a woman with great devotion to the church, the friend of spiritual, theological, and religious role models, wondering if my faith is genuine enough to lead a flock to spiritual springs. Are words enough? Actions enough? Does my own faith have to be deep and firm to provide the support my members need in their struggles?
What is prayer to me now, in this space? Prayer is an intellectual exercise, a valuable, efficacious practice that allows/forces one to focus on one issue in one dimension. The dimension is God. [I am not claiming that God is one-dimensional; God is omni-dimensional.] By focusing on that one issue in that one dimension, the mind is able to discern more clearly the aspects of the situation.
Perhaps the biggest sham is relegating prayer to the last desperate minute, the last unbearable insult. Is that why prayer is not answered? Is it because we only ask the impossible?
That makes praying the Lord’s Prayer the best possible practice, because those petitions are automatic gimme’s for many of us. Not for refugees, not victims of war and poverty and totalitarianism and genocide and religious persecution. But for 1% of the world population, which includes me, the 1% that is first-world secure, the Lord’s Prayer covers pretty much any concerns. Until something goes wrong. Then what? Pray for a cure? Pray for the pain to go away? Pray for the child and the spouse to reconcile? Codicils to the original document, codicils that have to be worded like a magic spell from a Shakespearean witch. One syllable out of place and the prayer goes unanswered.
So, my greatest concern is that I am not genuine. My father used to ask, “How dare I call myself Christian?” His reasons were very different from mine. He wondered if he were good enough, even though he could quote Scripture as easily as the Creed. Now I ask myself, “How dare I call myself Christian?” if I don’t believe that God answers prayer.
My colleagues responded to me with kindness and wisdom and I will share with you what I learned from them. Each of them taught me something about prayer and reassured me that first of all, my faith is not in danger, and two, prayer is a necessary practice. They also showed me my misconceptions about prayer.
1. Prayer is not a wish list “that some guy in the sky grants or doesn’t for whatever reason.”
Or as one article from my research put it:
“First of all, we need to admit that prayer is not “putting coins in a vending machine.” It is not putting our prayer in the right slot, pushing the right button, and waiting for the vending machine God to spit out exactly what we want. God is not a vending machine.”
If prayer is not a grocery list of wants and wishes, what is it?
2. Prayer is transformation.
…prayer [is] transformation …as that happens the way we experience God is also transformed as well as the way we pray. How do we pray ‘in Jesus name’? I think it is in being transformed into Christ.
The calling to which you are called is to be faithful not perfect.
3. Prayer is not an intellectual exercise or problem or challenge or solution.
The Bible says to lean not on our own understanding, to come as a little child if we wish to enter the Kingdom of God. I don’t believe this means to check our brains — our education, and our intellectual curiosity — at the door of the church, but it does warn us not to attempt to come to God by our intellect. Rather we come to God through our heart, by childlike faith.
I think perhaps we humans, like the weather, go through natural cycles in many things, our faith being one of them. So long as we have a strong tether, a spiritual umbilical cord, I believe we’ll be fine with God. There is always the danger, it seems to me, that those of us who enjoy the occasional thrill of an inspiration, a new insight, or a moment of clarity into what had been before a smoky room, will lose our sense of intellectual humility, become over confident in our understanding, and come to the conclusion that we are in control every bit as much as some god is.
So the key, as I see it, is to keep guard over that umbilical cord to God, to prevent it from stretching too thin. I need to keep the nutrition coming with a walking, conversational relationship through prayer with God, through reading and pondering his word, and through discussing these things with other people of faith. But I’m not about to suggest that by doing so I can know the mind of God or explain when we are looking at an act of God or just an ordinary coincidence, a happening of random chance.
4. Prayer is about community.
  So we pray for God’s mighty intervention into the world (end racism; end poverty; end wars and the like) while recognizing we are the means for God to answer these prayers as we continue to welcome relationships in which we trust God will continue to be incarnate (in the flesh) now thru these relationships. 
I love the Lord’s Prayer because Jesus teaches us to pray in the plural. It’s ‘Our Father’, not my Father. We ask to be fed, forgiven and delivered as the human family, not one by one. Anyone wanting to hold onto their privilege ought to quake before praying ‘your Kingdom come’!
5.Most importantly, prayer is about relationship with God.
God wants us to pray. David Lose says that our prayers should be bold:
Perhaps, if we begin with our honest questions, we can then move to our honest convictions. For while there are lots of things I do not understand about prayer, there are two things I believe passionately. God wants us to pray. More than that, God wants us to ask for anything. The word many Bibles translate as “persistent” in Jesus’ parable on prayer (anaideia, 11:8) would actually be better translated as “shameless.” Our petitions to God, Jesus says, should be bold, audacious, shameless.
That means that it is NOT wrong to pray for healing, for health, for your headache to end. It is NOT wrong to pray for your car to last another year. It is NOT wrong to pray for your kids to quit drinking and smoking. It is NOT wrong to pray that your child will be a good parent.
I share these thoughts with you because prayer is critical to the life of a Christian, to your life. Furthermore, I suspect that you have had doubts like mine because of unanswered prayers, because of not knowing for what you should pray.
Reportedly, Mother Theresa had an extremely barren prayer life which caused her tremendous pain and rage. If a woman who is held up to us as a Christian role model had doubts while being the hands and feet of Christ, we should not be ashamed of our own doubts.
In retrospect, I have had many prayers answered. I am going to seminary! Maybe I thought it was a wish, but God heard it as a prayer. Did you watch any of the funerals on television this week? There is prayer answered in the form of song, in the form of courage. When we pray “your kingdom come,” we see that kingdom every day in the lives of great people like Aretha Franklin and John McCain.
What to say? What to pray? If the words don’t form themselves in your mind or on your lips, you have options. You can pray the prayers of others.
One of my friends suggested this prayer by Dag Hammarskjold:
For all that has been: thanks.
For all that will be: yes.
Ann Lamott, contemporary writer, says there are three prayers:
Help me!
Thank you!
One hymn comes to mind when I think about prayer:
1 Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
2 Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of the eye,
When none but God is near.
3 Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.
4 Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
His watchword at the gates of death;
He enters heav’n with prayer.
5 Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice
And cry, “Behold, he prays!”
6 O Thou, by whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way!
The path of prayer Thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray.

God knows and God hears.
Jesus, the world’s leading expert on prayer gave us one that works for every occasion. That prayer provides hope, comfort, and community. That prayer keeps our relationship with God strong. Even when we zip through it in memorized mumbles, God hears.
One more prayer: Thanks be to God! Amen.