Misanswered Prayers

Inspired by Luke 11:1-13

This is a sermon I preached at another church in a nearby town with whom we engaged in a pulpit swap.

The Lord’s Prayer has become a staple of the Christian faith since the earliest days of our existence. I highly doubt that Jesus meant for us to recite it word for word but that’s just how important and meaningful it has become for us. Those first Christians just couldn’t help themselves and so here we are two thousand years later reciting this beloved prayer. And for good reason, Jesus knew what he was talking about when it came to teaching about prayer.

As one of three members of the Holy Trinity, Jesus knew intimately what it meant to be in communication with God, better than anyone! And that’s what prayer is really, right, communication with God? We know that it’s not an endless supply of wishes. We know that God is not a Genie in a bottle. We know that God doesn’t have a giant bucket in the sky to hold all of our bucket lists.

Communication is what prayer is all about. It’s about having someone to talk to wherever you are, whenever you need someone, whatever the need or circumstance may be. God never tires of listening, God never tires of guiding…God never tires of correcting us either but that’s for another sermon. Point is, God is always available to us, period. But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about today. That’s just the foundation of what I want to talk about. I’m also not going to talk about the Lord’s Prayer line by line. I’m sure you’ve heard a gazillion sermons like that already anyway. What I want to talk about is how God responds to our prayers, to our communications, because that’s what seemed to be on Jesus mind.

Right after Jesus finishes teaching them the prayer that we recite every Sunday, he doesn’t end there. He goes on to talk about answered prayers and misanswered prayers. Notice I didn’t say unanswered prayers, but misanswered prayers. And I don’t think misanswered is even a word, I’m probably just making that up but just go with me on this. If you take a look at everything that Jesus taught about prayer in all of the Gospels, the idea of an unanswered prayer doesn’t seem to exist for Jesus, it’s just not a thing in Jesus’ mind.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you might be scratching your head after hearing that. I’ve been a Lutheran Christian my whole life, and have said a lot of prayers over my forty-four years of existence, and have asked God for a lot of specific things, and yet, have not received all that I have asked for.

So, how can I stand up here and with a straight face, tell all you fine people, that there’s no such thing as an unanswered prayer? To answer that, let’s return to our Gospel reading. As I said before, Jesus didn’t stop after teaching them the prayer that we now recite. It’s important to keep reading after that because he goes on to talk about a friend in need who doesn’t get his need filled in a timely manner. He then urges us to “ask…search and…knock”, assuring us that God will indeed respond. From there he does something very interesting and you kinda have to read between the lines to catch this. It’s one of those moments when it’s just as important to note what Jesus did not say as what he did say.

Jesus gives us this not-so-real-world example of a child asking for a fish or an egg, and a parent knowing not to give a snake or a scorpion to the kid. Seems like common sense right, when a child is in need the response should never be to put the kid in danger. But what I want you to take note of here is what Jesus did not say. Jesus did not say that the child was going to get that fish that she asked for. Jesus did not say that the child would get that egg that she asked for. All Jesus said was that parents know how to give good gifts and not harm their children and so how much more does God know how to do the same? So, raise your hand if you’re a parent. Keep your hands raised if you gave your kids everything they ever asked for. As expected, not a single hand raised. Wow, what a bunch of terrible parents we are, aren’t we?

Why don’t we give our children everything they ever ask for? Well, because we know better than they do, most of the time. And so, when they ask for their first bb gun at age six we say, “Mmmmm, maybe someday, but not today.” When they ask for dessert before dinner we say, “Maybe on your birthday but not today.” When they ask to go to their boyfriend’s house while his parents are not at home we say, “Maybe never, and not today!” Point is, if we know how to do these things, if we know how to not only give good gifts but give them wisely, how much more does God know how to. And Jesus makes the connection between this and prayer. Why? Because Jesus knows God doesn’t give us everything we want, when we want it, or how we want it.

And so, it was important for Jesus to remind them of this right after he just told them to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for their daily bread, for forgiveness of sins, for protection from trials. It seems like common sense to say of course God doesn’t give us everything we want, when we want it or how we want it. Our knee jerk reaction to that is to agree. But then we walk out those doors and reality hits us in the face like a ton of bricks when we pray for healing from cancer for someone only to find ourselves at their funeral months later, when we pray for our children to attend church as adults only to see them one by one drift away, when we pray for our church to grow only to find ourselves debating on where else we can cut the budget next year. Any of that sound familiar? I can tell you it does to Bethlehem.

Jesus knew, Jesus knows the world that our prayers walk out into. And so, wanted his followers to be prepared, and he did that by being real with us, by being truthful with us, by not sugar-coating his teaching. Jesus assures us that God will indeed answer our prayers but it may not be exactly what we wanted, when we wanted it, or how we wanted it. And that simple concept has been told in Bible story after Bible story since the beginning of our faith. The Israelites prayed for deliverance from Egypt only to find themselves wandering the desert for years on end. Job was one of the most prayerful people in the Bible, yet he still lost everything he held dear. Esther prayed for God to help her people only for God to ask her to do the same. Jesus prayed to be saved from the cross only to find himself hanging from it the next day.

The Bible is full of these kinds of stories and never do we say that God abandoned any of these people, although, as many of us know, it can certainly feel that way sometimes. But we believe that God never leaves our side, and not only hears our prayers but responds to each and every one of them. Maybe just not the way we thought God would, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow. Bethlehem has had to swallow many of those bitter pills. One example of that is our prayer for children and families. Every church wants more children and families right? And so, that’s what we prayed for. Did they come? You bet, but not the way we thought they would! We were expecting those children and families to come in the form of new members but God said, “I’ve got something else in mind.”

It started five years ago when Bethlehem began hosting Mt. Cross’s summer day camps. And each year for a week in the summer we have a thriving ministry for children and their families who cannot wait til next year when they get to do it all over again! Then, two years ago, Growing Peace Camp, which is a week-long camp for young people that inspires them to bring peace and justice into the world, lost their hosting site and were desperately looking for a new place to hold their annual camp.

They showed up at our door and we now have well over a hundred kids and their families on our campus for a week each year. But it doesn’t end there, this year, a tutoring and education center that caters to local homeschooled children lost their home. They showed up on Bethlehem’s doorstep and beginning this Fall we will have around 150 children and teens and their families on our campus every week.

We prayed for children and families. God delivered. Just not the way we wanted God to. Now, could we whine and complain about not getting our prayer answered the way we wanted it to? Sure. And sometimes we do, just like the Israelites whined and complained in the wilderness. That’s ok, God can take it! But at the end of the day, we have to acknowledge two things, God heard us, and God answered. To do anything else, would truly be sinful.

I know you here at New Hope have prayed many prayers for yourselves, for your church, for your community. Believe me when I say, I wish I could stand up here and say that God will answer each and every one of your prayers exactly the way you want them answered. I really do. What I can say with confidence is this. God is by your side, God hears you, and God will respond. And for that, I am so very grateful for. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Christmas in July

Inspired by Hebrews 2:10-18

We continue our five-week romp through the letter of Hebrews with this selection from chapter two. In case you weren’t here last week, we talked about how this letter is a love letter of sorts, because this author is in absolute awe of how amazing this Jesus is, and so, uses this letter to expound upon all the different ways that Jesus is the greatest thing the world has ever or will ever see. Over these five weeks, we will explore five of those different ways. Last week, our author began with the eternal cosmic nature of Christ. And this week, our author makes a 180 from that position but before we get into that I want to say a few more words about this letter and I may give you a few tidbits about it along the way over these five weeks because you may not be as familiar with this letter as other writings of the Bible.

Last week I mentioned that we don’t know who the author of this letter is. It was assumed that it was Paul but it didn’t take long for that to be questioned by the early church and now scholars are pretty sure that it was not Paul. They can just tell by the way it was written. Think of it this way. Imagine trying to write a letter to someone, posing as someone else whom the recipient knows well. When they get the letter, they’re gonna know that this is not from them. The phrasing, the vocabulary, the syntax, is all going to be wrong. They’ll just know that this is not from who it says that it’s from. Now, of course, it can be more complicated than that but that’s one of the main reasons they know that this was not Paul who wrote this. So, if it wasn’t Paul, who was it?

Well, over the centuries there have been many theories. Barnabas was one; Luke was another, both contemporaries of Paul. But the one that fascinates me most is a theory that claims that this may be the only writing of the Bible that was written by a woman! First proposed by a German theologian in 1900, Adolf von Harnack believed this to not only be written by a woman, but by a woman of great renown in the earliest days of the church, Priscilla.

Priscilla is mentioned multiple times in the Bible, by both Luke and Paul, and may have been the first female preacher of our religion. Scholars now believe that her identity was intentionally withheld, because if it was known that it was written by a woman, it would have died in obscurity. And this letter was just too good to allow that to happen. So, her authorship is what was allowed to die, and not the letter.

I am both saddened by that, and grateful, because this has become a favorite of Christians over the centuries, and for good reason. It is a fascinating letter that I am excited to get to explore with you. So, for the rest of our time in Hebrews, I’d suggest to you, that you keep in mind that everything that you are about to read in this letter, may be coming to you from a woman’s perspective.

And I thought that this information about authorship was particularly important to share with you on this Sunday because of the topic. And that topic is, Jesus’ humanity. That is the second reason that our author gives us as to why she thinks Jesus is so amazing. He was human, in every way, shape, and form. She began with Jesus’ divine, eternal, cosmic nature in chapter one, and then quickly turns our attention to Jesus’ human, ordinary, earthiness.

Why? Because she was a sound theologian. Since the beginning of our religion, we have been wrestling with Jesus divine and human nature, and have claimed both as truths of our faith, as contradictory and mysterious as that may be. But this may be important for another reason. If this letter was indeed written by a woman, who may have had children, who knows your humanity better than the person who birthed you?

And I’m not talking about motherhood in the larger sense, I’m just talking about the physical act of birth, of seeing you at the most vulnerable, weakest point of your life. And the only person that can claim that kind of relationship with you, is the one that birthed you. They’re the ones that knew you when you were at zero, nothing but a crying mass of flesh and blood. That is a relationship that no man can even speak to, let alone truly understand.

And so when I read this author write about Jesus’ humanity, knowing that this author may have intimately known the birthing experience and what that reveals about our humanity: our vulnerability, our weakness, our neediness, our suffering, our fearfulness—I can’t help but think of the nativity. I know, this is a weird time of the year to be talking about Jesus’ birth. Think of it as Christmas in July! Without the presents, or trees, or lights, all the things that we think make Christmas so amazing right? But we know better don’t we, like our author did, that those things aren’t it. What makes Christmas so amazing, is the humanity of Jesus, that this same Jesus that she wrote about in chapter one, came to us with all our humanity that we experience—all of it!

The miracle of Christmas is not that a divine being came to see what it was like to be one of us. It wasn’t a tale of some royalty posing as a commoner just to see what life was like for them. This wasn’t like Princess Jasmine disguising herself in the movie Aladdin. No, Jesus was truly, in every way, completely, fully, human: one of us. Mother Mary, held within her arms, the most extraordinarily ordinary human being that the world had ever, or will ever meet. And no one knew that better than the one who birthed him. Now, why does this make reason number two in Priscilla’s list of reasons why Jesus is so amazing?

Have you ever noticed how, when meeting someone new, as soon as you find that one thing in common, the conversation takes on a whole new dimension? I encountered that with someone not too long ago. I was talking with someone at a party and I was getting the feeling that we were not going to find anything in common. And just as I was about to give up on this conversation, he was vulnerable enough to share that he had recently had a family member attempt suicide.

My heart went out to him not just because I felt bad but because I’ve also had that same experience with a family member. And as soon as I shared that, bam, the conversation took on a whole new life. We connected, and recognized a bond that was there the whole time and just didn’t know it, until one of us was vulnerable enough to share it.

Remembering that conversation made me think of how the Me Too movement exploded a couple years ago. People from all over the world bonded over their shared experience of sexual harassment and assault. They recognized a bond over this that had always been there but it wasn’t until people started sharing it publicly that they knew of it, and that requires vulnerability. Likewise, when I encounter other people of color, we don’t have to say anything to know that we have a shared experience living as people of color in this country, we just know, the bond is there. The difference is, the color of our skin is visible, sexual harassment and assault is not.

Here’s the bottom line, whatever shared experience you may have with others—sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, mental health stigma, or life’s everyday aches and pains—you name it, Jesus’ humanity is God’s way of saying, “I know your pain, and I’m experiencing it right along with you.” Why? Because that’s how much God loves you. God is not content to just be by your side while you experience all that life has to throw at you, but through Christ, God is willing and able to experience it with you. That is the good news of Christmas that often gets lost in all the tinsel and lights. That is the good news of Christmas every day of the year, even in July. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Cosmic Christ

Inspired by Hebrews 1:1-4

I hope your time in the Psalms over the past few weeks was meaningful. Today, we begin a five-week series in the book of Hebrews, which is actually a letter. The entire letter is separated into thirteen short chapters and we will get a sampling from five of those thirteen chapters and I want to first give you a birds-eye view of what you can expect over these five Sundays.

And for those of you who are following the daily readings found in your bulletin insert, as well as on Facebook, you will end up reading most if not all the parts that we will be skipping between Sunday readings. So, let me first tell you a little bit about the letter because many of you might not be that familiar with it and most of you probably have not heard sermons on it. This letter really is a love letter, because the author is simply in love with this Jesus, and can’t say enough good things!

Jesus is just the best thing since sliced bread! And here’s why that’s important. We don’t know exactly who this letter was written to, some say Rome, others say it was directed at Jewish Christians, but when you read between the lines, what seems clear is that whoever it was written to, it was written to a group of people that were suffering from apathy. They had lost their fire for the gospel, for the good news that is Jesus. As theologian Craig Koester puts it, it was a group of Christians that weren’t firing on all cylinders anymore. Apathy might be the single worst enemy of any church, not bad theology, not bad pastors or members, not a bad location, not an aging membership, not music selections, not which instruments we use, not bulletins, not how we spend our money…apathy.

And for this particular author, the tactic that is used to battle that apathy, is to help them fall in love with Jesus once again. If they didn’t have that, if we, don’t have that, then all this other stuff that we do is meaningless, and we’ll just find ourselves treading water like they were. So, a return to the basics of what makes Jesus so amazing was in order, that’s what this author was betting on to snap them out of their apathy. And of course, apathy isn’t just a church issue, it’s an enemy of any organization, as well as any relationship. Apathy is the enemy of marriages, of parent/child relationships, of friends, of employees and employers; anytime you lose that fire, anytime you lose sight of what first made you see the amazingness of someone, the relationship hurts, sometimes to the point of apathy, when you’re just indifferent to whether the relationship fails or succeeds.

As far as the church goes, I have had to battle this my whole life. The church has given me reason after reason after reason to not care anymore, to just give up, to spend my time and effort elsewhere, to just walk away. And as a person of color in the whitest denomination in America, the racism and prejudiced attitudes that I have had to endure, especially in my short five years as a pastor, would be enough to allow me to walk away guilt-free. But I have a feeling we all have stories of times when we were tempted to walk away from this. So, let me take this moment to say thank you, thank you for being here.

I’m sure we all have different reasons, multiple reasons for sticking with it, and I encourage you to share that with one another sometime, maybe after worship today in Fellowship Hall. For me, in spite of the pain that the church has caused me, it has also been a blessing because it nurtured and developed something in me that has allowed me to remain—and that’s this infatuation, this sheer awe that I have in the character of Jesus; the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; the cosmic nature of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus—Jesus. That is what keeps me on this journey day in and day out. Not the Bible, not some doctrine, not Martin Luther, not some political stance, just my fascination, and love of Jesus. It’s kind of ironic that the same institution that makes me want to pull my beard hairs out, has also instilled what is needed to stay the course.

So, over the next five Sundays, our author will give us five reasons why this Jesus is so darn amazing. And they are: Jesus’ eternal nature, Jesus’ humanity, Jesus’ accessibility, Jesus as Key, and Jesus’ faithfulness. That is our game plan as of right now. As always though, the Holy Spirit might throw me a curveball at any moment. She has a habit of doing that, but right now that’s the path it looks like we will be taking. So, each Sunday we will be asking, “How is Jesus so amazing?”

And today, our author answers that question with Jesus’ eternal nature. For our author, Jesus is given the title Christ, meaning the anointed one, because Christ has always been, is now, and will always be. Period. And it’s important to note that this is where our author begins. Without this foundation, without the cosmic, eternal, universal nature of Christ, the rest of this letter isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense, not for this author.

Now, theologians have had lots of different opinions on who and what Jesus of Nazareth was, and you certainly can too, but what’s important to understanding this particular letter, is that this author believed that Christ was eternal. And that was the number one reason that made Jesus so amazing. Now, why is this so important?

I have a feeling that whoever wrote this letter, and we don’t know who did, but whoever did, knew the value of long-term relationships, whether it’s a marriage, friendship, mentor, whatever. There is something to be said about walking with someone for a long period of time, sharing a history with someone, maybe over a lifetime, and this author knew the power in that; and so, highlighted that aspect of Christ’s relationship with not just us, but the whole world, and not just now, but since the beginning of time, and not just through today but through eternity.

Raise your hand if you know, first hand, the benefits of having a long-term relationship of some kind. I know some of you have told me that you are still close with childhood friends from seventy years ago! Now, why is this important? What makes long-term relationships so special? Well, because you know each other better than anyone! Which means, you’ve not only seen the best of them, but also the worst of them, and yet, here you are, still in relationship with one another, still by each other’s side. They’ve seen you at your worst and have not given up on you! What more can you ask for in any kind of relationship? That is the ultimate in commitment, right?

Well, that’s easy for us to say when we only have to put up with each other for one lifetime. How about for eternity? That wouldn’t be so easy. Who could be up for such a task? Our author says, “Ooh, ooh, I know! I know! Jesus!” For our author, Christ’s amazingness stems from the longevity of Christ’s relationship with us and the whole cosmos from the beginning of time til the end of time, and not because of that superhuman ability but because of what it implies—that through all eternity Christ has seen us at our best, and at our worst, and still has not given up on us, has not left our side. That is the beautiful foundation that this love letter is going to spring from, and it’s the foundation that can keep us coming back for more, again and again, transforming our apathy into a renewed, fiery, passion. And that’s just reason number one of five! Thanks be to God. Amen.