Sermon 9 Pentecost Yr C

9 Pentecost Yr C, 25/07/2010

Lk 11:9-13

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Praying with persistence”

Two men were shipwrecked on a deserted island. Frustrated by their situation one man began to pray, “Dear Lord, I know that I haven’t been a very good person. In the past I have lied, cheated, and hurt people with my behaviour. I drink, smoke, swear and gamble. But God, if you get us out of this mess, you’ll see a changed man. I’ll….” At this point his friend shouted, “Hold it. Don’t say another word. I see a boat and it is coming in our direction.” It is interesting how some people view prayer.1

   I think there are a lot of people—Christians included—who view prayer like these two men. The first chap turned to God in prayer only as a last resort. If there were other options, he most likely would have considered them first. Only when he is in a desperate situation that he believes he cannot get out of does he turn to God for help. The content of his prayer reveals he is praying to God in a conditional way—if God will rescue them from the mess they’re in, then he is about to promise God certain things and make changes in his life. This method of praying is really bargaining with God—if you do this God, then I’ll do thus and so. However, in most cases, such prayers are likely not going to change God. We cannot manipulate God like that to get what we want. God knows the deepest thoughts and motivations of our hearts, souls and minds. Such conditional, bargaining prayers are often not sincere—since when times improve and things are going well again, often the folks who prayed such prayers forget about God and fail to honour what they had promised God.

   In the case of the second chap, who stopped his friend from praying any further; he may either have been sceptical that his friend could keep promises to God; or perhaps he didn’t want his friend to stop living a sinful lifestyle; or perhaps he placed more faith in himself and other human beings to get them out of their mess than he did in God.  

   At any rate, I think that we too at times are tempted to pray conditional prayers; to bargain with God in our prayers—thinking incorrectly that we can manipulate God in order to get what we want. Or perhaps at times we, like the second chap abandon prayer altogether; thinking incorrectly that we don’t need God and we don’t need to pray. Rather, we can do everything on our own or we can rely on other human beings to get what we want.

   I must confess that our gospel today is a challenging one for me personally. I often feel guilty or feel badly that I come to God in prayer as if I were a shopper with an endless list of items that I want. Too often I think we get our priorities mixed up. We pray for what we want rather than what we really need. Yet, I counsel myself by the reminder that even Jesus and the apostle Paul could get it wrong in their prayers by mixing up wants and needs. You remember in Gethsemane that Jesus prayed for his heavenly Father to remove the cup of suffering and death from him. Afterwards he prayed the best prayer of all—not my, but thy will be done. Paul too had prayed that the Lord would remove his “thorn in the flesh.” Yet, the answer he received was that no, God would not remove it—rather, God’s power was made known through weakness.

   Yet, in today’s gospel, one of the most important messages Jesus teaches is to be persistent in praying: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone—not a small chosen minority, NO! EVERYONE—who asks receives, and EVERYONE who searches finds, and for EVERYONE who knocks, the door will be opened.” As wonderful and full of promise as these words are I think that they’ve been misunderstood and misinterpreted by a lot of folks over the years. I DO NOT believe that Jesus offers his followers a blank cheque here; he DOES NOT mean that if you pray to win the fifty million dollar lottery you shall win; nor that if you pray you can fly off of Niagara Falls and land safely below without being killed you will be able to do so! Such prayers are certainly incorrect and harmful. Nor does Jesus say here that he will give you ANYTHING OR EVERYTHING you pray for. For example, if you pray to understand the intricacies of thermodynamics and quantum physics at the age of five, most likely the answer to your prayer will be ‘No’; or if you are one-hundred years old and you pray to be a healthy twenty-five-year-old, most likely the answer again shall be ‘No.’

   On the other hand, what Jesus is saying here is full of promise. He invites EVERYONE to ask, search, and knock. No one is left out here—he offers the invitation to you, me, and all people. The implication of his offer here is that HE DOES ANSWER EVERYONE who asks, searches, and knocks. The answer may be: ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘wait,’ or perhaps even ‘you’re asking for the wrong things; you’re searching in the wrong places; you’re knocking on the wrong doors.’ Such answers are all necessary and the best for us at the time; given the nature of the prayers we pray and the circumstances in which we pray them.

   Sinners that we are, most likely we don’t always get it right when we pray; thus Jesus’ instruction to be persistent in praying—keep asking, don’t stop searching, continue with your knocking. In fact, ultimately what is most important for us is not necessarily that we receive what we ask for or find what we search for or walk through the door we’re knocking on. NO! Rather, what is ultimately most important is that we DISCOVER AN INTIMACY WITH OUR LORD THROUGH PERSISTENCE IN PRAYER. We come to realise that it’s about relationship with Christ and basking in and valuing that relationship more than everything or everyone in the world. Prayer is being known by and knowing our God of love as OUR Father, OUR Messiah and OUR Holy Spirit. In the intimacy of prayer, we not only commune with God the Creator of the universe; we also bear our deepest secrets to Jesus our most Trustworthy Friend and Brother; and we are graced with the presence of the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin and reassures us of the promise that we are forgiven. With this gift of intimacy with God through persistent prayer God sometimes gives us the spiritual hug we need when we’re lonely or rejected; or the state of joy by simply being alive; or the courage required to face a situation of conflict at home, on the job, or in school. Another way of stating it is that through the gift of intimacy with God; we come to see our wealth is not in what we do not have; rather, it is in what we already have been given.

   Jesus speaks about this intimacy of prayer with him by comparing it with sinful, imperfect parents providing for the needs of their children. Even they know how to give the right gifts to their children when they ask. If sinful, imperfect parents do not give their children a snake when they ask for a fish; or when they do not give their children a poisonous scorpion when they ask for an egg—then how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! In other words, it is not that God is hard of hearing that we are admonished to be persistent in prayer. Rather, it is because God our heavenly Parent wants an intimate relationship with each one of us and by giving us the gift of his Holy Spirit we shall come to trust in God as we ask, search and knock; knowing that whatever God gives us by way of answering our prayers; it is all and always for the best.            

1 Cited from: Emphasis: A Preaching Journal for the Parish Pastor, Vol. 25, No. 2, July-August 1995 (Lima: OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 36.

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LWF 11th Assembly

The eleventh assembly of the Lutheran World Federation is meeting in Stuttgart, Germany from July 20-27, 2010. The theme is the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day/today our daily bread.” You can read more or watch videos about it here.

Computer Music

Lately I’ve enjoyed listening to computer music, also known as electronic or synthesizer music. These videos give you an idea of what is available by way of technology in this particular genre of music.

Flower Friday

Miniature Pansies beside our house

More miniature pansies beside our house

 

 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come. [The Song of Solomon 2:12]

Sermon 7 Pentecost Yr C

7 Pentecost Yr C, 11/07/2010

Col 1:1-14

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“An encouraging word”

In today’s second lesson, the apostle Paul, writes to the church at Colossae, which is modern day western Turkey. Paul’s letters often contain certain trademark characteristics. Colossians is no exception. Here in today’s passage Paul states that he and his co-workers offer prayers of thanks and intercession to God for the Colossian Christians. Paul often reminds his audiences of his prayers for them. He and the other apostles were people of prayer. They knew, from the bottom of their hearts, that if Christ’s work was to be accomplished; if the gospel was going to spread into the world and bear fruit, prayer was necessary. The same is true today. If we as Christians are going to do God’s will, then we need to pray and be supported by the prayers of other faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.

   A man who survived years of captivity in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Last War said afterwards that what kept him going was the knowledge that his family and friends were remembering him daily in their prayers.

   The poet Angela Griffiths might have written these lines for him: Somewhere there’s someone who’s thinking of you,/Somewhere there’s someone who cares./Your name has been spoken/So hold on in faith,/There’s always an answer to prayers.1

   You may remember Jean Waddell, a Christian missionary imprisoned in Iran for several months back in the 1980s. Jean Waddell went through much suffering; she was, among other things, shot, arrested, and locked up in solitary confinement for three weeks.

   While in prison Jean was able to follow the teaching of Jesus–to love and pray for her enemies, hoping that one day they would turn away from their oppressive ways.

   After Jean Waddell was released, she stated that she was set free and alive today only because of the prayers of intercession by her friends throughout the world. Never underestimate the power of prayer and what our prayers, by God’s grace, are able to accomplish.

   Another trademark characteristic of Paul’s letters is that he will often encourage his audiences by speaking well of them. He does this by identifying certain gifts or fruits of the Holy Spirit that Paul either has observed firsthand in specific churches or he has heard of through the reports of his co-workers. In our Colossians passage Paul says: “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you.” So, the Colossian congregation were given the three greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit that Paul had identified in I Corinthians 13—faith, hope and love.

   Any healthy Christian community that makes a difference in the world is a community of faith. The essential nature of faith is trusting in God above everyone and everything else. I like the following story on trust as told by Dale Bruner.

   The best parable of trust we have in our house is our cat, Clement of Alexandria. (He had a companion cat, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, but a local coyote ate the archbishop recently.) When our cat goes outside, he lives in terror. He looks around as though it’s a jungle, and he is terrified. But when he comes in the house, he lies on the floor right between the kitchen and the dining room—where we walk most frequently—and falls asleep in total trust. [My wife] Kathy or I could squash Clement’s head, but he trusts us.

   Our cat lives in complete, total confidence in his human companions. (In this connection, I think the best animal synonym for faith is purring.) Every time I see Clement just lying there, I say to myself, That’s what Jesus wants me to do—to trust him. The kind of trust the cat shows in us is the kind of trust the Lord Jesus Christ invites from us.2 Jesus wants us to trust him more than anyone or anything else in life.

   In the case of the Colossian Christians, Paul emphasised that their faith in Christ was sufficient; they did not need to place their faith, their trust in any other rites or rituals, or non-Christian beliefs and traditions. Christ gave them, and he gives us, all that is needed in this life and the next. Paul encourages the Colossians and us to place all of our trust, our faith in Christ, we have no need for other gods or saviours or ways of salvation—Christ is our all-sufficient God and Saviour and way of salvation.

   Paul also knew any healthy Christian community that makes a difference in the world is a community of hope. Where there is hope there is life and where there is life there is hope.

   According to studies done on hope, people without hope are more likely to become seriously ill and/or die, than those who have hope. Studies also show that those who are seriously ill and have hope live and die better than those who don’t have hope. When people were asked “What gives you hope?” their responses contained five themes: i) Finding Meaning; ii) Having Affirming Relationships; iii) Using Inner Resources; iv) Living in the Present; v) Anticipating Survival.3

   The following story affirms all of these five themes of hope: A king, engaged to be married, had to set out on a long journey. Days, months, and years passed without any word from him. His fiancée waited for him sorrowfully, but without abandoning hope for his return.

   Some of the girl’s companions said with pretended compassion and spiteful glee, “Poor girl, it seems your love has forgotten all about you and will never come back.” Upset and heartbroken by these words, the maiden wrapped herself in grief and wept much when she was left alone.

   She then picked up the last letter the king had sent her, in which he swore that he would remain ever true and faithful to her. Rereading it, her heart once more became peaceful, her spirits lifted, and she continued to wait patiently for his return.

   After many years, the king came home. Amazed, he asked his intended wife, “How was it possible for you to remain faithful to me for so long?” “My king,” she answered, “I had your letter and believed you.”4

   We as followers of Jesus can live more fully in the present because, as Paul says, “of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” Such hope encouraged the Colossians and encourages us today too; since we know that our future is in God’s hands.

   Paul then goes on to say any healthy Christian community that makes a difference in the world is a community of love. Of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to Paul, love is the greatest one. Paul himself took Jesus at his word; and in love made many sacrifices; placing his life in danger and facing much suffering by taking up his cross and following Jesus.

   How do people know that God’s love is real and true? By Christians preaching and teaching the love of Christ in word as well as in action. The following story demonstrates the truth and reality of Christian love in action.

   On one of the M.A.S.H. shows, everyone is eating in the dining hall and enjoying each other’s company, until suddenly the enemy opens fire. Everyone in the dining hall takes cover, except the priest, Father Francis Mulcahy. Mulcahy sees that there are a number of prisoners-of-war locked up inside a wire cage, which was standing right out in the open. Instead of thinking only of himself and his safety from enemy attack, Mulcahy runs out into the gun-fire of the enemy and unlocks the wired cage and frees the prisoners-of-war. When everyone else was thinking about saving themselves first, Father Mulcahy was thinking about saving the lives of others first; and willing to give up his own life even for his enemy prisoners-of-war.

   Such a risky, sacrificial love is the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit and bears witness to the world of God’s love in action. Christ was about loving everyone like this—for it was not when we reach our highest and best that he gives us his love. No. Rather, it was while we were still sinners that he loved us; when we were his enemies he reconciled us with God through his sacrificial love by death on a cross. Such love has the power to reach us in the deepest places of our being to change us and give us new life. Christ’s love, yours for the asking, free and unconditional, all-healing and eternal, yours, mine, ours, here and now and always. For that, thanks be to God. Amen.            

1 Cited from: Francis Gay, The Friendship Book 1991, meditation for May 22.

2 Cited from: Dale Bruner, “Is Jesus Inclusive or Exclusive?” in: Theology, News, and Notes of Fuller Seminary, October 1999, p. 3.

3 Cited from: Robert L. Richardson, “Where There is Hope, There is Life: Toward a Biology of Hope,” in: The Journal of Pastoral Care, Vol. 54, No. 1, Spring 2000, p. 82.

4 Cited from: Paul J. Wharton, Stories and Parables for Preachers and Teachers (New York & Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1986), p. 25.

Sermon 6 Pentecost Yr C

6 Pentecost Yr C, 4/07/2010

Lk 10:1-11, 16-20

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Jesus instructs the seventy”

In today’s gospel, Jesus provides a little manual on evangelism and missions. He appoints seventy—some manuscripts say seventy-two—evangelist-missionaries to go out in pairs and preach the message of God’s kingdom, peace, and healing. By appointing the seventy, Jesus was giving them his authority and approval, along with his gifts of the kingdom, peace and healing. So when the seventy preached the gospel message of the kingdom; they were doing so as ambassadors of Jesus, representing him. The same was true regarding the sharing of peace and healing; the seventy were passing Jesus’ peace and his healing on to the people whom they visited while travelling on their mission. Peace and healing were gifts coming from Jesus and given to others by the seventy. In the world of politics, ambassadors are sent out from their country of origin on behalf of their government. The ambassadors and their authority come from the government of their country and are sent out to foreign lands to represent their country of origin there.

   Before Jesus sends out the seventy evangelist-missionaries; he informs them that their work could be dangerous and even life-threatening. He says, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Now that is not exactly a promising prospect is it?! You would think to recruit people that you would want to emphasise the upside details of the job—NOT the negative, downside details. Moreover, wouldn’t a lot of people be scared off by Jesus’ recruiting tactics? Who wants to be like a vulnerable lamb going into the midst of wolves? I think a lot of folks would have turned around and walked away from Jesus when he spoke of how dangerous the job was and how vulnerable the seventy were going to be. On the other hand, some folks do look for a sense of adventure in life and are up for a challenge—even if it is dangerous and they are going to be in a position of vulnerability. In fact, the pages of history are full of such brave-hearted, courageous, adventurous souls. Without such people where would humankind and, more specifically, the church be today? We follow a Master who willingly gave up all for you and me and the whole world and expects us to follow his example.

   Coming back to our gospel, Jesus goes on to provide the seventy with an instruction manual on their evangelism-missionary project. The theme is similar as what he said about lambs among wolves. He is telling the seventy that their work is not going to be easy. In fact, it is going to be quite difficult. He says they shall need to travel light: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Wow! Did you hear that?! In other words, the seventy are taking nothing with them other than the clothing on their backs and the gifts Jesus gave them—the message of the kingdom, peace, and healing. That’s it folks. No money, no food, no reading material, no laptop or iphone, no extra clothing, not even a pair of shoes—now that is challenging! In other words, they are going to be totally dependent on God to provide for their needs through the generous hospitality of other people. Who can live like that?! Are you; am I, willing to be that poverty-stricken and dependent?

   Two missionaries, commissioned to organize a new church in a South American country, visited, preached, and prayed with the poor people of the region for a year, sleeping in thatched-roof huts on straw mats laid upon clean, dirt-packed floors, and giving thanks for the constant diet of rice, beans, and potatoes. They assisted the people in their fields of labour, nurtured their children, and cried with the sick and dying.

   A year later they were called back to the United States to give a report to their denominational board. The meetings were held in an expensive motel and they, along with dozens of church leaders, sat at sumptuous banquets and slept in luxurious suites. Finally, called before the board, they were chastised for their failure to reach quotas in native converts and in offerings sent to the denominational headquarters and were told to return to their parish but “spend less time with the poor and more time in cultivating the wealthier landowners of the area.”

   That afternoon, after prayers, they faced the board and read a statement written by the two which concluded with these words.

   “We will return to our parish as independent missionaries, to work with the poor people we love, seeking God’s blessing upon our efforts. We find no grace, no peace, no love here, and under the authority of Christ we shake the dust of this place and these proceedings from our feet as we leave.”1

   Back to Jesus’ instruction manual on evangelism-mission. Jesus goes on to instruct the seventy by telling them not to greet folks while travelling on the road to their destination. That seems a bit out of character for Jesus, doesn’t it? After all, he was fond of greeting and befriending the stranger and outcast. Yet, the reason behind Jesus’ instruction not to greet folks while travelling might be that to do so the seventy could become distracted and delayed from their work that Jesus had sent them out on. If we allow distractions to distract us, we can lose our commitment to what might be most important and urgent at the time. How many missions have failed because folks are distracted by too many “irons in the fire?”

   Jesus goes on to tell the seventy that when they arrive at a community; they are to stay in one house rather than move from house to house and seek more posh conditions. He says the seventy are to offer the household his peace and if they refuse it; the peace shall return back to the seventy. The seventy are also to eat and drink whatever is put in front of them. This may be a reference to Gentile territories where the households would not likely be following Jewish dietary laws. According to Luke, you remember, the gospel is to be proclaimed in word and deed beginning from Jerusalem, to Samaria, to the ends of the earth. So here, the seventy may be fulfilling that mission by travelling to Gentile communities.

   After the seventy are among the householders; Jesus tells them that they are to: “cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”

   In the late 1970s, Rev. Robert Wise took five people and started a church….A decade later it had 2,000 members. Wise, who started out as a social worker, says all his ministry has been about is helping hurting people. The guiding vision of his church is “Offering hope to a hurting world.”

   In order to do that, they must teach the Gospel which Christ taught in the manner in which he proclaimed it. It takes more than words. People need to see it in action.

   When people see God’s activity in their own lives, they want to tell others about it; and when they see it happening in other people’s lives, they want to become involved in it.

   Church change calls for more than earnest smiles and enthusiastic handshakes. It requires the type of ministry practised by Christ and his disciples—preaching and prophecy, healing and the casting out of demonic spirits.

   In doing so, churches must communicate their message in everyday language rather than ecclesiastical jargon.

   That means telling stories drawn from daily experience about broken marriages that were healed, sick people who were cured.

   Wise says he didn’t know many parishes where, if someone was out of work, the church would pay their mortgage, or put braces on the kids’ teeth if the family couldn’t afford it; where, if someone was in deep personal trouble, there was no end to how long they would walk with them through the pain.

   Wise started out by telling his members to bring back friends who really needed what they were offering, not people who already belonged to other churches.

   That meant bringing people who were in crisis, who were really hurting in their lives. It meant loving God by loving their neighbours.2

   Coming back to our gospel, Jesus tells the seventy that most likely their preaching and healing ministry is not always going to be successful. In the face of failure and rejection Jesus instructs the seventy by reminding them that as a symbolic, visible act they are to wipe the dust off their feet as a protest against the people in the community that they failed to welcome the nearness of God’s kingdom when they had the opportunity. The other reminder Jesus gives them is a word of encouragement that: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” So either way, whether folks listen or reject the seventy; the listening or rejection was a reminder to the seventy that they were being faithful to Jesus by simply carrying out their work faithfully. That too is a message for us today. Jesus calls us to faithfulness in our various ministries too. Some will listen, others will reject us and the ministry offered them. Either way the response is a sign to us that we are doing what Christ has called us to do.

   After the seventy returns from their mission, they boast to Jesus that: “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.” Jesus however reminds them that it is not about them; that they are not to boast about their success as if they were taking the credit for what was being accomplished in their work. No. Rather, they are to have a humble attitude towards their work and: “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” God in Christ was the One to boast about; his work and accomplishments are what ultimately matter.

   It will always remain true that a (person’s) greatest glory is not what (s)he has done but what God has done for (her or)him. It might well be claimed that the discovery of the use of chloroform saved the world more than any other single medical discovery. Once someone asked Sir James Simpson, who pioneered its use, “What do you regard as your greatest discovery?” expecting the answer, “Chloroform.” But Simpson answered, “My greatest discovery was that Jesus Christ is my Saviour.”3

   In the end, all that matters is the grace and love of God in Christ; that and that alone is why we can: “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Amen.  

1 Cited from: Emphasis: A Preaching Journal for the Parish Pastor, Vol. 25, No 2, July-August 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 22.

2 Cited from: “Simple lesson for churches in decline,” in The Calgary Herald.

3 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd., 1975), p. 136.