Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December 14, 2014 A Spiritual Road Trip

After speaking about the same old, same old last week I felt compelled to report that when I stopped at a couple of restaurants I did, unfortunately, order the same old, old (Monday morning report – I am pleased to add that after church I did order something new.  Maybe there is hope for me!  But I was disappointed that no one seemed to notice.)

How many of you like to take a road trip?  Even though many of us spend a great deal of time in our cars, there’s still nothing quite like taking to the open road, embarking on the great American tradition of a road trip.  My first great road trip came when I was in college, when two of my friends and I set out for Florida for spring break.  It was my first visit to the beach and I was very excited.  We left after class and planned to drive through the night, with a goal of arriving in Sarasota soon after sunrise.  Three of us set out in a Chevrolet Nova, with a big sunroof that had been added.  This wasn’t a small sunroof that we find in today’s cars; this was a big, wide-open hole in the roof that had space for two people to stand up in (which, I’ll add as a safety note, is not what anyone should do, even though we often did.  But it was the 70s, and we weren’t very safety conscious back then).

We crossed the Florida state line in the middle of the night, and when we passed the Welcome to Florida sign we had to celebrate.  We put in a Beach Boys tape – 8 track, of course – and two of us stuck our heads out of the sunroof and began to sing along with the tape.  Which was, actually, a rather bad idea.  Riding along with you head sticking out of a sunroof, in the middle of the night, on a warm spring evening in Florida meant we were bombarded with all manner of bugs and flying creatures.  But it was a road trip, and a great one.

I love the idea of the road as a metaphor for life, and this morning I want us to think about that famous road trip of Mary and Joseph as they traveled to Bethlehem. 

1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.
This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,
in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.
While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Interestingly, many of the Biblical stories take place “on the road.”  Much of the teaching Jesus offered to his disciples came about as he traveled with his disciples.  Many of the stories of the life of Jesus come from his travels, such as the powerful story of Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10).  As Jesus traveled through Jericho, Zaccheus had a life-changing experience.  One of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables is a story of people walking along a road – the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25 – 37).  Beyond the gospels, we find other great stories from the road.  Saul, in the most famous conversion in history, encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-8), where he was transformed into the great pastor/evangelist Paul.  In the Old Testament we have one of the greatest road stories – the wilderness wandering of the Hebrew people in Exodus.  It was not at all a long journey, in terms of distance, but certainly was in terms of time.  But it was on this journey that the Hebrews were forged into the people of God and became the great nation of Israel.

I want you to think about your life this morning as the ultimate road trip.  Where is God leading you?  Where has he led you?  What have you learned on the road of life?

Beyond these questions, which I hope you will consider in the days ahead, I want to offer three lessons we learn from the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. 

1.  Don’t Expect An Easy Road.
I’ve driven a lot of broken down, clunky cars throughout my life, and traveling was not easy in those vehicles.  My early cars had no air conditioning, no FM radio (certainly not satellite), and were prone to breaking down on regular occasions.  I was very excited, though, when I added an FM converter to my car, except I soon discovered I had to be within twenty miles of a station for it to work.

For those of us who grew up driving old, broken-down cars, traveling has certainly improved.  My car has far more options than I need, but I have to say, I like them.  I like cruise control, satellite radio, air conditioning, and heated seats.  I really like having GPS in my phone and no more old, paper maps to try and fold up to put back in the glove compartment.

Does all the comfort take some of the adventure out of traveling?  I don’t know, but it is certainly easier and more comfortable.  It is worth noting, I think, that we want to take all the difficulty out of travel and minimize every possible challenge, which is much like our attitude towards life.  We want to make life as easy as possible, reducing all possible difficulties and challenges.  Such a carefree life would be nice, but we don’t learn much that way, do we?  The point of life is not to take the safest, easiest route from Point A to Point B, but to follow faithfully where God leads us, which is inevitably through some adventurous times.

The distance, as the crow flies, from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 70 miles, but the path almost always taken was about 92 miles.  It was not an easy journey for Mary and Joseph.  Walking about three miles an hour they could cover, perhaps, fifteen to twenty miles a day, which would take them four or five days at the least and most likely it took them seven or eight.  It was a difficult, treacherous path, which is a great analogy for life, because life can be a difficult, uncertain, perilous journey, and somehow, we have convinced ourselves that because we live in the modern age life is supposed to be simpler and easier because of all the advantages of the modern age, such as technology and advanced medical care.  And make no doubt about it, we enjoy some great advantages over previous generations of humanity.

But people still get sick and die.  People still lose their jobs and struggle financially.  Relationships still disintegrate and fracture.  People are still afraid and anxious about life.  Some things are easier, but we still face the same difficulties that our ancestors faced generations, and centuries, and millennia ago, because life is a difficult journey.

Life is a winding, twisting, up and down journey, filled with highs and lows, some of which can be quite extreme.

But maybe those bumps in the road have a deeper meaning than we generally realize.  Maybe a detour will lead us to a greater opportunity.  Maybe some of those bumps will bring a tenderness to our hearts that cause us to reach out to someone else in their time of suffering.

2.  We Don’t Travel Alone.
I think one of the things Mary and Joseph had going for them was the presence of family and friends.  They were going home.  Bethlehem was the city of David, and Joseph was in the line of David.  I’m certain they traveled with other family members.  As they made their way to Bethlehem, I’m certain their caravan grew to include other family members and friends.  When they arrived in Bethlehem there were other family members and friends already gathered there. 

I’m not saying that made everything better, but I’m sure it lightened the stress of travel, being surrounded by people they loved and people who loved them.

Life is always better with other people, isn’t it?  I know that other people can be a challenge – although it’s never us who are the challenge, is it?  It’s always someone else.

But as challenging as others might be at times, aren’t you grateful for the people God has placed in your life?  We are not solitary creatures.  God has created us for relationships, and what a gift those relationships are to us.  Think about that fact when you face a challenge, think about that promise when you struggle, think about that gift when you wonder how you will make it through a tough stretch of life.

3.  Help Someone Along the Way.
This was not a vacation trip for Mary and Joseph.  This was a Roman-mandated trip to return to their ancestral home to be counted in a census so the Romans could levy taxes and in so doing, make their difficult lives even more difficult.  Along the way, there would be plenty of talk about the injustices placed upon the people by the Romans, and the talk would certainly have contained a great deal of bitterness and anger.  The already difficult lives of people would be made much more difficult as they had to take time out from their struggle to make a living in order to make what was, for many, a difficult, expensive, and perilous journey.

Life is very difficult for many, many people.  There are so many people who suffer from grief.  There are so many people who are lonely.  There are so many people who are sick.  There are so many people who suffer from injustice and unfairness.  There are so many people who need someone to reach out to them a helping hand in the name of Christ.

I have been helped along the way by so very many people.  I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like were it not for others, whose paths crossed mine, and the help they offered.

Christmas is a difficult time for many people, and we often provide a helping hand to others, as we should.  But there are people who struggle every day of the year, and we must remember our calling by God to reach out a hand of love and care to them.

Think about your spiritual road trip in the coming days.  Where is God leading you?  To what ministries might he be calling you?  Through what challenges has he led you?  What have you learned from the twists and turns, and the bumps and detours?  Remember, always, that God is leading you through this great adventure called life, and while it is not always an easy journey, it is one in which he always travels with you.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

December 7, 2014 - Defeating the Same Old, Same Old

I went into a restaurant recently to get some lunch, placed my order, took out my wallet to pay, and the person at the register said, you order the same thing every time you come here, don’t you?  I thought about answering that’s right, I do, and if that bothers you I’ll order my same thing somewhere else from now on.  The question kind of irritated me, and the reason why it irritated me is that it’s not the first time someone in a restaurant has observed that I order the same thing.  I’ve had that same question asked of me in three different restaurants in the past few months.  Just how predictable and boring am I?  Am I stuck in a pattern that relegates me to the same old, same old routine of every day life?

Most of us, I think, are creatures of habit.  Every day most of us arise to the same habits and routines.  I set my alarm for the same time and have the same patterns I follow after the alarm awakens me.

This morning, we all followed our routines in getting ready for church, and once we got here, there were more routines.  Because I’m predictable about what I order for lunch, I’ll take the liberty to point out that most of you are predictable as well.  Give me a name of someone in the congregation and I’ll tell you where they sit – every Sunday, without fail.  That’s why I enjoy Sundays such as last week, when we worshipped around the tables, because it really messes with some of you and I can watch you stand at the back of the room and look around nervously and think I don’t know what to do or where to go.  It makes me feel a little better about my routines.

It’s okay to sit in the same place every week, unless it causes you to do what I witnessed some years ago.  Shortly before the service began a visiting family walked down the aisle and took a seat near the front of the sanctuary.  Moments later, a long-time member of the church stopped by their seats and said, you’re in my seat, you have to move.  The visiting family sat there awkwardly for a few moments and the person repeated their demand – that’s my seat, you have to move.  And they did.  They stood up, walked out of the church, never to return.

Even Christmas is full of the same old, same old.  We drag out our same old tree, our same old decorations, and plan the same old holiday activities.  And I’m not criticizing those as much as I’m pointing out that sometimes we look around and think, there sure is a lot of the same old, same old in life. 

Although we might make jokes about the sameness of life and its predictability, we actually like our routines and the sameness and predictability of life.  When life gets stressful, we find comfort in that sameness and in those routines.  The predictability and sameness of life reduces the worry of what might come if life were too different.

So it’s an odd mixture, because while we like the security and familiarity of predictability, routine, and sameness, we also grow weary of the same old thing.  While we find comfort in our routines, we can also find them stifling, as they constrain us with a sense of the same old, same old, so while we like our routines, we also long for something that will break us out of the sameness of everyday life.

As we move through Advent, we are confronted with the truth that God is out to upset the same old, same old of the world. 

Our Scripture reading for this week tells of the Magi and their encounter with Herod, which is a rather harrowing tale.

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”
After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.
13 Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”
14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.
15 He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

The Magi had traveled a great distance to come to Jerusalem, in search of the one born King of the Jews.  Herod, who as the Roman-appointed King of the Jews naturally found the words of the Magi to be very troubling, decided this new king must be dispensed.  We know this difficult story very well, as Herod orders the killing of all males, two years old and under, in Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity.

How is it possible that Herod could commit such an unspeakably cruel act?  How could Herod sleep at night, having committed such an atrocity?  I imagine Herod did lose sleep at night, but not because of what he had done.  Herod probably didn’t lose sleep because of his slaughter of the innocents; instead, Herod lost sleep at the thought of losing his kingdom, and that’s about as twisted as a human mind can become.  It’s also part of the same old, same old, as kings, tyrants, and many of those who have held power through history were willing to do whatever it took to keep themselves in power.  Herod wasn’t the first to take the lives of young, innocent children in order to preserve his power, and he hasn’t been the last.  To the Herods of the world, people take a backseat to power.  To the Herods of the world, people are disposable, even if they are young, innocent children.  To the Herods of the world, preserving the same old, same old is of greatest importance, especially when the same old, same old brings you wealth and power.

We can trace history from the beginning of time and we will find that from generation to generation, century to century, millennia to millennia, over and over it’s the same old, same old.  It’s the same old tyrants and despots who have oppressed and mistreated people.

We listen to the news and we find it’s the same old precarious, dangerous world.  Nations continue to spend billions and billions of dollars on weapons but find they cannot truly protect us.  Violence continues with only the names changed.  In our era it’s the Al Quedas, and the ISIS’, and the Boko Harams but it’s the same tragic violence that has plagued mankind from the beginning.

We cry for justice and fairness but see that people are too often denied justice and fairness in life.  It’s more of the same old, same old.  We had an election last month, and instead of bringing hope of some change, most of us believe it only brings more of the same old, same old.

Until we come to the manger in Bethlehem, because that is where God served notice on the same old, same old.  To the tyrants and oppressors he said, something new is coming.  No longer are you in charge.  There’s a new king in town.  And he’s a different kind of king.  He is not the kind of king that creates orphans, but the kind of king that protects the orphan.

He is not the kind of king that creates widows, but protects the widow, as we read in James 1:27 – Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.  He is not the kind of king to rule with a sword, but as Isaiah 2:4 reminds us, as the Prince of Peace he will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.  He is not the kind of king who will wear a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.  He is not the kind of king who lives in a luxurious palace but as Luke tells us in 9:58, “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."  He is not the kind of king who will tax his people into poverty but will lift people out of poverty and want through his kind and gracious provision.
It is abundantly clear from this passage, I believe – and, indeed, from the entire message of the gospel – that God wants to upset the same old, same old.  But it’s not just the same old, same old power structures of the world, but the same old, same old of our own lives as well.  We too easily settle into the patterns of our lives and then believe that we cannot break free of them.  When Advent ends, and the new year rolls around, most of us will make a few resolutions and then pursue them with a half-heartedness that predicts there won’t be any measure of success in keeping them.  We come to believe there is no chance of breaking some of the same old patterns in our lives, patterns that need to be broken and dispensed of, but won’t be, because we can’t believe we can’t escape the same old, same old.

I’ll tell you one thing I’ve come to believe about this time of year – it seems that almost everyone’s lives are falling apart.  I spoke two weeks ago about not making comparisons in our lives but at Christmas we put ourselves under so much pressure to have the perfect life, the perfect home, the perfect family, and the perfect holiday that we could never live up to expectations and it magnifies and increases our stress levels to the point that it all collapses in upon us.

And that’s when people get desperate for one of two things – either relief or change.  Searching for relief can be a very dangerous path because it leads people to behaviors and substances that only increase the problems in their lives.  People, in their desire for change, become desperate enough to do just about anything.  People with a loved one struggling through a difficult disease will travel any distance to a doctor who talks of a new treatment, or to a faith healer who claims the power of God to work a miracle.  People who feel the pain of past experience will take whatever they must in order to numb that pain.  And we shake to shake our heads and say tsk tsk, as we wonder how people can do some of the things they do, but if you’ve ever been desperate you don’t shake your head this way – side to side – you shake it up and down in agreement because you know that when you’re desperate for change you will go anywhere, you will try anything, and you will do anything that promises change regardless of whether or not change can really come. 

The same old, same old of life is that there is a lot of struggle to life.  Life is tough, and then we have to deal with the end of life that comes to us all.  But even in the end, God has taken aim at the same old, same old.  God says that death itself is no longer the same old, same old; that’s not how it’s going to work.  You may close your eyes to this life but you will open them to a new life.  You may take your last breath in this world and you will take your next breath in a new world.  The illness that ravages a body in this life does not exist in the next life.  The tears that define loss in this life are gone in the next life.  The mourning that becomes all too familiar to us in this life is banished in the next life.  The mourning that is sadness becomes the morning of a new day.  The sunset that comes to life in this world is a sunrise to new life in the next world.  The decay and weakness that characterize this life and this world are non-existent in the next life.  As this life wears us down with mortality you will enter the next life to immortality.  As this life wears us down with burdens you will enter a new life where our burdens are no more.

Don’t believe that you have to settle for the same old, same old, because God is quite the expert at recreating and transforming and bringing about something new to replace the same old, same old.  The Bible tells many stories of transformation that obliterate the same old, same old.  Zaccheus, the tax collector turned generous benefactor, and Saul, the persecutor of the church turned church-planting pastor Paul, are just two of the examples that come immediately to mind.  Both Zaccheus and Saul were so settled into the same old, same old that no one could have fathomed the transforming work God would do in their lives and when he did, it was almost beyond their comprehension that such change could be possible.

Perhaps you are so mired in the same old, same old that you cannot believe that anything could ever change.  Perhaps you have lived with the same old, same old for so long that you cannot believe God could bring something new to your life.  But God wants to do such a work.  God wants to bring transformation and newness to your life and to mine.

Don’t settle for the same old, same old.  Are you tired of the same old, same old? The good news of Christmas is that if you are tired of the same old, same old, guess what?  God is too!  I may even order something different for lunch this week!  How about you?  Embrace the life and transformation God offers to you!

Hanging of the Green Service

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

FCC Shelbyville | November 23, 2014 Sermon

November 23, 2014 - A Holiday Survival Guide

John 15:1-14

For some reason, I look forward to going to the mailbox every day.  I don’t know why, as it’s usually nothing more than junk mail and bills, but you never know when a surprise may come along.  As we near the holidays, the mailbox gets a bit more interesting, as the holiday gift-giving guides arrive almost daily.  I brought a few of my favorites with me this morning.  Yes, they are all from music retailers.
Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would send us a Holiday Survival Guide?

Every year, somewhere around the beginning of November, I ask myself the same series of questions – where has the time gone?  How did the year slip by so quickly?  How will I survive the holiday schedule?

Perhaps you ask some of the same questions, or some version of them.  Time certainly does seem to fly by, and here we are again, on the cusp of the holiday season.  It is, certainly, a joyous time of the year, and as I note that the holidays have arrived so quickly I do not want to sound like a Grinch.  I love the holiday season.  I love the relaxed time of Thanksgiving to be with friends and loved ones and to enjoy the blessings God has placed in my life.  And I especially love Advent, even though it is such a busy time of year.  I love the activities and worship services, especially Christmas Eve worship (my favorite service of the year); I love the festive atmosphere; and, I’ll admit, I love the quiet that comes with Christmas day and the few days after.

But I will also admit that I feel a good number of stresses during the holiday season, and I imagine you do as well.  There are so many things to do, so many places to be, and it seems as if there is not enough time in which to do everything or to be everywhere.  For those reasons, I would like to offer A Holiday Survival Guide this week.

The text for this week’s message is not a passage associated with the holiday season, but I believe it offers some very good advice.  The text comes from a long passage in John’s gospel that tells, in great detail, of the Last Supper.  We associate the events of the final days of Jesus with Easter, but I find it to be a great passage as we head into the holiday season for a couple of reasons, chief among them the fact that as Jesus had only hours left with the disciples he got down to serious business in what he had to say.

1 I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.
Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.
You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.
If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.
Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.
10 If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. 11 These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.
13 Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
14 You are My friends if you do what I command you.

Here are three brief suggestions for how you can survive the holiday season –

Deal With the Dead Wood.
I am not a craftsman.  You probably know that by now, as I’ve talked a couple of times about the 3-plus years it took me to add an addition to the deck on the back of our house.  It’s not exactly a work of art.  My dad was a craftsman.  A steelworker by trade, he had several side endeavors as well (much needed when raising five kids), one of which was a business as a gunsmith.  As he built guns, he sometimes took a rough, old plank and carved it into a stock.  He could take an old chunk of wood and create something beautiful from it.  As the stock took shape he would add checkering.  If you are unfamiliar with the craft of checkering, it is the art of taking small hand tools – about the size of a fork and with one or more sharp edges – and carving intricate patterns into the wood.  It’s painstakingly difficult and tedious work, but when done well, makes beautiful designs.

My first creation with wood took place when I was in the seventh grade.  I took a wood shop class and decided to build a bookcase, and to make sure it was built correctly, my dad purchased the wood and marked all the cuts that needed to be made.  At school, I cut the wood, assembled it, and wondered why it was so rickety and poorly constructed.  My teacher, in a moment of pity I suspect, took it apart and reassembled it, making sure it was solidly built.  I had wood, with everything already lined out perfectly, and still couldn’t put it together properly.  But I still have the bookcase, all these years later, and you can see it in the following picture.  The only reason it is still together is because of the woodworking talents of others.

In the passage we read this morning, Jesus talks about dead wood, and the need to cut away what is dead so that new life may come.

The past haunts us at Christmas unlike no other time of the year, causing us to drag around a lot of dead wood in our lives – disappointments, failures, struggles, and so many other things.  Some people are able to take that dead wood – all those old wounds, and hurts, and disappointments and allow God to fashion it into something beautiful and life-giving.  Others allow that dead wood to be a burden that keeps them from the joy and the blessings of life.

We can allow God to deal with the dead wood in our lives, fashioning it into something beautiful, or we should allow it to be burned.  Deal with the dead wood in your life.

Drop the Comparisons.
There’s something about the human condition that engenders competition. 

In my family, we could be fierce competitors.  We played all manner of board games and cards and we competed with great gusto.  Anyone that couldn’t take competition didn’t need to be seated at our table!

We compete through our favorite sports teams, we compete with our neighbors for how our yards look in the summer and how they look decorated at Christmas, we compete with out coworkers, and on and on it goes.

But more distressingly, we compete in ways that are damaging to our hearts and minds.  We believe we must compete to have a house as big as our neighbors, a car as new and as expensive as the one across the street, and we believe we must take the same, expensive vacations as a coworker.  We compare ourselves to others in so many ways, and in doing so we fail to realize that God has created us as a unique and special creation, and we don’t need to compete with anyone!

Know Your Value.
In 1989 I purchased my first computer – an IBM PS2 Model 30.  I was starting another degree program in seminary and was required to have a computer, so I drove to Computerland in Frankfort.  Does anyone else remember when you had to go to a special store to buy a computer?  It came with a monochrome monitor that flashed a C prompt when powered on.  I vividly remember the salesperson telling me that it came with a 20 meg hard drive and 250k of RAM memory – and that was all the memory I would ever need!  Can you imagine!  But it also had a new innovation – a 3 ½ disc drive, although I also needed a 5 ¼ inch disc drive because so much of the software required that format.  I’m a little embarrassed to tell you what that computer cost, but it was enough that I had to go to the bank and get a loan to buy it.  It was $3,000.00.  $3,000.00!  After it was out of date I kept it for a long time because it cost so much money.

Isn’t it amazing how something can go out of date so quickly and lose value in such a short period of time?  The first thumb drive I purchased had 256 meg of memory and cost $75.00.  Now you can buy one with 10 gig of memory for less than $10.00 in a check-out line.  How can things lose value so quickly?

Because we live in a throwaway culture, and a culture that does not understand value, we can allow ourselves to believe that we hold no value unless we meet particular requirements imposed upon us by society.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  We are valuable because we are children of God, created in his image, and contain value simply because we belong to him!

FCC Shelbyville | November 9th, 2014 Sermon

Monday, November 10, 2014

November 9, 2014 - The Power of Prayer

Matthew 6:5-13

Before I begin the message this morning I would like to take a few moments and talk to you about a holiday season emphasis – it’s called A Season of Giving, and it will take us through the holiday season.  Each week we’ll spotlight one of the ministries in which our church is involved – all of which are ecumenical ministries – and offer you ways to get involved.  You will probably be familiar with these ministries, but as we have now reached the point of retiring the debt on our facility it is time we focus our energies in a greater way on the mission and ministry of our church.

  We are blessed to have such a beautiful facility and grounds, and this is the base from which we operate, but our mission and ministry extends beyond this location.  We are called to a ministry that transcends a building and takes us into our community.  The ministries we will spotlight are a combination of our local, ecumenical ministry partners, such as Arriba Ninos, the Open Door of Hope Men’s Shelter, God’s Kitchen, Operation Care, the Serenity Center, and the Backpack Project; our Region of the Christian Church in Kentucky, with the New Life in Christ Christian Church and the Christian Care Community; and nationally and internationally with other Disciples churches, through Week of Compassion.  These are really important ministries, they are doing great work, and many of you have already been involved to one extent or another. 

As great as it is to have such a wonderful facility, the true legacy and impact of this church will be found in its ministry to the community.  Last week I said that there are a lot of needs in our community, and these ministries are wonderful ways in which we can be involved in meeting those needs in very tangible ways.  Always remember this – we are called to be a part of the church not just for what we can receive, but for what we can give to others, as God has given so much to us.  Don’t ask what you can receive from the church, but what you can offer through the church.

This morning, I am returning this week to the series of messages based on your responses to the questions I asked you throughout the summer.  You had so many questions, and so much to say in response to those questions that I could go on a long time in giving answers.  Obviously, some of you have some very deep questions and are thinking very hard about some subjects, and again, I appreciate that you shared those responses with me.

A number of you asked about prayer; how it works, why we should pray, prayer in school, prayer at public events, and other questions, so this morning our topic is The Power of Prayer.  There are entire libraries written about prayer, so obviously there is only a small portion of the topic of prayer that we can address today.  What I will do today is address a couple of your specific questions and then add one important aspect of prayer. 

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus talks a good deal about prayer.  Our Scripture reading for the week is one of the most important passages in which Jesus speaks of prayer, and it contains what is arguably the most well known prayer in history – the Lord’s Prayer.

Matthew 6:5-13
“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.
So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
“Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
10 ‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread.
12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]

Among the questions you asked about prayer were those related to the public role of prayer, such as prayer in public schools and at civic events.  I am often asked about the question of school prayer and prayers at governmental and public events, which tend to make their way into the headlines on a fairly regular basis and can lead to very contentious discussions.

I should say, first of all, that I find it rather amazing how often prayer becomes a controversial issue.   Many communities often find themselves enmeshed in very contentious discussions over prayers at graduations, sporting events, and other school functions.  Our community of Shelbyville found itself in the midst of such a conflict not too many years ago when there was a very public debate about whether or not there would be a prayer at graduation. 

I often see bumper stickers with slogans such as If Congress Can Open Its Day With Prayer, Why Can’t Our Schools?  The problem with those kinds of slogans is this – they’re not true.  I’m always somewhat perplexed when I hear people talk about students being forbidden from prayer in schools.  Personally, I find it to be quite absurd that anyone would believe kids can’t pray in schools.  Of course they can!  I am old enough to remember when the school day began with prayer, and I also remember when that practice came to an end.  Did that mean that students could no longer pray in schools?  Absolutely not!  In fact, I would say that prayer is very much alive and well in most schools.  It may be that prayer is more alive in schools these days than when I was young and we began the day with a formal, school-sponsored prayer, because prayer thrives when it becomes the freewill action of those who do so because of their love and devotion for God, and not because it is scheduled as a regular activity of the school day.  Don’t believe the claims that prayer has been removed from school.  Prayer has not been removed from school.  The only prayers removed from school are those that are propped up by government authority, and those are not the kinds of prayers we should want anywhere, I believe.  Students are allowed to pray in schools, on school grounds, and there is no one in authority with either the power or legal authority to stop them.  The only prayers prohibited in public schools are those that are sponsored, organized, and led by those in school administration.  It has been my experience in recent years that there is more student religious activity in schools than ever, and I believe that is because it comes from the students themselves rather than the administration.

When it comes to civic events – especially governmental meetings – our community has, like many others, had a good deal of discussion about the offering of prayers, most notably at city council meetings.  The Supreme Court finally weighed in on prayers before city council meetings earlier this year, affirming the legality of such prayers.

I am often asked to pray at civic events.  Since moving to Shelbyville I’ve been asked each summer to offer an invocation before the horse show.  I’ve never declined the invitation, although I have to say I don’t think anyone listens.  One of these years I’m going to say add this to my prayer at the horse show, just to see if anyone is listening – thank you Lord for the offering we are about to receive for the operating budget of First Christian Church.  You never know; we might get some money, although I would probably never get another invitation to offer an invocation! 

Last year I was invited to offer an invocation before the Shelbyville City Council, which I accepted.  Since offering that prayer I have decided I will decline if invited to do so again.  The reason for my decision to decline is that it felt to me that I was invited there perhaps more for a political reason than a spiritual one, and I really have no desire that my prayers be used for political purposes.  My purpose is not to criticize those who offer prayer before a city council meeting, and I certainly am not questioning the motives of our elected official, nor do I intend to criticize them in a public manner.  The Supreme Court has affirmed the legality of such prayers and that settles the question from a legal point of view, and I may have misinterpreted the intent, but it certainly seemed to me there were very strong political overtones behind the establishment of prayer at those meetings.  I offered to pray with anyone who would like to have a prayer before the meeting starts, because I think that way of offering prayer is more in keeping with what Jesus says in verse 5 and 6 of today’s Scripture reading, but I have yet to be taken up on that offer.

When Jesus spoke the words in this morning’s Scripture reading, they were, like so many of the words of Jesus, words of revolutionary content that stunned the people who heard them.  They were revolutionary because they cut against the grain of what most people thought about prayer at the time.
I believe they are still revolutionary.  I believe they still cut against the grain of what many people believe about prayer because they reveal how we ask the wrong questions when it comes to matters of the Spirit, and in this case how we ask the wrong questions when it comes to prayer.  Do you remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about suffering and the question why?  Three week ago I preached on Revisiting the Question of Suffering, and in that message I said that the question why was the wrong question.

Some of the most common questions about prayer are variations of the same question of why – Why doesn’t God seem to answer my prayer?  Why hasn’t anything happened, even though I have prayed over and over and over and I have even enlisted many other people to join me in my prayer request?

Just as with suffering, why is the wrong question when it comes to prayer.  The question we should be asking about prayer, just as in suffering, is the question of what?  What is motivating me to pray, and what is it that I am I seeking in my prayer?

Jesus is very clear about the importance of motivation.  In the passage I read a few minutes ago, and in the two passages I included in this week’s study guide – if you had the opportunity to read it – Jesus is very clear that in his day some people had the wrong motivation related to prayer.  The most common mistake people were making in the stories from the Gospels, when it came to prayer, was their desire to make themselves look good.  They were standing on street corners and in other public places in hopes that people would admire their righteousness.  But Jesus pointed out that it wasn’t righteousness, but merely self-righteousness.

The motivation of prayer, Jesus says, ought to be to discern the will of God, as he says in verse 10 – Your kingdom come.
 Your will be done.  On earth as it is in heaven.  That is the what question of prayer – God, what do you want me to do?

I would hasten to point out that when we ask God what we want to do, we often ask it in relation to very specific questions, such as those related to vocation.  We often ask questions such as what vocation does God want me to pursue?  Does he want me to be a teacher?  An accountant?  A musician?  An athlete?  In my experience, when people ask me to help them discern the will of God for their life, it overwhelmingly means they are asking about a vocational question such as what they should do for a living or whether or not they should either pursue or accept another job.  And I don’t know how to answer that question, and I don’t think it’s the most important question related to our prayers.  I think you should pray about your job and your vocation, but what Jesus is telling us we should focus upon in our prayers is the will of God, that we might do the will of God, and that is a far broader and deeper question than just one of vocation.  Vocation is important, but what really matters is whether or not we are pursuing the will of God in the manner in which we live our life, and that doesn’t depend at all upon your vocation in life.

What Jesus seeks to get into our hearts and minds about pray is this – it’s not that God needs us to be pray as much as it is that we need to pray, because prayer is a transformative act that changes us and can then change the world.

In his book Prayer:  Does It Make Any Difference, Philip Yancey tells this story about prayer –
In the 1980s, a pastor named Laszlo Tokes took over a small Reformed church to minister to his fellow Hungarians, an oppressed minority living inside the borders of Romania.  His predecessor had openly supported the communist Romanian government, even to the extent of wearing a red star on his clerical robes.  In contrast, Tokes spoke out against injustice and protested government actions.  Soon the sanctuary began filling each Sunday, bringing together worshippers and dissidents of both Romanian and Hungarian descent.  Membership grew from forty person to five thousand.

The courageous new pastor attracted the attention of special agents as well.  They threatened Tokes many times with violence, and one evening the police were dispatched to evict him.  Word spread quickly and hundreds of Christians – Baptist, Orthodox, Reformed, and Catholic alike – poured out of their homes to surround Toke’s house as a wall of protection.  They stood through day and night, singing hymns and holding candles.

A few days later, police broke through the protestors to seize Tokes.  Rather than dispersing and filing home, the protestors decided to march downtown to the police station.  As the procession moved noisily through the streets, more and more people joined in.  Eventually the crowd in the town square swelled to 200,000, nearly the entire population of that area.  The Romanian army sent in troops, who in one bloody incident opened fire on the crowd, killing a hundred and wounding many more.  Still the people held their ground, refusing to disperse.

A local pastor stood to address the protestors in an attempt to calm the rising anger and prevent a full-scale riot.  He began with three words, “Let us pray.”  In one spontaneous motion that giant mass of farmers, teachers, students, doctors, and ordinary working people fell to their knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer – a corporate act of civil disobedience.  Within days the protest spread to the capital city of Bucharest, and a short time later the government that had ruled Romania with an iron fist toppled to the ground.
(Prayer:  What Difference Does It Make?  Philip Yancey, pp. 119-120).

Prayer doesn’t make a difference when it doesn’t make a difference to us.  If prayer cannot change my heart, it is unlikely to change my circumstances.  Always remember that we do not pray because we need to convince God to work on our behalf.  Jesus affirms that God is already at work on our behalf, and he does not need our many words, prayers, or the prayers of others to convince him to do so.

There is indeed great power in mind, especially as God uses it to transform our hearts, minds, and lives.