Tag Archives: Life

A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:3 and John 14:1-6

A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:1-4 and John 14:1-6a

Matthew 5:1-4  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

John 14:1-6a “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

Elizabeth Jane, E.J. – a daughter, a niece, a sister, a cousin, an aunt, a friend, a flight attendant.  All of these titles belong to E.J.  And all of these titles communicate a relationship of one sort or another.  Born and baptized in Fargo, E.J.’s life was filled with relationship both through what I like to call the accident of family and through the choices of friends and work.

These relationships sustained E.J. through thick and thin.  Her work for the airline fueled and fed her love of travel as well as gave her access to the art that brought her joy.  Her work also brought her enduring friendships that stuck through long hours in the air, on the ground, and over the holidays. Friendships with Marianne and Wendy sustained her through to the end. And her work brought her stories.  Stories that engaged the funny bone and entertained many of you over the years.  Leaving you with the satisfied feeling that only shared laughter with someone who loves to laugh can gift you.

The relationships of family carried E.J. through some tough times, including her last years when her health took a turn.  Some of the organizing and conversations were hard on everybody, including E.J.  But, this case, family sticks together even amid the practical challenges of E.J.’s outer world and the darker effect of E.J.’s inner world.

It was E.J.’s inner world that became her greatest challenge.  Beginning in her teens and lasting through her life, anxiety and depression were regular companions.  Her attempts to quiet the anxiety and mask the depression with alcohol only made matters worse for her and for the people who love her.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  This is the verse out of the Matthew reading that came to mind as I listened to stories about E.J.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  There isn’t a lot of agreement about what “blessed” means in this reading.

Because Jesus was Jewish and likely had some rabbinic training, I hang my hat with the rabbis on this one; that a blessing is something that already exists and occasionally we get a glimpse of the blessing that already exists. The rabbinic view is in opposition to the different view that a blessing is something akin to being tapped by a fairy wand and something good happens because of how deserving we are.

The Jewish notion of “blessed” helps us see E.J.’s life in full, revealing what belongs to her even though she herself could not see it as one who was “poor in spirit.”  Hers is the kingdom of heaven.  In the John reading, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

He says this because he knows that your hearts already are troubled.  How could they not be?  Along with the laughter that E.J. shared with you was her struggle with herself.  Also in the reading, Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going…how can we know the way?”  Jesus’ reply? “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  What is Jesus’ way?  Jesus’ way goes through a cross.

And the cross is God speaking in human terms.  The human terms of self-sacrifice to save someone else.  For instance, when we hear of someone who dives into a raging river to save someone from drowning, saves that person but succumbs and dies in the flood waters themselves, our first thoughts are often respect and awe.  We also honor the soldiers who return again and again to the firefight to save fallen friends and then die in the firefight themselves. Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?[1]  Jesus was tried, crucified, dead and buried.  In every way that the cross could be offensive, it is.

It’s offensive to think that the cross, and Jesus hanging there, was effective in any way.  That we even need saving is offensive.  That Jesus’ execution can change anything about real life seems a deception at worst and an utter folly at best.  And yet, quite surprisingly, it does.  Jesus’ self-sacrificing death on the cross changes everything.  Time and again in the gospel, we hear that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is God and God is Jesus.  And Jesus focuses on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.

The self-sacrificing love of God, given fully on the cross, draws us back into relationship with God. [2]  Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” means that he has already opened up whatever we perceive the barrier to be between us and God.  The poor in spirit often experience life as a series of barriers in one form or another.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus calls the poor in spirit blessed because their relationship with God is not dependent on their own mindset and agency.  The poor in spirit are blessed because their relationship with God already exists through no effort of their own.

We do not make a way out of no way on our own.  Like Thomas, we do not know the way.  Jesus makes the way to God through the cross on our behalf.  The way is made by Jesus which means that the movement is from God to us, from God to E.J.  And because it is God’s movement to us, God’s movement to E.J., God gives us a future with hope as God also brings E.J. into a future with God.

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[1] Craig Koester, class notes, Luther Seminary: Gospel of John class: John’s Theology of the Cross.  December 1, 2010.  I am sincerely grateful for Dr. Koester’s faithful witness as a master of holding aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and work in formative tension.  His work is beautiful, articulate, and draws me more deeply into faith and love of Jesus.

[2] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

 

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?”

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?” [Psalm 17:1–7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:13-21]

Caitlin Trussell on July 27, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Genesis 32:22-31 through 33:1-12 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

33:1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
4But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” 9But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. 11Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
12Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.”

 

This is our fifth and final week with the story Jacob and Esau.[1]  A good time to press pause and recap the tale.  Jacob and Esau are twins, Jacob is born second and comes out clutching the heel of his brother.  As the boys grow up, they each become a favorite of one parent – Esau favored by his father, Isaac, and Jacob favored by his mother, Rebekah.  There are manipulations that begin with Esau selling his firstborn birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and culminate with Jacob lying to his blind father, telling Isaac that he is Esau so that Jacob receives the deathbed blessing of their father.

As you might imagine, hell hath no fury like a brother scorned.  Esau’s reaction to Jacob’s final betrayal includes his spoken vow to kill Jacob.  Rebekah catches wind of Esau’s plan so the next thing Jacob does is packs up and travels a long distance to Haran to get married.  On the way to Haran, he dreams his almost-famous Jacob’s ladder dream in which he hears from God.  In Haran, he spends seven years trying to marry Rachel, is sneakily married to Leah instead, and works another seven years to finally marry Rachel too.  Jacob stays in Haran and becomes father to 12 sons through Leah, Rachel, and their servants Zilpah and Bilhah.[2]

“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”[3]

We pick up the tale this morning after the passing of many years.  Jacob acquires wealth and status in Haran that includes his 12 sons as well as droves of animals of all kinds.  In the verses just before ours today, God tells Jacob it’s time to leave Haran and head back to his home country.  Anyone remember who and what Jacob left behind in his hometown?  Yup, Esau and his fury-laden vow to kill Jacob are still out there.

Jacob is afraid of Esau’s revenge.  Before heading out for his homeland, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him and his family.  These messengers take along droves of oxen, donkeys, flocks, and slaves as an attempt to curry favor with Esau.  The messengers return telling Jacob only that “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”[4] Jacob sends more droves of animals to appease his brother Esau, this time including goats, cows, and camels.

And then Jacob is alone.  Alone with his thoughts and his fears.  But not alone for long as a wrestling match breaks out between Jacob and a man.  They wrestle the night away.   Jacob’s hip was put out of joint by the other man but still Jacob hangs on to the break of dawn.  Here’s one of my favorite parts of the whole story.  The man asks Jacob his name and Jacob says, “Jacob.”  Many years ago, when asked his name by his father, Jacob said, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”[5]  Now he comes full circle, Jacob is about to meet his brother after years of manipulation, including the latest gift of animal droves, and Jacob says his own name in a seemingly unprecedented moment of honesty.

“What is your name?”  “Jacob.”

This moment of naming himself is followed by a blessing from God and an emotional reunion with Esau.  This moment of naming himself followed by the forgiveness between the brothers has me wondering about the difference between improvement that comes with maturity versus being healed.  Is Jacob’s transformation simply because he is older, wiser, and afraid?  Or is Jacob’s transformation a healing?

My husband Rob and I just wrapped up watching a History of the Eagles[6] – the iconic American rock band that formed in the 1970s, disbanded, and regrouped in the 1990s to a lot of fan enthusiasm and more top-selling albums.  The retrospective includes the musicians themselves and those who know them dishing on the music as well as the egos, the money, and the drugs that fractured friendships and ultimately the band itself in its earlier days.  Toward the end of the documentary, the band is getting ready to launch its 1994 reunion tour.   Glenn Fry, one leader of the band, is asked this interview question: “How have you changed as musicians over the years, both as a group and individually?”  Fry replies, “Well, your whole mandate is just to improve, you know, life is about improvement  whether it’s as a musician or as a singer or as a songwriter or, you know, all the other different hats we all wear; hopefully we’re just getting better.”

In the throes of God wrestling Jacob this week, I am caught by Fry’s use of the words “improvement” and “getting better.”  I am caught because even in the face of what is going on for Jacob having to go meet Esau, he was still working all the angles in the hope of being forgiven.  And yet, in the end, healing for Jacob launched into the mix from outside of himself – from God’s hip-striking smack-down to Esau’s running embrace.

Joe Walsh, one of the Eagles’ guitarists and singers, talks in the documentary that he knew he was headed toward an early death from an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.  He describes his addiction beginning as an inspirational high and then the rest of the years spent chasing the high with no sign of inspiration in sight.  At the time of the Eagles reunion in ’94, Glenn Fry and Don Henley went to Joe Walsh, inviting him into the band’s reunion on the condition that he get sober.  Hearing their invitation as a last chance at life, Mr. Walsh takes them up on it and is driven to rehab.

There is a slippery line between an invitation to life and a person’s response to the invitation.  Just like there is a slippery line between the way Glenn Fry talks about improvement versus the healing that Jacob experiences through being wrestled by God and embraced by Esau.  There is a tendency in some circles of culture to make the purpose of life about an improvement project some might call the pursuit of happiness, rather than the purpose of life being something else entirely.

As a pastor, people talk to me from time to time about their addictions to alcohol, drugs, porn, sex…you name it and people are struggling with it.  Maybe you yourself are addicted or someone you love is struggling with addiction.  One of the big questions people ask is whether or not God actually forgives them for the pain inflicted from that person and their addicted place.  The answer to that question is an unequivocal, “Yes!”  The next question is often whether or not the people in their life are going to be able to forgive them too.  My answer that question is, “I don’t know.”  There are consequences to hurting people and the hard work necessary to make amends to those who have been hurt.  In the absence of chemical or other addiction, Jacob seems to understand that his impending meet-and-greet with Esau includes making amends.

There are consequences to non-addictive behaviors that hurt other people and there are consequences from the pain heaped on self and others by the illness of addiction.  Jacob’s story offers a glimmer of hope as he says his own name in the wrestling match and throws himself on the mercy of God and on the mercy of his brother.  The line between improvement and healing may be blurred but there is no line between God’s mercy and the healing that flows through it.  After the wrestling match, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face…”[7]  After the reunion with Esau, Jacob says to his brother, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”[8]

Like Jacob who holds onto God as a desperate act and won’t let go, today we pray with the Psalmist…

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; incline your ear to me and hear my words.

Show me your marvelous loving kindness, O Savior…[9]



[1] Amy Merrill Willis on Genesis 25:19-34 at WorkingPreacher.org on July 13, 2014.  “Genesis 25:19-43 begins a group of narratives that biblical commentators usually call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” (25:19).  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149

[2] One of my Hebrew Bible professors liked to tells us that stories like Jacob and Esau’s story survive through hundreds and thousands of years, in part, because they are really good stories.  The characters’ twists and turns capture us into the drama with them and we are able to see ourselves in the Biblical story.

[3] Days of Our Lives, a daytime television drama on NBC known as a “soap opera”, begins with these opening words.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98T3PVaRrHU

[4] Genesis 32:6

[5] Genesis 27:18-19

[6] http://www.eaglesband.com/store/product/history-of-the-eagles-3-dvd-set

[7] Genesis 32:30

[8] Genesis 33:10

[9] Psalm 17:6-7

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Ash Wednesday Greeting Card [Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17]

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Ash Wednesday Greeting Card [Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17]

March 5, 2014 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

 

Matthew writes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[1]

In Joel, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

The psalmist writes, “The sacrifice that is acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

For all this talk of hearts, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent couldn’t be less sentimental. Imagine a greeting card:   “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, treasures consumed by moth and rust…”  It just doesn’t work.  Lent doesn’t translate into simple sentimentality.  Oh how glad I am that it doesn’t.   Because who among us hasn’t felt like the psalmist who offers God a broken spirit.  It’s something that we may not confess as readily as the psalmist but many of us have been there or are there right now.

Broken spirits come from being acted upon.  This is a tough one for a lot of us.  That we are in bondage to something, anything, can be insufferable – and in fact often is insufferable.  A spirit broken open is the opposite of self-control or self-determination; and it’s not the same thing as lack of self-esteem.

Some of us have brushed by a thin place that breaks our spirits open.  It can happen in a flash, and suddenly it seems as though everything around us has shifted just ever so slightly while the light in the room has changed.  Breaking open can happen in a living room when a dear friend blurts out they have cancer and it’s not treatable.  It can happen when a child becomes so beloved that the parent realizes they are watching a piece of their heart walk around on the outside of themselves.  It can happen looking up at the night sky, in the millisecond of awareness in which we feel our actual size.  There are a lot of us in the room right now and, for as many of us as are here, there are hundreds and thousands of ways that this looks in our lives.

These events and people and moments that break us open have a way of reminding us of our fragility.  Ash Wednesday is also such a moment.  As ashes are placed on our foreheads, we are acted upon once again and brush by the thin place.  It is not to dangle us over an abyss of perverse self-deprecation.  But rather to uncover that which is already made known in our lives – our inability to save ourselves from ourselves…and God’s ability to do so.

And it is God who is being made known.  Not in the abstract but in the particular person of Jesus.  This is what Paul is getting at in Second Corinthians when he writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Our spirits are broken open and are a mercy seat for Christ.

Paul helps us get at this as he writes, “…be reconciled to God.”   Another, less churchy, way to say this is, “Be forgiven.”  Paul is talking about Christ’s action that makes God’s presence real before any action on our part.  God is not irresistible.  We can certainly run away.  Being reconciled simply means that God is at your heels.  God is there because Christ has already done the work of reconciliation, of bringing us back into God.

Paul’s laundry list of activities, after his comment about reconciliation, isn’t what brings the reconciliation.  His and others actions simply come from life on the planet.  Life as it’s lived in paradox – amid seemingly opposite things that are true at the same time.  Paraphrasing Paul, we ARE living while we’re dying; we ARE rejoicing while sad.  This list of paradoxes reveals the gifts of the reconciliation that are made known to us in the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

The people of this congregation that interviewed me before I came here asked me a great question.  They asked me many but this is one stands out in my memory.  “What would you fight for?”  My answer?  “I would fight for the gospel.”   The message that God takes our broken spirits, all we actually have to offer God, and brings us back into God through Christ.

Ash Wednesday lays this good news bare.  Lent creates space and time for the magnitude of the gospel, the good news, to reflect off the darkness of the cross, off of the crucified One.  This is a paradox of faith.  Come with your broken spirit and be filled with hope.



[1] All Bible passages are from the New Revised Standard Version.

 

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?’ ”

Psalm 51:1-17 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

 

 

Luke 11:1-13 “…and yet, I pray”

Luke 11:1-13 “…and Yet, I Pray”

July 28, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Luke 11:1-13 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

 

As an adult, I spent a several years outside the church before being captured by grace through the Lutheran tradition.  There’s a lot I can say about that time but one of the most curious things to me is that I continued to pray.  Specifically, this means that I said a lot of quick things to God – flash prayers if you will.  Things like, “Please!” and “Seriously?!”  Occasionally these prayers were simply crying or sometimes I would laugh at God ala the likes of Sarah in the book of Genesis.[1]  I find this all very curious because, at the time, I wasn’t even sure who God was.  But how I prayed, and what I prayed, spoke volumes.  How we pray gives us a lot of information about who we think God is and how we think God moves in the world.  Maybe even more curiously, how we pray and whether we pray gives us a lot of information about how we see ourselves in relationship with God.

Theologians and church-types love to talk about what happens when we pray.  Dissecting it into parts and giving us theories on how prayer works and how it doesn’t work and how God works in the midst of prayer.  Out of all of those theories, some which come from tangling with our text in Luke today, I haven’t found one that is intellectually satisfying.  I have prayed desperate prayers and silly prayers and everything in between to all kinds of outcomes.  So the outcome of prayer is simply a mystery to me.   The mystery of prayer is especially true when my or someone else’s world is torn apart by loss.  And yet…and yet…I pray.  I continue to pray desperate prayers and silly prayers and everything in between.

My prayers have been added to in both content and form from the flash prayers – although I still use those too.  But much more importantly, I simply became comfortable praying.  So much so that now guess what happens at the start of a church meeting or meal…yup, you guessed it – “Pastor, will you pray for us?”

What happens at a church meeting or meal or gathering when the pastor says, “Would anyone like to pray for us?”  … … … … …  Exactly!  Crickets.  Because of this response, I hear the disciples’ demanding, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus’ answer to them, as good news.  They demand to be taught and he teaches them.  Notice that when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray he doesn’t launch into a three-point didactic instruction with power-point.  He doesn’t say things like, “Well, first you have to have a good theological understanding of the intersection between God and faith and the world.  None of that!  He simply prays.  What might this mean?  Perhaps that prayer can be learned.  Not as technical proficiency but, much more importantly, disciples can simply become comfortable praying through the practice of prayer.  So when someone says that they can’t pray there is a possibility that it could feel differently for them.   I have a good friend who said to me a long time ago that praying out loud is like chewing rocks. Now my friend is a lay assisting minister in her congregation and is praying the Prayers of Intercession…out loud!

The prayer that Jesus teaches the disciples is the prayer we pray together as “The Lord’s Prayer” during worship.  It is a corporate prayer; meaning that all of us, the whole body of Christ, pray this prayer together and on each other’s behalf.  Some of us widen the net a bit with this prayer and pray it in the morning before we get out of bed or on airplanes when the weather is bad.  This is a go-to prayer.  This is a prayer that has served the faithful for over 2,000 years and will continue to serve the faithful long after we’re gone.  We pray this prayer with our ancestors and with those yet to come.  This is THE most persistent prayer of the body of Christ.

During worship we also pray with the worship leader who prepares and prays the Prayers of Intercession when we “pray for the church, those in need, and all of God’s creation.”  This is a prayer for yesterday, today, and tomorrow – the concerns of now, this week.  The person who leads us in this prayer names names and gives voice to individual and community worries, wonderings, events, gratitude, praise, and so much more.  Week after week, like Abraham, we approach God in humble determination with petitions of prayer, holding God accountable to be God.[2]  Our prayers offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ just as we’re encouraged to do by Augustana’s mission statement.[3]

The point is that we already are praying and we pray well together.  So I’ve been wondering what it could look like if we, as the body of Christ, turned toward each other and continued praying on the foundation of our Sunday prayers and beyond.  In essence, turning toward Jesus and saying, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  And rather than a prayer tutorial, we simply begin praying more.  We practice.  I’m so curious about what this could look like that I’ve invited a team of Augustana people to wonder about this with me as part of something called Augustana Praying Project; so named because we are actively praying as well as working on different ways to pray – some that will work in our lives together and some that won’t.  Augustana Praying Project will take shape over time and change shape over time responding to the different needs people have and the different ways people pray.

I also wonder how much our practice of prayer, as David Lose suggests, “attunes ourselves to God and to our shared life.”[4]  In all that we bring to God in prayer, we are essentially putting our lives through the filter of faith.  Prayer as a connecting point between our lives of faith and our daily life gives us language for both.  So, at the very least, perhaps prayer creates fluid connections between the faith we claim as Christian people on Sundays and our lives as Christian people throughout the week.[5]

The disciples demand, “Lord, teach us to pray…”  When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, his prayer attunes them with God our Father and with each other and “our” needs.  Prayer, as Jesus instructs it, is highly relational even as it’s spoken by a single person.  We are set free into this prayer as our Lord Jesus teaches us to pray by praying.  We are also set free to pray our daily concerns so that our prayer reflects this life we live connected with this God in whom we have our being.

Thanks be to God!



[1] Genesis 18:1-15 – Hebrew Bible lectionary reading for July 21, 2013.

[2] Genesis 18:20-32 – Hebrew Bible lectionary reading for today, July 28, 2013.

[3] Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO.  Mission Statement: Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ, and walk humbly with God.

[4] David Lose.  “What is Prayer?” Blog: …In the Meantime, February 2013.

Find full post at:http://www.davidlose.net/2013/02/what-is-prayer/

[5] Ibid.

John 10:1-10 “Gate: Cross and Promise”

John 10:1-10 “Gate: Cross and Promise”

May 13th – New Beginnings Church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, Denver, CO

May 14th – Women of the ELCA, RMS Boulder Cluster Gathering, Wheatridge, CO

May 15th – Lutheran Church of the Master, Lakewood, CO

 

John 10:1-10 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

 

So which one is it?!  Is Jesus the gate or is Jesus the shepherd?  So which one is it?! Are we the sheep?   Or are we the thieves, bandits and strangers?  This text is saturated to overflowing with imagery as Jesus tries to communicate who he is with his disciples.  But today, I really want you to hear Jesus’ gift to us as he says, “I am the gate.”  He says it twice.  “I am the gate.”

Think for a moment about gates that you come across in your day-to-day.  Picture the gate in your mind and who controls the gate and whether the gate stands opened or closed.  Think about what the gate is for and who is allowed to go in and go out of that gate and what it costs to move in and out of the gate.

Now, picture another gate.  And picture this gate welded open. There is freedom of movement as it stands open.  The gate cannot be closed or manipulated in any way.  It simply…stands…open… this is the gate I would like you to have in mind for the next few minutes.  A gate that stands open.

Every so often a text from the Bible is such that it really helps us if we know what comes right before it in the story.  This is true of so many things.  If we learn just a little more of the context of what someone is trying to say, then we have a better shot at understanding at least a little of what is going on.   This story of Jesus is the gate is one such story.  Right before our verses today is the story of the man born blind to whom Jesus gives sight.  The man born blind, who can now see because of Jesus, is asked all kinds of questions by the religious leaders of the temple and they ultimately drive him out of the temple when their questions aren’t answered to their expectations.  And Jesus receives that man.

How many times in each of our lives has a new experience led us to new questions and then to new answers that challenge how we think about life and how we think about God?  Not God changing but us changing.  Time and time again as children our minds stretch and grow to absorb all the new stuff we see and do and hear.  Time and time again in our adolescence and, hopefully, if we’re lucky, time and time again as adults, we are challenged to either understand something new or take on something new in the face of new information that arrives on the scene.  It is the way of life.  And for Jesus followers, it is a way of faith as we try to figure out what in the name of God…literally…we’re talking about when we talk about loving to tell the story Jesus.

But it is also the way of life to not let all the possibilities and information in.  It is also the way of life to be overwhelmed by it.  It is also the way of life to be knocked down by the sheer quantity of information and experience that blow our minds and leave our expectations in tatters.  And it is the way of life to close ourselves off and create our own sheepfolds and set ourselves and our beliefs about Jesus as the gate so that we might feel some small glimmer of hope that our right faith keeps us safe from that which would harm us or destroy us.  And, very quickly, we fall to the same temptation as the religious leaders did with the man born blind and we drive people out as if we are the ones who are the gate.

During the Apostles’ Creed, the traditional line spoken throughout the centuries is “I believe in the holy catholic church.”  This can be incredibly confusing for people since a large part of the world worships in the Roman Catholic tradition.  So, we often change the traditional language to say, “I believe in the holy Christian church.”  My kids will tell you that on any given Sunday, they’re not sure exactly what will come out of my mouth during this part of the Creed.  In whispers, you might even hear them say, “You said it again Mom.”  And here’s the truth of it for me.  I love the word catholic.  I love that it means universal.  I love that our ancestors in the church applied the word that means universal to the church.  I love pondering what the God of the universe, which includes us sitting in our teeny-tiny corner of it, thinks about how we’re doing in our teeny-tiny part of the church catholic as we divide, and divide again, and divide again – driving people out of sheepfold, after sheepfold, as if we were the gate.

And then I like to take a big breath as Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the gate.”  Because Jesus as the open gate in this passage is very, very different then Jesus as the faith-ticket-taker.  You know, like I have my ticket of faith which gives me entrance to the right church and then, at the just the right time, I hand my ticket of faith over to Jesus so that all will be well, so that I will be well.

I’m pretty sure a ticket of faith in Jesus does not purchase protective outerwear that deflects the worst kind of pain – perhaps to confirm this we could check in with a few of our most faithful brothers and sisters in the nearest ICU or hospice.

And I’m pretty sure that a ticket of faith in Jesus does not unleash a cash windfall – perhaps we could check in with some of our poorest and most faithful brothers and sisters, numbering in the millions across the planet, who wonder where their next meal is coming from.

In fact, what these faithful brothers and sisters experience, indeed, what we experience as we experience life and others at their worst, is faith living in the shadow of the cross while clinging to the promise of the Easter resurrection.  And we don’t have to look very far within ourselves, our own families and our circle of friends to see and feel its shadow too.  In this season of Easter, we do live on this side of the resurrection although we see it in a hazy kind of way because the realities of the cross are real even today.  Jesus does not describe a world free of bandits and thieves.  Jesus names the bandits as real, the powers that rob us of life and health.[1]

So then, Jesus is the gate to the abundance of what?  He says, “I came so that you may have LIFE and have it abundantly.”  That he says this through the specter of the cross is critical.  Jesus lives a truth about the mess of human reality on the cross; Jesus overcomes that reality not by ignoring it but by dying on it, lighting it up so that our vulnerability cannot be ignored and we can stop pretending that we know enough and are strong enough to be our own gates, our own gods.  Jesus promises an abundant life that is the power of the love of God in the midst of real threats, in the middle of thieves and bandits.

Jesus is the gate and sees and speaks the truth of the whole you – the image of God in you and worst of the brokenness in you.

Jesus is the gate who pours out forgiveness for you when you bring your worst.

Jesus is the gate who stands open by the grace of God for you – nothing you do opens it and nothing you do can close it.

And Jesus is the gate who promises that death, when it comes, may win the moment but does not win the day when you breathe your last in this body and Jesus welcomes you into the arms of the eternal God.



[1] Craig Koester, Gospel of John, Course Lecture at Luther Seminary, October, 13, 2010.