SIMPLE STRAIGHT FORWARD ADVICE ABOUT PRAYER
If we were to line up all of the teachings of Jesus, we would discover that Jesus talked about money more often than any other subject. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” “‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Jesus talked more about money than prayer. He understood our obsessions. And when he did teach about prayer, he gave us simple straight forward advice grounded in his own Jewish tradition.
AMIDAH 18 BENEDICTIONS
The form of Jesus’ prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, appears to be an abbreviated version of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer, sometimes known at the 18 benedictions. Good Jews were supposed to recite this prayer daily, however, in times of emergency, one was permitted to pray a shortened form of the Eighteen Benedictions, such as the Lord’s Prayer. Rabbi Eliezer, a younger contemporary of Jesus, taught this abbreviation of the standard prayer: “O God may your will be done in heaven above, grant peace of mind to those who fear you on earth below, and do what seems best to you. Blessed are you, O LORD, who answers prayer.”
TRUST GOD TO GIVE YOU WHAT YOU NEED
When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he wasn’t teaching them the one and only prayer for all time, he was trying to teach them how to pray simply. When you pray, don’t use a lot of words. Keep it simple. Then trust God. “Just as a parent gives his child a fish instead of a snake, or an egg instead of scorpion, trust God to give you the things you need.”
That reminds me of a story about a woman who was at work when she received a phone call that her daughter was very sick with a fever. So she left work and stopped by the pharmacy to get some medication for her daughter.
She returned to her car to find that she had locked the keys inside the car when she went into the pharmacy and was now unable to get into her car to drive home. She didn’t know what to do and started to panic, so she called home and told the baby sitter what had happened and that she did not know what to do. The baby sitter told her to find a coat hanger and see if that would open the car door.
The woman looked around and found an old rusty coat hanger that had been thrown down on the ground, possibly by someone else who also had locked their keys in their car. Then she looked at the hanger and said, “I don’t know how to use this.” So she bowed her head and asked God to send her some help.
YOU SENT ME A PROFESSIONAL
Within two minutes a motorcycle roared up and pulled into the parking space next to her car. A rough, dirty-looking biker got off and saw her situation. He asked if he could help her. The woman thought, “This is what you sent to help me, Lord?”
She finally told him yes, as she needed to hurry and get home to her sick daughter. He walked over to the car, and in less than one minute the car was opened. She hugged the man and through her tears she said, “Thank you so much! You are such a nice man.”
The man replied; “No, I’m not, Lady. I just got out of prison for car theft.” The woman hugged the man again and with sobbing tears cried out to God, “You even sent me a professional.”
GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD
Pray and trust God for what we need. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not tomorrow’s bread or next week’s bread or next year’s bread, but daily bread. If we can be content to pray for what we need, more often than not God will provide.
Too many words can actually get in the way of connecting with God in prayer, because our words tend to bring our focus back on us rather emptying ourselves and then opening us up to the divine. Robert loves Taco Bell. So we went to lunch at guess where — Taco Bell. After we got our food I suggested we pray silently before eating. I finished praying, but Robert with his hands folded remained silent. When he finally looked up and dove into his Nacho Bell Grande I asked him, “What were you praying about all that time?”
He looked up and said, “How should I know, it was a silent prayer!”
PRAYER CHANGES US
If God knows what we need before we pray, why do we need to pray? Because, prayer changes us. Seeking God in prayer changes us. In order to offer up our needs, we first have to identify our needs. We have to sort out our needs from our myriad of wants, and then we have to consciously acknowledge those needs and confess our need of God – our need to make room for God in our lives. As people of faith we are not self-sufficient. We need God. And the most common challenge many of us experience in trying to cultivate a spiritual life is making time for God — taking time to pray.
When missionaries were sent to a tribe in Africa they encouraged their new converts to establish special places apart from the village where they could go to be alone to pray. And that is good advice for many of us, because if we establish a particular place for prayer, we can be reminded to visit that place on a daily basis. Also if we choose wisely, and we turn off our cell phones when we enter that place of prayer, we are less likely to be distracted. Anyway as the members of this tribe became diligent in prayer, they began to wear paths to their prayer places in the bush. As a result, if one of these believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon apparent to the others, and they would kindly remind the negligent one, “Sister, the grass grows on your path.” How many of us have allowed the grass to grow on our prayer paths? Maybe we need prayer partners who will gently and lovingly remind us of our need for prayer. Others can pray with us and for us but only we can offer up our own prayers. As Bishop Fulton Sheen used to say, “Some things a person has to do for him or herself. You have to blow your own nose, make your own love, and pray your own prayers.” But prayer partners can pray with and for us, and remind us to take the time daily to stop to and seek God in prayer.
PRAYER IS VERY PERSONAL
Now I know it is hard to invite someone else to become a part of our prayer lives. Prayer is very personal. When I engage with a couple in pre-marital counseling I will often ask a couple, if they pray together. A shared spiritual life can be important in a marriage. One time in Monee I was counseling with a couple who without my asking had quite openly shared with me they were living together and sleeping together. So, I asked them a little later if they prayed together. And in response the prospective groom got a horrified look on his face and said, “That’s kind of personal don’t you think?”
So I understand many of us have difficulty sharing about our prayer lives. I would like to suggest, however, we all need some spiritual direction in our lives. We can do that by going to a counselor or spiritual director, like Jim Norris, we can also find a prayer partner who can help us by listening and occasionally reminding us of our need for prayer, someone who will pray with us and for us, who can help us to see, when we have allowed the grass to grow on our prayer path.
Learning to listen silently in prayer is another important step in our spiritual development. So often, words get in the way. Especially in our culture words have been debased and have lost meaning. Words are often used to obscure and evade, rather than revealing the truth. Let me offer some examples: bio-solids in place of sewage in our water; or collateral damage rather than innocent casualties; irregularities applied to accounting instead of calling it fraud; negative patient outcome, rather than the patient died. Sometimes we need to resort to silence in seeking to connect with the divine. Of course silencing our voice does not silence our minds. Learning to be quiet and to listen is the art of meditation. And we need to expect silence will be difficult.
PERSIST IN PRAYER
But if we persist, as Jesus said in our text, we can quiet the drunken monkeys of our minds and become open to hearing the still small voice of God. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Be persistent and over time silence will come and God will draw near.
The last element of prayer I want to discuss today is trust. Trusting God is difficult especially for those of us who only like to trust what we can see. Those of us who believe only tangible objects are real. Trust, spiritual trust, however, is basic to life. We cannot prove our own existence much less the existence of God. “I think, therefore I am,” is not really a proof. We cannot prove that life is good, or whether or not we will be alive tomorrow morning. In order to live we have to make some assumptions about life. Is life good as it is given or not? Does life have meaning or is our existence a meaningless farce? Does my own life have meaning and purpose, or does life suck and then you die?
LIVING AS IF
We cannot prove any of these assumptions, and so we have to choose to live as if — to live as if we will be alive tomorrow morning, to live as if our lives have meaning, to live as if life is good. Choosing to live as if some assumptions about life are true is faith. And in our text this morning Jesus encourages us to trust that God is love and life is good as it is given. Trust that life is a gift and our Father in heaven intends good things for us. That doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen to good people, but trust that we are all children of our creator and according to Paul “God works for good among all those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.”
Pray with me: Our Father who art in heaven. . .
Show Compassion for Everyone
SLIDE 5: WHO IS NEIGHBOR?
Who is my neighbor? Indeed, that is the question. In responding to the lawyer Jesus went far beyond the simple message to help everyone. He was trying to speak to our deepest fears, our most persistent prejudices, the aggression programmed deep within the limbic systems of our brains, our innate hostility to those who are different from us. Our prejudice toward those who are different, those who are outside our tribe, our ethnic group, our circle of friends, is a deeply programmed survival mechanism from our distant evolutionary past.
SLIDE 6: JUST ASK ME ABOUT TRADING LAND FOR PEACE
During distant pre-historic times, when different people moved into our neighborhood their presence meant competition for scarce resources, and inevitable conflict to determine who would prevail. Strangers were best regarded with suspicion and hostility. Rather than welcoming new people who were different, we encouraged them to move on, go away, in order to protect our turf. If the new comers didn’t leave peacefully, we attacked them. Sharing was the first step to becoming dispossessed. I remember a “T” shirt in Jerusalem with a picture of the Native American Chief Sitting Bull that read, “just ask me about trading land for peace.” Compassion for those who were different was weakness rather than a virtue. Such were the instincts of survival.
SLIDE 7: SUSPICION AND HOSTILITY
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus challenges us to transcend the fear and hostility of our brain’s old limbic system and embrace compassion for all people. Samaritans were a neighboring ethnic group hated by Jews. They were the descendants of the Ten Northern tribes of Israel, who had broken away from the Kingdom of Judah, and who had been rivals of the Jews engaged in intermittent warfare. In 733 BCE the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom and deported those Israelites into exile. According to the Jews the Assyrians resettled other ethnic peoples in that territory. But the Samaritans claimed that with the Fall of Assyria, in 612 BCE the peoples of the Ten Northern Tribes returned to their homeland. The Jews, however, also claimed that the religion of the Samaritans was a heretical bastardization of Judaism, while the Samaritans maintained they were the one true expression of the Abrahamic Faith. Samaritans and Jews were hostile rivals, and yet Jesus chose a Samaritan to serve as the hero of our Parable this morning.
SLIDE 8: THREE-THOUSAND YEARS OF SUSPICION AND HOSTILITY
A small identifiable Samaritan community still exists in the West Bank today, near Mt. Gerizim, the location of the ruins of their temple, but the Israelis identify them as Palestinians. So, even today the animosity between Jews and Samaritans continues – three-thousand years of suspicion and hostility. Jesus’ parable is still relevant in our modern context. But we do not need to be primarily concerned about Israelis and Palestinians? No, we, at United Church, need to consider the question, who is our neighbor? Who are the people who are different from ourselves, who arouse our fear, suspicion and hostility?
SLIDE 9: EVERYONE IS WELCOMED AND AFFIRMED
Are we uncomfortable with people of other ethnic identities? What about immigrants? Are we suspicious of people from other churches – people outside of our tribe? Are we hostile or judgmental toward folks whose theology, philosophy or politics are different from our own? Do people whose gender identity is different from our own cause us to feel uncomfortable? At a meeting I attended someone said our congregation had been referred to as “too gay.” What does that mean? It is sort of like you can’t be just a little bit pregnant. Either we welcome and affirm everyone or we don’t. And in the Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus was saying if you are going to follow me, show compassion for everyone. Every human being regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, theology, philosophy, political persuasion, or gender identity is a human being worthy of respect, dignity and yes love. And everyone must be welcome and affirmed here in the faith community that claims to follow the way of Jesus.
SLIDE 10: SAME STRUCTURES STIMULATED WHEN WE MEDITATE AND PRAY
So this morning I want to talk about our struggle with our natural suspicion and hostility toward people who are not like us. A first step in becoming more compassionate is to recognize that the limbic system, the old reptilian brain is a part of us. Hostility and suspicion even violence toward the other was a part of our evolutionary survival. We do not have to allow the reptilian brain to control our behavior, however, for in the evolution of the human brain we have also been given new structures capable of rational thought and compassion.
Allow me to share an insight from How God Changes Our Brains. “Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame our limbic systems. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways. Our research shows that they are the same structures stimulated when we meditate and pray, which is what allows us to consciously envision a loving and compassionate God.”
SLIDE 11: SPIRITUAL PRACTICES
Spiritual practices that focus on a loving and compassionate God change our brains to become more cooperative and accepting toward others. Meditation, prayer, Bible Study, worship, participation in welcoming faith communities all potentially can contribute to the strengthening of the neural pathways that will help us in our struggle to become more accepting and loving toward people who are different from us.
SLIDE 12: CHURCHES WHERE DIVERSITY OF BELIEF IS NUTURED
A second step in strengthening the loving and accepting parts of our brains is to surround ourselves with diverse people and ideas. Gated communities, homogeneous neighborhoods, segregated schools or facilities, orthodox religious institutions, where everyone has to believe the same thing, all contribute to our suspicion and hostility toward people who are different from us. Open neighborhoods, integrated schools and facilities, churches where diversity of belief is nurtured and encouraged all can help us to become more open and accepting of others.
SLIDE 13: ACCEPTING OURSELVES
A third step in strengthening the loving and accepting parts of our brains is to become more loving and accepting of ourselves. Much of our early childhood education and religious training in the past has been directed toward fault finding. You did it wrong. You fail. You are a sinner — sinners in the hands of an angry God. All of this negative energy focused on fear and anger strengthen the limbic areas of the brain. Instead if we can learn to focus on loving ourselves, accepting ourselves, even the parts of ourselves we might like to change, and focusing our faith on a loving and benevolent God, we can strengthen the neural pathways that result in love and compassionate behavior.
SLIDE 14: SOME ACT OF KINDNESS EVERYDAY
A fourth step in our journey to become more loving and compassionate is to consciously choose some small act of kindness every day. We don’t have to overcome world hunger, or bring world peace. Go visit a shut-in. Write a kind note to someone in need of encouragement. Take food to someone who is ill. Volunteer at foodline, or make a contribution to the soup kitchen. Help an elderly person get their garbage to the street. Take the church recycle out to the curb. Engage in some conscious act of kindness every day. And the more that act of kindness takes us out of our comfort zone reaching across boundaries of race or ethnicity or social class or gender identity the more we stretch and grow in our compassion. I am reminded of a problem they experienced for a while at Holy Trinity United Church of Christ in Nashville. Holy Trinity by the way is the fastest growing church in the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, and they are predominantly an LGBT congregation. And the Pastor at one point discovered that when “straight people” would visit the church many of her members would say, “well, you might not be comfortable here.” And their Pastor had to challenge them to reach across the barrier of gender identity to make Holy Trinity a welcoming congregation to all people. And since then their percentage of straight members has grown immensely. So the more we can reach outside our comfort zones with acts of kindness the more we will strengthen our compassion for others.
SLIDE 15: HOW GOD CHANGES YOUR BRAIN
A final step in the journey toward compassion for others is to find a social network that will support us in our desire to become more accepting and loving of others, and encourage us to remain optimistic and to have faith that life is good as it is given. All of these suggestions and more you can find in the book we have been studying How God Changes Your Brain, and it is not too late to join the study. Both the Monday Bible Study and the Thursday Sharing Table have made it less than half way through the Study Guide for the book. The Monday Bible Study resumes on August the 19th and the Thursday Sharing Table will begin again on August the 15th. If you want to join us let me know, and I can e-mail you a copy of the Study Guide. Ideally an open, welcoming, diverse community of faith can encourage us to strengthen the neural pathways of our brains that support loving and compassionate behavior.
Bible Study for Monday July 15th for Worship July 21st
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
(Based on Reflection by Kate Huey (from Weekly Seeds, UCC for July 21, 2013)
This week’s Gospel passage can be viewed as part two of Luke’s story about Jesus’ lessons on the heart of faithfulness. Last week’s story about the Good Samaritan teaches us about loving our neighbor. This week’s story teaches us about loving God.
So what is the difference?
The lawyer last week asked what he needed to “do” to “inherit eternal life.” This week, two women who both love and respect Jesus and his teachings are told by him that all their (ours as well) efforts and deeds are to be balanced and even nourished by times of doing absolutely nothing but sitting and being with God.
How often in our daily routine to we take our thoughts to God and how do we do it?
Martha was trying to meet the expectations her society had set for her in her time.
How do we perceive those expectations then and now for women?
Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to her Lord oblivious to Martha. This was a radical act by Jesus, allowing Mary to be like any male disciple and learn from him.
Should we look upon this as a radical act of inclusion by Jesus? Do we still consider this radical today? (This will lead to the Secondary Commentary.)
For many, our days are packed, one after another, with many things, and our minds are full and overflowing, worried and distracted, like Martha, by many things. Henri Nouwen wrote that our lives, while full, are often unfulfilled. “Our occupations and preoccupations,” he said, “fill our external and internal lives to the brim. They prevent the Spirit of God from breathing freely in us and thus renewing our lives.”
What would life be like without all of the things that keep us busy?
Imagine time–without any distractions or to-do lists. What would it be like to take the time to be with God for a few hours, even a few seconds, everyday. If we actually believe that “God is Still Speaking” — then why do we not try to listen?
So how could we do this?
Second and a More Radical Commentary
(Based on both Interpretations of Luke 10:38-42 by Clara Beth Speel Van de Water, published by Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois, 1997 & Study Guide For God and Empire by John Dominic Crossan.)
The story of Mary and Martha is frequently understood as a call to discipleship, entailing study of God’s word, for women as well as men. Historically it has been given several interpretations.
1. Mary is shown as an illustration of the contemplative life, and Martha of the active and less spiritual life. Therefore women, as well as men, are called to full discipleship of the contemplative life. This view of the scripture is often attributed to Origen, a theological writer of the early church. However by this time in the early Roman church, now embraced by the empire and made public, women who had established and successfully led many ‘home churches’ were now stripped of that authority and could only follow Christ’s discipleship as Nuns.
2. Martha is a symbol of this world whereas Mary is a symbol of the world to come. This is attributed to St. Augustine.
3. Martha represents salvation by the law as opposed to Mary being salvation through faith. This was used as an anti-Jewish polemic (XXXX?) interpretation.
4. During the Reformation Mary symbolized justification by faith, whereas Martha represented the Catholic view of salvation by works.
Still today this old interpretation of the contemplative-active understanding has been given a new twist —– however it still misses the point. Many denominations still see women as Mary or Martha types. Mary is still seen as contemplative and studious and Martha as active and practical. However God blesses both types of women and both kinds of lives equally.
What is our interpretation today?
|A recent feminist interpretation uses the story to support careers over homemaking, but as Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, one of today’s foremost feminist theologian and New Testament scholars would attest – that also misses the point. Schussler Fiorenza believes that the Mary-Martha narrative reflects the debate over leadership roles for women in the early house churches. The ‘good portion’ chosen by Mary is the listening to but not the diakonia (Greek for service, ministering, esp. of those who execute the commands of others of those who by the command of God proclaim and promote religion among men) — the preaching of the word. Schussler Fiorenza says, “Luke 10:38-42 pits the apostolic women of the Jesus movement against each other and appeals to a revelatory word of the resurrected Lord in order to restrict women’s ministry and silence women leaders of the house churches, who like Martha might have protested, and at the same time to extol the silent and subordinate behavior of Mary”
Any thoughts or feelings on this?
N. T. Wright (XXXX?) sees Mary as being a disciple first in order to be a rabbi in turn. As a student, Mary also has the potential to be a teacher, so she can lead others to be disciples of Jesus, too, just as male disciples could. Wright calls the Mary-Martha story a symbolic moment on the way to Galatians 3:28, where Paul writes, “There is no longer…male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Mary acted on that call when she demonstrated devoted discipleship in anointing Jesus, even at the protest of Judas, the disciple who held the common purse. (John 12:3-6) Martha showed her response to Jesus’ call when she publicly proclaimed that he was the Messiah, even before he raised her brother Lazarus. (John 11:27-44)
It was precisely such expressions of faithful discipleship on the part of women that led some of them to assume leadership roles in the early church. They became disciples, just as men did, by listening and responding to God’s Word through Jesus with faith. Witherington (xxxx?) states, “It is the universal priority of faith and equality in the faith that gives women a new and equal place under the new covenant. This is the radical nature of the Gospel and why it dramatically affected women’s status especially in first century Palestine.”
Here I want to interject and recommend the reading of The Life of Saint Thekla which I intend to comment on in this coming week’s sermon.
This can be found at
On a Frescoed Wall at Ephesus (God & Empire)
What remains of primary interest to me is how Paul and Theoklia (Thekla) represent in image the same movement in text from Paul’s radical gender equality in Galatians and Romans to anti-Paul’s reactionary gender inequality in Timothy and Titus. As you stand in front of the full three-figure image, you see a seated man named “Paul” in the center, and to your right you see a standing woman named Theoklia. Both have their right hands raised. . .
Initially, therefore both paul and Theoklia were both authoritative apostolic preachers, with her raised right arm and divided fingers the mirror image of his. While the male Paul’s eyes and hand are untouched, the female Theoklia’s eyes have been robbed out and her hand burned off. . . it is Thoklia’s eyes, not Paul’s that have been destroyed, and it is her authoritative teaching hand that has been semi-destroyed. That two stage process by which a female teaching authoritatively was transformed into a female silenced and defaced is a perfect symbol for what happened to women apostles as the radical Paul was deformed into the reactionary Paul. (pages 172 – 179)
How do you interpret the fresco of Theoklia (Thekla)? Why do you think the church participated in the oppression of women?
Do you think I should use the following picture as a slide on Sunday the 21st during my sermon on Mary & Martha? Comments?