Saturday, October 27, 2007

STANDING IN THE NEED OF PRAYER

Luke 18:9-14

"The bigger they are, the harder they fall!" That could be the mantra of this season’s college football teams. Every time a team reaches number 1 or number 2 it loses. LSU, USC, South Florida, Cal. It’s like no one wants to be in the BCS Championship game. After USC got beat by lowly Stanford, it looked like Cal was in the driver’s seat to win the Pac10, especially after they squeaked out a win over my Oregon Ducks. Then LSU lost to Kentucky of all teams and Cal looked up and began to celebrate – only they went on to lose that same day to Oregon State. Even though #2 Boston College held on and won this week, it still has been a topsy turvy fall. And you know what? We like it that way. Unless it’s our team on top, we like to see the big guy lose. For some reason we don’t like the person or the business or the country or the team that’s arrogant, self-important, or snobbish.

As Jesus tells the story, two guys went up to the temple to pray. One guy was very righteous and the other was a sinner. Even though the first guy is an upstanding citizen and very religious there’s something about him we don’t like. He just seems too stuck on himself and too self-righteous as well. He does tithe and maybe serves on the board, but still, we just don’t like him.
The only word you can use to describe the second guy is that he’s a scoundrel. Tax Collectors, as we know, aren’t the best liked people in any town, and the tax collectors back then were really despised. They tended to be fairly well off, but they were like loans sharks. Not the kind of guy you want to normally hang around with, and probably not the kind of person you’d elect as moderator of the church board.
Jesus says that one of these guys goes away forgiven and the other doesn’t. Who do you think it is? Well, it appears it’s the shady character who stands off to the side, with his head down, almost afraid to talk. Both pray to God, but only the second guy prays for forgiveness. He prays: "Oh, Lord, forgive me. I don’t belong here. I’m a sinner. Please forgive me." Now we’re thinking – that’s a good prayer for that kind of guy, and yet he not the first guy goes home forgiven. He goes home forgiven because he’s the one who understands that he’s in need of prayer.

1. Recognizing ourselves in the parable

When you read this parable, with whom do you identify? I know, it’s a trick question. You’re supposed to say – the tax collector – but you really wish you could say it was the pharisee. But I think we’re all probably more like the Pharisee than we’d care to think. If you’re a good church person, give your offerings, pray, and do good things, well that’s pretty much what a pharisee was back then – a very religious person, who could, on occasion, be very snobbish.

But you’re right, you’re supposed to identify with the tax collector. You’re supposed to see yourself standing in the need of prayer. And yet it’s hard for us to think that way. When the world looks at the church, more often than not it sees self-righteous and unbecoming people. If I put on the shoes of the self-righteous religious person, do they fit? I expect, that at least on occasion, they do.

2. Standing in the Need of Prayer
For a moment, though, let’s try on the shoes of the other guy. Let’s recognize that we’re the ones standing in the need of prayer. And so we sing as we did earlier:

It’s me, It’s me, O Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.
It’s me, it’s
me, O Lord.
Standing in the need of prayer.

We’re always being told to be self-reliant, to depend on ourselves. And we often take pride in our independence. Sometimes even when we need help, we won’t ask for it, because to ask for help is to admit we can’t do it ourselves. But Jesus tells this parable, Luke says, to those who "trust in themselves." Instead, Jesus says: When you pray, recognize that you come in need of God’s grace.

The flip side of being proud of our self-sufficiency is contempt shown to those who aren’t like us. This religious leader thought highly of himself and his ability to live righteously, He had it all down, and when someone didn’t meet with his standards – he looked down on them.

But the tax collector was under no such illusion. He knew quite well that he was an outcast. In fact, he probably took the job of being a tax collector because he was already an outcast before he had the job. Why else take the job? Oh, it might pay well, but there was a significant social downside.

If the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, which we looked at last week, encourages us to be persistent in our prayers, this parable reminds us that we must come to God humbly and without any pretense that we’re better than the others.

3. Broadening the Circle of Prayer

The Pharisee in this story had a fairly narrow focus to his prayers. The eyes of his heart were on himself. The tax collector also focused on himself, but that was understandable. He wasn’t self-righteous, he was self-conscious. Either way, it’s easy to get focused in on our own lives and concerns.

Last week, after church I was having a conversation about the sermon and about how we tend to pray – whether in church or in our personal lives. It’s great that we take the opportunity to pray for one another. But what about the world outside our own circle? How does that world – whether it’s people or nations or the environment – fit into our prayers?
For instance: Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies. What does that mean? I don’t think it means we should pray for their untimely death. I think it means that we should pray that the things that divide us will no longer divide us. If we pray for the ones we love, then perhaps if we pray for the ones we don’t love, we will come to love them.
We could add any number of items to our list – poverty, global warming, racism, injustice, hatred – what’s the focus of our prayers? If we stand in the need of prayers, surely the world itself is standing in need of prayer. So, as we pray today, let’s pray for the people affected by the fires, for the people suffering the effects of war – like the people living in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Burma, and Sudan – or for people dying of starvation in Somalia and Darfur. And we shouldn’t forget the sabers rattling from the White House to Turkey to Russia.
Yes, the circle of those standing in the need of prayer is quite wide. Jesus says that if we pray in humility – there will be no contempt in our hearts for the other person! Let’s pray.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
October 28, 2007

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Keep those prayers going!

Luke 18:1-8

You’ve heard it said: "Be careful what you pray for, you just might get it!" That’s a scary thought isn’t it? We don’t always think too deeply about what we pray for, and so we might end up praying for things that are better off not being stated.

Well when Evan Baxter – a news anchor turned congressman who ran on a platform pledging to change the world – got on his knees the night before his first day in Congress he prayed for help. What Evan didn’t expect was that God would take his prayer seriously. Not only did God hear, but God answered it by giving Evan Baxter the tools he needed to change the world – in a sort of Noahic way. God delivered some tools, a load of wood, plans, and just a bit of incentive to build an ark. I know that some of you have seen Evan Almighty, so you know what I’m talking about.

Evan Almighty is a nice family comedy with a good message that’s now out on DVD. That’s my commercial interruption. The point of the movie is pretty simple – God gives us opportunities. The question is, will we take advantage of those opportunities? Evan asked God to help him change the world, and God, who appears to him in the form of Morgan Freeman, decides to help him do just that.

The only thing is, he has to build an ark in his back yard.
Prayer is also a central theme in this movie. In a very humorous way, the movie reminds us that prayer is really a two-way conversation with God.

1. A Call to Prayer

Life doesn’t work the way it does in the movies – which might be a good thing – but there is some truth to the idea that God gives us opportunities to do good things. What happens from there depends on how we respond. Evan tried to run from his opportunities, but they kept following him. In our case, the question is: Where do we start when opportunities present themselves? The answer is: Prayer.

Our text this morning is itself a call to prayer. In fact, it’s a call to pray without ceasing. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that "faith deepens prayer, and prayer strengthens faith, until we reach the point of ‘praying without ceasing’."1 Evan discovered that if he was going to complete his mission, he would have to talk to God – a lot.

The idea that we should pray without ceasing is a bit daunting. How do you talk to God all the time? That’s the point, prayer is more than talking to God. It’s not a question of the number of words or the volume used. To pray without ceasing is to be continually mindful of God’s presence in our lives. If prayer is, as Marcus Borg suggests, "primarily about paying attention to God," then the form it takes can be verbal or nonverbal, formal or informal. It can involve praise and adoration, thanksgiving and confession, intercession and petition.2 Because prayer is a two-way conversation, it involves just as much, if not more, listening as talking. And, if you’re like me, you do a lot more talking than listening.

Now God may not appear to us in the form of Morgan Freeman -- though that would be fun – but God does have ways of being known to us. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open.

2. Persistence in Prayer

Jesus illustrates the call to prayer by telling a parable about persistence. It has been said that God’s timing is sometimes different from ours. So you have to be patient and you have to be persistent. You can’t give up too soon.

Now the parable itself is just a bit odd. It seems to suggest that if you bug God enough, God will give you what you want. You know what I mean, if a kid is enough of a pest he or she will get what they want eventually! I’m not sure that’s the message Jesus wants to get across to us.

Instead, Jesus offers us a contrast. He tells the story of a widow who goes to an "unjust judge" looking for a bit of vindication. She’d been wronged and so she wanted justice. But this judge was just a little bit nasty. In fact, he was known for showing contempt for the people who came seeking his help. He’s supposed to protect the victim, but it seems that he could care less. In the end, he does the right thing only because the widow is a pest. He gives her what she wants just to get her off his back.

But God isn’t like the unjust judge. God does care about his children and he does what is right not just because we’re pests but because that’s the way God is. God is, after all, an impartial and gracious judge, who acts quickly on behalf of the plaintiff.

Still, even if God will act and do so quickly, Jesus encourages us to be persistent. Our persistence isn’t of the pest kind, but instead involves continually walking in the presence of God.

3. Praying Unceasingly for the Future.

This call to prayer is for all times and all places. Susan reminded us last week that prayer is one of those practices that define what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian is to be intimate with God, and that means we should be sharing in regular conversation with God.

This call to prayer is even more pertinent now than usual, because we stand here at a crossroads of sorts. We’re entering what you could call uncharted waters. We don’t know what the future holds, which can make us just a bit anxious. So, more than ever, we need to be vigilant in our prayers for the church and for each other.

I have been pastoring this congregation for the past three plus years. I’ve greatly enjoyed my time here. I’ve experienced healing and rediscovered my calling. I have no great need to leave, and yet we don’t know how much longer we’re going to be together. It could be a matter of months or years. This is why Susan called us all to be in prayer – we need to listen for God’s voice. You, as a congregation, need to listen for God’s direction. We have been in a process of discerning what this congregation is to be, now you will enter a time of discernment, seeking to know who will lead you in the next leg of your ministry in Lompoc.

Susan also had a word for me. She told me – be in prayer. Get close to God and listen for God’s calling. I too must discern where God is leading. I have to ask the same questions: where am I supposed to be? It’s quite possible that I’m supposed to be here, but it’s also possible that I’m supposed to be somewhere else. And the only way we can discover the answers to our questions is to be in prayer.

Ultimately this journey we’re on is about God. We are called to catch hold of God’s vision and then join God in God’s work of reconciliation. If we believe that God is capricious and unloving, then we’ll pray in fear. If, however, we believe that God is gracious and loving and just, we’ll pray with hope that good things are in a store for us. And so we enter a season of prayer, seeking God’s wisdom for the future.

1. Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, (Fortress, 1997), 137.

2. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, (Harper, 2003), 196


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
21st Sunday after Pentecost
October 21, 2007

Saturday, October 06, 2007

GIFTS RECEIVED

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Back in the 1970s America gathered around its TV sets, fixated by a mini-series about an African American family. Alex Haley’s Roots was one of the most important events in TV history, in part because of the size of an audience it drew, but more importantly because it brought to life the struggles of African Americans as they made their way through life in America. For the first time White America caught sight of the dark side of its history.

Roots did something else; it encouraged people to explore and to own their own histories. In telling the story of his own family, from the time his ancestor Kunta Kinte was captured and brought to America on a slave ship up to his own day, he showed us the importance of passing on our stories. Owning our family history – warts and all – is key to knowing who we are as individuals.
Each of us has a family history, full of stories, both bad and good. They tell of both struggles and triumphs; they will contain even a few skeletons in the closet. We’d all like to think we descend from nobility or even royalty, but that may not be true. We may pass these stories down orally, through pictures or even in writing. But, however we pass them on, these stories form a legacy that should be received, respected, and even honored.
1. Passing on a Received Faith
In our tradition we practice Believers Baptism, which means we expect candidates for baptism to profess and own their faith for themselves before they’re baptized in water. Because of this fact, we often say that there are no second generation Christians. Each of us starts our journey of faith fresh. While this is true, we are also products of a history. The substance of our faith is a legacy that has been passed on from one generation to another. And no one plays a more important role in this process than a parent. It is the life and the words of a parent that often forms the foundation of a person’s faith journey.

Now not everyone thinks it’s a good thing for parents to pass on their faith traditions to their children. Some parents have decided to leave it up to their children to decide and so they don’t provide any religious education. I’m not exactly sure where they expect their kids are going to learn this stuff. And Richard Dawkins, a brilliant scientist and a militant neo-Atheist, has boldly stated that to raise a child in any faith, including the Christian faith, is tantamount to child abuse.
Obviously I disagree with both ways of looking at this issue. Although we must explore our faith and decide for ourselves whether we’ll own it or not, there is much to be said for passing on the legacy of faith from one generation to the next.

In this letter, a pastor writes in the name of Paul to a young man, who may be a pastor as well. And the older pastor gives thanks for the legacy of faith passed down from a grandmother to a mother and then to a son. Timothy is a third generation Christian, whose faith has been formed in large part by the gifts of faith passed from Lois to Eunice to him. This passage is such a strong reminder of the importance of family to our faith development – in fact it is in the context of family that faith thrives. We may leave behind that legacy. We may change our views over time. But that initial gift helps make us who we are, and even if we walk away from our inherited faith, we may very well rediscover it in time.

For some, the journey of faith starts when they’re a child and they never really deviate from this path. Although my journey hasn’t been a straight line, I can’t say there ever was a time when I was truly not part of the Christian community. But for others it has been different. They remember a time when they weren’t Christians. Still these stories have been told, and they’re part of who we are. How and when we own them will likely be different.

2. Rekindling that Inherited Faith

As I said, Timothy appears to be a third generation Christian. He’s been taught the faith by his mother and his grandmother, and he seems to have embraced it fully. He’s even taken on leadership in this church. This is the gift that’s been given him by the Holy Spirit, but he must continually rekindle it. He needs to restoke that fire by letting the Spirit breath some more life into his faith – just like oxygen on a fire.

I don’t know if Timothy’s fire is cooling off or not, but I think the word we hear is that we need to regularly attend to our spiritual life. Sometimes our journeys get difficult and sometimes we even stall out. But when the Spirit blows we’re revitalized and empowered to continue the journey that is faith.

3. Embrace it with Boldness

Not only is he told to keep the fire going, he’s told to embrace that faith with boldness. First generation Christians tend to have a greater sense of zeal than do subsequent generations. That’s to be expected, but Timothy is being told here to go for it, to take the risk of faith. There’s no room for timidity or cowardice. While cowardice is a bit of harsh term, the fact that it’s used here reminds us that when we hear the call to follow Jesus, we need to give it our all.

4. Legacies Received and Passed On

I want to return to this issue of legacies and passing on faith from one generation to another. Faith is, as they say, a gift that keeps on giving. We stand here this morning on the shoulders of hundreds of generations of Christians that go all the way back to that first generation that includes Lois. Each generation has to learn the story and figure out how that story influences the way they understand and live this faith. Because faith is a precious gift, we need to take good care of it. We need to handle it with care and with deep respect. But,
we’re not just supposed to take care of it, we’re also supposed to pass it on to others.

This morning our congregation will receive a gift and a legacy. Representatives of the Artesia Christian Church have come to pass on to us a set of banners and a cross. This church has decided that it’s time for them to disperse into the body of Christ. Although the Artesia church as an institution has come to an end, their legacy of service continues on in the stories and the symbols of their life together.

As we receive these banners and consecrate them for use here, we are committing ourselves to carrying on the legacy of this congregation. Their stories will become our stories. Their faith will be our faith. Yes we must own it and live it and practice it for ourselves, but whenever we see these symbols of God’s love, we will be reminded of lives lived in service to God’s kingdom. That knowledge can serve as a call to rekindle our faith and live it with boldness.


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
October 7, 2007
19th Sunday after Pentecost