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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.”  Luke 11:1

“So I say to you, Ask, and if will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you… 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!” Luke 11: 9, 13

One of the requirements of my MDiv program was to study one of the Biblical languages.  I took three semesters of Greek – just barely enough to scratch the surface.  It was mostly written exercises and translation, but once, during the second semester, we were actually called upon to speak: each of us had to memorize a passage from the Bible.  One of the options was the Lord’s Prayer – the version from Matthew, not this one – and I spent weeks working on it.

When called on to recite, I rattled off the entire prayer at top speed – much to the surprise of my professor.  (Who did note, however, that speed had not impacted upon accuracy.)  It’s quite likely that part of the breakneck pace had to do with nerves, but it strikes me that it might also have come out of habit: the familiarity of the words, even in another language, the rhythms at which I was used to speaking them during worship, all impacted upon my recitation.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, or in getting about as much out of such familiar words as I did when they were in a language I barely spoke.  I wonder if Jesus thinks about this moment with the disciples, when we pray, and shakes his head our rote, neat recitations of his prayer.  Because I don’t think that he meant for us to speak those exact words as often as we do.  It really wasn’t Jesus’ way, after all, to give clear, concrete instructions.  This, like his parables, like his metaphors, seems to be meant more as an illustration than as something to be repeated verbatim.  It would seem that what he hoped for was not that we would repeat the words of his prayer, so much as the emphases.

“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays,” said Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.  And whether or not we recognize it, our traditions of prayer point us in this very direction.  How we hold ourselves as we pray – heads bowed, hands clasped, sometimes kneeling – these are physical moves, attitudes of prayer to remind us that, although to one who loves us, not praying to an equal.  That in this relationship, we are the humble supplicants, relying entirely upon the grace and love of a being we cannot, truly, begin to understand.  The very postures in which we pray should change the very nature of our prayer, if we recognized them for what they are: the consciousness that God listens to us not because we’re “all that”, but because God is.

But what Jesus is advocating in this moment with his disciples is not just an attitude of the body –  he gives no instructions, here, about kneeling or bowing one’s head or any other physical stance.  Jesus’ concern is entirely about the attitude of the heart.

Have you ever put off giving bad news, because it will make the news “more real”?  Speaking of death, of disaster, of diagnosis can force us out of a place of denial faster than just about anything else.  It is human nature: things we say become more “real”, and the more often they are repeated, the more ingrained into our lived reality they become.

This is true, of course, of joy as well as of pain.

While I was in school, I remember taking a brief informal survey of classmates one day; and the results were unsurprising.
Those who said grace before meals were more likely to think about origins of their food, the people who had picked it, shipped it, and prepared it.  Those who made mention of their own mortality in their bedtime prayers – the few who might still say, “If I should die before I wake” – were on the whole more appreciative of life, more cognizant of its brevity and value.  Simple words, thanking God for nourishment, recognizing a basic human truth – brought these realities into my classmates hearts in a more powerful, lasting way that informed everything else they did.

Words have the power to turn our hearts.

Which is, of course, what Jesus was usually trying to do.

“Teach us how to pray!” begged the disciples, wanting to be associated with Jesus in a way that was visible and obvious to all.  This was common practice among the religious teachers of the day; John had taught his own disciples a very distinct way of praying, one that would mark them as “followers of John the Baptist” to any who were “in the know.”  Jesus’ followers longed for similar signs – a secret handshake of sorts that would mark them as special.  But the prayer instructions they received – really, the vast majority of the teachings that they received – were not about the body, but about the heart.  Jesus, as he often did, skipped the superficial, outward markings of group membership, gently reminding his followers that membership in God was the greater truth that needed to become real.  And so Jesus taught his disciples to pray: to praise God and recognize God’s power and authority.  To recall God’s promises to care for us, and  our responsibility to each other – including an explicit reminder that how we treat one another is the clearest mirror into our relationship with God.  Jesus teaches his disciples a prayer that calls us out of ourselves, that is all about relationship –  have you ever noticed that it’s a communal prayer, spoken in the second person plural?  It’s not “I” and “me”, but “we” and “us”.  That’s not accidental.  It puts us all in the same boat, and reminds us of our dependence upon one another and upon God.

Which is necessary context, given what comes next.

Because if we, indeed, wouldn’t give our own kids bad things, if persistence is rewarded, then I totally should have had that pony as a kid.

In order to be ordained in the United Church of Christ, we all have to take CPE – clinical pastoral education, usually in a hospital setting.  I had one conversation with a patient that I hope never to forget.  He was excited to see the chaplain, first of all, which made the setting a little unusual.  But he didn’t really want to talk about himself; rather, we talked about his late wife’s illness and death.  I don’t remember, particularly, what disease she had.  I remember mostly that he – my patient – had prayed incessantly after her diagnosis.  He had prayed that it was all a mistake – that he’d wake up and find that it had been a nightmare.  But mostly, he had prayed for a cure for her, as they moved from doctor to doctor, discussing treatment options and side effects.  He had prayed for a cure, but it was as though he was  talking to a wall; the prayers didn’t seem to be going anywhere, didn’t seem to be heard, certainly weren’t being answered.  He prayed, but mostly felt abandoned and empty.

Until one day, an impulse made him change the words that he was using.  One day, for no particular reason, he asked God not to “cure her” but to “heal her”.  And the brick wall vanished.  That prayer, with its simple change, opened his eyes and opened his heart, so that he could see more clearly what his wife needed – not a cure, but healing.  With this new understanding, he was able to arrange time for his wife with several estranged family members; to try to heal the breaches before time ran out, to try to finish some unfinished business.  None of it helped her live longer, but it all helped her to live better, and to die more peacefully.

I asked this man what it felt like, when he changed that prayer.  He took a moment to think, and told me that it had been as though God had been waiting for him to stop navel-gazing and simply pray for HER.  Nothing more complicated than that.

And I wonder if that was all that Jesus was trying to do.

In that time, the style of prayer marked the disciple – John’s followers prayed like John.  But Jesus said, in essence, “don’t worry about style, worry about content.”

Let your prayer change you.

Let your prayer lead you to others, to love, to the Kingdom.

Let your prayer lead you to pray for humanity’s most basic needs: for nourishment, and love, and safety – that we may be delivered from evil.

Let your prayer put your wants and desires in perspective.

Here, Jesus said: pray this, and then just try to pray for a pony.  Go ahead.

Here: pray this, and then just try to walk away the same person you were before.

If you can, it’s worth asking whether you were really praying.

Try this, right now: Pray for your loved ones, that they might be fed, and loved, and and safe.

Now pray for the person who drives you crazy – we all have people like that in our lives!  Pray that the person who drives you crazy is fed, and loved, and safe.

Pray for the faceless millions in Syria, in Zimbabwe, or right here in town: that they are, each and every one of them fed, and loved, and safe.

Pray until it changes you.  Until your heart is turned.  Until God’s kingdom comes.

And Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” -Luke 12:15

Throughout the Bible, there are texts that make us all cringe; ones that we wish had not been included in this book of Holy Scripture.  But I would wager that for most of us, this is not one of those texts.  The ones that bother us tend to portray God as angry or judgmental, or suggest that we should, as well.  The texts that make us uncomfortable are the ones that would seem to suggest that if we do not walk the straight-and-narrow, God might stop loving us.  But passages like this one – and the majority of economic texts that make up the majority of the Gospels – these are familiar, and comfortable, and generally make us feel pretty good about ourselves.  And this one! well, this is a story about selfish people – a brother who wants more than his share, a rich old fool who doesn’t know what to do with his wealth!  They’re not like us!

This passage is also comforting for the very reasonable nature of the original premises.  (Which, in passing, should probably clue us in right there: God is very rarely reasonable.) We learned in Kindergarten that we ought to share.  Not too long after, we learned to save our pennies for “just in case”.  It took us a lot longer to learn that “make him share!” is often more an expression of our own greed and desire than it is a cry for justice; and that we humans very rarely know what “just in case” really means.

What do we value?  If our lives do not consist of abundant possessions… then what?

The rich man was not inherently bad for having all those crops.  It must have been a good year, with adequate division of rain and sun.  It’s likely that he was an able manager of his land, but as all good farmers will tell you, skill will only get you so far, and a lot relies on luck.  That year, the rich man was lucky.  As are many of us, who have regular incomes – which don’t make us bad people, assuming of course that our incomes are made honestly and with no harm to others.  But once we have that income, once we have gathered those crops – then what?  The measure of our lives is not in the accumulation of possessions, but in the contemplation of that accumulation.

Fill in the blank: you just received a windfall – a huge amount of money, so big that you never thought you’d see figures like that in your own bank account!  You look at your bank statement and think, “Wow.  NOW I can ___________.”

Would now be a bad time to remind you that God heard that thought?

Is that what you would say to God, if you came face-to-face?

I don’t know about you, but this text is making me pretty uncomfortable, all of a sudden.

Not uncomfortable in the “that doesn’t sound like the God I know!” sense – the one I’m used to.

But rather in the “that sounds entirely like the God I know, and maybe God’s talking to me…” sense.

Because I understand the rich man’s relief from worry.  The impulse to allow myself to relax, to live in a reduced sense of urgency and worry… only separates me further from those who still worry each and every day.  Who worry more about the roof over the heads and the food on their tables than I ever have.  The impulse to store away what I have gathered and reduce my own stress in the process only shows up my privilege, my sense of deserving the good that I receive.  It highlights the implication that those who don’t receive such good must not deserve it.  The implication that I am somehow better.  That we are better than they, that there are inherent differences in people, blessed and damned, rich and poor, hard-working and lazy, us and them…

Look at that.  Not only is this passage suddenly making me uncomfortable, it’s making me defensive, too.

in truth, I cannot separate myself from anyone else.  No one can. Not if we want to call ourselves Christians, at any rate.  Not if we want to follow the God that we do, in fact, recognize in this passage.

What do we value?  A culture of meritocracy, of possessions, of human preparation for the worst “just in case”?  Do our lives consist merely of this?

Or of each other?

Fr. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, wrote a memoir of his ministry in Los Angeles, entitled Tattoos on the Heart. He describes his parish, Dolores Mission: a church that takes in gang members, the homeless, and recent immigrants, gives them a new chance.  He describes some of the struggles of the church:

Once, while I turn the corner in front of the church, heading to a CEB meeting in the projects, I am startled by letters spray-painted crudely across the front steps:

Wetback Church

The chill of it momentarily stops me.  In an instant, you begin to doubt and question the price of things.  I acknowledge how much better everything is when there is no cost and how I prefer being hoisted on shoulders in acclaim to the disdain of anonymous spray cans…

Petra Saldana, a normally quiet member of the group, takes charge.

“You will not clean that up… If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mojados (wetbacks)…” Then she poises herself on the edge of the couch, practically ready to leap to her feet. “Then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church.”

These women didn’t just want to serve the less-fortunate, they were anchored in some profound oneness with them and became them…

It was at about this time that a man drove by the church and stopped to talk to me. He was Latino, in a nice car, and had arrived at some comfortable life and living. He knew I was the pastor. He waxed nostalgic about having grown up in the projects and pointed to the church and said he had been baptized and made his first communion there.

Then he takes in the scene all around him.  Gang members gathered by the bell tower, homeless men and women being fed in great numbers in the parking lot.  Folks arriving for the AA and NA meetings and the ESL classes…

“You know,” he says, “This used to be a church.”

I mount my high horse and say, “You know, most people around here think it’s finally a church.” …

The people at Dolores Mission had come to embody Wendell Berry’s injunction: “You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.”*

It wasn’t always smooth sailing: it’s not always popular, not always easy, to break the barriers that we have erected to keep out the “them”, to keep ourselves comfortable.  To give of our wealth, our sacred spaces, to someone who doesn’t think or act like us.

Yet that is our call.

You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.

You have to be able to value one another, more than our own security, our own sense of self.  You have to trust in the community to which God calls us: this Body of Christ of which we are all part.  You have to trust enough that the storehouses you build shelter, not possessions, but people.  To be willing to live “in the paradox of precariousness.  The money was never there when you needed it, and it was always on time.”**

In a culture of “I”, Christ calls us to a faith of “we”.  A faith of recognizing the gifts we are given, the blessings received – bumper crops, large salaries – as grace,  rather than as desserts.  As opportunity, as responsibility, rather than as a mark of favor.  In a culture that tells us that no one is watching out for us, that we have to rely entirely on ourselves, we are called to rely entirely on God, on the Body of Christ.  We are called to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and as we love God.  More than that, however, we are called to trust that we ourselves will be fed, and housed, and loved as though we ourselves were the image of God upon this earth.

In a culture that measures our lives in dollars and cents, we are called to a different measure, a different standard.  We are called to a different culture, and a long-expected kin-dom.  Thanks be to God!

*Boyle, Gregory: Tattoos on the Heart: the power of Boundless Compassion.  NY: Free Press.  2010.  pp 71, 73-74.

**Ibid, p. 5

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem into Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers…” Luke 10: 29-30a

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. – Deuteronomy 30:11

Who is my neighbor?

The man awoke to find that his nightmare had been reality.  He could barely move, although the gravel under his cheek was uncomfortable and the odor of the nearby trashcans was suffocating.  His friends had warned him never to walk home alone, at night, but then his car had broken down, and what other choice did he have?  He wasn’t even sure, thinking back, where the attackers had come from – just materialized out of the shadows, it had seemed, delivering a beating that probably should have killed him.  Certainly, they’d left him there as though he were dead, caring more for his wallet, keys and phone than for his life.  He tried not to think about what they were doing now – emptying his account, probably.  So much for rent, for bills this month… so much for being even a little bit ahead, it would be paycheck to paycheck for a while to come.  If he survived.

He thought about his family, how worried they would be.  Not now, he hoped; he’d told them not to wait up, that he’d be home later.  Would it be morning before they noticed?  Before someone came looking for him? Would he make it that long?

With as much strength as he could muster, he lifted his head.  He was close to the entrance to the alley, close to the street – perhaps someone would see him?  He blinked, sure he was seeing things, but sure enough – there was actually someone walking up his side of the street! A minister, he was sure of it – the white collar glowing slightly in the glare of the streetlamps.  He rested his head on the pavement again, exhausted from even that little bit of movement.  Surely the minister would see him, there in the alley?  Surely he would get help…

It was a long time before he could open his eyes again; long enough that he was sure the minister ought to have gotten to him by then.  What was taking so long?  For that matter, where had he gone?  The street was empty.  Wait: almost empty.  Was that an angel, under that streetlamp, dressed in white? He squinted; no, it was a doctor, or someone – the white was a lab coat.  He considered trying to drag himself closer to the street, where he could not be missed, but even the effort it was taking to keep his eyes open was too much.  He lay where he was, straining to hear footsteps; for a moment, he was certain that he could, but then the sound was gone without having come close, without having passed by the alley.  He raised his head and looked the other way up the street… but it couldn’t be…. wasn’t that the doctor, over there on the other side, walking away?  And a couple blocks further up, the minister?

He tried to understand.  They had to have seen him, but perhaps they were late – going to midnight mass, or going to surgery?  Perhaps they couldn’t stop and get messy right then… but the church and the hospital were both in the opposite direction…

His head fell again, and he felt a wave of drowsiness that had little to do with the late hour.  So this is it, he thought, this is how I will die.

Barely conscious, it took a moment to feel the arm that slipped around his shoulders, pulling him gently up.  It took less time to register the horrible smell – of stale alcohol, urine, and something else, indefinable and nauseating.  A low muttering reached his ears, apparently not directed at him at all.  He would have struggled, had he been able to – he was sure that this was another robber, picking over the remains like a vulture to see if anything had been missed.  But then he was scooped up and set upon something squishy but not comfortable… a gentle hand wiped blood and dirt from his face, and then they were moving, rattling along with a squeaking wheel.  The squeaking, the rattle, the low mumblings lulled him.

Bright lights and louder voices roused him somewhat, tho he still could not open his eyes.  He was lifted again, by sturdy, antiseptic-smelling arms; he could sense many people bustling about him but could not make sense of anything; he slipped again into unconsciousness.

When he woke, it was to the dim light of a hospital room, the beeping of monitors, the quiet presence of a nurse.  “How did I get here?” he asked.

“Old Joe,” she replied.  “You know, the homeless man who sleeps under the bridge? He wheeled you up here in his shopping cart…”

Who is my neighbor?

“Surely the commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” Like Naaman last week, who balked at the simple order to go wash himself in the Jordan, sometimes we’d rather get the complicated assignments.  Perhaps that’s why we enjoy the disciplines of Lent – we feel like we’re earning something, like we can prove to ourselves that we’re really up to the challenge of faith.

But the commandment that we have been given should be challenge enough, for all its simplicity.  Whether in Deuteronomy or in Luke, we are told simply to love God and to love our neighbor.  Every day.  Every moment.  Without ceasing.  And that is hard, actually, and there are certainly times when we wish it were farther away – there is truth in the old adage that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Like Naaman, we rail at something that seems too simple, that demands only that we leave behind our provincial biases, our human judgments, our comfortable assumptions.

Who is my neighbor?

We use the term “Good Samaritan” a lot in our culture, but mostly we don’t use it correctly.  Because the Samaritan is not someone who looks like us; it is not someone that we would expect to see coming to our rescue – or even that we might want to see, coming to our rescue.  Rather, the Samaritan is the person whom we would normally look down upon, or seek to avoid, or be disgusted by.  Most of us in this congregation will probably never be someone’s Samaritan, not really.

Yet this parable is still for us, in many ways.  It is for us because it is written from the perspective of the man in the ditch; the man who was beaten and left for dead; the one who was forced to see God in unexpected, unwanted places, and who might have preferred to push away the only hand that offered him help.

It is for us because we are the ones called to love our neighbors – even the Samaritans.  It is for us because love is not a one-way street; it is given but also received.  To be a neighbor, to have a neighbor, is necessarily to be in relationship with someone. Even when, at times, we’d rather not.

Who is my neighbor?

Old Joe was walking, simply walking.  Pushing his cart of belongings before him, debating with himself where he might sleep that night. Sometimes he noticed the looks people gave him as he passed, and he would realize that he’d been talking to himself, but mostly he had learned to ignore others.  It was easier than seeing their looks of disgust, or worse, watching their gaze just slide right over him, as though he didn’t exist.  They didn’t understand, and they didn’t want to, so Joe had no time for them.  Seems he had no time for a lot of people, recently.

He’d had a hard war, that’s what they’d said then.  What they hadn’t said was that war wasn’t nearly as hard as coming home. Drink had helped, but try telling that to any of the bosses that had fired him over the years – how much worse it would have been if he hadn’t been drinking!  No one ever saw it like that, though.  No one ever saw him like that, for that matter.

Old Joe couldn’t remember when he’d last had a home that wasn’t under a bridge… and even that was tough right now, with all the rain they’d had.  He was going to have to try to find someplace drier, he told himself, someplace where he and his things wouldn’t get washed downstream. But someplace where he wouldn’t have to wake up to the glares of his neighbors, the ones who considered him slightly less than a bag of garbage…

Suddenly, Joe was startled from his train of thought.  He’d been sure that both the doctor and the minister had been just ahead of him, going up the road… he looked around, momentarily confused, and saw that both had crossed to the other side of the street.  He frowned after them, uncertain what to make of this development, when out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of something in the alley.  Old Joe stepped closer, then knelt by the battered and bleeding figure.

He knew him.   Well, he knew many like him: well-dressed, even when casual – must be some sort of business man or something.  The kind who barely acknowledged Joe’s existence, except to glare at him for daring to live in the same town.  The kind who would never acknowledge a shared humanity, who considered Joe to be no more than a blot on the landscape, something that pulled the town’s economy down.  Something inconvenient and unwanted.

Why should he help this guy? If the situations were reversed, Joe was pretty sure that the guy wouldn’t have given him a second glance; that he would have crossed the street… Joe looked up at the retreating back of the doctor, just barely visible and already blocks away.  He sighed, looking again at the man in the alley.  Was he no better than they, that he’d consider leaving this guy to die?  If there was one thing Joe had learned in the war, it was that you didn’t ever leave a buddy.

As Joe hoisted the man into his arms, and laid him on the plastic bags of clothes in the shopping cart, he wondered aloud how the man would react if he were to wake up?  Would he be disgusted by Joe?  Push him away – the ultimate indignity from a man only half-alive? Joe paused: was he really willing to risk such rejection? Sighing, he turned the cart and pushed his way back to the hospital.

Who is my neighbor?

Am I his?

Surely this commandment is not too hard for you…