Prayer is the starting line, not the finish.

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus 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.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

For every prayer that is offered around the world today, there must be an equal amount of opinions and ideas, rules of thumb and conventions, that tell us how prayer works. As, seek, knock. Ask and keep asking. Seek and keep seeking. Knock and keep knocking. Pray boldly and you will receive. You need more faith to pray. You need to pray more. You need to pray for God’s will. You didn’t pray enough and you were punished with illness, suffering or death. Prayer brings us closer to God. Prayer doesn’t do anything. Prayer is for us, so that we know our needs. God hears the prayers of holy people more, especially pastors. God hears all prayers. God only gives us what we need. God will give you what you ask for. There are three answers to prayer, yes, no and maybe later. Prayer is like meditation. God speaks to us in prayer. You have to pray from the heart, you need to pray with words that have been prayed by the faithful for centuries.

Lost and confused yet?

Prayer is a key aspect of Christian life. We pray together each Sunday, we pray alone. We pray for many things here: for rain and sunshine. For Justice and peace. For those who are ill, who are grieving and in distress.

And still prayer can be a very frustrating aspect of Christian life. We want to know the hows, and the whens and the whys. Prayer carries with such expectation that it has the power to make things happen, and yet… we have prayed for and with those for whom prayers have not been answered. We have all had prayers that are not answered. And it begs us to wonder what use is prayer, and perhaps more painfully, why God does not hear us.

The disciples ask Jesus how to pray. And he gives them a mouthful.

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds familiar, but not quite. Of course it’s the Lord’s prayer, but not quite the one we remember. There is no earthly will of God mentioned in Luke’s version, but it is an earthy prayer that gives us a foundation. The Lord’s Prayer has grounded Christians for 2000 years. Daily bread, forgiveness of sins and salvation from trial and temptation.

This prayer is so engrained in us that we pray it without needing to think… like breathing. It becomes part of the most basic aspects of our living. It is a prayer that goes with us through life from beginning to end. A prayer prayed at baptisms and prayed at on death beds. A prayer prayed before meals and to end meetings, and each time right before we gather together at God’s table for the meal of bread and wine.

Yet, the disciples surely were not hoping for a prayer like this. They maybe wanted one of the cool ones like Jesus would pray. When Jesus would look to heaven and bread and fish would multiply, or dead children would be raised, or demons would scatter, or the sick, blind and lame would be healed, or when a man who had been a corpse for four days would rise up from a sealed tomb. The disciples, 70 of them, had been just sent out and had been healing and casting out demons in Jesus name. Yet, like us, they probably wanted to control such power, not for it just to happen without really knowing why. They want to know the trick, the formula to prayer.

We want prayer to be the same as rubbing a magic lantern. We hope that prayer can gives us wealth and happiness. We hope that it will save us from harm and heal everyone who is sick. Or at the very least, we all wish that prayer and its effects would be something we can measure simply and easily. But it isn’t… Jesus doesn’t do simple and easy.

(Pause)

With every new tragedy to scroll through facebook feeds and across the tickers on 24 hours news channels, we hear politicians and other leaders stand up and offer ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ for victims and families. Thoughts and prayers are offered so often, that these words feel like an empty phrase. Every time there is yet another horrendous act of violence, thoughts and prayers abound, but nothing seems to change. It makes us wonder, if all this praying is doing anything at all. It makes us wonder if there is a point to praying at all.

When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, it may seem like they are looking for some angle on power, on the ability to get stuff from God. They might be looking for what so many TV prosperity gospel preachers are offering.

But they might also be more like us and how we feel about prayer. They might be asking Jesus how to pray, because for them, prayer feels empty and powerless.

And so Jesus offers them a place to start, a beginning. Jesus give the disciples instructions on how to achieve great things in prayer, but how to start and begin.

Daily Bread, Forgiveness, Salvation from Trial.

God’s Kingdom come.

Jesus shows them that prayer doesn’t achieve the results but begins the process.

Praying for Daily Bread doesn’t feed all who are hungry.

Praying for Forgiveness doesn’t reconcile all peoples.

Praying for salvation in times of trial, doesn’t alleviate all suffering and pain.

Praying begins those things. Prayer is the starting place.

To put it another away, what would it look like if we didn’t pray for the world, the church and those in need.

How many refugees or migrants would ever find welcome if we didn’t pray for displaced persons week after week? None. Yet as pray for those without homes and displaced week after week, it is often people and communities of faith leading the way in sponsoring refugees, welcoming displaced persons at borders, offering shelter and compassion.

How many congregations would run food banks, serve at soup kitchens or offer meal programs if we didn’t pray for the hungry week after week? None! Yet, as we pray for daily bread, churches and people of faith have been the primary feet on the ground for feeding the hungry for years, decades, centuries!

Would we will be able to offer forgiveness if we didn’t pray that God would help us forgive? No we wouldn’t. Yet, as we ask for forgiveness, God shows us how to give forgiveness.

Where would we turn in times of trial, if we didn’t pray that God would save us week after week? We don’t know. Yet, as we pray that God would deliver us, God reminds us that we do not face the trials of our world on our own, but together as the Body of Christ.

Prayer is the beginning. In Prayer God reveals to us all the places where God’s Kingdom comes into world. In prayer, when we pray for daily bread, for forgiveness, for salvation from time of trial, we see that God’s Kingdom is breaking into the world with food for the hungry, with mercy and forgiveness for sinners like us, with salvation for those suffering under the shadow of death.

But even more than that, God gives us a way to speak about the needs of the world in prayer. God gives us words in prayer to speak about the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the dying without it sound like a depressing news report. Instead, prayer allows us to see where God is already at work meeting the needs of the world, and God gives us words to express this reality in prayer.

Prayer is a starting place, when we so often treat it like the end point. Prayer helps us to see where God is at work in the world, where God’s Kingdom is coming. Prayer helps give us the language to talk about the needs of the world without being overwhelmed and depressed by the brokenness of it all.

And so when we wonder with the disciples about whether prayer has any meaning or purpose, Jesus shows us that prayer is the starting place. The starting place to see God in our world. When another politician or leader or Facebook post offers “Thoughts and prayers” for something and we wonder if that does anything to help… Jesus shows us how to begin in prayer, how to begin with daily bread, with forgiveness and salvation from trial.

Jesus shows us that in prayer God’s Kingdom begins to come.

Amen.

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What is Jesus’ problem with Martha?

Luke 10:38-42

…But 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.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Read the whole passage)

As we continue through the summer, we are rolling through the scenes from Jesus’ ministry. Healings, exorcisms, forgiveness, parables and more. Last week Jesus challenged the young lawyer’s views on what it means to be saved and who our neighbours are, by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan whom we found out is not someone we are supposed to be, but who God is. The one who comes to find us and rescue us from the ditch.

Today, we take a break from ministry and work. Instead, Jesus goes to dinner. Dinner with his friends, Mary and Martha. These two sisters have become icons and symbols of handwork, effort and busyness on the one hand and reflection, attentiveness and faithfulness on the other.

Jesus is waiting for the meal to be prepared, something we have all done in the living room of someone else’s house. Presumably Martha is not just cooking for Jesus, but for his disciples, and maybe even Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother too. It is a big job to get the meal ready. Meanwhile, Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he has to say. So Martha is annoyed that her sister is not helping cook the meal (we will just leave the fact that she isn’t mad at her brother aside). Martha comes to Jesus and tells him to set her sister straight and send her into the kitchen. And then we get this famous line from Jesus: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Some 2000 years later, Mary and Martha have become iconic and symbolic of the ways we often categorize and label each other in the church.

Marthas are often understood to be the be do-ers in our midst. The ones ushering, folding bulletins, pounding in loose nails, planting flowers, making coffee, keeping things neat, tidy and clean.

Marys are often understood to the be the ones interested in faith, in learning, thinking, and praying. The ones at bible study, looking for books on spirituality, asking questions about faith.

I would bet that if we surveyed groups of committed church folks about who they identified with, most would probably raise a hand for Martha.

In fact, it isn’t just in church that we value busyness and hard work above stillness, listening and learning. Our world certainly lifts up the characteristic of a Martha above those of a Mary. Being busy is a badge of honour, being productive is sign of status, getting things done is a trait of value.

I wonder why that is in the church? And in the world?

It isn’t just our tendency to value productivity and work. It goes deeper than that.

Martha’s busyness is a means of self-justification. If her work is valuable (even if she hates doing it) than she by extension is also of value.

Whereas Mary’s idleness, her openness and listening posture are things we struggle to put a price tag on. Mary isn’t doing something that translates into giving herself self-worth.

It is okay to be a Martha type even as Jesus scolds her for being worried and frantic.

But it is rarely okay to be Mary, to simply listen and be and set aside trying to constantly justify ourselves by showing our value and worthiness through our work.

And yet, Jesus’ lack of sympathy or understanding for Martha is surprising. Because we can hear it as a lack of caring for a lot of the ways in which we spend our time.

If Jesus gives Martha a hard time about her dinner preparations, how would Jesus feel about our 50 and 60 hour work weeks, about our are high rates of burnout and stress, about our constant consumption in order to increase productivity, our endless pursuit of economic growth?

It perhaps too simple to think that this story is about a choice between to opposites – Mary and Martha.

And yet, Jesus’ issue with Martha is not specifically her work ethic or busyness. While he does say that Mary’s desire to learn and grow in faith is good and important and something to value. Jesus is setting a boundary with Martha. A boundary about being drawn into her conflict with her sister. When Jesus’s pushes back against Martha’s request, is not because he is judging her choice of activity. Jesus is refusing to be drawn into a conflict between two others. If Martha has a problem with her sister Mary, she should take it to Mary directly. Jesus is refusing to be triangulated.

Usually, the good news sounds like Jesus healing, forgiving, exorcizing demons, raising to life, rescuing us from the ditch of sin and death. Yet, while it may sound odd, Jesus setting a boundary is good news too. Jesus refusing to be triangulated is good news too.

When Jesus sets a boundary refusing to be drawn into our drama, it means that God is free from the burdens our of conflict, the burdens of our sins, the burdens of our suffering. God is free to let go and forgive. God can act to take hold of us and care for us. God can respond in a way that we need, rather than the one we want.

When Jesus refuses to be triangulated, it means that God will not be distant from us, that God makes no obstacles for our salvation, that God does not operate through intermediaries. Rather God deals directly with us. God does not talk about our salvation with someone else, but deals directly with us.

When Jesus refuses to get involved with Martha and Mary’s issue today, Jesus is showing us something much more important about how God deals with us. And that is directly.

For you see, the better thing reaches both Mary and Martha today. Mary first hears it at Jesus’ feet as she sets aside her quest for self-justification… as she lets go of her own baggage, her own fears about needing to follow to the rules, to be valued for what she contributes and produces. Jesus gives Mary the better thing, the one thing that she needs – the Word of God.

And yet, even as Martha lashes out to Jesus, even as she complains about her sister, even as she stuck in a cycle of trying to be good enough on her own, by her own power… Jesus still reaches out Martha. Jesus breaks through Martha’s business and proclaims to her too the Word of God.

And of course that is the point of this story. It is a not a choice between idleness and busyness, not a prescription for what we need to be doing. It is a reminder, a declaration of what God is doing for us. That God comes to us with the good news, with the better thing, no matter our efforts or not to save ourselves.

And God has always been coming, always been meeting us where we are. Always speaking to us whether we have set our own baggage aside or whether we are trying to pull Jesus into our drama. Whether we are Mary or Martha or both:

God speaks to us directly through God’s word.

God washes us directly in the waters of baptism.

God feeds us directly in the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper.

God saves us directly, not through works or laws or prayers or righteousness.

When God saves us, God just saves us.

Today, we might wonder if we are Marys or Marthas, we might feel like both.

But there is no question about how Jesus deals with us. Directly.

The dust that just won’t shake off

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20a

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. (Read the whole passage)

Churches love “how to” manuals. Church leadership, Bishops, Pastors, Church councils, committees often love the idea that the next “how to” program will be just the perfect thing to solve all our problems. Want more people to get involved? Start an evangelism program. Need to increase giving? Get a stewardship program up and running. Want to make sure kids and teens learn the faith? There are tons of sunday school, youth group, confirmation, faith in the home, discipleship programs on “how to” make these things happen. And we love them as North American Christians. To write them, read them, sell them, buy them, use them… and well eventually give them up for the next “how to insert blank” program that comes along.

Today, Jesus offers us what could very well be the first Christian Evangelism and Discipleship program. Jesus sends the 70 with specific instructions, he is putting into action a discipleship and leadership program, which will result in the 70 carrying out an evangelism program. Two for one deal!

Jesus gives the 70 some very practical advice on how to take the message of the Gospel out into their world. A world were most people did not travel farther than 50 miles from the place where they were born. A world where communities knew everyone who passed through town. A world where you only left your home and your work for select reasons. If you were in the military you might travel more of the world. If you were a landless merchant that had to bring your wares to your customers to make a living.

And so for these 70 disciples who were neither merchants nor soldiers, Jesus gives some instruction. Don’t carry much with you, don’t look like a solider or merchant, don’t be a target for thieves. Accept hospitality, but don’t overstay your welcome. And know when you aren’t welcome, keep moving. Jesus was preparing his followers for specific mission in their time and place.

But the “how to” evangelism and discipleship program that Jesus outlines today seems completely foreign for us. It doesn’t fit for the world that live in. Not because it would be too hard to drop everything and go evangelize, but because it would be too easy. We can’t even begin to imagine leaving all our responsibilities behind. Leave your house and mortgage payments, car and car loan, your job and its’ pressures behind. Let your kids raise themselves. Let your community groups, and churches find other volunteers. Forget about credit card payments, grocery shopping, lawn mowing and unread emails. Leave it all behind for the open road, leave it for a life of simply telling people about Jesus. For us, this is almost like a holiday from every day life and responsibilities.

But we wouldn’t be able to do it. Most of us have lives that we cannot just drop. We have obligations to family, to work, to community, to neighbours. We could not let ourselves drop it all.

And so, instead Jesus’ discipleship program comes to us a modern people heavy laden with burdens and it becomes another thing on our to do list. Take kids to hockey, go for coffee with PTA president, check in on elderly mom and dad, pay property taxes and tell people about Jesus. In that order.

The trouble for the 70 would have been venturing out into the unknown, leaving familiar work, homes and communities for a new world. But our trouble is not the same.

We are relatively good as a society at getting through our “to do” lists. When we are given a “how to” program, we are generally pretty good at pulling it off. We are good at keeping soccer teams busy, at making sure church councils meet monthly, at running school bake sales and chocolate almond fundraisers that almost always raise the required funds. Our problem is slowing down long enough to ask, “why?”.

In fact, most of us would much rather commit to a weekly “how to” program than be forced to gather together together for one afternoon of open ended conversation about why this faith stuff is important to us.

So as people good at “how to”, what would Jesus say to us? How would Jesus send us out? What would our “How to” program look like?

This week the ELCIC will meet in National Convention in Regina to conduct the business and set the next 3 years of priorities for the National Church.

Like local congregations, the National Church has been dealing with declining numbers, and while giving in most congregations has gone up to meet rising expenses, giving to the national church has gone down.

And also like most of us, our larger church structure has been very focused on the “how to” part of being the church, often at the expense of reminding ourselves “why” it is important to be the church in first place. As church committees and leaders search for the next “how to” program that will save us, pastors, synods and Bishops have done the same at synodical and national levels.

If Jesus were at our National Convention or worshipping here with us today, he would probably tell us all the same thing. Jesus would probably start by telling us that programs don’t work. There are no simple steps to sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God come near. And for churches, synods and national structures that have become so good at “how to”, we have forgotten the “why”. The why do we do these programs in the first place.

Jesus would say to us, “Its about the dirt”.

“The dirt that that sticks to your feet.

The dirt that you cannot just shake off after a day of walking.

The dirt that tells the stories of where you have been and what you have done”.

It was into the very dust of the earth that God first breathed the breath of life, into Adam the dirtling that God brought creation to life. And then God came to join us in our dirt, in our dust, in our flesh. God lets our dustiness cling to God’s feet reminding us that God has come to stay. And God clings to us in the flesh of Christ, reminding that we cannot shake God off, no matter how much we protest.

“The Kingdom of God has come near to you, God is sticking to you like dirt that you just cannot shake off or wash away.”

While the 70 are worrying about getting on the open road, and while we are focused on “how to” make sure that we can pay for National Church programs, making sure we have enough people for leadership teams, for worship roles, for setting up chairs and unlocking doors… For making sure our kids learn “how to” dance, sing, play, making sure we tick off our to do lists of paying bills, getting work projects complete, gardens planted and lawns mowed… Jesus is telling us the same why. The same why to be the church, the same why to hit road, the same why to be people of faith.

“The Kingdom of God has come near”. God has come to us in flesh, spoken to us in human voice and sticks to us like dirt that just cannot be shaken from our bodies. God comes to us in the dirtiness of life, the times when the “how to” programs aren’t working, and when the “to do” lists are too long to get done.

The God who meets us in the dirt, and who clings to us, is not concerned with “how” the message gets told. The “how to” program is not the point. The nearness of the Kingdom is. The God of dusty flesh simply wants us to know that Kingdom of God is near. That the King of creation is near and close to us. So near and close, that we can know what God feels like, looks like, sounds like simply by looking at our neighbour, by touching a loved one, by hearing God’s word read aloud, by sharing in the bread and wine that came from the very dust of the earth and becoming one in Christ’s dusty body.

The Why is that God has come to near to us, so that we can know that we are not alone. So that we can know that God is not unmerciful, that God is not unforgiving, and that we are not dead, but alive in Christ. The near and close incarnate Christ, who has given us good news to share.

We are “how to” people, but God is a “why to” God. And even so, Jesus knows that without the occasional “how to” we would be completely lost and so today, he gives one to the 70. And for us, Jesus gives the same how to. Sharing the good news of the kingdom is not an item on a to do list, but a way of being. It is a dirty, dusty life, but a life that is breathed into by the near and close God. By the God who will not be shaken off.

Yes, we love our “how to” programs, our to do lists, and unending lists of obligations and responsibilities. But God loves us, and that is the “why” the Kingdom of God is near to you.