Imagine getting asked the same question over and over 100 times a day. As a cast member at Disneyland it happens. Every. Single. Day. “Where’s the bathroom?” “Where’s Mickey?” “How do I find Space Mountain?” But my favorite of all time is this. “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” I kid you not. Not once but many times a day I would get asked that very question. And it’s hard – I mean REALLY hard – not to get sarcastic. The answer isn’t just obvious, but they said it themselves. “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” Disney believes how you answer THAT question will determine not only your character, but how successful you are.
The key to Disney’s success is radical hospitality.
It’s anticipating the needs of others and seeking to fill those needs even before they ask. And part of that process is to humble yourself. It’s to assume other people aren’t idiots, but instead trying to tell us something. So we have to learn to listen. One of my favorite stories about this happened when Disneyland first opened. They had installed these flower beds and grassy areas along the walkways of the hub – that central circular area in front of the castle – because they wanted it to look nice, but people were walking through them in a rush to get to Tomorrowland and Frontierland to ride these new rides they had heard about. In their excitement, the newly sodded areas were getting stomped on and Walt asked his team what they should do about it. One guy said they needed to build fences around the flower beds so people wouldn’t step on them. Another said they should put up big signs saying “Don’t walk on the grass.” And Walt said they should rip out the flower beds and newly sodded grass and instead put in new walkways. He told his team, “People are showing us what they want and it’s up to us to give it to them.” Meet the needs of others.
Jesus gave us a similar example.
Think about the story in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats where Jesus is telling his disciples a story about a day when everyone will be judged by what they’ve done in life and he starts separating people into two groups, one on his right and one on his left. He says to the group on his right, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” We may not realize it, but how we treat others says more about us than about them.
Peter offers us some advice in this department.
When this letter was written, it was a time of persecution for the Christian community. By that I don’t mean they were worried about “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” They were being imprisoned, stoned, and killed for their beliefs. So this letter was written to not only give Christian followers hope, but to inspire them to courageous action through love and great hospitality as we are about to read.
7 The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. 8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. – 1 Peter 4:7-11
Peter challenges us to take hospitality to the next level!
To really go above and beyond what’s expected and to do the extraordinary. He doesn’t tell the church to put up with one another or to respect one another. Peter tells them they need to LOVE one another, and not just love one another, but love one another DEEPLY. How many of you love your neighbor deeply? How many of you love your spouse DEEPLY? I’m sure all of you, but do we always show it? It’s hard to love one another when we’re annoyed or when we feel put out. But Peter challenges us to do just that, to put negative feelings aside, justified or not, and to find it in your heart to love the other person. Then he wants you to go one more step, and be more than just hospitable, but to do it without grumbling. We’ve probably all been told at least once in our life, “Say it like you mean it.” And that’s what Peter is calling on us to do – not just to say the words but to follow up as if you mean it. And the one that really emphasizes how radical Peter is calling upon the church to act is he says, “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.” That’s the kind of thoughtfulness we need to have when we speak to one another. Words have power. The power to hurt, the power to heal, the power to convince, so choose your words wisely as if you are speaking on God’s behalf, because you are.
Did you know a person decides in the first seven minutes if they are coming back?
When visiting a church, a person decides within the first seven minutes if they are coming back. They haven’t heard a sermon, sang a song, or bowed a head in prayer and already they’ve decided if they’re coming back. Of course, the rest of the service matters too. It can make or break if a person decides to stay long-term. But those first seven minutes are crucial in making a good first impression. And we all know how important it is to make a good first impression. It can make or break a relationship. And visitors notice EVERYTHING! From how well you keep up your property to how clean the pews are to how nice the bulletin looks, it all matters because it says something about who we are and what we value. But what makes the biggest difference is how we welcome people – not only one another but people we don’t yet know. Imagine going to a dinner party at someone’s home you don’t know very well. For many of us, that kind of situation is pretty intimidating. You might feel awkward. You might feel anxiety about meeting new people. You might worry about sticking out or not fitting in, like wearing sweats to a formal dinner party or a tux to a backyard BBQ. All of these nervous feelings might be stirring inside of you, but when you feel welcome, when you are made to feel like part of the group, your mind starts to relax and you can really take everything in. Visitors to our church are often feeling those same things so what we do next in helping them to feel welcome and part of the group is the first and biggest hurdle to overcome.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone walking into a church for the first time.
Or at least the first time in a long time. It takes a lot of courage to walk in those doors not knowing what kind of church this is. Churches have a reputation for being judgmental and unwelcoming, plus someone new has no idea about our traditions, our worship style, or what to expect. So helping them to feel at ease is incredibly important. Are they greeted when they walk in? Are they invited to come and sit with someone? Are they introduced to others? These are all hallmarks of the kind of hospitality Jesus calls on the church to make. I know that makes some of you uncomfortable because it makes ME uncomfortable, but think about what a difference it can make.
Let’s go back to our first question and why Disney’s key to success is in how we answer it.
“What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” It might seem like a dumb question, but if that’s how you approach it, then that’s the attitude that will come forth. And who wants to be part of a group that thinks you’re dumb? Where is the hospitality in that? Instead, we need to consider what they need. What are they really after? Because most of the time, what seems like a dumb question isn’t dumb at all. They just don’t know how to ask for the answers they’re seeking. When people ask, “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” they’re really asking, “What time will the parade get HERE?” If you’ve seen a parade at Disneyland, you know the 3 o’clock parade STARTS at 3 o’clock SOMEWHERE, but from one end to the other it can be half an hour or later before it gets to where you are sitting. Maybe they want to know if they have time to grab a bite to eat. Or go to the restroom. Or change their kid’s diaper. There’s a lot hidden behind an innocent question and the trick is to figure out what the real question is and answer THAT. It’s not always easy, but it starts by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It starts by looking for the needs of others. The same is true for the church. We might know what to expect in worship. We might know communion is always on the 1st Sunday and what we do with the bread and wine. We might know we stand up to sing at the beginning of worship and at the end. But a newcomer doesn’t know those things. They are nervous. They are anxious. And it took every ounce of courage they had to step into this place today. So it’s up to us to treat them as guests in our home. To help them feel at ease. And most importantly to welcome them in the name of Jesus Christ. So I want to challenge you today and all this month, if you see someone you don’t know, go up and say “hi.” Introduce yourself and invite them to come sit with you. You can talk to your friends outside of church, but this might be the only opportunity you have to make a good first impression. Take it. You never know what kind of a difference it might make.
I’ve been into comics since I was about six or seven years old. My dad would bring me issues of the Incredible Hulk and I loved them. I didn’t have a lot – just whatever my dad would give me – but I treasured them and read them over and over. To this day, I collect the Hulk. It still reminds me of my dad. I started to really get into the stories. I would borrow the collected editions from the library. I’d read them when we went to get an eye exam because our optometrist had a huge selection. And then somewhere around junior high, I went from being an occasional reader to a comic book collector. I can even pinpoint what book kicked it off for me – Uncanny X-Men #147, “Rogue Storm”. I was fascinated by the X-Men so slowly I began collecting older issues, trading with friends, and then becoming a regular at my local comic book store where my dad or mom would take me every week. I was definitely in it for the stories, but I noticed there was another type of collector who frequented my local store. The SPECULATOR! (Duh-duh-duh). These people thought of comics solely as an investment. They would come into the store and walk down the new comic book aisle, picking up one of every issue, two if it was a first issue, and immediately place them into plastic bags and put them into a storage box. And there they would sit. They wouldn’t even read them because that would make them less pristine. Instead, they sat in a bag, in a box, on a shelf. Never fulfilling their intended use. In that way, our faith is like comic book collecting. We can either enjoy it as it was intended, or we can put it on a shelf, condemned to never live out its true purpose. The love of God is meant to be cherished. Our faith is meant to be explored. Our hope in Christ is meant to be shared. It isn’t supposed to be hidden away.
We often feel unprepared, unworthy, and ill equipped to do the work God has called us to do.
But that’s usually a lack of confidence in ourselves instead of an actual inability to do God’s will. You have the tools you need to share your faith and the love of God, because the work of God is more about attitude than aptitude. Like so many things, the work of God is more about attitude than aptitude. Jesus talks about this in the parable we are going to share this morning. This story we are about to hear from Jesus is known as the Parable of the Sower. Now, you could read it from two different perspectives – either as the seed or the sower. As the seed, Jesus is calling on us to be responsive to his Word; to be planted in good soil and produce a crop, but as the sower we have a different perspective. As we read the passage, I want you to picture yourself in the story as the sower that Jesus talks about, and picture in your mind that this is a task God empowers us to do.
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” 9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” – Mark 4:1-9
You are the sower.
YOU are the sower. The seeds God is referring to are the bits of knowledge and wisdom we have gained from our own experience with Jesus. They are part of the fruit he produces in us. And now it’s our turn to use those seeds to grow new fruit, which will produce even more of a harvest for God. But without us spreading his seeds, it’s so much harder for new fruit to grow. We are important to God’s plan. You might be timid about it. You might worry about wasting your time, energy, and effort if you can’t produce results. You don’t want people to think you’re foolish. You might be embarrassed to share your faith. All of these thoughts play into our decision as we think about becoming the kind of farmers God wants us to be. But in this parable, Jesus is encouraging us to plant everywhere. We cannot become better harvesters if we don’t ever attempt to do what needs to be done. We can’t tell what will work and what won’t unless we try. We learn best by DOING. The point Jesus is making here is about our faithfulness to the planting process. When we do what we are supposed to, not every seed we plant in someone’s heart will take root. Not every effort we make will bear fruit. But when it does, it is worth it.
The PROCESS is important.
The act of planting seeds in people’s hearts is vital to growing our collective faith. And that’s because people who aren’t Christian aren’t walking around saying to themselves, “Oh, I wish I were a Christian.” “If I were Christian, my whole life would be better!” “If only someone would show me how to BE a Christian!” No. Most people are not simply one step away from accepting Christ. Most people don’t know they need Jesus in their life and certainly aren’t looking for someone to show them the way. For the most part, they’re walking around thinking life is pretty good – or not. Some are happy, some are sad, but they don’t KNOW that there’s another kind of life waiting for them. They don’t know there is a whole different kind of existence when you have Christ in your life. They don’t know how GOOD it can be! It’s like Indian food. There’s nothing like a good bowl of dal or a good pot of butter chicken and there are times I CRAVE, absolutely CRAVE masala dosa. But before I TRIED Indian food, I never knew what I was missing. I could take it or leave it, and honestly I preferred to leave it. I never had it, never saw it, never smelled it, and frankly never wanted it. I was happy enough in my life without it and I wasn’t all that interested in trying something new, but when Cassie asked me to I loved it! I wish I hadn’t waited so long to try it, and I always encourage people to eat it. If you like Chinese food or just kind of spicy food, you’ll love the flavors of Indian food. But had Cassie not come along and invited me to try it, I would have lived life perfectly happy, not knowing what I was missing. Christianity is like that. It’s this awesome, incredible, wonderful part of life that makes everything more meaningful and more worth living, but unless you know you need it, you can just go on without it.
That’s why it’s so important for us to share our faith instead if hiding it away on a shelf.
Because we have the power to change lives. Through God’s grace and God’s love, we have the power to change lives. And it doesn’t take any more knowledge or power than what God has already given you. Think about the ways in which God has changed your life. Think about the difference God has made in the way you live. Think about how you approach life differently because God is a part of it. Those are the seeds you have to share. Biblical knowledge is great and you should be encouraged to grow deeper in your faith with it, but if you’re waiting to know “enough” about the Bible to answer every question or counter every argument, you’ll be waiting your whole life. Our quest to learn about God never ends. You won’t graduate in this life. But you have enough to share your faith, whether you believe it or not. You are enough. The seeds God has put in your pouch are enough. Now who are you going to share them with?
I know fear is a big part of why we don’t share our faith.
Fear of failure, fear of being inadequate, fear of your own lack of knowledge – but fear should never stop you from planting seeds. In fact, it should do just the opposite. It should inspire you and encourage you and motivate you to go out there anyway. Fear of the number of lives you fail to change because you chose NOT to share your faith. Fear of what God will say when you die and he asks you what you did with your faith. Fear of knowing you had the power to change people’s lives and didn’t do it. I was visiting with a woman at one of the churches I served, and I’ll never forget the story she told me. She said that although she went to church every week and it was important to her, she didn’t want to force her faith on her children. She wanted them to choose for themselves what path they would follow. So after they reached a certain age, she didn’t encourage them to come to church. She let them choose. Naturally, they chose to stay home. They chose to go out with friends. They chose a life away from God. And they often floundered in life, struggling with fear, worry, anxiety, and insecurity. Later in life, her daughter started to come to church again. In it, she found many of the answers that had eluded her for so long. One day, she asked her mother why it was she never shared her faith. When her mother told her she wanted her to find out for herself, the daughter said, “I wish you had told me all of this years ago. You should have told me why you believed. If it was that important to you and to me, you should have told me why you believed. It would have saved me years of pain and frustration.” Her story really touched my heart. While I do believe ultimately we have to choose whether or not to follow God, how can we choose when we don’t even know what the choices are? Is our lack of faith that profound that we can’t even share it with those closest to us? Don’t let fear hold you back. Instead use it as a motivation to share the love of God with those around you.
Be bold in your faith.
You may not have all the answers, but no one does. Not me, not you, not any one except God. So if you’re waiting to be “ready” you’ll never get there. Like riding a bike, like learning to walk, like planting seeds, like anything in life we gain knowledge in the doing. Some of our seeds may land on infertile ground, but we learn from it. Some of our seeds may start to bloom and then wither under the weeds, but we learn from it. Some of our seeds might get taken away, and in each instance we learn how to be better at sharing our faith. We learn what works for us and what doesn’t. If fear is holding you back, it’s because you don’t fear the consequences enough to do something about it. And if you feel like you’ve tried and failed, just remember, the one who plants the seeds isn’t always the one who harvests them. The one who plants the seeds isn’t always the one who harvests them. Don’t be frustrated in your attempts. Don’t worry that you don’t see fruit right away. There are plants that take years to harvest. The fig trees that Jesus always seems to be talking about take anywhere from three to five years to produce any figs. A traditional apple tree can take anywhere from six to seven years to give any fruit. And olive trees can give fruit as early as three and sometimes as late as 12 years. You might be the one to plant the seed, but it might take a team of people to finally harvest it. So do not be discouraged by a lack of results, but instead be faithful to the planting process. It’s the planting of the seeds that honors God. If we don’t share our faith, it’s like putting a comic book into a bag without ever reading it. An unread comic is a wasted comic. An unsowed seed is a wasted seed. And a life without Christ is a mere shadow of what it could be.
When you were a kid, you just did it. No one ever came up and told you to make someone’s head purple or their arms red and their feet blue. No one. But if you’ve had kids or worked with kids and have seen them color, you know that’s what you get, especially when they are little. I’m pretty sure I kept some of Emma’s early artwork in coloring and basically it was a free form expression of the world – and by that I mean she took one color out of the Crayola crayon box and furiously scribbled back and forth across the sheet until it was covered in swirls and strokes of that one color. She would rip it out of the book and give it to me as a present. She was so proud of it, and why shouldn’t she be? It came from her. But as we would color together, she would watch to see what I was doing and sometimes would get frustrated because she thought her pictures didn’t look as pretty as mine. I thought hers were great! But mine looked more like what you saw on the cover of the book. Mine looked more like what you would see in cartoons on television. And I’m sure that is what she was comparing it to. I remember getting praised when I was little for coloring within the lines and people giving me oohs and aahs the more “realistic” I got. Looking back, I wonder if I was the one who was less creative. Maybe my picture was the one that wasn’t really as pretty. Maybe the problem is us.
We teach conformity.
In school, at home, on TV. We teach conformity. We teach people how to see the world the way we see it. Maybe in small, subtle ways, but it becomes a part of our lives and we end up having a much more narrow view of the world because of it. We teach people how to color within the lines. And when people violate those rules, we become uncomfortable with it. We try to steer them back toward what is in our comfort zone. But maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should be encouraging people to do things outside the lines, have more “outside-the-box” thinking. In doing so, we might unleash a firestorm of incredible ideas that could change the world for the better. In the course of history, there have been many incredible people who have colored outside the lines and thank God they did so. They didn’t follow conventional thinking. They didn’t do things the way they were supposed to be done and they ended up breaking down barriers we didn’t even know existed. Things we take for granted today at one time were thought heresy or useless or a waste of time. Copernicus advanced the theory that the Earth was not the center of the universe and he was scoffed at for such thinking. Even Martin Luther, the famous theologian who himself had some pretty radical ideas at the time, said of Copernicus “This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but the sacred scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.” When Walt Disney was making Snow White and the Seven Dwarves many were calling it “Disney’s Folly” sure it was going to bankrupt him and his company. But when it came out, it broke records at the box office and was the biggest hit for over 10 years until another little movie came out – Gone With the Wind. Snow White became the foundation of Disney animation into the next century. There are literally dozens of stories out there like these, stories of people who were thought foolish or silly or dumb because they had ideas that were out of the box but who were groundbreakers and revolutionized how we thought about the world. We need these creative sparks, these new ideas. We need these to grow and learn and evolve into the kind of people who can explore our untapped potential. If we want to be all God created us to be, we need to explore our creativity.
And we can be sure that God is a God of boundless creativity!
Just look at what he has done! The book of Genesis, the very first book in the Bible is a testimony to God’s creative act. At a conference I went to, Erwin McManus was speaking. Erwin is the lead pastor at Mosaic. He calls Mosaic a community of faith instead of a church because he has learned the very idea of church comes loaded with all sorts of fixed images and expectations and he wanted to create a space where God could be expressed in many different ways. He’s also the author of many books and is passionate about creativity. And one of the things he talked about stuck in my mind. He said, “We’ve turned the Bible into a manual of conformity. It’s time to redeem it as a manifesto of creativity.” He was telling us about how difficult it is to get a book published about faith. His publisher told him that if he wanted more of his books to sell, he would need to stop writing about things that challenge our perception of faith and instead write books that confirm what people already believe. They told him that people have fixed ideas in their heads about the nature of God and faith and they don’t like to buy books that challenge those perceptions. They may be right, but what does that say about us? Is it true we only seek out those things that confirm what we already believe? You only need to look at Facebook and Instagram to see that model works out. Can we train ourselves to overcome that limited perspective and learn something new? I believe we can. It’s in our nature.
4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. – Genesis 2:4-9,19-22
I like this account of creation.
When we talk about creation we often read from Genesis 1 because it really expresses the POWERFUL nature of God and gives scope to the immensity of what God can do, but this account in Genesis 2 really puts God in the center of his creation. He literally breathes life into us. And I love this image of God creating the world with humanity in mind. Adam gets the opportunity to name all the animals. I think he could have done a better job with “aardvark” but that’s just being picky. Still this passage is a great example of God’s creative genius. God formed man with his own hands. Then he formed all the animals again with his own hands. He created the water and the trees and everything around us. Our God is a God of boundless creativity! And if we are truly created in God’s image, don’t you think God created us to be creative as well? We need to challenge ourselves to color outside the lines once in a while, to challenge old ways of doing things in favor of new ways of expressing ourselves. The world around us is constantly changing and to meet the needs of a changing world, we need to change with it. We need to explore new ideas and new ways of understanding God in the world today instead of trying to shove God inside of a book.
People use the Bible as a weapon of conformity.
They read into it what they want it to say. Like in accounting, you can pretty much manipulate God’s Word to get it to say anything you want. For centuries the Bible was used (and is still used today) to suppress women from serving as teachers of the Word. Even though any actual reading of the Bible shows women who were leaders and teachers for God. For centuries the Bible was used to take away the rights of those with dark skin, calling them cursed of God even though the Bible doesn’t say that anywhere. It takes a really twisted reading of the stories of God to come up with that interpretation. Today, we use the Bible to condemn and oppress people for all sorts of other ways of living and ignore God’s command to love one another. Christ tells us specifically in John 13 that by loving one another, people will know we are his followers, but we still fail to do that. We have very fixed ideas about worship, about prayer, about communion, about a whole host of other things that we claim come from the Bible when they actually do not. And when life happens different from our fixed ideas we can become critical and mean. At almost every church I’ve been at, I would preach from in front of the pulpit. It felt it gave me a better chance to connect with everyone and most people seemed to appreciate it. Except for one person who hated it. She even told me she thought I was being disrespectful to Christ by preaching in front of the cross as if I thought I was more important than Jesus. Her concept of what worship should and should not be was being challenged and she responded fiercely.
If we really are the people of God, we need to listen HARD to what God is saying to us.
We need to expand our ways of thinking and be open to how God might be communicating to us today. We should open up our minds to new and original ways of conceiving God’s grace and mercy in the world and see if how we are behaving and how we are reacting to the world around us is in line with what we know about God. We need to remember that God has used some of the most unlikely people to be his representatives in the world. Abraham and Sarah were literally the parents of Israel even though they were advanced in age and Sarah had been infertile. Moses would become the spokesperson for all the Israeli people in captivity despite his speech impediment. And Cyrus, King of Persia, was blessed by God to be the one to bring the Israeli people back from exile – even though he wasn’t even a believer! What would our faith look like without these champions of God? What if they weren’t open to God’s creative work in their lives? Spend some time this week being creative. Do something different. Whether it’s cooking a new food, eating a new type of cuisine, picking up a coloring book and drawing outside the lines, whatever it is try something new. Be open to God’s creative work in the world, dare to be different, and keep an open mind about what might happen to you!
If you haven’t heard of E. Stanley Jones, he was a very influential Methodist preacher and missionary, best known for his work in India. Of his many friends was a man you might know by the name of Mahatma Gandhi. Yes, that Gandhi. Together they had many conversations about Christianity, and in one of those conversations, Jones turned to his friend and said, “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” To which Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.” It’s hard to refute Gandhi of all people. Plus, it’s true. There are so many ways we fall short of the Christ-like way we should treat one another. It’s particularly noticeable in how often we disagree. Instead of working things out, we break off and start a new group who thinks just like us. That’s exactly what’s happening in the United Methodist Church right now. If everything goes according to plan, we will split over the issue of sexual identity inclusion. Some churches have already fled, not even bothering to wait and instead choosing to sue the denomination in court. How Christ-like does that seem? And how do you think it looks to those on the outside? Did you know that there are approximately 41,000 different Christian denominations? 41,000! I didn’t know we could disagree so fundamentally on 41,000 different things.
And of course, we’re right and they’re wrong…whoever “we” and “they” are.
Neither side is willing to compromise and both believe so firmly that their way is the only way. That reality hit me square in the face one day at a Greek food festival of all places. When I was attending seminary, there was a Greek Orthodox church I would drive by every morning to get to school. And once a year, they had a festival where you could get the best baklava, spanakopita, and gyros in the South. Like any church festival, they had lots of crafts, trinkets to buy, and exhibits about the church and in one of those exhibits was a big poster board showing a timeline of all the major different Christian denominations. It was fascinating! There was a line for Roman Catholics, Baptists, even Methodists. But running throughout all of these was a huge, big, fat one labeled “Greek Orthodox Church – the One True Church.” Maybe they thought it was a selling point, but instead it came across as arrogant as if all other Christian beliefs had no validity. But that’s part of the problem. Our pride gets in the way of our efforts to unite. We focus far too much on the things that divide us instead of the things that unite us. If we would only focus on what we hold in common we could accomplish so much together. That was and always has been the hope of Christ, that the Children of God would be united as one. We can hear that hope in Jesus’ prayer to the Father after the Last Supper. The other Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), skip this prayer entirely and instead go right to the Garden of Gethsemane, but this one is specifically a prayer for the Body of Christ, then AND now. Jesus is thinking of us, of you and me, when he says this prayer.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.– John 17:20-23
If we could unify as one church, we would be so much stronger.
But our divisiveness keeps us from being as strong as we could be. Imagine what it might be like if we were able to put aside our differences; all the different projects we could do if we were together instead of apart. Doing a quick Google search for churches in the area, there 11 or 12 in about a one-mile radius of our church. In the East and South San Jose area, there are at least 16 United Methodist churches nearby. If we worked together instead of apart, can you imagine the resources we could pool together? The number of volunteers we would have available? The power and energy and talent of our combined worship? Imagine the energy, vitality, and excitement we could generate by being united. What a powerful statement we would be making on behalf of Christ. “…that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Isn’t that what it is all about, sharing the love of Christ with the world?
Most people aren’t even aware of other churches in their area.
It’s not that we don’t care or we don’t like them, we’re just blissfully ignorant of the church landscape. Once we find a place where we fit in, we stick with it. But it can also blind us to the possibilities. When I was serving in Dinuba, I was caring for two churches, both were filled with God-loving, wonderful people, but both were struggling financially. They were literally about half a mile from each other. It didn’t make a lot of sense why these two Methodist churches weren’t together. When each one was created, it made a lot of sense. One was an historically Japanese church whose original mission field were Japanese immigrants to the area. And there were a lot of them. They had services in different languages and had different cultural needs. The other was a primarily Caucasian church with a smattering of different people who over time decided to join. But over the years, while there were some differences in culture, they were no longer separated by language and it had been that way for decades. Visitors would often ask me, “Why haven’t these two churches merged?” And there wasn’t really a good answer. Both were struggling. Both could use the energy and vitality that comes from having more people in worship. Both could use the cost savings from insurance and utilities to operate and maintain only one facility. Yet, neither had even considered that option before. Today, they are one church and doing well. They were able to fix up their church building, doing some much-needed repairs and making the place look even more appealing to visitors. They found a way to incorporate both of their traditions and honor their past while looking to the future. And they are still wonderful people doing God’s work. Now there are more of them to do the work together.
There’s nothing wrong with small churches.
In fact, most churches are small community churches that serve the needs of their local area. And it allows for more intimacy, more nuance, and we hope deeper relationships. But we should also do more to work in cooperation with one another. To utilize the strength of being united even while maintaining our individuality. One of the reasons I love the Methodist church is because of our connectional system. It allows us to do more together than any one church could do apart. We give a certain amount of what we receive to the greater United Methodist Church and with that, they are able to fund churches all over the globe, give scholarships to seminary students, provide relief work when natural disasters occur, fight against racial injustice, and encourage people to come and know Christ. For literally pennies on the dollar, we are able to do all of this and more together.
Today is World Communion Sunday.
It is a time for us to reflect on who we are as Christians and what that really means to us. It is a time for us to reflect on all that we have in common with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe and to pray for them and with them for the furtherance of God’s kingdom. It is a time to lay aside our differences and remember who we are as God’s children. John Wesley once said, “…to all opinions that do not strike at the heart of Christianity, we think and let think.” It is time for us to do that today. We must remember at all times that we are to love one another. As Christ told us, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” We have a long way to go my brothers and sisters. We have a long way to go.
There is so much work to be done in the world.
But if we work on it together, who knows what we can accomplish?
Until every child has a home, a meal, and a loving family, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until every woman gets paid for her work and not by her gender, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until we stop polluting our airways, our waterways, and our byways, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until racism, ageism, and every other “ism” is eradicated, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until we first take the plank out of our own eyes, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until we are all one in Christ Jesus, united as one people, our work as Christians is not yet done..
We leave this morning as we opened, with the words of a non-Christian, Mahatma Gandhi, speaking to us about us. “To live the gospel is the most effective way – most effective in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. Not just preach, but live the life according to the light… If, therefore, you go on serving people and ask them also to serve, they would understand. But you quote instead John 3:16 and ask them to believe it; that has no appeal to me, and I am sure people will not understand it…the gospel will be more powerful when practiced and preached.” God uses messengers of all types to communicate to us, if we only listen.
 From an article in Christian Today 2006 – http://in.christiantoday.com/articledir/print.htm?id=2837
 Accessed 9/28/2020 – https://www.learnreligions.com/christianity-statistics-700533#:~:text=Number%20of%20Christian%20Denominations.%20According%20to%20the%20Center,Christian%20denominations%20and%20organizations%20in%20the%20world%20today.
When you pray, do you do it with your eyes open or closed? I think most people’s gut reaction is to say with our eyes closed. But there are times you might pray with your eyes open. Like when you’re driving. I think if I’m praying while driving, it honors God a lot more to do it with my eyes open than closed. Someone once asked this same question of me and it really got me thinking about prayer. Was there a right way to pray? I guess I had taken it for granted that there were certain “rules” about prayer, but were those assumptions right? The person who asked me was a clergy friend of mine from another church. I don’t know what inspired him to ask, but he shared that he always prayed with his eyes open and wondered what the rest of us did. I had never heard of that before. Like I said, there were occasions when I WOULD pray with my eyes open, like while driving a car, but overall I just assumed most people prayed with their eyes closed. I wish I asked him why he did it the other way. Maybe it’s because when we’re talking to someone it would be impolite not to look at them. It makes others feel as if we don’t care. There was a study done of patient complaints at a large hospital and they found this exact result: “9 out of 10 letters included mention of poor doctor-patient eye contact; a failure which was generally interpreted as ‘lack of caring.’” Plus, eye contact “produces a powerful, subconscious sense of connection” and those who seek eye contact are “judged to be more believable, confident, and competent.” After all, prayer is simply a conversation with God.
But it IS God.
I mean, as much as we want to believe Jesus is our friend, we’re still talking about the CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE! Averting our eyes is both about respect for God AND a kind of reverence / awe / fear over a being who can literally create us from nothing. Remember when Moses wanted to look upon God? He asked God to show him his glory and God said, “Okay, but I’m going to shield you with my hand until I pass by and then you can look at me from behind because no one can look upon me face-to-face and live.” God wasn’t threatening Moses, he was looking out for him. God is just so far beyond our comprehension that to stare at God directly would drive the average person insane. When I try to think of an apt analogy, I think about the book of Revelation, probably the scariest, weirdest and at the same time most hopeful book in the Bible. It’s got all of these bizarre images of the sun being blacked out and Jesus with a sword coming out of his mouth and tons of other unbelievable pictures John writes about. But John was doing his best to interpret what he was seeing in the only way he could. The reality of God is so far beyond human comprehension this is the best we could do. So whether you pray with your eyes open or your eyes shut is really a matter of perspective and choice.
The same with your posture.
The way you position your body doesn’t really matter. In fact, the Bible doesn’t advocate for one way or another. Daniel, the guy who literally got thrown to the lions, used to get down on his knees three times a day to pray and give thanks to God (Daniel 6:10) whereas according to Mark (Mark 11), Jesus refers to people standing up to pray. And Jesus himself lays flat down on his face in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39). None are said to be more effective or more “right” than the others. Jesus also doesn’t tell us what position our hands should be in when we pray. Do you interlock fingers or do you pray with your palms facing one another and your fingers touching? Maybe you pray with your hands raised to God or you lie them flat on the ground. When I was a kid, I used to think that just maybe you were supposed to aim your head at your hands and then your hands would direct your prayers to Heaven. Sort of like an antenna for God.
So is there a right way to pray?
There is. But it’s probably not what you think about when you first hear this question. This passage that follows is what we most often refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer” but I’ve also heard it called the “Our Father” which is always baffling to me. Not the “Our Father Prayer” but the “Our Father” as if everyone should know already what that is (side note: danger of church-y words used to show how “in” we are). So even before we start praying we have differences. But when you read this prayer, you’ll notice some slight differences from what we typically say in church.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
This prayer and the one we read earlier in Luke are different. The one in Luke is shorter. It doesn’t say “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as it does here in verse 10. And in verse 12 we ask God to forgive our debts and we forgive our debtors, but in Luke we ask God to forgive our sins. Luke’s version doesn’t mention at all deliverance from evil. So did Luke leave a bunch of stuff out? And what about the line, “Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen?” How come neither of them say it? It turns out that last line of The Lord’s Prayer is called a doxology, like we sing after an offering. A doxology is simply a short verse of praise to God to sort of wrap up the prayer. It’s a good way to remind ourselves who is truly the focus of our prayer – God. And it was common for prayers to end with a doxology. It happens in the Bible quite often. But if Jesus didn’t say it, then does that mean we shouldn’t?
The problem with The Lord’s Prayer is Jesus didn’t mean for it to be a script.
He didn’t literally mean there was only one way we should use to pray to God. Can you imagine how boring that would be for God? Sure we say it every week, but when we read examples of Jesus’ prayers to God, they don’t sound like this at all. Jesus prayed when he raised Lazarus. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed on the cross.  And each one of these prayers was vastly different from the others and all of them were different than what he taught us to say in this passage. That’s because Jesus was giving us a rubric for how to say a prayer, not what the prayer should actually be. The Lord’s Prayer is a rubric for prayer, and not the exact words that a prayer should be. Stephen Miller, in his book The Jesus of the Bible writes something quite prolific. He wrote, “What’s troubling to some Christians today is that Jesus’ example of what prayer should be – a conversation with God – has become an example of what prayer should not be: mindless repetition.” Jesus’ example of what prayer should be – a conversation with God – has become an example of what prayer should not be: mindless repetition. How many times have you said The Lord’s Prayer without giving it a second thought? How many of you were pressured or forced to remember it to pass a test or to feel like you fit in? Don’t get me wrong. The Lord’s Prayer is extremely important, but more for what it can teach us than for exactly what it says.
The Lord’s Prayer helps us to focus on God.
It’s too easy to just come to God with a laundry list of things. God isn’t someone who responds to “honey-do” lists. Instead Jesus is trying to get us to focus on God and fulfilling God’s will. To help us understand how much we rely on God and not to take God for granted. The first part of the prayer is all about lifting praise and glory to God. “Hallowed be thy name / Thy kingdom come, they will be done.” And then we move into the asking part. But I think if you read it carefully, you’ll see that it’s not so much asking, as reminding us whom we need to rely on. “Give us this day our daily bread.” “Forgive us our trespasses,” sounds like we’re demanding God do something for us. “Hey, God! Give me some bread!” But really these are subtle reminders that God is in charge. Only God can forgive sins. Only God created the animals and plants we rely on for food. Then we are reminded how much we need to forgive others as God has forgiven us. And finally we ask God to, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” because without God’s help, we will delve right into our own selfish and sinful ways. All of it, the entirety of the prayer is to remind us that it is by the grace and love of God that we are who we are.
Prayer is more about attitude than aptitude.
It isn’t about the exact words you use. It’s about communicating with God from the heart. It isn’t about the way your body is positioned. It’s about approaching God with gratitude and trust. Too often in our conversations with God, we do all the talking. Maybe we should listen more. I have to give my parents credit. They indulged my love of reading and let me read a lot! They bought me tons of books, brought me regularly to the library, and trusted me to know what was appropriate and what wasn’t. They even let me read Judy Blume books. I read the “boy” books of course like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge. But they also let me read stuff like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I didn’t know that was revolutionary except whenever I mention it, people are surprised and sometimes shocked. But it was the first time I read a book about a kid who prayed. It meant a lot to me. We could talk all day long about the theology of the book, but it was my first introduction to a God who listened and cared about what I had to say. A God who was patient as we tried to figure out what role God played in our lives. And a God who just wants us to come back and talk with him. Is there a right way to pray? Yes, but it’s not about form or function. The right way to pray is to do it often and from the heart. The rest will come in time.
 Stephen Miller, The Jesus of the Bible, (Barbour Publishing, OH), 2009, p. 176.
If tomorrow you found a genie in a bottle and they granted you three wishes, what would your three wishes be? Now, as anyone knows who has seen Disney’s Aladdin, you can’t wish for more wishes. So barring that, take a moment and imagine what you’d wish for. I’ve vacillated between asking for things that help humanity like “world peace” and things of a more personal nature like a trillion dollars. I don’t know how long world peace would last, but it would be pretty nice. And with a trillion dollars I could end world hunger AND have enough left over for a nice house and a car. At least that was my thinking back when I was 10.
When it comes to prayer, we sometimes have a 10-year old theology.
We treat God like a genie in a bottle. We pray when we need something and then wait for it to happen and we think there’s something wrong when things don’t go our way. In fact, we get pretty upset about it because we treat God as if we only had three wishes. Often, we ignore God unless we need something huge as if we’re saving him for the really important stuff. Miraculous healing. Getting that job we’ve been hoping for. Fixing our relationships. The big stuff we feel we can’t do on our own. We don’t come to God with silly things like being a better spouse or being a good parent. We can take care of that ourselves. Just go to Barnes and Noble and buy a book on it. We don’t need God for THOSE things. So when we come to God with our big requests, we kind of expect him to answer. After all, isn’t that what he’s there for?
Some people take this to an extreme.
I had a friend who believed God would give you ANYTHING you wanted if you just had enough faith. Seriously. Anything. I questioned her about this and asked, “So if I wanted a Ferrari, God would just give it to me? Like POOF, here’s a Ferrari?” And in all seriousness she said yes. That if I had enough faith and just prayed over and over and over again for a Ferrari then God would give me a Ferrari. I must not have prayed hard enough. Or had enough faith because I still don’t have a Ferrari. Not that I want one. The insurance alone wouldn’t be worth it. But I must have done something wrong since that prayer never came to pass. In her mind, God’s ability to grant wishes wasn’t limited by number or size. It was all based on your faith. If you didn’t have it, you didn’t get it.
These are just a couple of the bad examples of prayer theology out there in the world today.
And the Bible doesn’t do a lot to clear those things up. Not unless you spend time actually studying it. Sometimes I cringe when I read certain passages like the one from Luke (Luke 11:5-8). It seems as if Jesus himself is saying that if you pester God long enough, he’ll eventually give you anything you want. Forget about love, God responds best to “shameless audacity!” Right? Isn’t that what it’s saying? But that isn’t what it’s saying. Jesus is trying to tell us to put our trust in God. We should be bold in our prayers instead of timid. We should pray with persistence not because God will give in, but because our persistence is evidence of our trust in God. I know it seems like a cop out, but God doesn’t always answer our prayers in our time or in our way. But God is not bothered by our persistence. The other message Luke offers us is when we pray in our need, especially in our need to help others or to act in ways that honor God, God will respond. Again, it may not be in the way we want or expect, but God is honored by the focus and meaning of our prayer. You notice in Jesus’ example it wasn’t about a guy praying to get a Ferrari. It was about a neighbor wanting to offer hospitality to a friend who has just returned on a journey. Now you can question why that friend came to your door in the middle of the night in the first place, but probably because that friend is in need. And that changes the dynamic of the story. If you are knocking on God’s door to do God’s will, God will respond. If you’re bugging God for your own selfish ends, you’ll probably get a different response. Take a look at this passage from our reading today.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:5-8
Prayer is about the heart.
Prayer is not about “what,” it is about “why.” Look what Jesus tells his disciples, “…for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” He doesn’t require you to pray to transmit your needs. He already knows them! Prayer is about something different. Prayer is about your earnestness to be in relation with God. Prayer is about trusting in God. It doesn’t matter what words you use or how many words you can cram into one sentence. Do you remember the story about the tax collector and the Pharisee who both go to the temple and pray? The Pharisee goes on and on about what a good follower he is and he demeans the tax collector right in front of him. And the tax collector has a very simple, short prayer. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That was it. And that was the prayer God was hoping for. Humble, sincere, trusting. That’s what matters to God.
The most effective prayers I’ve ever offered were like this.
They came not from my desire for something, but from my humility, sincerity, and willingness to trust in God. And I actually did this once as Jesus described. I actually went into my room, closed the door, and just laid there on the floor in prayer. We were living in Georgia and my District Superintendent called me to let me know that he had found a place for me to serve. The church I was at, Roswell UMC, was downsizing staff and as the newest member I was first on the list to go. So my DS was looking for a place for me and found a church in Covington, GA. Covington was about 2 hours away from our home (more with traffic and in Atlanta there is always traffic). Plus, they had a parsonage so we’d have to live in town and Cassie would have had to commute to work, meaning she would have to leave the house at about 5am each morning and return about 8pm each night every day. And at the time our girls were very young. Covington is also racially divided and I have to be honest I was a little worried about that. It just seemed to be the wrong fit for our family and for the gifts and talents God had given me. So I prayed about it. I literally went into my closet (my closet at the time was actually big enough for me to lay down inside of it), closed the door, and just prayed. I didn’t offer God a wish list. Instead I just said, “God, I can’t believe this is the place you want me to serve. It just doesn’t seem to be where my gifts would best be used, but if this is your will, I’ll make it work. But if it’s not, then please open a door and I will step through it.” After praying like that for a while, I got up and went into my office where I was working on some paperwork and in less than an hour I got an email from Rev. Mariellen Yoshino asking how I was doing. We had met at one of the Japanese Clergy Caucus meetings and she had recently been appointed to be one of the DSs out here in our Cal-Nevada Conference. So I told her about my situation and that I was praying about it and almost immediately I got a response asking me to hold on. About an hour later, I got another phone call from my DS saying an amazing opportunity opened up in California and the Bishop has given permission for me to talk to the DS out there about it. He even said, “You know Craig, you don’t have to accept the position since it is out of conference, but we can’t offer you anything like this.” After I got off the phone with him, I talked to Rev. Mariellen who said she’d like me to come out to California and meet with a church she had in mind. So I did. Up until that point where I had laid down in prayer and just turned it over to God, everything had been going wrong. There was even more to the story than just that, but nothing seemed to be going our way. Then in one swift movement, suddenly new opportunities blossomed right in front of us. To me it was an answered prayer in the most profound and stunning way.
There have been other moments like that, too.
Times when I was humble enough to know I knew nothing. Times when I was actually able to lay down my fears and anxieties at God’s feet and trust in his judgment. Only in those moments was I really open to his movement. Only then did I hear God speak into my life in such a profound way. And I can tell you for sure that in each instance I did not know what to expect. God’s answer was completely different than what I would have picked for myself. And yet each answer was amazing. I don’t know how God will answer your prayers. I don’t know that you’ll even know when he does. I am sure there are many instances where God has impacted my life and at least for the moment I haven’t realized it. But I do know God is not a genie in a bottle waiting to answer your every need. I know God doesn’t base his answer to prayer on how hard you pray or how often you pray or how persistent you pray. I know God doesn’t promise to give you everything you want, but instead will be there for you in your need. So I encourage you to pray strongly and boldly and with your full trust in God. And know that God is listening.
Does prayer work?
If you ask around you’re sure to get a variety of answers and not all of them consistent, logical, or with sound theology behind it. Whether or not prayer works often is in the eye of the beholder. The devout follower will undoubtedly tell prayer works. The skeptic will tell you they aren’t sure. And the unbeliever will tell you prayer is a fairy tale people tell themselves to feel better about living in a random and meaningless world. Science doesn’t help much here either. For as many studies that prove the benefits of prayer there are those that show they don’t matter at all and there was even one study where the subjects did worse when they knew they were the object of people’s prayers. All of these results might seem confusing and lead us to conclude… absolutely nothing. It’s hard to know if prayer works when we get inconsistent answers. At least from our point of view. And perhaps that’s the real problem. We don’t know how to measure the effectiveness of prayer. The problem isn’t so much if prayer works as it is how do we measure the effectiveness of prayer. Dr. Candy Brown from Indiana University in Bloomington wrote that most researchers study prayer as they would any other phenomenon. They set up studies, they do double-blind trials, they set up a control group and an experimental group, and then they compare results. But maybe that’s part of the problem right there. Maybe you can’t measure the effects of prayer simply by doing blind trials. As Brown noted, “…when people actually pray for healing, they usually get up close to someone they know, touch the person and empathize with their sufferings… Double-blinded, controlled trials are not the only — or even the best — way to gauge the effects of this kind of prayer practice.”
We might also wonder, “How long should we give God to respond?”
How long is long enough to say that a prayer didn’t work? The problem with testing God in this way is we expect God to keep to our timetable. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But can we accurately gauge the success or failure of our prayers based on that alone? There’s a song by Garth Brooks called “Unanswered Prayers” that speaks to this point in particular. In that song, Garth points out that in his youth he kept praying and praying for God to help him get into a relationship with a girl in school that he liked. But God didn’t answer that prayer. At least not in the way he wanted. It ended up because he wasn’t in a relationship at the time, he met the woman who would one day become his wife who he loved more than anything. How different might his life been if God had indeed granted that one prayer. He sums it up in the chorus, “Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care. Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” We’re going to read about one of those unanswered prayers in our reading today.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Next to the Lord’s Prayer, this is probably the most famous prayer in the Bible.
Jesus, in the moments before he is arrested and taken away, goes off into the garden at Gethsemane to pray to God. He tells God how overwhelmed he is with sorrow and he asks God if he can avoid what he is being asked to do. He knows what’s coming. He knows he is about to be put to death on a cross. He knows how painful and horrible that death is. And he begs God to let him off the hook. But God doesn’t do it. God doesn’t take away Jesus’ pain. God doesn’t save Jesus from a death most would consider cruel and evil. Instead, God lets it happen. If it were anyone other than Jesus, I think we would be upset about it. We would think of all people in the world, God should have saved Jesus. After all, Jesus is blameless, without sin, and a miracle worker. Of all the people ever born on Earth, Jesus had the closest direct pipeline to God. And yet, God didn’t even save him. Why wouldn’t God answer this one prayer for Jesus? The thing is God answered many of Jesus’ prayers. Pretty much all of them except this one. He healed the man born blind, he fed the 5000, he healed the centurion’s son, he healed the man who was lowered through the roof of the house, he turned water into wine, and he even brought back Lazarus from the dead. And that’s the short list. But this one prayer God did not answer. We know why because we are at the other end of history, but at the time Jesus was mocked for God’s inaction. They ridiculed him. Dared him to save himself. Put a crown of thorns on his head and a sign above him saying “King of the Jews.” If there was ever any evidence that prayer didn’t work, this was it! Except that God had something else in mind.
We know the end of this story.
We know Christ died for us. But at that time it must have been hard to swallow. Look at Peter. He denied even knowing Jesus. Hardly any of the apostles came to watch him being crucified. Jesus was left alone by almost everyone. But we know how the story ends. We know Christ rose from the dead. We know because of his willingness to trust in the Lord, we have been forgiven for our sins. And we know God had something greater in mind than what we could possibly imagine. We have such a limited idea of who God is that we judge him based on our criteria. And if God fails to live up to our expectations, we tend to think he must not care, or he must not have heard, or he must not exist. But God operates on a whole different level than we do. The concepts of time and space are not the same for him as they are for us. And a being who lives in a reality so different from ours cannot and should not be judged by our standards. And this is where trust comes in. We need to trust God hears our prayers. Our prayers are not falling on deaf ears, but on the ears of someone who loves us intensely. And just because we don’t get the response we’re looking for doesn’t mean God doesn’t care.
I do believe God answers prayers.
Why he answers some and not others, I don’t really know. I don’t know if he actually doesn’t answer them or if we’re just not looking for the right response. It could be God answers every prayer in his own time, in his own way. Some prayers seem to get an immediate response and some never even seem to get a number in the queue. Sometimes it takes years to see a prayer get answered, even decades. I am still struck by the story of a man I was able to baptize much later in his life. I believe he was in his 60s or late 50s. Either way, God caught up to him and struck him in a powerful way. He told me that pretty much his entire adult life his mother had been praying for him to come to know God, to be baptized and accept Jesus in his heart. And for decades that prayer went unanswered. Finally, he came around and only about a week or two after he was baptized, she passed away. He hadn’t been baptized just to please his mom’s dying wish because her death was unexpected. She was older to be sure, but had no indication she was close to passing on. It was hard for me to hear this story and not think she was holding on just long enough to make sure her son was alright before letting go.
Does prayer work?
It does. Scientists may not be able to prove a direct correlation between prayer and healing but they can’t disprove it either. Again maybe we have a far too limiting way of looking at prayer. When we pray for healing that healing can occur spiritually or emotionally instead of just physically. So when we attempt to measure the effectiveness of prayer, maybe we’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe instead of the body we should be looking for healing of the heart or the mind. Maybe the healing that takes place isn’t in the person but the people around them. God’s idea of healing might just very well be different than ours. Or perhaps the problem is judging God by measuring what we want to see. Is it only healing if God meets X, Y, and Z criteria? Or could healing happen in different ways and in different times? If the apostles had their way, Jesus wouldn’t have died in the first place. But it was because he died we know Christ today. They just couldn’t see it that way at the time. Maybe our vision is too narrow.
Also, maybe our definition of “works” is too narrow.
Science definitely proves there are benefits to prayer. Prayer has been shown to improve self-control, to make you nicer, to help you be more forgiving, to increase your trust, and offset the negative effects of stress. Pretty awesome benefits. I would think that anything that give you more self-control, makes you nicer, more forgiving, trusting, and less stressed out definitely “works!” I want you to give prayer a chance. If you don’t already pray regularly, try doing so. Pray every day even if it’s just a little bit each day. Don’t worry about saying the “right” prayer. If you haven’t prayed much, believe me I think God will be happy with incremental steps. But just pray. And don’t go looking for monumental results right off the bat. If they happen, great! But if not, remember that doesn’t mean God isn’t listening. Maybe we just need better ears to hear. And if you do pray regularly, try spending at least as much time listening as asking. Sometimes God works in the silence far better than in the noise. But more prayer is something we could all benefit from. Does prayer bringing healing to a person every time, the way we want it to, when we want it to? No. Does prayer guarantee bad things won’t happen to you? No. But does prayer work? Most definitely, yes!
Are you a “fridge family?”
Growing up we didn’t put that much up on the refrigerator. At least not that I can remember. Don’t get me wrong, my mom kept everything we did. I still have this expandable folder filled with every report card and certificate I was given from Kindergarten until I graduated. We just didn’t put that much up on the refrigerator. Except this one drawing my mom put up when I was around 5 years old. It was a drawing of the Mach 5 from Speed Racer that I did for my dad’s birthday. At that age, I used to love drawing cars of all kinds – any vehicle really. I’d invent my own tanks, my own submarines, my own rocket ships, but my inspiration for all of them was the Mach 5. I loved all the gadgets his car had. So naturally, for my dad’s birthday, he’d want a picture of the Mach 5, right? In my head, it was the thing I loved drawing the most and I loved my dad, so it only made sense to draw him a picture of that for his birthday. My parents were both proud of it and put it right up there on the refrigerator.
At some point, though I stopped making drawings for my parents.
I don’t know why in particular. Maybe I just out grew it or became focused on other things (ironically I draw stuff for my own family now). My mom and dad never complained or asked me why I stopped, but they must have missed it. They must have missed this small way I could show how much I appreciated my parents. We do the same thing to God. We forget God. And if we’re honest, many of us do it pretty regularly. In the day-to-day bustle of our lives, it’s easy to put God on the back burner. But God misses us. God wants to have a deep and abiding relationship with us. And when we turn away, even though he understands, God hopes we will one day come home. Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son to his disciples to illustrate this point.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. – Luke 15:11-24
God is waiting for you!
How incredible is that? What an amazing feeling to know no matter how far we’ve gone, no matter what we have done, God is waiting for you to come home. And when you do, he will celebrate your return! I’m sure the son who came back was not expecting a banquet. In fact, I imagine he was expecting quite the opposite. He was prepared to grovel and beg for forgiveness. He probably assumed his father would be likely to reject him, and why wouldn’t he? The son had treated his father with utter contempt and disrespect, demanding his inheritance even before his father had died. He was basically saying to his dad, “I wish you were dead, then I could live the life I want to live!” How self-centered would you have to be to do something like that? So the son knew to return home would be more than just swallowing his pride. He even prepared a speech to say when he came back, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He was DESPERATE. His life was so bad he wished he was eating the food of pigs. That he was reduced to being a servant of pigs would have been seen as ghastly to the Jewish people hearing this story. After all pigs were unclean animals. But to be reduced to having to feed them? It was humiliation piled on top of humiliation. He had to go back and just hope for forgiveness. But what did his father do instead? He gave him a celebration! He killed the best calf and had a big party! To come home to that kind of reception must have been beyond the son’s wildest dreams.
Whenever one of God’s children comes home, he celebrates.
And we are all God’s children. We are all his creation. So no matter how far any of us strays from the path, he is just so happy you’re back. It’s like the story of the lost sheep. The shepherd doesn’t spend time nurturing the 99. They are happy and content and being well fed. They are safe because they have each other. So the shepherd goes after the one who is lost and astray and does everything he can to bring him home. God keeps reaching out to us through the people in our lives. Through your boyfriend or girlfriend who asks you to go to church. Through your grandmother who offers to say a prayer for you. Through that little flyer in the mail that says, “Come visit us!” God keep reaching out hoping one day you’ll respond. And he is patient. So patient he is willing to wait as long as it takes to bring people home. We read that in Peter’s second letter to the church where he is responding to some people who are anxious for Jesus’ return as prophesied. And he tells them, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:8-9).” That’s how important you are to God. He’ll hold the bus just for you. He’ll keep the doors open on the train just for you. If you’ve ever been on a subway or BART, you know how important that is. You could be literally just a few seconds away from getting on board, but there is no mercy on BART. Or if you’ve ever raced to the elevator and someone holds it open for you. You know they could have gone. It would have saved them some time. But instead they waited for you. So does God. Because it is more important to God to have you come home than it is to get there a little bit quicker.
You are here.
So most likely God is important to you. But how often between Sundays do we spend time with God? Most of us probably struggle with that to some extent. We are busy. Working, trying to pay the bills, running around with the kids. It probably feels like there is no time left for God in our busy, busy schedule. But what I’m saying is you should MAKE time for God. And not just because it will make God happy (because it will), but because we all need God more than we like to admit. That’s the flip side to the story. It’s more than “come back to God because it will make him happy.” It’s “come back to God because without him you’ll mess things up and pretty soon you’ll be wishing you had a pig trough to eat from.” God gives us that peace that passes all understanding. God gives us the plug to fill the giant spiritual hole in our lives. All we need to do is come home to receive it. God shouldn’t be someone you “make time for.” God should be the one indispensible part of your life that you ALWAYS have time for. It’s everything else that needs to make room for God.
We are a fridge family.
Ever since Emma was little, we put stuff up on the refrigerator. Drawings, pictures, awards, report cards – you name it and it went up on the fridge. We kept every single ornament Emma made since she was in kindergarten and those go up on the Christmas tree every year, too. Not just because they are meaningful to us (which they are) but because we want her to know that no matter where she is or what she is doing we love her and are proud of her. She is my child. And she always has a place to come home to as long as I’m around. God feels that way about all of us. He loves us so much he doesn’t care how far away we are or what we are doing. He wants us to know there is always a place to come home to. If you’ve been away from God for a while, come back home. He wants to be close to you once again. If you’ve never been close to God, come give it a try and see the impact a life with him could be like. Make time in your life for what is truly important – faith, family, and friends. Don’t neglect those things just because something seems more urgent. I think you’ll find that when you make time for what’s really important, your life will go much better than if you don’t. If you don’t carve out time for those things, you’ll find how easily they slip away when in truth they are the most important parts of who you are. I may not draw pictures for my parents very much, but I still have a way to put something up on their wall. Every year, we create a family calendar with pictures and words that we send to both my parents and Cassie’s mom. It’s my own small way of taking time out to let them know, even though we aren’t around as much, they are still so very important to us. Make sure you take time out to let God know he is still in your heart, too.
Here’s a riddle for you.
If you love The Lord of the Rings this might be familiar. It’s from The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien during the scene where Bilbo and the creature Gollum are trying to outwit each other. Bilbo makes a deal; if he wins this contest of wits, Gollum has to show him the way out. But if Bilbo loses, Gollum gets to eat him. Pretty high stakes. So this is one of the riddles Gollum gives to poor old Bilbo.
Do you know the answer? The answer is time. Time is the thing that devours all else. It’s the one thing by itself that can grind stone, slay kings, and beat a mountain down. Because time stops for no one. Time is also the one thing we can never get more of. No matter how much money or power or influence we have, we can never buy more time. It’s also the one thing we never know how much we have. When we’re young we think we have all the time in the world. We rarely think about what happens “after;” what happens when this existence ends. In our middle years, our lives are crammed with things that eat up our time – family, work, friends – and again we don’t seem to think about the “future.” Only in our older years does life seem to slow down enough to at least ponder it. But even then, do we take it seriously?
We don’t have as much of it as we think.
Time is the most precious commodity we have and we can easily waste it. Either intentionally or not, we don’t always make the best use of this incredibly limited resource. We choose to do one thing over another, often knowing which one would be the wiser choice, but instead choosing something more fun or more immediately rewarding. Like going out to dinner when you really should be working on that presentation for work. Or going to Disneyland with your friend Mark when you’ve got a midterm the next day – not that that ever happened. Sometimes it’s not even choosing one thing over another. Sometimes we simply procrastinate when we could be doing something productive. I remember one time when I was a grad student at CSULB and I asked one of my former professors if he would write a good recommendation letter for me. And he said, “No.” I was shocked because we always had a good relationship and I did exceptionally well in his class, but he told me one time he had asked me to follow up with a colleague of his and I never did. For that reason, he didn’t think he could in good conscience write a good letter of recommendation for me. And he was right. He did ask me to follow up, and I just put it to the side thinking I’d get to it one day, but “one day” never came. I missed a real opportunity because of that. And even though I learned a lot in his class, that was probably the most valuable lesson he ever taught me. I still think back on that day and it motivates me to do things I would otherwise be tempted to push aside. Most of us can think of at least one moment in our lives where we did the same thing; where we made the choice to spend our time unwisely.
God tells us sometimes those decisions have huge consequences.
In this passage, we find Jesus surrounded by a HUGE crowd of people. There are thousands around him and they are literally “trampling on one another.” Jesus is trying to teach them to focus their life not on the worries of this world, but on the God who loves them. But then out of nowhere, this guy yells out to Jesus. And that’s where we pick up the story.
13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
16And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18″Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ‘
20″But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21″This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” – Luke 12:13-21
Do you have your priorities straight?
This guy didn’t. Jesus just gets done telling this whole group of people not to worry about the things of this world. He tells them they should be focusing on God, on what’s really important. And this guy yells out, “…tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” And while it’s tempting to look down on this guy who literally ignored everything Jesus said, isn’t it true at times we are just like him? We put off what we should do or what would make life better, because we’re “tired” or we are worried about what people will think of us. Sometimes we put things off because it makes us “uncomfortable.” Or sometimes we’re like this guy in the story. We just want what we want and we ignore what’s really important.
Stephen Covey had some great advice about this.
If you didn’t know, he’s the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and in that book he writes, “The key is to keep the main thing the main thing.” You’ve probably heard that before. The key is to keep the main thing the main thing. We know this intellectually, but we don’t always do a great job of executing it. We know we should put God first, but we skip church for more “pressing” matters. We know we should put family first, but we are worried that there are too many things to do at work. Covey addresses that also, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important. Unfortunately, that’s also true. We find ourselves in firefighting mode and we end up responding instead of planning. Or we allow the urgent things to move ahead on our priority list, not because they are more important in the long run, but in the short. So how do we get around that? Covey says, “The key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” The key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. If family time is important, make sure you spend that time with family. If God is important then carve out time for God. It’s as simple as that. But have the courage to do it.
Andy Stanley said something that changed my life.
“Never sacrifice what only you can do for something someone else can do.” Andy is the lead pastor at North Point Community Church based in Atlanta, and I went to a seminar he was teaching. He told us we are always cheating on someone. What he meant by that is we are constantly “choosing to give up one thing in hope of gaining something else of greater value.” Work, spouse, career, kids, dreams, hobbies – there simply isn’t enough time in the day to do everything for everybody including ourselves. So we cheat. We take time we could be spending on one thing to devote it to something else. The problem occurs when we neglect one or the other so much we create a void. “Suddenly” our spouse asks us for a divorce, “suddenly” our kids start having problems, “suddenly” we get passed over for a promotion. The truth is none of those things are “sudden.” They are usually the result of not being able to maintain a healthy balance in our lives. It just seems “sudden” to us because we weren’t paying attention. We weren’t scheduling our priorities but instead prioritizing our schedule and often it’s our families that get the short end of the stick. Work is immediate. Work offers tangible benefits. But work can be done by someone else. We are often not as necessary as we like to think we are at work, but we are indispensable in one arena – our family. So Andy reminds us, “Never sacrifice what only you can do for something someone else can do.”
I will only ever be Emma’s dad.
I will hopefully only ever be Cassie’s husband. And unless there’s some incredible miracle, I’ll be the only son my parents will ever have. Pastors come and go, but I play a role in my family no one else can fill. That doesn’t mean there won’t be times when the church comes first, because that happens a lot. It just means I can’t afford to neglect my role as son, father, and husband because no one else will ever be those things to the people in my life. I want to challenge you today to think about who you are cheating in your life. Are your priorities where they should be? If they are, great! But if they are not, if you take a deep look inside and find you’ve been cheating the wrong people, consider what you can do to balance the load. Don’t let the world dictate what’s important. Find within yourself what’s important, and then do THAT!
 Andy Stanley, When Work and Family Collide: Keeping Your Job From Cheating Your Family, Kindle Version, pg. 1
That was the passage used on my Walk. It still encourages me and reminds everyday of the person God created me to be. The Walk to Emmaus changed my life. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a weekend experience with God where you dive deep into the love of Christ in every way possible – intellectual, emotional, and tangible. I don’t know if I would be a pastor today if I had not gone. It helped me to experience the love of Christ in such a real way and made the Kingdom of God seem like a possibility instead of just a dream. Not everyone has that experience, but if you’re willing to “let go and let God,” you might just encounter the living Christ for yourself.
Gwen and Dave were two friends of ours who had known Cassie a long time. When Cassie and I were serious about our relationship, they invited us to come to their church, Alpharetta First UMC. It would eventually become our church home, too. They had already seen Cassie grow in her faith and I guess noticed a change in me as we began attending regularly and became more involved in the life of the church. So they invited us to come to a weekend retreat about faith – the Walk to Emmaus.
We decided to give it a try.
I hadn’t heard much about it before Gwen and Dave. Some people thought the Walk to Emmaus was some kind of “cult gathering” because people who had gone were so secretive about what happened during the weekend, but it was nothing like that at all. It’s like a surprise party or an awesome Christmas present. If you tell someone in advance what to expect, it’s just not the same. Or like The Usual Suspects. If you know the end, it kind of ruins the movie. I’d rather not ruin the movie.
I will tell you one thing. You are asked to surrender control for the weekend. That’s a tough one for some people. That doesn’t mean you’re locked up or can’t get away. Instead, you are asked to give up your phone and your watch. That’s pretty much it. And whoever sponsors you for the weekend is the one who takes you and drops you off. So no car. Not a lot to give up, but in our society today? It’s a LOT to give up. The point is to give control over to God and not worry about things like “what time is it?” If you focus instead on the experience, you’ll gain so much more out of it. If that’s impossible for you (and for some people it is), then know you will likely not get much out of the weekend. And to be fair, you’re probably not quite ready for it, and that’s okay.
For me, I encountered the endless and boundless love of Jesus Christ at the retreat and Cassie did, too. Since I went first, I was able to attend the closing gathering for her and saw how deeply moved she was by the whole weekend. No, I didn’t “see” Jesus but instead encountered Christ through the love and devotion of the people there. That is really the only way I know how to describe it without spoiling the surprise! And you don’t want to spoil the surprise. Believe me, it’s better than Disneyland (and if you know me, that’s saying a LOT).
If you’re curious about it, please feel free to contact me and I’m happy to share more. You can also visit their website. We were in Atlanta at the time so we went on the North Georgia Walk to Emmaus (Mens Walk #103), but now that we are serving in the Bay Area, our local Walk to Emmaus group is the Grace Emmaus of California / Nevada. No matter where you live, I know either group would be happy to answer your questions, too.