Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Prayer and Instruction

2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5
Psalm 119:97-104
Luke 18:1-8

A High-School English teacher was well known for being a fair, but hard, grader. One day Tim received a B minus on a theme paper. In hopes of bettering his grade and in the spirit of the valentine season, he sent her an extravagant heart-shaped box of chocolates with the pre-printed inscription: "Be Mine."  The following day, he received in return a valentine from the teacher. It read: "Thank you, but it's still Be Mine-Us."
               Instruction and persistent prayer.  Those are the focuses of today’s scriptures.  We need to follow God’s instructions.  And we need to be persistent in our praying.  But the question that all of this raises is simply, “why”?  Why do we need to follow God’s instruction?  And why do we need to be persistent in our praying?  Is it because God wants us to prove that we are faithful?  Is it because God needs to test our faith by seeing how often we are willing to think about, and engage God by following the Bible or by praying?  Is it because the instructions God gives are simply the right thing to do? 
               The psalm passage we read for today tells us that it is through following God’s instructions, doing what we learn to be right from scripture and study, that we come to know God, to understand God, who God is and God’s ways.  Reading scripture brings us into spending time with God, learning what God asks us to do and making an effort to follow that path, leads us closer to understanding God, praying opens our hearts and souls to hearing God and being led by God in new ways. 
               In 12-step programs people are encouraged to pray good things for those who have hurt them.  It is a hard practice, to pray everything good for someone who has hurt you, angered you, betrayed you.  A friend of mine, whom I will call Jane, grew up in an abusive household.  After several years in a 12-step group, she decided to undertake the very hard task of praying good things for her abusive mother in particular.  She found it so hard to do at first that she set herself the task to pray for 30 seconds a day for her mom good things.  At first, she did not feel the prayers she was praying.  She prayed for health for her mother and found anger rising within herself about her mother’s failure to care for Jane physically.  She prayed for her mother’s happiness, and found herself internally raging at her mother for making her childhood a living hell.  But she kept at it.  Within a week she found she could extend her prayer time for her mom to a minute, though she still didn’t really feel the prayers she was offering.  Within a month, she extended the prayer time to 10 minutes a day and actually began to genuinely wish good things for her mom.  By the end of six months, she found herself able to forgive her, to let go of her anger and pain, and even to find compassion within herself for what her mom had suffered that had caused her to be a less than ideal mother.
Jane found herself changed.  Changed enough that she was able to volunteer helping out with other abused children, not from a place of anger, but from a place of compassion and strength.  Her prayers changed her.  Taking time with God daily gave her the strength to deal with her pain with her mother, it gave her the courage to heal and face her childhood.  It gave her the power to do something about a situation dear to her heart, to be part of the solution for other children suffering abuse and neglect in their homes.  She has become God’s hands in a small corner of the world, affecting and caring for God’s children - because of her prayers and the commitment she made to spend that daily time with God.  C.S. Lewis says, “I do not pray so that I may change God.  I pray that God may change me.”
If we are serious about our prayers, about our study time with God, and about following God’s instruction, we have to allow those prayers, that study and that instruction to change us, to move us into action, to move us deeper into understanding to relating more fully to God.  I saw this bumper sticker once that said, “Nothing fails like prayer.”  And I found myself reflecting on it a great deal.  I believe prayers work for many, many reasons.  I believe that God does answer and respond to our prayers, though maybe not in the way we expect.  But I also think that if prayer for us is just one-directional talking to God and then waiting around for God to do what we ask, then we are not using prayer the way God calls us to.  God, after all, is not Santa Claus, there simply to fulfill our wishes if we are good.  If, on the other hand, we take seriously that praying, studying scripture, and following in God’s ways are all steps towards being in relationship with God, if we are open to allowing our study, our faithful devotion to God’s ways, and our prayers to change us and make us active agents for the changes in the world, then nothing succeeds like prayer.  As the psalmist tells us, it is through following in God’s ways, doing what God asks us to do, that we come to understand, relate to and see God. 
               Today’s passages all unite in this way.  The Psalms passage tells us that in following God’s instructions, we come to know God, to understand God.  The Timothy passage tells us that the lessons we learn from scripture equip us for doing God’s work.  And the Luke passage tells us that when we are in relationship with God, when we are persistent in our prayers, God will answer us because God loves us. 
               The bottom line in each of these is that God wants relationship with us.  Taking the time to read scripture, to work to follow God brings us into deeper relationship with God.  Taking time to pray, daily, to God takes us into deeper relationship with God.
The most important reasons to pray and to follow instruction have to do with our personal connection with God.  God does not just want for you to be in awe of God.  God does not just want for you to be treating God, again, like a big Santa Claus.  God does not just want you to be grateful and faithful and caring.  God does want you to be grateful, faithful and caring.  But not just that.  God wants to be in relationship with you.  Every relationship requires time together, requires communication, requires sharing.  God wants to know how you are, from you, in your words, with your intention of speaking with God.  God wants to hear from you your pain, your joys, your hopes, your fears and your thoughts.  God also wants to talk or communicate with you.  When our minds are filled with the noise and business of daily life, it can be hard to hear God’s voice.  Prayer and Bible study, reflection and spending time working to follow God’s instruction gives us time to talk, to be, to reflect.  It gives us time to listen.  It gives us time with God, focused on God and God’s will for our lives.
               A minister, responsible for the religious education in a school once visited one of the classes, to check out the education level. He asked the students: "Please tell me, who destroyed the walls of Jericho?"
One of the students stood up and said: "It was not me, Sir!"
The minister thought the kids were making fun of him, so he turned to the teacher and asked: "Is this the way students normally behave here?"
The teacher was puzzled and answered: "I think this student is very honest and I really don't believe he could do such a thing".
Confused, the minister went to his assistant and explained to him what had happened. The assistant replied: "I know this guy very well, as well as his teacher, so I am absolutely sure none of them is guilty of destroying that wall".
When the minister heard this, he made a formal complaint before the Christian Education Commission. The answer he received from them was the following:
"Dear Sir, let us not make a big issue out of this. We will pay for the damages caused, accounting for them as current school repairs. Whatever the losses are, our insurance will cover them."

               Do we know the stories?  Do we know who God is?  Do we know what God asks of us and do we make efforts to follow in God’s ways?  Do we pray and engage God in relationship?  Those are the things that matter.  Those are the actions that make life worthwhile.  Those are the choices that will fill us with understanding and connection to the Divine Being, and will lead us to LIFE, here and evermore.  Amen.