Tuesday, February 26, 2013

People Of The Passion: At The Trial

Here is my sermon for Sunday. The text was Luke 22:66-23:25:

Last week we looked at the different people who were found at the crucifixion and while there were some we probably would not want to emulate or to be like, most of the others were people we could learn something from about our own faith lives.  Today’s characters are not like that.  While we have heard of some of them, they don’t really serve as examples of faith or faithfulness.
One of those is Caiaphas, who was the high priest and in charge of the Temple and therefore responsible for the religious life of Jews because Jewish life centered around the temple.  But although this was a key position in the religion it was also a position appointed by the Romans allowing them to hopefully have some control of the people.  Behind the scenes was Caiaphas’ father-in-law Annas who had overseen the appointment of the last five high priests.  As you might imagine, this did not make Annas or Caiaphas very popular with most of the population.  In fact the whole reason why Pharisees arose was in opposition to those who controlled the temple, who were known as the Sadducees and were the aristocrats of society.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

People Of The Passion: At The Cross

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 23: 26, 32-34, 39-56:

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, the time of the year in which we called into forty days of repentance as we make our way first to the story of the passion, of the cross and the darkness of the tomb, and then completed on Easter morning when we celebrate that the women found the tomb empty.  Now if you do a count of the days, you will notice that there are actually 46 days in Lent, so why do we talk about only 40 days? Well it’s because the Sundays of Lent are not technically a part of Lenten because every Sunday is a little Easter and so aren’t included as part of Lenten practices.  Now normally when people find this out, especially those who have given something up for Lent, they are quick to ask, “Does that mean that I can have chocolate on those Sunday’s without breaking my observance?”  Technically it does, but as some of you have heard me say, it is questions like this that make me dislike most of the practices that take place during Lent, and just to show you how convoluted Lenten practices have become, this week we found that the Pope is going to give up being Pope for Lent.
Part of my problem with Lent is its emphasis on sort of the darkness of the passion story, and acting in many ways like it is the cross and the suffering that is most important for our faith, as if Easter is sort of secondary to that, as if it’s an epilogue to the story of the passion.  Of course the other side of the coin is those who want to downplay the repentance aspects of lent, or of Christianity all together, who sort of want to ignore the cross and the suffering and focus solely on the Easter story.  But somehow we have to combine these two things and hold them in tension with each other.  I don’t believe that the cross makes any sense, in fact serves no purpose, without Easter, but similarly we cannot have Easter without the cross.  In order to celebrate, to truly celebrate Easter and its meaning for us, to understand that we are an Easter people, we have to spend time at the cross, but in order to spend time at the cross we also have to remember what comes after the cross.  And so for the Sunday’s of Lent, we are going to look at the people of the passion, learning something about who they were, what they were doing there, and then trying to see what we can learn from what they did that we can apply to our own faith lives.  This week we are starting with the people at the cross, next week at those of the trial, then we will look separately at Peter and then Judas, and then those who participated in the preparation for the week.  Although our scripture readings for this series will come from Luke’s gospel, I will make reference to differences or other information given in other gospels when necessary.  And with that, away we go.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How God Transforms Our Whys

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Romans 8:18-39:

I was just two months into my first pastoral appointment when I received a call asking me to perform a funeral.  While I had assisted with one funeral during my internship, I didn’t do much for it, and the person it was for died at age 96, so it wasn’t really a surprise.  This would be the first funeral I ever did by myself, and it was for a family that had lost their son.  Ethan had been born with a genetic defect called Spinal Muscular Atrophy.  It is a disease caused by a recessive gene which means that both parents have to carry the gene, and even if both parents carry the gene there is only a 25% chance of the child being born with it.

Jane and Anil had two children when Ethan was born, neither of whom had the disease, and they did not know they were carriers until they sought help from their pediatrician when around three months Ethan stopped progressing in growth, and were told that not only would he not improve, but he would never be strong enough to lift his head, let alone walk or crawl.  The disease would cause his muscles to continue to deteriorate with respiratory functions usually being most affected.

His lungs would fill with fluids and mucus making breathing difficult, so that his parents and caretakers would have to pound on his chest and back numerous times each day to break the mucus up, as well as having to stick a catheter through his nose several times a day to drain the fluids out of his lungs and that with all of this he might live to be two years old.  He didn’t make it that long, dying at 15 months, and so I was called to work with this family and to perform my first funeral for Ethan.

Any time a child dies, especially an infant or toddler, there are bound to be some hard questions asked of God.  At the time of Ethan’s death my oldest daughter was 18 months, and Linda was three months pregnant with our second child, so this hit really close to home, and I’ll be honest I didn’t know what to do or what to say.  What can you say at a time like this? So I sat with the family and listened to their story.  I made some mistakes, as is to be expected, but those mistakes did not include the things that are often said to parents who have lost children.

I know that some people inevitably said to Jane and Anil, that God loved Ethan so much that God wanted Ethan to be in heaven with God.  But if God is everywhere, and if God is with us, then why would God need Ethan in a specific place.  Or maybe they said, as they did to Harriet Sarnoff Schiff when her son Robbie died of a congenital heart defect, “I know that this is a painful time for you.  But I know that you will get through it all right, because God never send us more of a burden than we can bear.  God only let this happen to you because he knows that you are strong enough to handle it.”  Schiff remembers her reaction to those words, “If only I were a weaker person, Robbie would still be alive.”

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to answer what we think are questions, or to defend God or make ourselves feel better, that we truly miss the other’s statement all together.  In the Book of Job, Job is a righteous man who cries out , why has this happened to me, and his friends seek to provide him with some answers, but end up making him feeling worse, because Job is not really looking for answers.  Instead his cry of despair, just like those who make similar cries, should not be heard with a question mark, but instead with an exclamation point.  Job was not asking a question, he was crying out to the universe in despair, seeking not an answer but compassion and to know that he was not alone in his suffering, that people cared about what happened to him, that he still had self-worth and that God cared about what happened to him.

In the 121st Psalm, we hear “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  Notice that the psalmist does not say, my pain, or my suffering, come from God, but that my help comes from God.  As we looked at two weeks ago, I do not believe that God causes us to have pain and suffering, God did not cause Ethan to be born with a genetic disease as part of some grand master plan that we don’t understand, but what I do believe is that God was with Ethan and his family the entire time.

On the night that Ethan died, Jane said that they took turns holding Ethan, rocking him and telling him how much they loved him.  Jane said that Ethan’s death was the most heartbreaking and heart wrenching experience of her life, but at the same time the most peaceful.  She and Anil felt incredible calm in the midst of everything, and Jane, pregnant with another child, said that the baby was rolling and kicking Ethan as she held him, almost like a sign that everything was going to be okay, but what she also said was that they found God present in everything that happened throughout Ethan’s life, from the support they got from friends and neighbors, to the doctors, nurses and social workers who not only gave all they had to the family, but who gave themselves to so many others in need, and to the way that Ethan lived his life and the way he approached everything he had to undergo.

As I prepared to do the funeral sermon, I could not get through it without bursting into tears, and I really didn’t know how I was going to make it through, and so I stopped and prayed to God to give me the strength to get me through it, and I knew that at the same time that other friends and colleagues were praying for me, because I had asked for their prayers, and I was able to find within me a strength that I never knew that I had, and that I know that I wouldn’t have had without the strength I received from God as a result of those prayers.  And one of the members of my congregation was also there that didn’t know the family, she simply came because she knew that I would need the support, and so she came to be there to support and pray for me, and that is where I found God and how God was able to transform this experience in my life.  I find it in the strength and peace and hope and endurance that we never thought possible that we receive from our prayers, and it is the presence of each other as we support and carry each other.  This is how God tells us that we are not alone, that we have not been abandoned, and that God cares what is happening to us.

Now if the Chitkara family were to truly ask me why this had happened to them, I would have told them that God was not the cause.  God was not punishing them for something, God was not trying to teach them a lesson, God was not using them to demonstrate faith and perseverance, that God did not allow this to happen because God thought that they could handle it, or that having lived with Ethan that they might be better people or that others would learn from how Ethan approached life and become better themselves.  Instead I would have said that there is chaos in the world, and that Ethan had a defect on the SMN1 gene that codes for a specific protein needed for motor neurons to survive, which is the medical reason, but does that really answer anything?  I could tell them that we are all mortal, and since we are mortal that means that children die, just as middle-aged people die, as wrong as that might be, and the pain that we feel from that I believe is part of the pain of childbirth that God talks about when Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden of Eden.  But does that really answer anything?  I could simply say, as I did two weeks ago that the reason that bad things happen to good people, is because creation is still taking place in the world, which means that there is still chaos in the world, which means that there are things which happen contrary to how God might want them to happen, and so cells and genes sometimes go wrong causing negative things to happen, and we also have free will and so we sometimes choose to do things that bring negative consequences to us, or others choose to do differently than what God would have them do, and we are sometimes caught in those negative consequences as well.  But do those answers really answer the question?  The reason why those answers are not satisfactory is because none of those answers really give any true meaning or purpose to what we are undergoing.

This past week we celebrate Samantha’s birthday, and I am also coming up on the 2nd anniversary of my being struck with a kidney stone.  Now what those two events have in common, which I am sure you were wondering about, is the fact that according to doctors these are the two most painful things that we can undergo as humans.  But even though the pain might be the same, there is a significant difference between these events.  While child birth might be painful, there is some positive outcome, some purpose that makes it all meaningful and worthwhile, and makes it so worthwhile that women are willing to undergo the experience more than once.  But anyone who has ever had a kidney stone will say, without exception in my experience, “I hope I never have to do that again.”  Because a kidney stone has no underlying purpose of meaning, it’s simply a mistake that’s happened in the body which has caused the pain.  When we ask the question why, we really aren’t searching for answers so much as we are searching for meaning and purpose, because we feel we can bear anything as long as we feel that there is some greater reason why we must endure.

In her seminal work, Suffering, the German theology Dorothee Soelle says, says that in the midst of suffering we should focus not on where it comes from, but where it leads, what is going to be the result of this, how are we going to redeem this in our lives and in the lives of others.  Science and medicine can tell us about illness and disease, about earthquakes and hurricanes and other natural disasters, but science and medicine cannot give meaning or purpose to these events, only we can do that by allowing God to transform these events in our lives.  We shouldn’t be worrying so much about the why questions, because in most ways the answers are unsatisfying and for some ultimately unanswerable, but we can give these events meaning, we through God’s works in our lives, can redeem them, we can give them meaning.

In today’s passage from Romans, Paul tells us, just as we heard last week, that the Holy Spirit, as the gift of prayer, “intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” and that God makes all things work together for good.  Notice that he does not say that everything that happens is good, which is what those who claim that God causes everything might say, but instead that God makes everything work out for the good.  That even in the midst of the worst tragedies of our lives, that something good can come from them, not because God caused these things in our lives, but because God can use them and work and walk with us through them, so that they can be redeemed, so again the question we must ask is not really why, but instead what?  Now that this has happened, what am I going to do about this, how can God use me and this situation to make something better?

When Joe and Sherril Garrett lost their 7-month-old son to what used to be referred to as SIDS, they were devastated.  “It just seemed like our whole world just collapsed and we didn’t really know what to do,” Sherril said.  But then they found a way to make a difference.  She and a friend had previously talked about how expensive it could be for girls to go to prom, and as her friend’s daughter prepared for this event, he friend said, “You know, I want to tell you that as I sit here and listen to my daughter talk about who she’s going to go to the prom with, and I couldn’t help but think that 15 years from now you’re going to wonder who Jake would have taken to the prom.”  Sherril’s initial thought was “15 years from now?  I just need to get through today.”  But that conversation planted a seed in her mind, and together she and her husband founded Dresses for Jake’s Dates, an organization which loans out prom dresses, shoes and jewelry, to girls who otherwise would not be able to afford to go to the prom.  “If we can provide financial relief for one family and make one little girl feel like a princess for one night, then we’ve accomplished what we set out to do,” Sherril said.  “We could crawl into a hole and feel sorry for ourselves because we lost our son, we really could.  But we don’t feel like that’s what God would have us do.”  Does this group make them miss their son anymore?  No, but they are allowing God to transform their loss, to move from the why, to what are we going to do about it.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who we’ve heard from quite a bit these past few weeks, in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writes of his son’s death “I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counselor because of Aaron’s life and death than I would ever have been without it.  And I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have my son back.  If I could choose, I would forgo all the spiritual growth and depth which has come my way because of our experiences, and be what I was fifteen years ago, an average rabbi, and indifferent counselor, helping some people and unable to help others, and the father of a bright, happy boy.  But I can’t choose.”

What he could choose, however, was what he was going to do with it, how he was going to make his son’s death meaningful, what meaning he was going to give not just to his son’s death, but his son’s life, and he has made meaning for millions of people.  I know that walking with Ethan’s family has made me a different person and a different pastor than I would have been without it, which is why I talk about this even, but like Rabbi Kushner if I could choose to have it never to have happened, to be who I would be without that event, to have Ethan being a healthy happy little boy and his family unaffected by tragedy I would make that decision in an instant, but I too cannot choose, you cannot choose, none of us can choose.  But what we can do is to allow God to transform our whys and make them meaningful not just for us but for others as well.

When we decide to get rid of God because of our tragedies, we don’t change the realities of the situation, they still remain tragedies and all we’ve done is to remove the only thing that can give us hope and peace and assurance and strength and power and mercy and grace and all the other things that we need to be able to move through these events in our lives, when we try and remove God we get rid of the only person who can work to transform our whys and instead to work together all things for good.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,” John says in the book of Revelation, “and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘see, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his people and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  What God tells us, what scripture tells us is that tragedies and suffering do not have the last word in our lives, God has the last word, and that God can transform our whys, God can transform the worst events in our lives to the good, God can give them and us meaning and purpose if we allow God to do so.  In Deuteronomy, God says “Behold, I have set before you the path of good and the path of evil, the way of life and the way of death.  Choose life” (Deut 30:19).  May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Tax Receipt

I paid $8,272 in federal taxes last year, and here, according to ThirdWay.org, is where my tax money went (based on 2011 information, they did not have 2012 info up.  My figures are also slightly off since I pay self-employment taxes for social security purposes):

Thirdway has been promoting the idea that everyone should receive a receipt for their taxes from the federal government so that people would truly understand where their money was going.  If this happened it would stop politicians from spouting about how they are going to balance the budget by doing things like cutting funding to the NEA and PBS (.1%) of the budget.  Congress could no longer lie to us and make blatantly stupid suggestions because we would know better.  But, until the average person truly understands what the federal budget actually looks like then we can never really have honest dialogue about spending cuts/increases.

President Obama did pledge to make this information available, and you can find it here.  The problem with this one is many fold.  First, they too only have 2011 up, and second you have to know what you paid in social security, medicare and federal income taxes separately, which I am sure most people do not know, and they are not going to take the time to find out.  Finally, I also doubt that few people were even going to the website to use it, versus if everyone just automatically received this from the IRS.

I receive a statement from social security every year laying out what I have paid in and what my pay out is expected to be every year, so why can't the IRS do something similar and say this is what you paid in and this is where your money went?  I can name one reason and that is because many politicians do not want you to know where your money went.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The High Cost Of Being A Small Church

Last week I wrote about the high cost for clergy to serve small churches.  A cost which is born significantly by new clergy and female clergy.  But the small church also pays costs that are not significantly born by larger churches.

I will be reappointed this year, and so the church I serve is having to put aside money in order to be able to pay for the move of the incoming pastor.  This conference maxes the reimbursement at $1500.  They paid this amount two years ago when I moved in, and two years before that when my predecessor moved.  In fact the average length of appointments for this church is 2.3 years, and when you take out two outliers, it's actually 1.8 years.  So basically every two years they are having to pay for a new pastor to move here.  Compare that to large churches which are only having to pay this expense every five to ten years, or more.

In addition, because we are located in a rural area, which means we have to drive long distances to get anywhere, my mileage reimbursement line is higher than that of other large churches, or even small churches in urban areas.

My reimbursement line at my last church, which was a large congregation, was $4600.  But only about half of that went to mileage.  My reimbursement line in this church is $4500 and all of that will go to mileage, and depending on what my hospital visitations end up being like this year, I may expend even more than that on mileage.  To truly cover my professional expenses I should probably have a reimbursement line closer to $5500.

But the worst is the cost born by the small church for health insurance premiums.  Here is the breakdown for this conference:
In looking at the chart what you will notice is that the more money clergy make, the more they pay towards their health insurance.  There is just over a $500 difference between the lowest and highest.  That makes sense in principle, although there is a potential $20,000 difference in salary for the $500 cost, a trade-off I'm willing to make.

If you move over and look at what the churches pay, you will see that same amount accounted for.  But the difference is that the larger churches who can afford large salaries pay less for insurance, and the smaller churches who can only pay a small salary, and the lowest amounts are below minimum salary, end up paying the most.

This is what they call a regressive tax.  Those who can least afford it are hardest hit.  So this is yet an additional cost that is born on the backs of the small church that is not similarly felt by our larger churches.  I certainly have some suggestions for ways to make this more equitable, but do not have the magic bullet for this, and yes I also recognize that some of our larger churches have gotten themselves into financial positions in which they are having a hard time paying these amounts, but these costs, I believe, are unfairly born by our smallest congregations.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Why Doesn't God Answer Prayers?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 11:1-13:

Today in our series of looking at our why questions we tackle the question that most Christians have asked at least at one point in their life, “Why do my prayers go unanswered?”  It’s a question that we ask because sometimes we feel impotent in our prayers.  We pray and pray, just like we are told to, and yet nothing seems to be happening.  We are told about people’s illnesses being miraculously cured and all the credit given to God because of prayer, and yet the people we pray for are not miraculously healed, the people we pray to survive die, the problems we pray about at work are still a problem, the child we pray for that God will protect or will lead to the right path just keep on doing the same thing, and so we wonder, are we doing something wrong?  or maybe prayer just doesn’t work at all, and so we contemplate giving it up altogether, and maybe some of us have even done that.

If you are to do a Google search for why God doesn’t answer prayers, depending on how you phrase the question, you’ll get somewhere between 3 million and 60 million hits, and some of the answers are what you would expect.  There is the old cliche that God answers all prayers with yes, no or maybe, not really helpful.  They say that prayers aren’t answered because we aren’t seeking God’s will, maybe.  Other answers are a little less charitable.  God didn’t answer our prayers because we have sinned.  In fact one website said, and I quote, “We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners.”  I pray that’s not the case because then I know that God is not listening to me, but I know it’s not the case.  When we have communion later this morning, we will hear Paul’s words from Romans, that “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” and that proves God’s love for us. 

Another common refrain is that our prayers aren’t answered because we don’t have enough faith.  I’ve told this story before, but the minister who married Linda and I when he and his wife were expecting their first child, that she received a pamphlet that told her if she had enough faith, and prayed well enough, and properly enough, that she wouldn’t have any pains during childbirth.  And if you did have child birth pains, or worse your child was born with birth defects, then it was because you didn’t have enough faith.  Imagine explaining to someone that only if they had a little more faith, that their child would not have been born with a birth defect, or maybe if only they had more faith their child wouldn’t have died.  I’ll be honest, I think that God should sue for slander for most of the reasons we give for why prayers are not answered, because they are obscene and cruel, not just to God, but to those that we say these things to as well.

Jesus says that if we have faith as small as a mustard seed that we can say to a mountain move, and it will move.  Now I’ve never seen anyone do that, so how much faith do we really need for our prayers to be answered, what do these statements really mean?  Now I believe strongly in the power of prayer, I think it is first in the membership vows for a reason, but I do not believe that prayer works the way most people think it does.  If we were to get everything that we asked for, then there would be no deaths, because surely the most ardent prayers are those delivered for people facing death.  If we got everything we prayed for, then the world might be a really boring place, and how would that work anyways?  How would God decide the winner of the Super Bowl today, since there are invariably people who will be praying for both sides to win?  Would there be enough horses in the world to provide every little girl with their own pony? And how big would major league or NFL rosters have to be to allow every little boy who prays to play professional sports to fulfill that dream?  And could God make someone love you just because you prayed for it?  Once we really think about we realize how silly some ideas we come up with prayer really are.

But we still have to take account of the passages, like the one we heard today in which it appears that Jesus says that we will be granted anything we ask for.  In fact six times in scripture Jesus says something very similar to this, so what do we make of that, is that what Jesus said and meant or is there something else going on here?  First to start with, The Greek text does not really say “ask and you will receive.”  Instead, it says something like, ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, knock and keep on knocking.  The verb implies ongoing action.  This is not a onetime event, it is a constant activity.  There is also a command of boldness to this, which is what I think Jesus is saying here, and in his others passages.  Jesus used hyperbole a lot, and when we try to take hyperbole literally things break down.  

So, for example, if I was to say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” I really wouldn’t expect you to say to me, “you know John, we don’t eat horses around here,” or ask me how I could possibly eat an entire animal all at once.  You won’t say that because you understand it’s hyperbole.  Hyperbole allows us to make an gross overstatement in order to make a point, and this is something that Jesus does all the time.  Another example, Jesus says that if your hand causes you to sin to cut it off, and if your eye causes you to sin to gouge it out.  Now I don’t see a lot of one handed, one eyed people walking around, so I suspect we are not taking this literally, because it is hyperbole, again Jesus is trying to make a point, and I think he’s doing exactly the same thing here.

And if you don’t believe me notice that the disciples didn’t go off an pray that the Romans would suddenly disappear, and poof they were gone, or that suddenly there would be world peace, and there was, or that suddenly they would be wealthy and powerful, and they were.  They didn’t pray for those things because they didn’t expect that that was the way that prayer worked, and all we need to do to prove this further is to look for prayers that weren’t answered in scripture, and in the New Testament we find two fairly big ones.  The apostle Paul says that he was given a thorn in his side, what that was we don’t know although there is a lot of speculation, but Paul says that he prayed three times, and not just prayed but pleaded with God to have it removed, and it wasn’t.  and then there is Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus, on his knees, prays for God to take the cup from him, and it doesn’t happen.  But in each of those cases something does happen, and it is also what today’s passage says.  Jesus says that through prayer that we receive the Holy Spirit.  That means that every time that we pray all prayers are answered because God gives us the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit gives us what?  Power.  Paul is given the courage and strength to bear his thorn, and we are told that immediately after Jesus prayed for the cup to be taken that an angel appeared and he was given strength.

Jesus tells us to go to God in prayer boldly, but we also have to understand what prayer can and cannot do.  God is not going to grant prayers for things that we can and must do ourselves.  Someone asked me why God needs us to do things when God could easily do them by Godself, and the simple answer is because God won’t do things that we are told to do but are unwilling to do.  Or as St. Augustine said, without God we cannot, and without us God will not.  We cannot just pray for world peace, when God has given us the ability to solve that problem through our own actions.  We can’t just pray for God to end starvation, when God has given us the ability to solve that problem.  We cannot just pray for God to end racism, or injustice, when God has given us the ability to end those problems.  In 1952, there were 58,000 cases of polio in the United States alone, and people prayed for something to be done, and we created a vaccine, and last year there were 250 cases of polio in the entire world, and it is believed that within five years it will be eradicated.  We can’t just pray for miracles to happen, when we can cause miracles to happen, when we can be the miracle. 

But even though we might pray for miracles, especially medical miracles, I do not believe that is the purpose of prayer, and if that is how we are to judge it, then we will always think that prayer isn’t effective.  Rev. Adam Hamilton says that he has probably prayed for more than 30,000 people in need of prayer during his ministry, and of those he can count the number of people who appeared to be miraculously cured on two hands.  Not a very good return. But, what I have found is that when I pray for healing that healing is found, even if there is not a cure, and more importantly that when I, or others, pray for peace and strength and courage and grace, find those things in abundance and find the ability, the power, to move through things that they never thought possible, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

But what prayer also does is to connect us as a community, even though we often think of prayer as an individual thing, it is truly communal.  Notice that the Lord’s Prayer does not use personal pronouns, but instead we prayer, “Our Father,” and “give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses.”  The Lord’s Prayer which is given to us when the disciples ask to be taught how to pray, is given in the third person plural.  Prayer not only connects us with God in a deep and meaningful way, but it also connects us with each other.  When we lift up our prayer concerns, when we pray for others, including many people we have never even met, we are reminded that we are not in this alone, that we are not isolated, that we are not abandoned either by God or by God’s people.  In fact what we find out about prayer is that we are to pray boldly, understanding what prayer can and cannot do, but also knowing that every prayer connects us with God and it connects us with each other, and in the end every prayer is answered because when we ask, and keep on asking, search and keep on searching, and knock and keep on knocking, then we receive not necessarily what we ask for, but instead we are given the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit gives us what?  Power, and strength, and peace and assurance and healing and grace, and in that sense every prayer is answered.

Just like last week, I am again going to give the last word to Rabbi Harold Kushner who relates a story in his book
When Bad Things Happen to Good People about a young woman who challenged him about prayer after her husband had died of cancer.  “She told me that while he was terminally ill, she prayed for his recovery,” he says.  “Her parents, her in-laws, and her neighbors all prayed.  A protestant neighbor invoked the prayer circle of her church, and a Catholic neighbor sought the intercession of  St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.  Every variety, language, and idiom of prayer was mustered on his behalf, and none of them worked.  He died right on schedule, leaving her and her young children bereft of a husband and father.  After all that, she said to me, how can anyone be expected to take prayer seriously?

"Is it really true, I asked her, that your prayers were not answered?  Your husband died; there was no miraculous cure for his illness.  But what did happen?  Your friends and relatives prayed; Jews, Catholics, and Protestant prayed.  At a time when you felt so desperately alone, you found out that you were not alone at all.  You found out how many other people were hurting for you and with you, and that is no small thing.  They were trying to tell you that this was not happening to you because you were a bad person.  It was just a rotten, unfair thing that no one could help.  They were trying to tell you that your husband’s life meant a lot to them too, … and that whatever happened to him, you would not be totally alone.  That is what their prayers were saying, and I suspect that it made a difference."

"And what about your prayers?, I asked her.  Were they left unanswered?  You faced a situation that could have easily broken your spirit.... [yet] somehow you found the strength not to let yourself be broken.  You found the resiliency to go on living and caring about things….  You faced a scary situation, prayed for help, and found out that you were a lot stronger, and a lot better able to handle it, than you ever would have thought you were.  In your desperation, you opened your heart, to prayer, and what happened?  You didn’t get a miracle to avert a tragedy.  But you discovered people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy.  I offer that as an example of a prayer being answered.”  Amen, amen and amen.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Clergy Already Have An Imagine Problem, And Now We Have This

When I was in seminary I worked for Kinko's, and one day a member of the clergy came in wearing their collar so it was obvious who and what they were.  They then proceeded to be belligerent, rude and several other very uncharitable things, treating the staff like they were trash and certainly of a much lower personhood than this minister was.  After they left the staff looked at me, the one training to join that group, for some explanation, and I had none.

That experience left an impression on me, and one I have also tried to convey to others, that when you are a pastor, especially if you can be identified as such, that you are always on.  Maybe that person was having a bad day, although they were always like that so I doubt that, but even if you are then take your collar off, or go lock yourself in your office, home or sanctuary until you can be civil and treat people with decency and respect, because it reflects not just on you, but on other clergy and on the church in general.

I was thinking of that story when I first heard of the story, which I'm sure most of you have already heard, of a receipt left at an Applebee's restaurant in which an automatic gratuity was added, and the person crossed it off and wrote "I give God 10%, why do you get 18."  And as if that is not arrogant and ignorant enough, they then inexplicably wrote pastor next to their name, I guess to somehow justify what they were saying.

The server who posted the receipt online, on an atheist section nonetheless, did not blur out the persons name and so this pastor was tracked down and identified as Alois Bell, who later said "I've brought embarrassment to my church and my ministry."  I think that might be an understatement, because she has also brought embarrassment, again, to clergy and Christians as a whole.  And then to make matters worse, she complained to Applebee's who have now fired the server.

Now we might discuss the entire idea of tipping, but the simple fact is under the current system the only way servers make money is through tips.  I know there are lots of people who complain about having to tip servers, and who do so sparingly, but they are people who have never waited tables for a living.  The minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 a hour, and yes you read that correctly.  I don't know anyone who has ever worked for tips who doesn't tip very well, even if the service is absolutely terrible, and yes this includes me.

But the terrible fact is, restaurant employees know that the worst time for tips is if they see everyone at a table bow in prayer before a meal, the tip has just gone down significantly, and on Sunday mornings.  In his book, Justin Lee recounts his first job in a restaurant:
"Sundays are the worst," one of the servers explained to me. "That's when the church crowd goes out to eat."
"What's wrong with the church crowd?" I asked.
"Oh, honey," she said. "They're usually the most demanding, and they're always the worst tippers. I guarantee you, if you see your table praying before the meal, you can mentally subtract a third from your tip."
Standing nearby, the manager cracked a smile. "They already gave at church," he said. "They don't have any money left." 
I'm sure that this waitress would have been fine taking the 10% that Rev. Bell gives to God, instead of the small 18% of the bill, mandated, it should be noted, by the restaurant who fired her not by the waitress. If there were problems with the service and you don't think they deserved that tip, then please raise it with management, but don't make this a "God" issue, because God has nothing to do with it.

And it's not just servers in restaurants who experience this type of behavior.  I knew someone who worked for the City of Santa Fe and he said he knew he was really going to hear it whenever someone began the conversation by saying "I'm a Christian...."  As soon as those words were spoken he knew he was about to hear a tirade and words unlike he would hear from anyone else, including drunken sailors.

We have enough image problems without things like this happening which only perpetuate the negative image that so many people have of the church and of clergy in general, and the fact that this story has gone on so long only highlights that reality.   And where is the sense of radical hospitality, or any hospitality, in this message?  Is this what we are called to do?

Every morning I pray a prayer while I'm in the shower, and the last line says "I pray that I might live as your child today and honor you in all that I do."  Am I always successful at that?  No. Sometimes I fail miserably, just ask my family, for which I give thanks for grace and mercy and extend that to all involved in this situation.  But maybe if all of us who proclaim Christ were to not only say that, but to live it out, then the perception of Christians and of Christianity would be radically different.

If we tried to live so that the glory of God would be manifested in us and our actions I think the world would be a different place, and instead of slandering God's name with notes like this, Rev. Bell might instead have given more money, and written simply "May God bless you today and every day."  I know that God's grace is with Rev. Bell, and I hope she truly knows what a terrible mistake she made, and maybe next time she, and all of us, will simply extend God's grace and God's radical hospitality to those we meet as well.