Tag Archive: Bruce Almighty


Persevering in Prayer

This is Sunday’s sermon I preached on Luke 18:1-8 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, Virginia.

The Gospel reading this morning opens with this: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  Jesus says the disciples have a need to pray always.  It’s a necessity.  It’s not a suggestion or a tip, but it’s necessary.  That’s pretty strong language.  And maybe as good Lutherans we don’t like to hear that language of “must,” but when we think about prayer as our means of communication with God, it is pretty important stuff!

In thinking about prayer, I spent some time on that most theological of resources, YouTube, watching movie clips in which people try to pray.  While one from the end of Bruce Almighty was very touching and heartfelt, most of them were funny.  Usually, in these scenes people unaccustomed to praying are asked to pray before a meal or before a group of people.  They try to build a prayer, stringing together bits and pieces of religious language they’ve heard, along with song lyrics (a little Godspell perhaps?), and even the Pledge of Allegiance.  People look up from their prayers, eyebrows raised, concern on their faces and awkwardness and hilarity ensue.

Now watching these clips gave me a good chuckle, but these movies also pointed out another truth: many people are uncomfortable with prayer.  Maybe that’s why Jesus spends a great deal of time encouraging the disciples to pray, especially in the Gospel of Luke.  In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about Jesus praying and discussing prayer more often than in the any of the other Gospels.

Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow must have struck his listeners and the early church as pretty funny.  Here’s a vulnerable widow persistently harassing a judge who is neither objective nor impartial to give her justice.  The odds are not in her favor, and yet, she never gives up.  Finally, he gives in, figuring that it’s in his best interest to give her what she wants.  And what we miss as English speakers is that the judge actually says he’s going to act “in order that she doesn’t finally strike him in the eye.”  Yes.  That’s what it says! So Jesus is telling a parable where the powerful judge is worried about a vulnerable, powerless widow giving him a black eye.  This lady might not only physically make him look bad, but also ruin his reputation by continually seeking justice.  The image must have been quite an absurd one to Jesus’ hearers!

Jesus goes on to say that if even this terrible guy gives justice to the widow out of his own selfish interests, how much more will a good and loving God give ear and justice to God’s chosen ones who cry out day and night?

Right before this story, Jesus spoke with the Pharisees and explained that the kingdom of God was already present.  He explained that it was not completely here and that it was unlike any other kingdom they might have seen in the world.  Instead, he said that it was here already, growing in and among people.  He then spoke about how the Son of Man would come again unexpectedly.  It is in this context that we hear about the need to pray always.

In the first communities to receive and hear Luke’s Gospel, the faithful believers were eagerly waiting for Jesus to return and to bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth.  But they needed encouragement to hold on and to be faithful during this period of waiting.  The Romans had destroyed the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, and the believers were trying to figure out what it meant to follow Christ in the Roman Empire.  How long must they wait for God’s reign and justice?  How long must they hold on until Jesus returned?  And how could they hold fast in the meantime?

The answer was to be persistent in prayer.  And the same is true for us today.  Prayer is a means of communicating with God.  As Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic and reformer wrote, “Prayer, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him who we know loves us.”  It’s a way of not only telling God what is on our minds and in our hearts, but of being open to listening to the whispers of the Holy Spirit.  It’s also a way of connecting with one another in community.  Listening to others pray not only inspires us to pray, but also opens us to the concerns and needs of those around us.  And coming before God to intercede for others brings us closer to those for whom we are praying.  Prayer shapes our attitudes toward God and others and transforms our hearts in the process.

Prayer is an incredible gift and yet I still find that I don’t pray as often as I’d like to or as I should.  And maybe it’s the same for you.  I’d love to tell you that I pray every day for an hour, but that would be lying.  When things are difficult, perhaps it is easier to pray more, but what about when things are going pretty well? It has been my experience that God is always patiently and persistently reminding me of my need to pray.  I am reminded of this through others requesting prayer and also through others in the body of Christ reminding me of the importance of prayer.  I also experience God calling me to prayer through that still, small voice that seems to gently say, “spend time with me in prayer.”

And even then, I confess that I sometimes put it off, metaphorically sticking my fingers in my ears and saying, “la la la la – I’ve got other things to do!”  But I’ve found that once I make that time to pray, it is almost always the case that I feel a greater sense of calm and peace.  You see, God always faithfully pursues, calling us to spend time with God in spite of ourselves.  Out of amazing love, God has chosen each and every one of us.  And so, God wants to hear everything that we have to say, even if we’re angry or frustrated with God.  That’s incredible.

But then there are the other times when prayer is a struggle.  Sometimes it seems as if God isn’t listening and that things will never change.  Sometimes the prayers seem to go unanswered.  Sometimes it seems that the right words don’t come and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of that peace or calm showing up.  Sometimes even though we feel called to serve or to take action, it can seem that what we’re doing isn’t making any difference.  What then?

It is then that we are to be persistent – to continue praying and bringing our needs, hurts, hopes and dreams before God in prayer.  It is then that we can remember that Jesus continued praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion even though it was difficult.  It is then that we can remember that Jesus prayed for his disciples and continues to encourage us to pray.  It is then that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  It is then that we persevere and push onward, trusting that God does hear and will act.

And it’s crucial to remember that we are a part of a community.  We’re not just praying alone or for our own needs, but with and for others and they for us.  As Martin Luther wrote in A Simple Way to Pray: “Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly.  Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say ‘yes’ to your prayers.  Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain.  Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.’  That is what Amen means.”

When Jesus asks if he will find faith when he returns, I think he’s talking about this dogged, messy, stubborn, persistent faith that keeps on praying despite the odds.  It’s a faith that keeps on keeping on even though it doesn’t make any rational sense.  It’s hanging on tightly to God, even when it may seem foolish to others to do so.  It’s the faith that follows the way of the cross, believing that in death there is life.

In the words of one of my favorite singers, Audrey Assad:

My faith is not a fire
As much as it’s a glow
A little burning ember
In my weary soul
And it’s not too much
It’s just enough to give me hope
Because your love moves slow

God calls and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to persistent prayer and faith.  God invites, reminds and emboldens us to keep a steady ember aglow, waiting for God to fan us into faithful flames, capable of setting the world on fire with God’s love.

Unlike the unjust judge, God longs for us to spend time in prayer, pouring out our hearts, silently and aloud, through words and actions, individually and in community.  As Luther reminds us, “prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance.  It is laying hold of His willingness.”  Praying to God is not wearing out a selfish and partial judge, but persistently embracing and enjoying God’s goodness and the relationship God wants to have with us.

In the week ahead, I invite and encourage you to experiment with prayer.  Pray for each member of your family – even the extended family.  Pray for your neighbors.  Pray for Community Lutheran.  Pray for the people you pass on the sidewalk.  Pray for people with whom you have a hard time interacting.  Pray for the person who cuts you off in traffic.  I know, that’s a tough one!  Request that others pray for you.  See what happens! Remember, you don’t have to be eloquent or use big theological words – you are talking to God, the One who knows you better than anyone else, even yourself.  God has given you a voice and a way of praying, so embrace it and use it!  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Audrey Assad singing “Slow:”

Advertisements

It’s Opposite Day!

This was the sermon I preached last Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church in North Bethesda, MD for the Baptism of Our Lord.

Luke 3:15-17
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Luke 3:21-22 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I have two brothers and when we were younger, like many children, we would make things up. We were very creative, probably much to my parents’ exhaustion, and we’d invent all kinds of games. One of the games we came up with was “opposite day.” It never lasted very long, but here’s how it usually went: one of us would say something like “I’ll play with you when we get home” and then, when the other person went to go play, the instigator would say something like “Haha! Its opposite day!,” dashing the other persons’ expectations to pieces. Not very nice, I know, but we liked to pick on each other.

Oddly enough, I see a similar thing happening in the Gospel reading for this morning. No, God isn’t playing tricks like my brothers and I did, but God does act contrary to our expectations. John the Baptist, who could have pretended to be the Messiah, instead identifies the Messiah as one who is far more powerful than himself. John goes as far as to say that he is not even fit to do the job of a slave – that of untying this coming one’s sandals. However, completely contrary to what everyone is expecting, Jesus is born into this world to a poor family. In this reading, he encounters John on the banks of the Jordan and he does not declare that he is the Messiah or the Christ, but rather, has John baptize him with water for the repentance of sins.

What?! This doesn’t make any sense at all! Jesus, God made flesh, goes to a man with long hair who eats locusts and honey in the desert to be baptized?! That’s absolutely astonishing. My question, however, is why? Why would the Messiah, the anointed one, need to be baptized? I think in order to understand this a bit better, we need to look at the picture Luke has already presented of Jesus. Jesus is born to a poor girl in a small village – he doesn’t come as a powerful, earthly king in radiant glory as everyone was expecting. It seems that God isn’t into living up to anyone’s expectations or pictures of how redemption will come into the world. Already, Luke has painted a picture of God working in unexpected ways – in ways often totally opposite of what is expected.

In addition, Luke’s Gospel includes many details about Jesus’ humanity and how he followed the Law and Jewish customs to a tee. According to Luke, Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day as was the custom, and he was presented at the Temple and dedicated to God according to the laws prescribed in Exodus. As he grew, Luke describes Jesus as becoming “strong and filled with wisdom.” In Jewish tradition, wisdom was something highly sought after. It was through wisdom that one could glimpse God and through wisdom that one could flourish in life. Still later, when Jesus was twelve, Mary, Joseph and Jesus devoutly head to Jerusalem for Passover as they did every year. After the festival, Joseph and Mary begin the trek back to Nazareth when they notice that Jesus is missing. He is found discussing and arguing with the teachers in the Temple – engaging in the study of the Torah and the faith of his ancestors.

Seeing how Jesus had become human and was living the life of a proper Jewish man, it seems a bit more fitting that Luke and the other Gospel writers would also show Jesus being baptized. At this time, ritual washings were seen as necessary to wash away impurities that would defile the Temple and cause separation from God. So, perhaps, baptism is not only something that Jesus would later command his followers to do, but also something that he has done in order to more fully identify with us. In addition to showing us that we are also to be baptized, the baptism of Christ is one more way of letting us know who Jesus is. The presence of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God declaring that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, with whom God is well-pleased, point the way like neon signs. The Holy Spirit and the voice indicate that Jesus is someone who shares a particularly special, intimate bond with God. Jesus already knew where he stood in relationship to God, the Father, but humanity did not. What could direct us more clearly than the heavens parting and a voice declaring who Jesus is? Once again, contrary to what we’d expect, the one who least needs a baptism for the repentance of sins does so anyway for our sake.

What remains shocking to me is how incredibly short this description of Jesus’ baptism is. Luke writes: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” Luke mentions the baptism, but it seems almost like an afterthought. Instead, the author seems to put more emphasis on Jesus’ prayer and what happens after the baptism. It is interesting that Jesus prays after his baptism because none of the other Gospels describe Jesus as doing so. I do wonder what he was praying about, but perhaps it had to do with what comes next – the sky opens and the Holy Spirit descends along with a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It is only after Jesus’ prayer that the Holy Spirit and the voice are revealed.

A voice from the heavens?! That’s epic – straight out of a Hollywood movie! I know I have never heard the voice of God coming from the heavens! I would like to think that if I heard the unmistakable sound of God’s voice from above, I would be inclined to listen up! Sadly, as I begin to think about the voice of God more, I realize that maybe I wouldn’t listen, even if I did hear a voice from above. Maybe I haven’t been listening as well as I should and maybe, that’s an area where we all need to be paying more attention.

In seminary, we talk about our “call stories” – how we feel we’ve been called to various ministries and where we are in our journeys. I love hearing peoples’ stories because it reminds me that God is still speaking. Perhaps it’s not with a voice from above, but God is speaking through Scripture, prayer, the Sacraments, and even through the lives of ordinary, everyday people. After all, God worked through a man in a desert who felt he wasn’t good enough to untie Christ’s sandals in order to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. Today, in the kind or comforting words of a friend during a difficult time, or even through a piece of music or art, we can hear God speaking to us. When I realize that, I cannot help but feel a rush of amazement and gratitude that God would choose to speak through you and me, however imperfect we are. Once again, God has chosen to work through unexpected mediums – through ways opposite of our expectations.

The other day, I caught the last half of Evan Almighty, the sequel to Bruce Almighty, on television. In this film, the main character, Evan Baxter, is chosen by God to become a modern day Noah. He is tasked with building an ark in our very own Washington, DC. As people mock and ridicule him and his family nearly gives up on him, a reporter asks, “Evan, what makes you so sure that God chose you?” His response floored me: “God chose all of us.” I was floored because there I was watching a comedy and yet, this amazing theological truth came through loud and clear. As we heard this morning in Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” God has called and claimed us. Is there any clearer expression of love?

God chose us when Jesus came into the world to live and teach among us. God chose us when Christ died on the cross for our sake and God chose us when in the Resurrection, Jesus defeated sin and death, leading the way for us to have eternal life with God. In baptism, God claims us, marks us with the cross of Christ and seals us with the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry, our baptisms mark the beginning of ours. We are called and claimed by God in order to do the work of “bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” But how do we do that? That is where the voice of God comes in.

One of my favorite verses throughout my discernment process has been Isaiah 30:21: “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” God is right here, right now, with us, guiding us along the way if we will only take the time to stop and listen. We have been given the gifts of the Scriptures, of prayer and conversation with others in the body of Christ in order to help us hear that voice, that word, guiding our way, showing us how we can take part in bringing about God’s kingdom on earth.

We can give thanks that God is still speaking to us and through us and we can look forward to discovering what God may be calling us to do. While we are daily remembering our baptisms and how God has lovingly claimed and filled us with the Holy Spirit, we can be carefully discerning how God is communicating with us. We just need to be open to the unexpected, surprising and often contrary ways God has of creatively reaching us.

You may think that God is only found in glory and not among the poor. You may think that you are not good enough to talk to or be of service to God. You may think that God has ceased talking to or through lowly sinners like you and me, but guess what? Its opposite day! AMEN.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Baptism of Jesus from the LA Cathedral (Also in My Home Congregation!)

%d bloggers like this: