For all the mysteriousness of prayer, Jesus, by word and example, teaches us simply to keep at it. I’m sure his disciples couldn’t help but notice the way he would slip away to pray, often. Occasionally he brought a few of them with him on these extended prayer times. His prayer must of have been of such a quality that it inspired the request to “Teach us to pray” that opened this dialogue. Aside from the Lord’s Prayer, there is precious little about the form and substance of these prayers aside from Jesus’ own persistence at it.
He goes on to assure them that they will receive, they will find, and doors will be opened to them. It seems evident that they need reassuring, anyone who has attempted to pray for something will quickly run into the uncomfortable truth that it’s not as simple as putting in your quarters and selecting which soda you want. Nor is it even like filing the correct paperwork for a zoning variance and navigating layers of bureaucracy until getting approval.
God is not a vending machine. God is not a bureaucrat. God is not a trickster. Jesus tells us he is our heavenly Father, capable of giving good gifts like we would give our own children. God is our good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. God is the great physician in the business of healing the sick.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect? This sounds impossible. Remember one of your favorite teachers, whether a family member or in school, perhaps a coach. Imagine a favorite teacher saying: “Keep growing into more. You can do it.” How does it feel to hear that?
Today’s Gospel is the last in a series from Jesus:[i] You have heard it was said … but I say to you … .” With each one, Jesus invites beyond what has been already learned. You have heard: Don’t murder. But I say beware of your anger and insulting each other. You have heard: Don’t commit adultery. But I say beware of lust. Keep the spirit of the law. You have heard: Hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies.
Like a parent, teacher, coach, or one whom we admire, Jesus says: There’s more than the basic rules you already know. This is the way of adulthood.[ii] Keep on growing into further maturity, into an expansive spirit with integrity and mercy toward everyone, all the time. Scholar Dale Bruner writes the word translated as perfect is not about the height of accomplishment to which we reach up but rather the width of mercy, reaching out to embrace, and Bruner translates it as “perfectly mature.” [iii]
In the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus says: “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”[iv] The New English Bible puts Matthew’s line as “be all goodness, as your heavenly Father is all good.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. … Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
The kingdom of God as a great dinner, as banquet, is an old image. 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah wrote that one day God would make a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all peoples. At that time, God would also destroy death and wipe away all tears.[i]
Over time, a few groups reinterpreted Isaiah’s vision inserting limits, saying it was not for everyone but rather for good religious folk, those who kept all the religious laws, not for unbelievers, not for foreigners.[ii] Likely some reclining at the dinner with Jesus were expecting him to affirm the reinterpretation: Blessed are the righteous, those who keep the rules, who (like us) will be worthy to be welcomed to God’s party.[iii]
Instead, Jesus tells this story. “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.” One invites, get confirmations, and from that number prepares appropriate food. When the food is ready, guests are invited a second time to come over, like as we say “now come to the table.”
Contrary to all custom, the guests refuse, giving ridiculous excuses. “I bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it.” Yet anyone would look at a piece of land extensively before buying. “I bought five yoke of oxen, and I have to go try them out.” Yet oxen must work well together yoked. It would be foolish to buy without testing them first. The third says, “it’s my wedding night. I can’t come.” These are not: I’m so sorry. Something I couldn’t have foreseen just came up. These are absurd. They are offensive, public insults to the host.[iv]
For good reason, the master of the house became angry. One rightly expects retaliation, or cutting off relationship, or withdrawing and stewing. When you or someone you love is insulted, threatened, hurt or attacked, what stirs in you? How do you want to respond, or what do you find that you do with your anger? Right the wrong with revenge. Fight back with force. Wound with words. Hit to hurt. Shame.
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
The other day I ran across a video on YouTube that made me incredibly uncomfortable. The scene was of the famous conductor Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Orchestra. In the video, the famous maestro singles out the trumpet section on a particular passage of music and tries to instruct them on what he would like to hear. Confused, one of the trumpeters asks for clarification on the sound Mr. Bernstein is looking for. The maestro answers: well, not a brassy ‘waaah’, indicating how he thought they had just played it. With an agitated expression on his face and obviously disagreeing with the maestro’s assessment of their performance, the second trumpet player responds to Mr. Bernstein, taking a tone that is both ungracious and confrontational. The air in the room is tense as you would expect when a brilliant musician with a bruised ego pushes back against one of the most renowned conductors of that era. At the end of the brief two minute video Mr. Bernstein summons the rest of the orchestra to move on and the camera catches the principal clarinetist smiling nervously, almost disbelieving what he just witnessed.[i] I don’t know about you, but my reaction would probably be like that of the clarinetist. Even though conflict and confrontation are sometimes inevitable in life, I have to admit, I certainly do not go looking for it.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Winston Churchill was reprimanded at one point by Lady Astor for ending a sentence with a preposition. Churchill responded, “This is the kind of thing up with which I will not put.”[i] Well, I’m thinking here about endings, lots of things coming to an unexpected end in our world and in our nation, some of it surprising, or relieving, or galvanizing, or frightening. And this coincides with the church year having just ended. Today, the first Sunday of Advent, marks the beginning of the new year for the church, Advent being observed the four Sundays prior to Christmas.
Tonight is the second sermon in our five-week Lenten preaching series, “Love Life.” In this series we have been focusing on the Gospel of John and its theme of love. Tonight we consider the “invitation to be loved” which the gospel offers us. We are invited by THE GOD WHO IS LOVE to enter into a loving and intimate relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…. and to extend that love to others, particularly those in the community of Christ’s followers and those who are in need.
In the First Letter of John we learn that “God is love” (I Jn 4:16) and that “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God” (I Jn 4:15). This is the testimony of the believing community, who have come to “know and believe the love that God has for us” (I Jn 4:16) through the testimony of Jesus and the testimony of the Beloved Disciple found in the Fourth Gospel. They have discovered their true identity as beloved children of God and are learning to live – or to abide – in that identity. “See what love the Father has given us,” the author exclaims, “that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are!” (I Jn 3:1)
As they went. Not at the moment Jesus spoke. Not at the moment they met the priests. As they went. As they followed Jesus’ invitation. As they did the next thing asked, as they journeyed. As they went, they were healed. Healing may happen in motion, in process, as we go, as we live, as we follow. During a short walk or over a long journey. At a particular point in time or as a process into which we receive glimpses of insight.
I remember a simple little game I used play with my parents when I was a child. At bedtime I would tell my mom or dad, whoever was tucking me in that night, that I loved them. The response was always, “I love you too,” in which I would reply, “I love you MORE!” That would begin banter ‘ad nauseam’ of “No you don’t, I love YOU more!!!” This would finally end with Mom or Dad saying, “Jimmy, you’ve got school early in the morning, GET TO SLEEP!!!” I would go to sleep with a little smile on my face knowing that I had won the battle of wills. But winning the battle didn’t exactly mean that the sentiment was true. While I did love my parents, I know now as an adult that the love of a mother and father for their child is a love beyond limits or conditions. As I grow older and am starting to see my parents entering the autumn and winter of their lives, roles are switching to the extent they can, and I am concerned with their health and well being. My love grows more and more with the intensity of a parent who is watching their college aged child from afar, hoping that they’re okay and have everything they need.
Those words I remember learning as a young child, for every year throughout Britain, on this night millions of people celebrate what is known as Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night. Millions of bonfires are lit and millions of fireworks are ignited.