This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church insurance, false backgrounds, repeating readings, the great light, fire, prayer, divisions, ecclesial growth, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God, the foolishness of the Cross, and podcast reviews. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Best Laid Plans
Tag Archives: Prayer
The Gospel According To Francis Spufford
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 40.1-11, 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, John 1.29-42). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including sin, coffee and contemplation, Prayer School, sharp swords, prophetic preaching, miry bogs, Pelagius, trust, sanctification, gifts, blame, low anthropology, the Lamb of God, and discipleship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel According To Francis Spufford
Grace Is Unfair
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…
There is a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He even tithes when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning. He is good and faithful.
And there’s another man, a legal crook, who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the rest up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can’t even keep track of where he keeps all of them.
They both show up for worship one day. The good and faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the crook and, meanwhile, the crook asks God to have mercy on him, a sinner.
The parable of the publican and the pharisee. Jesus tells this tale to his disciples and then mic-drops the ending: “I tell you, this man (the crook) went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It’s all wrong, right? This parable runs against the grain of how we think it’s all supposed to work.
Put another way: Which of the two would we prefer to see sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning? How would we feel if the crook was part of our church? What would we do if he took a little money out of the offering plate or showed up with a new woman on his arm every Sunday?
This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with a resounding conclusion, Jesus tells the disciples and all of us that the whole game is unfair.
Grace is unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and yet, instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”
Do you see what that means?
It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the Publican can kick him out. The whole point of the parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good works and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation.
In short, they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead.
Thankfully, that’s exactly what Jesus came to do.
The Startling Nature of Scripture
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Joel 2.23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18, Luke 18.9-14). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Gospel according to Paul (McCartney), restoration, patient prayers, honesty, reading backwards, scriptural sommeliers, the Gospel diet, agency, the crown of righteousness, and the most important parable. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Startling Nature of Scripture
The First Resort
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six month it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
It was a typical Sunday morning with the typical Sunday crowd. We read, we sang, we listened, we gave, we received.
I announced the final hymn and we all started singing.
Over the horizon of my hymnal I took a glance at God’s church. I saw the woman who had recently confessed to me that she was about to divorce her husband, who was standing and singing right next to her. There was the teenage girl who was accepted to every college she applied for and was currently experiencing the paralysis of analysis as she had to make a decision about which one to attend. And I saw one of the ushers dart out the back door for a cigarette, a habit he shared that he was trying desperately to drop.
But before we had a chance to make it to the second verse, Don keeled over in his pew with a loud thud.
There was a panicked moment as everyone turned toward the pew in question. I ran from the altar, and gathered around the man with a few others. We, thankfully, had a few nurses in attendance that morning and they went quick to work – one of them checked his pulse, another stretched him out to help open his airway, and other was on the phone with the rescue squad.
I leaned close and asked if there was anything I could do, and one of the nurses shot me a quick glance and declared, a little louder than I would’ve liked, “You could start praying preacher.”
And so I did.
Right then and there I closed my eyes and feel to my knees and I started praying. Soon I felt fingers wrapping around my own on both sides, and when I opened my eyes at the end of the prayer, the rest of the church had joined in a large circle and all of us were praying together for Don.
The rescue squad arrived with my amen, and they took Don to the hospital.
And then we did the only thing we could, we finished the hymn.
An hour or so later I drove to the hospital to check on him and when I walked into his room he, miraculously, treated me with a big toothy smile and he said, “I learned my lesson preacher, no more skipping breakfast before church.”
For as long as I can remember, I have been my family’s designated pray-er. Whenever we get together, and the timing is appropriate, all eyes will shift in my general direction and I am expected to lift something up to Someone, namely God.
Going into the ministry only made it worse.
But, let me confess, I’ve never found prayer to be an “easy thing.” I’m not even fully sure how I learned to do it other than picking up the language while spending so much time in and around church. Over the years I have come to find the prayers of the church, that is those written on behalf of the body of Christ, to be absolutely necessary to the fiber of my being. I find great solace in offering words to God that have been offered by so many so many times before. And yet, to stand in this place week after week leading us in prayers is just as bewildering as praying in this room day after day when none of you are here.
What I’m trying to say is this: Prayer is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and yet we so rarely talk and think about what prayer actually is.
James, the brother of the Lord, writes of prayer almost as if a foregone conclusion. If you’re suffering you should pray. If you’re cheerful, you should pray. If anyone is sick, they should ask for prayers. It’s as if the community called church to which James writes knows nothing except a life of prayer.
And yet, for many of us, myself included at times, we view prayer as a last resort.
When push comes to shove, we are far more inclined to take matters into our own hands, than we are to lay them before the throne of God. If we are the masters of our own destiny, who wants to bring God into the situation and run the risk of messing everything up?
And yet, prayer is about more than just offering up a laundry list to God.
Prayer is the expression of a relationship, it is (to use a seminary word) a dialectic. It is the back and forth between Creator and creature. Prayer is where Christianity becomes practical. Prayer is something we do. It is, oddly enough, who we are. We, the church, are God’s prayer for the world. Prayer is what separates us from any other communal organization.
But perhaps that’s getting a little too heady.
On a fundamental level, there are three types of prayers that can be summarized with three words: Help, Thanks, and Wow.
Prayer happens when we cry out for aid when there seems to be no aid around at all, it is the plea for help when we can no longer help ourselves.
Prayer also happens when we are able to take a look around and realize how amazingly blessed we are, it is the communication of gratitude toward the One through whom all blessing flow.
And prayer also happens in those remarkable moment of awe. The Wow prayer is more than thanks. It is more like, “I can’t believe what God was able to do considering the circumstances.”
Sometimes prayers are made possible through a lot of work and reflection. And sometimes they billow forth without us even really thinking about what it is we are doing when we are praying.
Karl Barth believed that to be a Christian and to pray were one and the same thing. Prayer is as necessary to a Christian as it is for a human being to breathe.
Faithful prayers are those that offer us up to possibility because prayer is the ultimate recognition that we are not in charge. Prayer deconstructs all of our preconceived notions about what is, and isn’t possible.
And, frustratingly, prayer teaches us what it means to be patient. Nobody likes being patient but life isn’t possible without it. Our world is based on speed but prayer is based on patience. Prayer is the reminder that God’s time is not our time, that God is God and we are not.
Put another way: Prayer is not about getting what we want, but what God wants.
I spent a lot of time this week asking people from the church and the community about answered prayers. And, wonderfully, every single person had an answer. I heard of job searches, and relationships, and children, and parents, and homes, and healings. On and on.
To me, this church is an answer to prayer…
The Good News of prayer is that God listens, God answers. Sometimes it occurs in ways we cannot know for a long long time. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers, at least not the way we want. But this community is constituted by our prayers. Prayers is the fuel that makes the church the church.
But why continue talking about prayer when we can do it instead?
In just a few moments we are going to pray for one another. I know this won’t be easy, or comfortable, for a lot of us, but the church that prays together is, indeed, God’s church for the world. So we’re going to do it.
As you are able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not part of your normal church orbit. And, if we have an odd number, whoever is left will have to pray with me, so that should encourage you to pair off speedily.
Once you find a prayer partner, I would like each person to have an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. There are absolutely other people in other places experiencing other things who need our prayers, but for the moment I would like us to be more personal. It doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your job or children, or maybe you feel confused about a decision and you could use some discernment.
Whatever the thing it, I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words.
The point is, I want every person here to pray and to be prayed for today.
I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let us pray…
Bloom Where You Are Planted
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7, Psalm 66.1-12, 2 Timothy 2.8-15, Luke 17.11-19). Sara and Teer both serve Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including friendship in the workplace, peaceful situations, political welfare, grace, ecclesial architecture, joyful noises, spreadsheets, supplicatory prayers, memory, the main thing, faith, and word wrangling. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Bloom Where You Are Planted
God Only Knows
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 18.1-11, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1.1-21, Luke 14.25-33). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including baseball hats, Yellowstone, the theology of art, iconography, clay, patience, the posture of prayer, The Brothers Zahl, sacred worth, hymnody, familial hatred, and the depth of the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Only Knows
Pray Like This…
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
When the disciples badger Jesus for a way to pray he responds, “When you pray, pray like this: Lord, you are great. Do what you need to do. Give us some bread. Forgive us, because we are trying to forgive everyone indebted to us. And keep us away from evil.”
The Lord’s Prayer according to Luke is decisively different than the one recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s shorter, it dispenses with some of the elevated liturgical language, and it cuts right to the heart of the matter.
And, even though Christians say the Lord’s prayer over and over again, we can’t help but scratch our heads with regard to how strange of a prayer it really is. Particularly when we consider how Jesus told the disciples this prayer after they requested something akin to what John gave to his disciples.
John, unlike Jesus, was living by a different paradigm, one in which people could enter what we might call “The Program of Salvation.” There are different stages and expectations of what it means to get from where you are to where you can be. You confess and repent of all your sins, you start engaging in works of piety and social justice, and then you earn your heavenly reward.
In John’s “Program of Salvation,” redemption is all about having the right ethical, religious, moral, and political beliefs in order to make something new happen in the world.
Jesus, on the other hand, sees all things differently. He, himself, is the new thing that happens to, and for, everyone. There’s no “program” to get God to do anything.
Jesus doesn’t come to show the disciples, and us, how to get our lives in order in order to get good with God. Instead, Jesus is God who comes to us.
This, admittedly, can be frustrating for the many of us who would prefer it if Jesus were clearer about what we should and shouldn’t do. And yet, the proclamation of the Good News is, indeed, good news: Jesus saves us because we are in need of saving.
The challenges comes in admitting that we are not like what we ought to be.
The disciples, people like us, we want a program. We want salvation to be laid out nice and clear with regard to what we need to do, and say, and believe. We enjoy trite and memorable zingers of goodness like, be prepared or do a good turn daily. We love the idea of being reasonably good people getting better all the time.
But then Jesus responds to the disciples’ request for a prayer with one that runs against our notions of what it means to be faithful. Because, according to Jesus, to be faithful doesn’t require us to do much of anything. In fact, the only thing we can do, according to the prayer, is forgive.
The Lord’s prayer (Matthew’s and Luke’s) rejects all of our contemporary understandings of what it means to pray. It does not contain giant and lofty ideals that blanket our Sunday morning liturgies. It does not hint at ethical perfection, or dance around moral equivocation. It is just the bare necessities of keeping us together and fed so that we can finally start celebrating the wonderful and wild news that Jesus is for us, no matter what.
What’s In A Name?
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint and he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, quite strange.
It constantly subverts our expectations, no matter how many times we come to it. It reveals things about ourselves that we didn’t even know about ourselves. And it points to an ever-present reality that runs counter to how we think the world works.
Listen – Jacob is the worst.
We all know that plenty of figures from the scriptures have problems – nobody’s perfect. But Jacob? Jacob is a loser.
Prior to his birth Jacob wrestles his twin brother Esau in the womb, a perfect foreshadowing of his life to come.
And when Esau is born, he comes out with his twin brother grabbing at his leg, so his parents name the second-born Jacob, which means heel-grabber.
What kind of name is heel-grabber?
Jacob, hustler, scoundrel, liar, cheat, fool, faithless son of Isaac and Rebekah.
Long story short:
Two decades before the infamous battle royal on the banks of the Jabbok river, Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright.
Esau comes in from the field, having hunted and collected food for the rest of the family, and with hunger he asks his brother for some red stew from the stove. Does Jacob willingly hand it over to his twin brother knowing full and well that the firstborn contributes more to his wellbeing than the other way around? No.
Jacob prepares the plate, lets the scent waft in front of his brother’s nose, and says, “I’ll give you this only if you give me your birthright in return.”
And Esau, famished from working for the family, willingly agrees. After all, what good is a birthright in comparison with the deep hunger of your belly?
But it doesn’t stop there.
Later, Isaac in his old age, eyes weary and poor of sight, near death, asks for Esau to come and to receive his blessing, AKA his inheritance. Isaac wants to pass on all of his wealth to his eldest twin son.
Esau, come bring me some of my favorite food that I might hand over the goods.
But the heel-grabber is quick to act.
He walks in with the aforementioned food, and boldly lies to his father. He covers himself in fur to appear harrier like his brother. He leans forward to receive the kiss that conveys it all, and takes it without remorse.
For what it’s worth, that’s three of the ten commandments broken in as many verses.
Esau’s fury in response to his heel-grabbing brother heel-grabbing his blessing leads Jacob to flee for his life.
Jacob becomes a stranger in a strange land, wandering about, and during this time he has a dream, a dream from God. In the dream there is a ladder stretching up into the heavens, angels are going up and down, and the Lord says, “Jacob, know that I am with you and I will never leave you.”
Which, considering what happened and what’s about to happen sounds more like a threat than a promise.
When Jacob wakes from the dream he sets up an altar to the Lord and he is afraid.
His fear leads him to prayer. Does he pray for forgiveness? Does he offer the Lord a contrite heart?
No. He bargains with the divine: “Lord, if you will stay with me, and keep me, and make sure that I have food to eat and clothing to wear, then you can be my God.”
Jacob encounters the divine through the dramatic vision of the ladder, is still no better than he was before!
Soon, Jacob has nowhere left to go. Esau’s fury remains on the back horizon. So he reaches out to his uncle, Laban, who takes him in, provides the food and shelter that Jacob demanded from God. Jacob meets Rachel, bargains with Laban to marry her, works seven years, and then, on his wedding night, is duped by his uncle into consummating the relationship with Leah, Rachel’s sister.
More bargaining ensues, and with another 7 years of labor he is finally granted the wife he wanted from the beginning.
Soap operas aren’t even this good. But wait, there’s more!
After 14 years of labor, and after receiving untold wealth and wives, Jacob returns the hospitality of his uncle turned father-in-law by cheating him out of his wealth hiding away the best of the livestock for himself.
Again, not to make too fine a point of it, that’s a few more commandments broken.
Jacob is a no good dirty rotten scoundrel. He runs from all his problems all while making more problems for himself and his family. He’s a liar, and a thief, and a cheat. There’s nothing holy about this heel grabbing son of a, Isaac.
Why then do we read of this man and his wandering heart? Why do we lift these verses from the strange new world of the Bible and say, “Thanks be to God”? Why does God promise to remain with Jacob even though he has nothing to show for his so-called life?
Because Jacob isn’t his real name.
On the run from his mistakes, from his failures, and perhaps even from himself, Jacob catches wind that Esau is looking for him. So he divides up his family and all of his possessions, assuming that at least half will make it to safety. And, all alone, he sleeps by the bank of the Jabbok river.
A strange figure appears in the middle of the night. Perhaps the consequences of his actions made manifest in the flesh. They wrestle until the sun begins to rise. The stranger knocks Jacob on the hip, dislocating it forever, and demands for the fight to end. Jacob refuses, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
Still looking for blessings.
“Who are you?” The figure asks.
“My name is Jacob.”
“No it’s not,” the stranger replies, “Your name is Israel because you have striven with God and humans and you’ve made it to the other side.”
Israel then returns the same question to the nighttime wrestler, “Who are you?”
But he receives no answer. And as mysteriously as the figure arrives, he disappears.
Israel names the place Peniel, which means the face of God, because in the wrestler he met the divine.
The morning comes and Israel sees Esau coming, with four hundred men flanking him on the right and left. Israel goes ahead and bows to the ground seven times until he stands before his brother.
And Esau runs forward and tackles his good for nothing brother to the ground and finally exacts his revenge. And yet, instead of pummeling him with punches, Esau embraces his twin brother and covers him with kisses and tears.
What a strange tale.
Jacob, Israel, is deeply flawed learns nothing except for the fact that he deserves nothing and receives everything. We read his story, we can call it Good News, because grace prevails!
His actions catch up with him, all of the hurt and all of the pain. He is caught and there is no escape. And only then is he known fully for the first time, and is loved.
Here, at the end, after a life of failure and betrayal, vulnerable and at his brother’s mercy, he discovers an acceptance which he never could have earned or deserved.
Which leads us backward, slightly. Decades before the battle royal at the river, long before he had a taste of forgiveness, Israel had a vision, a dream, of a ladder extending into the heavens. Israel knows, after all is said and done, that God is indeed at the end of that ladder, but more importantly he knows that the Good News, the gospel, is not that God is up there waiting for him to journey up – instead God comes down to meet him where he is.
And he has the scars to prove it.
The Good News of the Gospel for Israel, for each and everyone of us, is that God meets us in the midst of our sins, not our successes.
For some reason we’ve got it stuck in our heads that, like Jacob, we’ve got to do whatever it takes to win the game we call life. We’ll deceive our parents, lie to our spouses, betray our families. We’ll dig deep pits from which we can’t escape all while thinking we’re getting better and better and better. We’ll make horrible decisions and choices all in the name of progress.
But the life of faith isn’t about how we need to get good for God.
It’s about how God comes to us.
And God’s been doing it since the beginning.
From “Adam, Adam, where are you?” To a midnight brawl at the river to the sleepy little town of Bethlehem, God comes to us.
And when God comes to us and we expect to be clobbered with guilt, we actually get clobbered by grace.
Years ago, at a different church, I was sitting in my office one day, day dreaming about a sermon, when an older parishioner barged in through the door. She was older and getting on in years, but she had this youthful glow that I had never seen.
She shouted, “Preacher you are never going to believe what happened to me.”
My favorite stories always start like that.
So without saying a word I mentioned for her to continue.
“Well you know how you keep preaching about forgiveness? Well, I don’t know what came over me, but I finally decided to tell my husband that I cheated on him.”
“What?” I blurted out as I fell out of my chair.
“It was 30 years ago, and it was only once, but I never told anybody. So after we drove home from church last Sunday and as soon as we walked into the house I told him the truth about what I’d done and with whom and when.”
“What does this have to do with forgiveness?”
“That’s just the thing! I told him all I had done and I waited for him to start hooting and hollering and raising hell. All he said was, ‘I know you cheated on me, and I forgave you a long time ago.’ The nerve of that man. Here I am, carrying this guilt around all these years, and he forgave me long ago. Can you believe it?”
Can you believe it?
This story captivates our hearts and minds because it doesn’t end according to the way it is supposed to. Any good consumer of tales knows that Jacob is supposed to get his comeuppance; whether by violent revenge from Esau, or judgment from God almighty. He is nothing but a loser through and through.
But grace works for losers and only losers.
You know, people like us.
No matter how hard we try, and try hard we do, we can’t save ourselves, we can’t make ourselves right. We can try, and we can make a heck of a mess along the way, but the Lord has a way of reminding us, all of us, that we are not as we ought to be, that we’re up the creek without a paddle. We do nothing and we deserve nothing, and yet God forgives us anyway. Can you believe it?
The story of Israel, of the forgiven heel-grabber, reminds us that God comes to us in our weariness and woundedness. God, ultimately, rules not from a throne of glory, but from the arms of the cross. God’s power is revealed in the weakness of Christ, and God’s grace comes to us in our weakness.
We don’t have the strength, nor do we have the power, to save ourselves. We are as helpless as Jacob, hobbling around with our hips out of joint. We can run away as far as we can for as long as we can, but one day God will catch up with us. God will grab hold of us. And God will tell us who we really are.
What kind of name is Israel? It means we have striven with God and one another and we’ve made it to the other side. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 5.1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6.1-16, Luke 10.1-11, 16-20). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including subtitles, Andy Root, sacramental theology, unnamed characters, healing, airplane confessions, inadequate prayers, poetry and prose, American Beauty, weddings, karma, James Joyce, boasting, ordination, and leadership. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Consequence Culture