Lord, Teach Us to Pray

We went out to eat with some friends a while ago. And to be honest I don’t even remember where we ate, or what we ate. What I do remember is the friendship. I am blessed to have enjoyed the company of some very good friends earlier this evening. These are friends you may not see for a long time but when you get back together it’s like you never missed a beat. I hope you all have such good friends. Mike and I are like that.

Anyway, there we were at some restaurant, somewhere. Our server brings the food and we fold our hands and bow our heads to pray.

“Mommy,!” Three year old Addison blurts out excitedly, “Can we teach Dave the Superman prayer? We gotta do the Superman prayer!”

“Superman prayer,” I wondered to myself. And then, ever so bravely, I asked, “What is the Superman prayer?” And Addison teaches me the Superman prayer, a prayer which is sung to the main theme from the Superman movies.

Remember that this is a three year old we are talking about. He hasn’t yet learned to be embarrassed in front of people. He isn’t worried about people watching him. Before we begin, his eyes aren’t glancing about the room wondering what others will think. He is carefree. He loves his family. He loves his God.

So with that excitement only a child can bring, he leads us in a very strong voice: “Thank you Lord for giving us food. Thank you Lord for giving us food. For the friends we meet. For the food we eat. Thanks for the food!”

There in front of God and who knows how many people, led by a child, we thanked God for friendships and for food.

Do you remember the first prayer you ever learned? Though maybe not the Superman prayer it was perhaps a prayer of blessing over a meal.

God is great. God is good.
Let us thank him for our food…
By his hands we all are fed,
Give us Lord our daily bread, Amen.

Or maybe it was a prayer before bedtime:

Now I lay me down to sleep,…

Or a prayer you learned in Sunday School.

Jesus once taught his disciples a prayer. Luke tells us that Jesus had just finished praying when one of his disciples says to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” The question seems innocent enough. But look at the reason behind the question.

“John taught his disciples how to pray. We want to be like John’s disciples. They have a prayer. We don’t. Teach us a prayer, pulleeze?”

This isn’t the first time people of God have been envious of other people. In the Old Testament, Israel takes a look at its neighbors and then a glimpse in the mirror and notices that they are different from their neighbors. All the other countries have kings.

We don’t have a king.
Everyone else has a king.
Why don’t we have a king.

We want a king.

So the elders of the people of Israel go to Samuel and demand a king.
Samuel prays. God tells Samuel not to be upset with the people and to give them what they want.

“Their request for a king is not a sign of them rejecting you,” God tells Samuel, “They are rejecting me from being king over them.”

Give us a prayer, Jesus. We want to be like John’s disciples.

Jesus teaches his disciples a prayer. The Model Prayer, we call it. Though the prayer recorded in Luke is shorter than the one from Matthew we are familiar with.

But Jesus doesn’t end with the Amen. There’s more to prayer than just words and phrases. And with a story Jesus reminds his disciples (and us) of the goodness of God.

Gordon Atkinson tells a story about early in his ministry training. He had only recently completed his Master of Divinity and was working as a hospital chaplain in a Clinical Pastoral Education program. He says of people facing death that they don’t care about “your interpretation of 2 Timothy. Some take the ‘bloodied, but unbowed’ road, but most dying people want to pray with the chaplain. And they don’t want wimpy prayers, either. They don’t want you to pray that God’s will be done.

“NO! People want you to get down and dirty with them. They want to call down angels and the powers of the Almighty. THEY ARE DYING and the whole world should stop.
“”I threw myself into it,” my friend writes. “I prayed holding hands and cradling heads. I prayed with children and with old men. I prayed with a man who lost his tongue to cancer. I lent him mine. I prayed my (butt) off. ..”
“I started noticing something. When the doctors said someone was going to die, they did. When they said 10 percent chance of survival, about nine out of ten died. The odds ran pretty much as predicted by physicians. I mean, was this praying doing ANYTHING?
“I’m sophisticated enough to understand the value of human contact, but prayer is supposed to affect the outcome, right?
And my faith started to falter.
“Then I met Jenny.
“Thirty something. Cute. New mother of two little kids. Breast cancer. Found it too late. Spread all over. Absolutely going to die.
“Jenny had only one request.’I know I’m going to die, chaplain. I need time to finish this. It’s for my kids. Pray with me that god will give me the strength to finish it.’
“She showed me the needlepoint pillow she was making for her children. It was an ‘alphabet blocks and apples’ kind of thing. She knew she would not be there for them. Would not drop them off at kindergarten, would not see baseball games…No weddings, no grandkids. Nothing.
“She had this fantasy that her children would cherish this thing- sleep with it, snuggle it. Someday it might be lovingly put on display at her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps there would be a moment of slince. Some part of her would be there.
“I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed. Jesus, this was the kind of prayer you could believe in…
“A couple of days later I went in to see her only to find the room filed with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.”
“As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.

We’ve all been there- haven’t we? We have stood in that hospital room. We have sat anxious at the bedside of a loved one praying and longing… longing for the miracle that would never come. We’ve had the C-Word “Cancer” spoken over our own bodies and have asked God why. We have family members who have lost jobs. We have watched helplessly as our lifesavings has shriveled up these past few months. Our nest egg has lost 40, 50, even 60 percent or more and we feel so helpless.
“Please God, take this pain from me.”
“Please God taken this sickness from me.”
“Please God, take this uncertainty from me.”

Even our Lord prayed that God would “take this cup from me.”

But God isn’t Santa Claus to whom we can come with our long list of wants. Have you been a good boy this year?

God isn’t a genie who grants our wishes. There is not a magical book of phrases we can turn to that we might get God to do what we want.
This isn’t about us in any way at all.
It isn’t so much about the words we pray. No. It is more about the character of the one to whom we pray.
In C. S. Lewis’ classic tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Beavers are describing the great lion, Aslan, to the children.
Mr. Beaver says, “You’ll understand when you see him.”
“But shall we see him?” asked Susan.
“Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for. I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr. Beaver.
“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”

Times are tough. Life is not safe.
But the king is good.
God is good all the time.

And all the time God is good. Amen.

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Lessons from Kindergarten

A sermon on Luke 19:1-10

Lessons from Kindergarten”

Perhaps you’ve seen them in a book store or on a poster somewhere: “Everything I ever needed to know I learned in, or from, ‘you-can-fill-in-the-blank.’”

There’s one for you cat lovers out there:

  1. Life is hard, then you nap.
  2. Curiosity never killed anything except maybe a few hours.
  3. When in doubt, cop an attitude.
  4. Variety is the spice of life: one day ignore people, the next day annoy them.
  5. Find your place in the sun–especially if it happens to be on that nice pile of warm, clean laundry.
  6. If you’re not receiving enough attention, try knocking over several expensive antique lamps.
  7. Always give generously–a small bird or rodent left on the bed tells them, “I care.”

I’m getting the feeling that whoever wrote these doesn’t like cats. Actually, I’m allergic to them. How about dogs? What can we learn from a dog?

  1. Naps are essential and should be taken daily(Something dogs and cats seem to agree on)
  2. Too much of anything will make you sick.
  3. Once something goes in the garbage it should stay there.
  4. Drink lots of water. (That is a good one for this time of year)
  5. A shady area makes a good resting place.
  6. Long daily walks are good exercise.
  7. Accidents happen.

My uncle would have appreciated the one for Star Trek:

  • Keep your phaser set on stun
  • Humans are highly illogical
  • Live long and prosper
  • If it can’t be fixed, just ask Scotty

For those of you who might enjoy a good western, I came up with these:

  • Bad guys always wear black
  • The good guys always win.

Each of these lists were first inspired by a poem by Robert Fulghum. He writes:

Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School.

These are the things I learned:

  • share everything
  • play fair
  • don’t hit people
  • put things back where you found  them
  • clean up your own mess
  • don’t take things that aren’t yours
  • say you’re sorry when you hurt someone
  • wash your hands before you eat
  • flush
  • take a nap every afternoon (That nap stuff seems to be popular)
  • when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together

Some of my fondest and best memories are from my early childhood. Those lessons learned in kindergarten have stayed with me. But there were other important things I learned as a young child. It was, after all, as a child that I first heard the great stories of the Bible. Do you remember the first time your teacher brought out the old flannelboard and told you the story of…

David and Goliath?

Or the fall of the walls of Jericho?

Do you remember the first time you heard the good news? The Lord is risen!

I remember the posters. I remember the flannelboard. But what I remember the best, what sticks to my memory the most, what still puts a spring in my step and brings a smile to my face are those great songs of the Bible Stories:

Father Abraham had many sons and many sons had father Abraham…

God told Noah to build him an arky arky.

Deep and wide. Deep and wide. There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.

These songs we learned as children stay with us and help us to remember those Bible stories.

Zaccheus was a wee little man. A wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the savior passed his way he looked up in the tree and he said, “Zaccheus, you come down. For I’m going to your house today. I’m going to your house today.”

It’s amazing how long ago it was that I first learned that song. And yet I did not need any help in remembering it. That song has long been my favorite Bible song. The song tells us only part of the story, but it doesn’t tell us the whole story…

Let’s listen in as Luke tells us the story: Chapter 19, beginning in verse one:

He (that is, Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God.

Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem and to the cross of good Friday. Two people had already encountered Jesus on the way: the first, a rich ruler. Matthew calls him a rich young man, while Mark simply says he is rich. Luke wants us to know that his wealth was a stumbling block and at the end was unable to let it go. As Jesus nears Jericho, he meets a blind beggar. The man calls out to Jesus and because of his faith Jesus heals him.

And entering the city of Jericho, Jesus has an encounter with Zaccheus.

The song tells us that Zaccheus was a “wee little man.” What the song doesn’t say is that his name means “the pure one.” Hmmm. The song also leaves out a little something about Zachaeus’ occupation.:Tax Collector.

(Though I cannot imagine a nice Children’s Sunday School song about the IRS).

But the Tax collectors then were not the same as the tax collectors now. To get the idea of what it was like think IRS and then think WORSE. MUCH WORSE. Rome’s tax system was set up for theft and corruption. In fact,

“We need first to characterize Zacchaeus correctly. He was a “chief tax collector,” a word that Luke may have coined to describe the man in charge of the actual toll collectors like Levi.2 The Romans decided how much each district would pay in tribute annually. In districts ruled by a local king (like Galilee…), the king bore ultimate responsibility for seeing that it was done; in districts governed by a Roman prefect (like Judea …), he was ultimately responsible. Commonly, the big dogs outsourced the actual collection job to others. A wealthy person would pay the tribute amount (plus bribes and commissions) and then set out to collect it—plus more, in order to make a profit…If you were living in his territory, Zacchaeus was a man who could make things easier or worse for you… Zacchaeus was a sinner. In fact, we know what his sin was: he used his power to extort money. That’s how tax collectors got rich, and that would have been the path that Zacchaeus used to become a chief tax collector.1

Yet this rich and powerful man climbed up in a tree to see Jesus. Why did he want to see Jesus?Those who are powerful and wealthy want to see and be seen. But there was something about Jesus. And I can imagine the shock of not only Zacchaeus but also the crowd, who knew and lived in the same community with and paid their taxes to, Zacchaeus, as Jesus walks by, looks up in the tree and calls Zacchaeus him by name. And when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, Zacchaeus follows. His life, and the life of the people around him, would never be the same again. He repented of his stealing and promised to pay back every defrauded penny and then some.

But, if, in order to even make any money, Zacchaeus had to over-charge the people, then to give the money back with interest would send him to the poorhouse.

His change of heart is nothing short of a miracle.

Nor is a change of our own hearts anything less than a miracle. We know this is not something we can accomplish, a measure we can live up to on our own. Luke knows we cannot do it alone. So he paints with words and stories a picture of what faithfulness, or a lack thereof, to Jesus might look like. The Ruler, Luke tells us, was a Godly man who kept the commandments, yet how difficult it was for him to follow Jesus. But what seems impossible to man is possible with Jesus. It takes a miracle, so Luke tells us a miracle story: the restoration of sight to the blind beggar. One had faith to follow Jesus. The other did not. And then there is the story of Zacchaeus, another miracle story. Yet which is the greater miracle, the healing of a beggar’s sight? Or the healing of Zaccheus’ heart?

The story of Zacchaeus is not necessarily about giving away your wealth. It is about letting go of whatever that stumbling block is in your life which prevents you from fully experiencing the love of God. For some it might indeed be money. For others, it might be a relationship or sex. It could be resentment or anger. Whatever it is that hardens your heart, Jesus can heal it.

We’ve heard stories of hearts healed by grace:

At the top of the list would be the dramatic conversion of the Apostle Paul.

John Newton was a slave trader who found Christ and, like Zacchaeus, gave up on a lucrative business. And he wrote about it in a song we call Amazing Grace.

By age 29, he was a self-made millionaire.From humble beginnings in Alabama, he graduated from Auburn and with a friend created a marketing firm. But as the business prospered, his health, integrity and marriage suffered. He was prompted to re-evaluate his values and direction. His soul-searching led to reconciliation with his wife and to a renewal of his Christian commitment. He took a drastic step: sell all of their possessions, give the money to the poor and begin searching for a new focus for their lives. This search led them to Koinonia Farm, a Christian community in Georgia, where people were looking for practical ways to apply Christ’s teachings. Millard Fuller went on to create Habitat for Humanity.

But for every story of someone famous, there are the no-less-significant stories of everyday people like you and like me.

I grew up in the church. Every week. All the time. My parents made sure of it. I learned those Bible songs and stories. I learned them at church and I sang them at home. Jesus was always a part of my home and my life. So when I “walked the aisle and was baptized” at the age of 9, it seemed only natural.

I was surrounded by people who followed Jesus. I was surrounded by people who loved Jesus.

It wasn’t until I got to college that it started to bother me. At campus events my friends would stand up and with great fire and enthusiasm praise God for delivering them from alcohol and drugs. They would talk about the forgiveness they finally felt after they confessed their great sins. I didn’t have that dramatic conversion. And I felt empty.

I felt like I wasn’t good enough because I hadn’t been bad enough.

But I’m not good enough not because I did not do “the big sins.” I’m not good enough because without Him I can do nothing.Without him I’d surely fail.Salvation not just for those who have the big sins, while those are covered, it is for all sinners, big and the small. Those who can see and those who cannot. Those in kindergarten and those in retirement. Everyone is included.

Perhaps we could write a second verse to the Zacchaeus song…Another verse for the rest of the story…

Zaccheus was a glad little man. A glad little man was he. He shared a meal with the Lord which the people were not pleased to see. But to their surprise Zaccheus went and paid back all he stole. Then Jesus said, “salvation comes to your house today, salvation comes to your house today.

I don’t think my verse will soon be sung in the Sunday School classrooms of the children and that’s ok.

As long as the children learn the stories. As long as we remember the stories. As long as we remember the good news Zacchaeus learned that day: Jesus knew his name. Jesus knows my name. And he knows yours, too.

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the journey begins…

“Come, follow me.” – Jesus

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Confucius

Let’s start walking!…

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