Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wants and Needs: Palm Sunday

John 12:12-19

If my parents had gotten me what I wanted for Christmas in 1977 I probably wouldn’t be here today. In my part of the world that was the year of the moped. You remember those, right? Part bicycle, part motorbike, all noise. I wanted one so badly—I could just imagine the freedom of being able to see my friends—to get to school and even to church more quickly and in more style. I used to dream about tooling around Burbank on my own wheels, but it wasn’t to be.

First off, they were pricey, but more than that, they weren’t safe. The winter of '77-'78 was the first time I can remember hearing about ‘El NiƱo,’ a weather pattern that dumped about 40 inches of rain on Southern California. I might not have survived driving around town in that weather—I’m glad I’m still here to tell that story. More than that, though, my parents knew that in a year or two I would be learning to drive a car, and that once that happened the moped would probably never come out of the garage again.

In the end it wasn’t so much that my parents didn’t give me what I wanted, it was that they knew I wanted the wrong thing.

Closer to home, I saw in the paper the other day that a woman had received a police warning for ignoring Health & Safety regulations [if you're in the US, think OSHA on steroids]. Here’s what happened: This lady, a mom herself, was walking by a local school and noticed a 6-year-old boy stuck 20 feet up in a tree. He’d climbed up there and was too scared to make his way back down. The school administrators had checked their manuals to figure out what to do in that situation, and had decided to implement the ‘observe from a distance’ option. (I’m not making this up.) The woman walking by had consulted, um, her common sense, and helped the boy out of the tree. When the police came they told the woman that she had ‘approached the school in an inappropriate way,’ and warned her not to do it again.

Seriously, I understand the reason for the rules and regulations that are designed to keep us safe and healthy, I really do. But do you see how what happened here is a perfect example of the rules we want sometimes come at the expense of the safety we really need? Keep that in mind as we look at the familiar Palm Sunday story of Jesus entering into Jerusalem.

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.
13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,


Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the King of Israel!

14Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written,

15Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt.

16At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.
17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him.
19 So the Pharisees said to one another, See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!

By the time we get to our text, Jesus has been teaching and healing out in the countryside for a few years. His heart has always been set on going to Jerusalem—it was the home of the Temple, the central worship space of the Jewish faith. Just before our story Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and that story had spread all across the region.

Jerusalem at the time was under Roman occupation. There was a Hebrew king acting as the local political leader, but he answered to Rome’s representative. The Pharisees and other religious scholars worked behind the scenes, and made the rules for the Jewish people. This period of Roman occupation had a strong influence on the Jewish hope for a Messiah. God had made all of these promises about sending a savior, but over the years the hope for the Messiah had turned into a hope for a new political leader who would raise an army and overthrow Roman rule.

So where we pick up the story Jesus is headed into Jerusalem, and the people wave palm branches and shout ‘Hosanna’ and call Jesus the ‘king of Israel.’ The Jewish leaders are worried that Jesus is going to rock the boat with Rome, because so many people are starting to believe that Jesus is the promised one. In the midst of all that intrigue, Jesus enters the city and begins the final stage of his ministry. The people lining the street couldn’t have been happier. The Messiah was finally here, and things were about to change.

Somehow, though, all of this went terribly wrong. The same people shouting ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Blessed is the king of Israel’ will be shouting ‘Crucify him’ by the end of the week. The words of the people waving branches make it clear that they thought Jesus was their king. The problem was that Jesus came as the king they needed, instead of as the king they wanted.

The issue here is the difference between Realm thinking vs. Reign thinking. Realms have lines and boundaries—they mark out territory at the exclusion of other places. Realms are bound by time and space—they are by their very nature, limited. The concept of a Reign is much different. When Jesus preaches about the Kingdom of God, he’s not talking about a realm, he’s talking about his sovereign rule over all people and all places—he’s talking about his power over all things, even death.

In our text today the difference between realm and reign thinking shows itself as this important difference between what we want and what we need.

This question about wants and needs in material things has become more important over the past few years. Amitai Etzioni wrote about this in the aftermath of the banking crisis. He wrote that once our real needs have been comfortably met, we add extras—what would have been luxury items in the past—we add those to the list of things we need to survive, and fall into the trap of getting and buying and spending and consumerism.

It’s not just about money. We do it with our careers and our kids, too. More money, great schools for our kids, bigger houses, better cars. How much of that really makes us happy? How much of that has strayed from what we wanted to what we can’t live without?

It might surprise you to know that in most Western nations there is no real correlation between more money and increased happiness. A disproportionately high number of people in industrialized countries report feeling unsatisfied—even deprived.

Mostly it’s because no matter how much stuff a person has, we tend to feel unsatisfied when people around us have more. Any of that sound familiar to you?

Tim Keller is a author and pastor in New York, and one of his books is on our reading list in the bulletin. In that book, Counterfeit Gods: When the Empty Promises of Love, Money and Power Let You Down, he makes the connection between the things we’ve redefined as necessities and the biblical idea of an ‘idol.’ He writes:

“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.

A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would hardly feel worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving “face” and social standing…

An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.”

It should hit all of us right between the eyes that the stuff we’ve placed on a pedestal—the earning and status and possessions and success for our kids that we’ve made the most important things in our lives—hit should come as a warning to all of us that all of that can be defined as worship. Because we know, right? We know that God is the only true focus for our worship, and that anything else that gets in the way of that is, uh-oh, an idol.

We want things we can control, but often they can end up controlling us. That’s what the people lining Jerusalem Boulevard 2000 years ago couldn’t see. It’s what we tend to miss while we’re planning out our lives and the futures of our kids.

We want the realm—the list of things that we think will make us happy, but what we need is the reign—the rule of God in our hearts and minds. Jesus enters Jerusalem offering the world everything it ever really needed, but they reject him because what he was offering wasn’t what they wanted.

How’s that work for you?

What is it you want from Jesus the Messiah?

How does it measure up against what you really need from him?

Health and safety represent two of the core desires we all have for ourselves and for the people we love. But we’ve already seen that the health and safety we want can get in the way of the health and safety we need.

As we move into this Holy Week and Easter season, the call to each one of us is to let Jesus be the savior we need. He’s more than just a good guy, or a role model or a moral guide.

Jesus the Messiah came to rule in our hearts and minds and to bring us into full, healthy relationships with God, with ourselves, with each other and with the earth.

The only question left on the table is this: Will we let him? Will we allow Jesus to be the savior we need, even if that turns out not to be what we think we want?

Don’t let another Easter season go by without wrestling with that question. Don’t let the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice go by again without understanding what it means for you.

We complicate a lot of things in this life of faith. The gospel of Jesus Christ shouldn’t be one of them.

Jesus the Messiah came as a fulfillment of God’s promises. He lived and loved, he healed and served, he died and was raised again so that we could be reconciled to him and to each other.

He offers all of that to all of you—to each one of us. If that’s something you want to know more about, then find me or Stephanie or the person sitting next to you and talk about it. Don’t let another Easter season go by.

Over these last few weeks of Lent we’ve been talking about the Lent Challenge—praying the Lord’s Prayer five times each day between now and Easter. Let me encourage you to do that in the coming week. We can start right now…

Monday, March 22, 2010

An Unusual Kindness

(The following message is the fourth in our series titled The Journey to the Cross: Four Practices to Prepare Us for Easter.)

1 Peter 4:7-11

My grandparents were models of hospitality. I used to love to take my friends over to both their houses.

My mom’s folks loved to sit and talk and laugh. My grandfather couldn’t walk, and so in him you knew you had a captive audience, but most of the time he was the one doing the talking and telling jokes. The rest of us could walk just fine, but we stayed put, sitting at his table.

My dad’s parents were from Italy, and so most of their hospitality centered on food. My friends in junior high and high school used to love going over there, especially on baking days, because my grandmother would put plate after plate of delicious things in front of us.

The language barrier never stopped my grandfather from telling stories. He would start in a sort of broken English, but as he got going he would slide back into his distinct southern Italian dialect, and then I’d have to stop him every so often to translate.

What made my grandparents hospitable—what they knew about hospitality—was a lot more than just opening the door and offering some food. My grandparents knew how to share their lives with people who came to visit them in their homes. My friends still remember so much detail about my grandparents’ lives—whether it was about coming to Los Angeles from Nebraska, or from Italy. About battling polio on one side or losing a son in World War II on the other.

The comfortable chairs and the great food were just the means—just tools for making someone welcome. The real hospitality was in the telling of stories—the sharing of lives and experiences.

Lent is a time of reflection and preparation for our remembrance and celebration of Christ’s love for us as we find it in the Easter miracle. Over these four Sundays we’re exploring some practices that will prepare our hearts and minds for Holy Week and Easter. The habits and practices we’re looking at are prayer, confession, forgiveness and hospitality.

Each one of these serves to help us understand and experience what Christ has offered to us—each one of these gets us out of our regular routines and practices and makes Lent and Easter more meaningful. As a part of that we’ve been saying the Lord’s Prayer five times each day in the run up to Easter—we’ve been calling it the Lent Challenge…sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

As we come closer to the end of this year’s journey to the Cross, it’s important for us to notice that all four of the practices and habits we’re talking about: prayer, confession, forgiveness and hospitality—all four of these are relational practices. They’re ways that we interact with God and with each other—ways that we make the values of God’s Kingdom become a part of the way we live each day. Keep that in mind as we make our way toward Easter Sunday.

7The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. 8Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. 11If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Don’t you love the way that starts? ‘The end is near!’ You can picture someone walking around in a sandwich board… OK, now purge that image from your mind. That phrase is really there to cultivate an attitude—a posture of expecting Christ’s promises to come true at any time.

This letter was written to a group of churches in modern-day Turkey—communities of Christians who were learning to live their faith in a hostile culture. There wasn’t a widespread persecution going on at the time it was written, but there were local attacks throughout the Roman Empire against churches and Christians. The main point of the letter is that we’re called to live differently because of our faith, and that sometimes that means we’ll be rejected—feel uncomfortable—even have to suffer.

The writer uses the language of the weak to describe how Christians were supposed to engage their culture. He calls them exiles or slaves or aliens to make the point that living as a Christian in a hostile culture won’t be easy.

In our passage today the message is that the way we treat each other and the world around us is a sign of the God we believe in. Our actions—what we do in our daily lives—is meant to communicate who God is and how much he loves the world he made.

Part of that is this idea of ‘ungrudging hospitality.’ ‘Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling,’ the Scriptures say.

What do we need to know about this idea of hospitality? Finding some sense of what it meant then will help us figure out what it means now, and for that we’ll look just briefly at another passage where the same word appears.

In Acts 28 Paul was shipwrecked on an island with Luke and some of the other apostles of the early Christian faith. Luke tells the story like this: ‘Once safely on shore, we found that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.’

The word that translates to ‘hospitality’ in our text this morning is in this passage, too. But it’s not the obvious choice—it’s not where Luke says ‘they built a fire and welcomed us because it was raining and cold.’ It’s not the word ‘welcome.’ The word that translates in our text to hospitality, in this text translates to ‘unusual kindness.’

I love that. It’s not normal kindness—it’s not the sort of kindness you can fake or put on. It’s unusual kindness—the unusual kindness that comes from going the extra mile—from reaching out with generosity and grace and even transparency. Unusual kindness leads us to see people who have been shipwrecked somehow, and build them a fire and get them out of the cold. I can see them sitting around, glad to be alive, telling stories about what had just happened.

This is where I learned so much from my grandparents.

In my grandparents’ homes the telling of stories became a sort of nurturing, healing act. When my friends and I listened, we found ourselves being taught and mentored—prepared for adulthood by learning from the stories of people who were a few generations ahead of us. For my grandparents, the sharing of the stories became a way healing the pain from things that had happened to them.

One of my grandfathers couldn’t walk. He’d survived polio in the 40s but did his best to move and work and even play, despite his disability. He and my grandmother had a hard life, but they found joy in opening their home to anyone who wanted to come in. They couldn’t go every place that they wanted to, so they made their home a place of welcome and the world came to them.

My Italian grandparents lost their oldest son in 1944. They’d hardly had time to learn English before they had to navigate Army red tape and plan a funeral in their new country. There were two huge portraits of my uncle Pasquale in their house, one in a suit and the other in his Army uniform. The pictures were so big that they became a part of the conversation whenever anyone came over for the first time. It was a happy home, but it was seasoned by this one tragic event, and it helped them to talk about it over the years as people got to know them.

Like I said before, my grandparents’ hospitality was a lot more than just comfortable furniture and food. It was about the way they shared themselves—their stories and their laughter and their sadness—with people who came to visit.

Why is that important? Because the hospitality we’re called to show as Christians is more than just being welcoming people, even if it starts there. It’s a lot more than just food or coffee hour or a handshake.

Christian community—true hospitality—is about sharing life together. It’s about entering into each other’s joys and struggles and even each other’s pain. We do it not because it’s some weird magic exercise that God asks us to do because it entertains him. We do it—we enter into the lives of our friends and neighbors and even strangers, and allow them to do the same with us—we do it because Christ did it for us first.

Let me put that another way: True Christian hospitality is when we allow someone to be close enough to us that they can see both our brokenness and what Christ is doing to redeem and heal it.

If Lent is a time of reflection and preparation for remembering and celebrating Christ’s sacrifice for us—if Lent is about stripping back the facades we make and looking honestly at how our lives are being transformed by Jesus—and Lent is about all of those things, by the way.

If Lent calls us to remember, then it also calls us to share. It’s in that sharing—the sharing of our lives and stories—that we become people of true welcome—people who demonstrate that unusual kindness we see in the Scriptures. We don’t do it because we’re great—We do it because we’ve been loved greatly.

When we think about it that way, it’s not really about our houses or churches at all. And as much as I love being a product of my two different families, true hospitality becomes less about following our ethnic and cultural traditions, and more about being transparent about our need for God no matter where we came from. It becomes less about the comfort of the furniture and the quality of the food we serve. It becomes less about where we are and more about who we are.

I’ve been reading a book this week called Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers. There are a couple of quotes from the book on the front of your bulletin today.

The author writes this about where true hospitality happens: ‘The place of hospitality therefore does not require a fixed location but a people—a people who share a common life of forgiveness and reconciliation and peace and, most centrally, of worship. Where then do we lay our heads? All of these practices teach us that we lay our heads upon Christ and each other, and in doing so reveal the beauty of Christ’s body to the world.’

See, hospitality has a point—it isn’t an end in itself. We practice true Christian hospitality because in some tangible way it reveals the beauty of Jesus Christ to the world. Because in ways that we might never be able to put into words, the graciousness and welcoming and fellowship or true hospitality demonstrates the way we’ve welcomed and given grace by Christ himself.

That’s why we stand and confess what we believe when we baptize—when we welcome someone new into the family. We start the story there, and promise to keep telling the story as long as we’re together.

In the Presbyterian Catechism that we’re using in our confirmation class, one of the questions is about how we treat others, especially those of other faiths, Here’s what it says:

‘As much as I can, I should meet friendship with friendship, hostility with kindness, generosity with gratitude, persecution with forbearance, truth with agreement, and error with truth…I should avoid compromising the truth on the one hand, and being narrow-minded on the other. In short, I should always welcome and accept these others in a way that honors and reflects the Lord’s welcome and acceptance of me.’

That’s it. That’s the essence of Christian hospitality. We’re called to welcome and accept these others in a way that honors and reflects the Lord’s welcome and acceptance of us.

There’s some risk in that, right? Taking down the walls and facades we’ve built means that we’ll be exposed somehow to the people in our lives. Let’s be honest—for a lot of us, coming to church means putting on our best face, not our truest face. It means acting how we think we should act, not how we really are.

But if we’re looking to Jesus as the model for how we should live and love and forgive and show hospitality, then we have to acknowledge that he took all those risks for us first.

He came, he lived and loved, he shared his stories and wisdom, and he became vulnerable even to the point of death.

As we move into Holy Week next Sunday—as we reflect on Christ’s sacrifice and prepare our hearts for the joy of Easter morning, remember that it’s the little things that matter most. It’s the unusual kindness God invites us to share in our hospitality that becomes a visible mark of the way the Holy Spirit is working in our lives.

My prayer for all of us is that we would learn to open ourselves to people in our lives, even the strangers, and that we would welcome and accept these others in a way that honors and reflects the Lord’s welcome and acceptance of each one of us.

To do that we need to keep ourselves connected to the one who goes ahead of us even now. The Lord’s Prayer keeps us linked to God and his plan. Let’s pray that prayer together this morning.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Room for Reason on Health Care?

It’s sad, in a way.

Yesterday I posted an article on my Facebook page about the rate at which mothers die giving birth in the US. Several organizations had ranked the US 41st in the world (at the bottom of industrialized nations) in terms of death rates for women in childbirth. I prefaced the link with a comment that I was a) unsure that the current health care proposals are the right answer, and b) hoping that someone from the Republican/Libertarian side would offer a better, more market-driven solution.

The responses confirmed my worst fears about the way this issue is being discussed, and highlighted how difficult it is to be a dissenting conservative these days. In all the reaction (and let’s be honest, overreaction) to the idea of a government-run health care system, not one of the responses mentioned the tragedy of the mothers who are dying. Think about that. Most of the respondents, but not all, were parents. Most of the parents were men with daughters. None, not one, mentioned the real lives behind the statistics—the ones that represented kids growing up without their birth moms, husbands raising children without wives, or, at least as likely, orphans placed in foster care. Think about that, too.

Now before anyone pushes the nuclear response button (seriously, haven’t you had enough of that already?), let me say a few things that require some nuance to communicate (and understand) fully.

First, I’m not in favor of a radical re-vamping of the US health care system. It takes a thoroughgoing misunderstanding of American culture and values to think that replacing the current system with an entirely new one isn't a fool’s errand at best. But, we spend 16% of our GDP on a health care industry that doesn’t provide basic services to all of our residents, and that clearly isn’t working either. (For all the reasonable and unreasonable fears about the British National Health Service, it’s still a fact that everyone here has good—not great—medical coverage, and it costs 8.4% of GDP.)

Second, I do believe that there is a profitable solution to be had, one that offers basic coverage to everyone, but it is being subverted by the intransigence of the two dominant political parties. One of the qualities that makes America such a great place—and such a great economic engine—is that it encourages and delivers solutions to problems that a) meet the needs of the public, and b) turn a profit for employees, shareholders and, through taxation, our public sector. To say that this is not possible is to redefine America into something it has never been—a place devoid of the ideas and acumen we cherish as a pillar of our national culture.

Even Britain—and pay attention here if you’ve only seen a caricature of the health care picture here—even Britain’s marketplace offers a broad range of private insurance options that kick in if the NHS can’t provide what you need. And they’re not just for the rich. How do I know that? First, because I have that insurance myself. My church generously provides me and my family with a basic private insurance overlay which costs about £2000 per year, and includes vacation coverage in that amount. (That means that when we visit the US, where we no longer have insurance, we’re still fully covered.)

But I can also argue that private health care isn’t limited to the rich by analyzing where it is advertised. Most of you will know that advertising is targeted so that specific ads will reach the greatest number of potential customers. Toys are marketed during Saturday morning cartoons, feminine products are pushed on the Lifetime channel, sports events are soaked in beer commercials, and luxury items can be found in high-end magazines. Advertising is placed where it will reach the highest proportion of people likely to buy what is being advertised.

Here in London, private health insurance is advertised in the Underground and on buses.

Companies selling private health policies in the UK, after considering where they might get the most bang for their advertising buck, have chosen users of public transportation as their primary audience. If you separate the tourists from the equation, then the expectation is that commuters—not rich people, but people with jobs—are likely to want and to be able to afford private health insurance. Oddly enough, and this is one of my areas of serious dissent from the current president’s plan, there is more choice in health care in Britain than we find being proposed in the US. I’ll say again that this is a complete and utter misunderstanding of American culture and values.

But getting back to the article in my original link, I never thought I’d see Americans of any political stripe roll over and tolerate being 41st in the world at anything. Even if, as some suggested, the left-leaning orientation of the article’s sources (the World Health Organization, Amnesty International and the Guardian newspaper) exaggerated the details to smear Americans—even if they inflated US stats by 10 places or so in the rankings, I wasn’t raised in a country that would have been happy being ranked 30th in any important table. The competitive juices would have flowed, the partnership between government and private enterprise would have kicked into gear (with all the necessary tensions there), and somewhere, somehow, some American would have figured out a way to do it better, cheaper and in more colors.

The responses I hear to the health crisis tell me that spirit is dead.

It wasn’t killed by the government. It wasn’t killed by illegal immigrants. It was killed by the very people who would have found a solution just a generation ago—it was killed by pro-business, pro-private enterprise, pro-innovation conservatives who spend more time talking about what’s wrong with the other side than they do proposing a better way to solve the problem.

For the first time in my adult life, the right seems less culturally American than the left.

So what do we do? I want you to hear this in the refreshing spirit in which mean it:

I don’t know.

This is a huge problem for us to solve, and I don't pretend (as some will) to have the answer. The way our provision of health care has evolved over the last century has left us with a system that is, on the one hand, amazing in its life-enhancing creativity and excellence, while on the other, unattainable for too many of our neighbors. The solution to this problem will come when advocacy for independence and profitability is tempered by advocacy for justice and universal access. If that seems like too much coded language, let me say it a different way: As trite as it may sound, we won’t find our way out of this until the two sides with important vested interests can work together.

In the meantime, and to get back to the shocking details (even if only true by half) in the story I linked to yesterday—in the meantime people are still dying unnecessarily. People at the bottom of the economic ladder, but who will (as past generations have) contribute to the growth and profitability of our nation in years to come, need the rest of us to come up with a solution in the same way we did for polio, illiteracy and Hitler.

That’s what I was trying to say.

Monday, March 15, 2010

As We Forgive our Debtors

(The following message is the third in our series titled The Journey to the Cross: Four Practices to Prepare Us for Easter.)

Matthew 18:21-35

Ernest Hemingway’s short story, ‘The Capital of the World’, starts with a local joke about the fact that Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is short for the name Francisco. In the joke there’s a father who came to Madrid and placed an ad in the local newspaper which said:


The punch line was that the police had to be called to disperse the crowd of more than 800 boys named Paco who answered the ad and came looking for their father's forgiveness.

There’s something so sad about that story—it points us to a truth that we don’t like to talk about that much: the need we all have to give and to experience forgiveness.

We talked last Sunday about the fact that everyone needs to confess sometimes. Today we shift to the other side of the relationship—the call to forgive.

21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.
29"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
30"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

Lent is a time of reflection and preparation for our remembrance and celebration of Christ’s love for us as we find it in the Easter miracle. Over these four Sundays we’re exploring some practices that will prepare our hearts and minds for Holy Week and Easter. The habits and practices we’re looking at are prayer, confession, forgiveness and hospitality.

Each one of these serves to help us understand and experience what Christ has offered to us—each one of these gets us out of our regular routines and practices and makes Lent and Easter more meaningful.

As we come to the midpoint of our journey to the Cross, it’s important for us to notice that all four of the practices and habits we’re talking about: prayer, confession, forgiveness and hospitality—all four of these are relational practices. They’re ways that we interact with God and with each other—ways that we make the values of God’s Kingdom become a part of the way we live each day. Keep that in mind as we make our way toward Easter Sunday.

So back to our parable.

The plot of our text today is fairly simple. A king discovers that one of his managers has embezzled a huge amount of money—an amount so great that it could never be paid back. (We know now, of course, that that could never really happen, right?)

The king’s response was to sell the manager’s family and all of his possessions, not to pay the debt back, but as punishment for what he’d done. The crooked manager begs for mercy, and in the second-most shocking detail in the story, the king shows mercy and lets the man and his family go free.

The crooked servant then goes out to someone who owed him a small amount of money, and demanded payment of the debt. But it’s more than that. The text says that he basically mugged him—he choked him first and then shouted at him to ‘pay back what you owe me!’ When he couldn’t pay up, the man begged for mercy, but our lead character has him thrown in debtor’s prison.

The king hears about it and calls his manager to explain himself. The question the king asks is the question that our text confronts us with today:

‘Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’

Let’s come back to that one.

Often we think of this story as a comment on Jewish law or practice about forgiving. Actually, it’s a reversal of an Old Testament story of revenge. In Genesis 4, Lamech boasts that if anyone ever attacked him, he would avenge it 77 times. When Peter comes to Jesus with his hypothetical question about how many times he’s supposed to forgive the annoying people in his life, Jesus turns it around by quoting one of the truly violent revenge stories of the Scriptures.

The oldest sense of the word forgiveness—it goes all the way back to classical Greek—means ‘the voluntary release of a person or thing over which one has legal or actual control.’ By the time Jesus uses the word here in Matthew, it describes the essence of what Christ came to do—to forgive, to release, to share the good news that through him, ‘no account will be made of the sins that we have committed,’ one writer described it. It’s the very opposite of revenge, which is the point Jesus is making.

Notice also that the story Jesus tells begins with this key phrase: 'The Kingdom of God is like…' That’s a key that this parable teaches something that is close to the center of the gospel. We’ve talked about the Kingdom of God a lot here, and for good reason. It’s Jesus’ favorite topic.

Remember that God’s Kingdom isn’t a realm with boundaries and limits. The Kingdom of God is God’s reign—his rule and power over all things, even death. So many of his stories and miracles and sermons point to what the world looks like under the reign of God—what the values of the world would look like if they allowed God to rule in their hearts and minds and lives.

The parable this morning is about how we are called to forgive—the extravagant, lavish, reckless acts of forgiving that Jesus asks us to do. There’s no mystery here. The point Jesus is making in this parable is that we should forgive as God has forgiven us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s all.

Jewish law and common sense and our own gut feelings and personal boundaries might tell us that seven times is plenty of chances to give someone who wrongs us—someone who sins against us, someone who owes us, someone who has messed up something that is ours.

It’s enough to have to try to forgive people seven times, but Jesus tears that up and proposes a ridiculous number—77 individual acts of forgiveness. And that’s not a total for our lifetime. That’s a number of forgiving acts with each individual person who does us wrong.

The number isn’t meant to describe a new, improved, more stringent set of rules. It’s not to raise the limit on how many times we’re supposed to forgive. This isn’t a new Law for us to follow.

The number Jesus gave as his answer about forgiving people was meant to be so high as to mean that we should never stop forgiving each other—that there is no limit to how many times we’re supposed to forgive—that if we’re called to forgive as God forgives us, then the job is never, ever, really finished.

That raises a question for us about how exactly God forgives us. What do we mean when we say that the God of the universe has somehow cleansed us from whatever sin or brokenness was keeping us from connecting with him?

And that takes us back to the question the king asks in our parable today: ‘Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’

Miroslav Volf, in his book called Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, describes in detail what the Scriptures say about how God forgives.

Volf reminds us that God doesn’t keep a record of our debts (Romans 4 and Psalm 32).

God covers our sin—he hides what we’ve done even from his own sight—he puts it behind his back, we see in Isaiah 38.

God removes our transgressions as far as the east is from the west, and he blots out our sin so that we’re without stain or blemish. He sweeps our sin away like mist, we see in Isaiah 44.

And then, in the real miracle of miracles for us, God chooses to forget—literally not to remember our sin. That one is so important that we see it in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hebrews.

When Jesus tells that story where the king asks: ‘Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ This is the mercy he’s talking about. Peter asks Jesus a lame hypothetical question, and Jesus gives him a real-life answer.

But that doesn’t mean that any of that is easy for us. Check out the quote from Volf’s book on the front of your bulletin.

“How should we forgive? The simple answer is that we should forgive as God forgave in Jesus Christ. But before exploring many facets of that simple answer, I need to address a serious objection. How can we forgive as God forgives when we are obviously not God? We are human—wonderfully, finitely, and sinfully human. We are not divine. How can we do anything as God does, let alone forgive?”

Volf goes on to talk about the link between God’s forgiving and the way we’re called to forgive. Our forgiving is faulty, he says, but God’s is perfect. Ours is provisional, but God’s is final and eternal. Volf writes: ‘The only way we dare forgive us by making our forgiving transparent to God’s, and always open to revision. After all, our forgiveness is only possible as an echo of God’s.’

Our forgiveness is only possible as an echo of God’s.

We saw one of the most dramatic echoes of God’s forgiveness in the response of the Amish community to the shooting at one of their schools. The details were horrible, but almost immediately afterward the families of the kids who’d been lost expressed their forgiveness to the shooter. The news media couldn’t make sense of it, and neither could any of the rest of us, if we’re honest. Because it wasn’t just words.

The forgiveness the Amish showed had some teeth to it—at the shooter’s funeral, more than half of the people in attendance were Amish. To this day that particular part of the Amish community visits the widow of the man who committed the crime—they provide financial support to his children.

It’s no coincidence that in that Amish they do something that we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks. They pray the Lord’s Prayer—sometimes as many as five times a day. The forgiveness they showed didn’t really have much to do with the person they were forgiving. It was a recognition that as forgiven people, they were called to forgive.

As that line from the Lord's Prayer—‘forgive us our sin, as we forgive those who sin against us’—as that phrase works its way into our hearts and minds and lives, we’re able to reach out with forgiveness because we know we’ve been forgiven already.

So how does this help us prepare to remember Holy Week and Easter?

In the Hemingway story, all those kids—800 of them—came looking for forgiveness from their father. But only one of them could be the true son that the father was looking for.

In our own stories we come to God looking for forgiveness, and we find that because of his one, true son, he has an unlimited supply—that all of us are covered by his love and grace and mercy.

What God asks for—not as a condition of forgiveness, but as a response to it—what God asks for is that we forgive each other as recklessly and lavishly as he’s forgiven us.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’

It sounds so matter-of-fact—it sounds so simple, but we know it doesn’t work that way. Without the model of the way Jesus forgave, and without the Holy Spirit working within us to shape us into the people we were made to be—without the Son and Spirit we can never truly be about the Father’s work.

As we continue this journey through Lent—this journey to the Cross—as we pray and confess together, the call on us is to add forgiveness into the mix.

As we release people from the weight of whatever they might have done to us, we come closer to living the lives Christ made possible for us.

As we give up our right to claim whatever is owed to us by the people in our lives, we find an even greater gift given to us.

And through all of that forgiving and releasing and erasing, we become an echo of the way God has loved and forgiven us first.

To make this practical, during this Lent season, find someone who has wronged you somehow. Tell them about it, and in faith offer them the gift of forgiveness.

Nothing prepares our hearts more for the joy of Easter than to share what God has done for us with someone else.

Nothing shows God more that we’re starting to understand how much he loves us, than if we share that love with someone else.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’

Let’s pray that together as we prepare our hearts for Holy Week and Easter.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

More (but not less) Than Sorry

(The following message is the second in our series titled The Journey to the Cross: Four Practices to Prepare Us for Easter.)

Psalm 51

I read this week that there’s a new self-help line in France. It’s called ‘The Line of the Lord,’ and it’s designed to give people a chance to confess their sins over the phone. The service, which costs 50p per minute, tells callers: ‘For advice on confessing, press #1. To confess, press #2. To listen to some confessions, press #3.

I wonder which number gets pressed the most?


Still, the French Confession line points us to a truth we don’t like to talk about too much: Everyone needs to confess sometimes.

It’s not just phone-in services—and it’s not just the French. I looked on the internet for English-speaking confession sites last week, and stopped counting after 50 separate sites designed to give people a chance to confess something—to come clean about something they’ve done.

Everyone needs to confess sometimes.

Our text this morning is one of the great prayers of confession in the Scriptures. Listen as David confesses his sins to God.


Lent is a time of reflection and preparation for our remembrance and celebration of Christ’s love for us as we find it in the Easter miracle. Over these four Sundays we’re exploring some practices that will prepare our hearts and minds for Holy Week and Easter. The habits and practices we’ll look at are prayer, confession, forgiveness and hospitality. Each one of these serves to help us understand and experience what Christ has offered to us—each one of these gets us out of our regular routines and practices and makes Lent and Easter more meaningful.

As a part of that I offered a challenge last week to pray the Lord’s Prayer five times each day between now and Easter. If you weren’t here last week, feel free to start today. Even though the prayer is only 30 seconds long or so, it’s harder that it looks to do it five times every day. I managed it just once last week, but some of you have emailed me with questions or things you’re learning by praying the prayer. Keep those notes coming—you guys are teaching me a lot with your comments.

So about our text: It was one of the biggest political scandals in the history of the nation. King David had an affair with the wife of one of his military officers, and has the man killed to cover it up. Then he married the woman, and thought he could live happily ever after. The details of the story are in 2 Samuel.

The airing of this scandal in public was as dramatic as any in the history of the world. I’m just old enough to remember watching the Watergate hearings, and after that there were Cabinet and Supreme Court nomination battles in the States. Here we’ve seen recently the Chicot Inquiry on the war in Iraq, but there is a long string of public hearings on accidents and political corruption dating back to 1847—the first public inquiry in the sense that we know it was a study of the educational system in Wales. Isn’t that interesting?

The airing of the scandal surrounding King David threatened to throw his nation into complete chaos. Here’s how it happened.

Nathan the prophet—God’s mouthpiece in David’s administration—came to him with a story about two men, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a large herd of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had just one sheep, that he had raised from birth and was a part of his family.

When a guest came to visit the rich man, as Nathan told the story, it was the custom for him to prepare a feast for him. But the rich guy didn’t want to use one of his own herd, so he took the poor man’s one sheep and killed it and served it to his guest.

When David heard the story he was furious—the Scriptures tell us that he ‘burned with anger against the man,’ and so he said to Nathan: ‘As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die. He has to pay the man back four times over, because he did this thing and had no pity.’

I can just see David feeling pretty good about himself at that point. He was the King, he had all the power, and he knew that God loved him. I can see him sitting back on his throne, smiling and feeling proud, ready to look around to his advisors and ask ‘what’s next?’.

It’s right at that point that Nathan points his finger at David and says:

‘You are that man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel—I gave your master’s house to you—I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little for you I would have given you more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes?’

Can you imagine?

Can you get a feeling for what it would have been like, there in the courts of power, with the king making plans and decisions about all kinds of things. The whole cast of characters in the court were there—advisors, visitors, servants—and all of them heard the king accused of the worst kind of sin. That’s how this scandal was made public. And it’s in David’s exposure as a philandering, murdering scoundrel, that he sits down and writes the psalm of confession we read today.

It’s worth looking at a few things about this psalm.

First, notice how completely David takes responsibility for his sin. ‘I have done evil in your sight—my sin is always before me.’ That probably wasn’t his first reaction, but by the time he sits down to share his experience in this psalm, he understand that only by coming clean completely can he be forgiven and restored.

Second, listen to what David asks for. ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God…Restore to me the joy of what it means to be your child.’ David wants to be made new again—to have a chance to start over.

Finally, notice that David promises to share what God has done for him with others who are burdened by their sin or brokenness. ‘Then I will teach others your ways, and sinners will turn to you for forgiveness.’ There’s a clear link here between David’s prayer and the covenant relationship God invites us to live in. We’re talking about this in our Bible studies on Sunday. God promised Abram that he would bless him, so that he would turn around and be a blessing to the rest of the world. God blesses David, and David turns around to share that blessing with those around him.

God blesses us, even when that blessing is being forgiven for our sins. God blesses us, but it’s with the understanding that we’ll share that blessing with others.

There’s a great practical example of this in an old West Wing episode. Josh is struggling with something and Leo offers to help him. Leo tells a story about a guy in a hole who’s asking for help. A friend hears him and jumps into the hole. The first guys says ‘great, now we’re both stuck in here.’ The second answers by saying, ‘yep, but I was in here before and I know the way out.’

We learn in confession that God loves us and has blessed us, and the natural response is to share that good news—to find someone else in a hole and show them the way out.

The church staff is reading a book together. It’s in the reading list in your bulletin—it’s called ‘God Hides in Plain Sight.’ The book is a meditation on seeing God in the everyday—about experiencing the sacraments—all seven of the Roman Catholic sacraments—in the events and practices and cultural things that we see around us.

The author talks about confession as a way to order our inner lives—to take the rooms or spaces in our hearts and minds that might be cluttered by sin and brokenness—to take those rooms and tidy them up in confession.

“Confession, penance, forgiveness and reconciliation are part of the heartbeat—part of the order in our disorder—of what it means to be a whole human being. At various levels in our lives there is conflict, some of which will never be completely resolved. But at those deep relational, spiritual, or even institutional levels, we make the climb out of the river difficult when we keep retrieving our past and carrying it with us. Usually we need someone’s help in letting go of it…”

‘Usually we need someone’s help in letting go of it…’ Confession calls on us to be in relationship, with God and with each other. We can confess to God directly, of course, but more often than not that confession isn’t complete until we share it with someone in our lives. Until we ask for someone’s help in understanding what we’ve done, and how God will forgive us and restore us.

Confession that goes beyond just saying that I messed up—confession that is a means of sharing our messy lives with someone else—that kind of confession is an important part of being Christian disciples together.

If we think about confession that way, then it becomes a lot more than just saying sorry. It’s a part of being in Christian community—part of what it means to be a church.

Everyone needs to confess sometimes, and during this season of Lent it’s a healthy thing to be reminded of—to practice—to let it help us reflect and prepare for remembering Christ’s sacrifice for us.

Everyone needs to confess sometimes.

When I went to my 10-year high school reunion in 1991, we had to list what we were doing in a little book that everyone got when they came to the party. I had just graduated from seminary the year before and was working as a college and youth minister near my hometown. I have to say that I learned as much that night about what people need from their minister as I did in any seminary class I took.

Over the course of the evening people came to my table and made their confessions. People I knew, people I’d lost touch with, and even people who never said a word to me during high school—they dropped by the table to say hello, and ended up telling me some of their darkest secrets—they were looking for a way to get out from under their deepest sins.

Everyone needs to confess sometimes.

Jesus knew that when he taught his disciples to pray. If you’ve been saying the Lord’s Prayer this past week you know that right there in the middle of the prayer there’s a confession line: ‘Forgive us our sins.’ You can’t get away from it. ‘Forgive us our sins.’ It’s a part of any basic prayer—it’s a part of how we begin to align our hearts and minds with the heart and mind of God himself.

Everyone needs to confess sometimes. But how does that help us move through the season of Lent? How does that help us prepare for Easter?

If we think of confession as a way of sharing our lives honestly with each other, it prepares us for Holy Week and Easter by reminding us of why Christ served and died for us in the first place. One of the reasons Lent is more somber than the rest of the church year is because we’re asked to reflect on why we need a sacrificial savior at all—why Christ’s sacrifice was necessary.

It’s in confession that we get the answer to that question. God sees who we are and what we are, and his response is to love us sacrificially—to act decisively to bring us back to him.

God sees who we are and what we are, and in the practice of confession, so do we.

Remembering what Christ has done through the events of Holy Week and Easter—and why he did those things—being people who remember is a part of the life of faith.

Confession isn’t there just to get us to focus on ourselves. Confession, in the end, gets us to focus on God. It reminds us of who God is and what he’s done and what he promises to us.

Confession prepares us to experience God in a new way—to experience his love in the places we need it most.

I invite you, as we move through the season of Lent—of preparing our hearts for the miracle of Easter—I invite you to make confession a part of your life. The Lord’s Prayer is a place to start, as we ask God to ‘forgive us our sins.’

Reaching out to someone else to share your life is the next step. Building connections like that, in relationships that are built on trust and faith, strengthens our community and makes us more into the church that God calls us to be.

However it works for you, I invite you to make confession a part of your preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

We’ll do our part right now, as we say the Lord’s Prayer before coming to the Table together. Hear especially that crucial sentence of confession, and make it yours.

Let’s stand and prepare our hearts for Communion by saying the Lord’s Prayer.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Lent Challenge: Prayer

(The following message is the first in our series titled The Journey to the Cross: Four Practices to Prepare Us for Easter.)

Luke 18:1-8a

And so we come to our second Sunday in Lent.

Julie and I had a conversation last night over dinner with some friends about how different traditions use different practices to remember this season. Some give something up, others go to special services, you get the idea. For us, however you practice this season, Lent is the 40 non-Sundays before Easter. Sundays are always festive days—we’re not supposed to deprive ourselves of anything on the Lord’s Day. That’s why Lent is such a bad time to diet—on each Sunday we’re supposed to feast on whatever we’re giving up.

Lent is a time of reflection and preparation for our remembrance and celebration of Christ’s love for us as we find it in the Easter miracle. It’s an old tradition—it dates back at least to the 4th century—it’s a part of the church calendar that moves us from the joy and expectation of Advent and Christmas, through the more somber season of thinking about the Cross and Christ’s suffering for us.

Over these next four Sundays we’re going to explore some practices that will prepare our hearts and minds for Holy Week and Easter. The habits and practices we’ll look at are prayer, confession, forgiveness and hospitality. Each one of these serves to help us understand and experience what Christ has offered to us—each one of these gets us out of our regular routines and practices and makes Lent and Easter more meaningful.

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'

"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"

And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.

As we look at this parable it’s important to remember some things about Parables as a specific type of writing. They’re not allegories, but instead they’re stories that are designed to create a feeling or reaction, like a short story as opposed to a novel. They’re more confrontational than informational. They’re meant to confront us with a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God might look like.

Luke’s gospel was written a generation after the events of Jesus’ ministry, and it was designed to encourage Christians who were under attack or persecution. There’s a cultural context to the story we read, too. Luke’s readers would have had a clear understanding of the relationship between the powerful and the weak—about what it meant to be powerless. The persistent woman in the story would have gotten a lot of nods from the people listening to the story—as a widow her plight would have resonated with Jesus’ audience.

Since this parable isn’t an allegory, the characters aren’t meant to specifically represent God or us or anyone else. In the parable we read today the judge doesn’t represent God. He’s a device that is meant to highlight God’s love and grace and mercy. The point Jesus is making goes something like this: If a crappy, unjust judge would take this woman’s case—even if just to get her off his back—if even this corrupt politician would do the right thing in the end, how much more would our Father in heaven act on our behalf.

So what do we learn about preparing for Easter in this passage?

First, there is a persistence to prayer here that goes against our shopping mentality. On the back of your bulletin there’s a description of prayer that goes like this:

“Prayer is a dynamic and vital part of our journey of faith in Jesus Christ. We pray, not as we shop for goods—with a list in hand and limited funds to spend—but rather as faithful people bringing our hopes and fears before God, whose love and power and resources have no end. In prayer we learn to align our vision and desires with those of God himself, and in the process become mature disciples, ready for service.”

Mostly, though, prayer is about bringing our lives before God—all the time—not just when we have something we want from him. Remember that even Jesus prayed all night—if prayer was a simple matter of placing an order and waiting for goods, he never would have done that.

So how can we experience prayer as a way to prepare for Easter?

The answer to that is deceptively simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you want to see how prayer can help you move through the Lent season and get you ready for Easter, the answer is to pray.

Pray for your friends and families.
Pray for this church and our ministry together.
Pray for your kids and the ways they’re being shaped in their schools and friendships.
Pray for the person sitting next to you today.
Pray for your neighbors.
Pray for strangers.
Pray for people who drive you crazy—the ones who really get under your skin.
Pray for your priorities.
Pray for peace, everywhere.
Pray for a heart that is as soft toward others as God’s is toward you.

In the interest of full disclosure here I have to say that I know this part is difficult. I’m the last guy who should be up here giving instruction on prayer. I’ve been a Christian for most of my life and I still don’t feel like I get this part of the life of discipleship.

I know this is hard. But Jesus understood that, too. That’s why when his disciples came to him and asked that he teach them to pray, he gave them the prayer that we say here almost every Sunday.

Developing a life of prayer is a challenge that will take our whole lifetime to wrestle with. But the one part of that that isn’t a mystery is in knowing where to start.

We begin precisely where Jesus himself told us to begin. We start with the Lord’s Prayer.

Last year we spent a couple of months walking through this prayer—seeing it for the radical statement of faith that it is. That’s something we want to rediscover over and over again.

I want to give you a challenge during this Lent season, as we reflect and prepare on the Cross of Christ and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. As we develop the practices of the Christian life I want to challenge all of us to do something over these next weeks before Easter.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer five times a day.

That’s it. That’s all. It’s not magic, but it is a way to get our minds and hearts focused on the one who made us and redeems us and calls us to this new way of life.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer five times each day.

Let the words soak in. Let the prayer teach you something about the mind of God—about God’s plan—about God’s heart for you and for this church and for the world.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer five times each day.

Right now I know that some people will be thinking that they don’t have time to do this—that they can’t fit this into their busy, stress-filled lives.

You know the word I want to say about that (the one that would cost me my job).

Here’s a reality check: The Lord’s Prayer takes about 30 seconds to say. It might be a little longer for the ‘trespasser’ crowd, but not by much. We’re talking about less than 3 minutes total out of your day. Three minutes to get your mind and heart focused with God as we prepare for Easter. Three minutes each day to take a stab at praying just as Jesus himself taught us to pray.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer five times each day between now and Easter.

For those of you who like to have a plan for things (and you know who you are), try this: Pray it once when you wake up. Pray it before breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pray it again as you go to bed.

If you miss one, then you miss one. If you miss a day, don’t give up. This isn’t magic—this is about learning to align our lives and minds and hearts and priorities with the mind and heart and priorities of God. Talk about it in your home or with friends or people here at the church. If praying the Lord’s Prayer raises questions for you, then write them down and talk about them with someone.

As you pray the prayer, let the prayer enter into your life and start to work on you—to change the way you think and feel and even believe. Just try it—we can make it our shared Lent project this year.

John Ortberg is a pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California. He’s a really effective teacher and writer—one of his books is called ‘The Life You’ve Always Wanted,’ which is on that reading list in your bulletin, by the way. The book is about how to develop spiritual disciplines in our daily lives. He wrote this about prayer:

“Prayer, perhaps more than any activity, is the concrete expression of the fact that we are invited into a relationship with God. Prayer is talking with God about what we are doing together. In addition to all the other work that gets done through prayer, perhaps the greatest work of all is the knitting of the human heart together with the heart of God.”

I don’t know too many people who aren’t in some way looking for a concrete expression of their relationship with God.

I don’t know too many people who would reject the idea of their heart being somehow knitted together with the heart of God.

That’s what God offers us in the life of prayer.

That’s what I’m inviting you to do during these next few weeks of Lent.

As we reflect on Christ’s ministry and sacrifice for us—as we prepare together to celebrate the miracle of the resurrection as if it were happening for the very first time—as we continue to grow together in our faith and discipleship…

Pray the Lord’s Prayer five times a day—pray it with the annoying persistence of the widow in the parable.

Let it become a part of the rhythm of your day—let it become part of the rhythm of your life.

We look ahead with humility and joy and anticipation to the events of Holy Week and Easter. As we continue that journey to the Cross, let’s stand and pray the Lord’s Prayer together.