Prayer: A Way of Seeing

Rev. Hans Dumpys

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
(Matthew 5:43-47)

When Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said,” he is not quoting scripture, but is likely picking up what was prevalent in his culture. What do we hear said in our society today? Hate black lives matter, hate socialists, hate welfare recipients, hate Republicans, or the opposite.

Jesus challenges what was said then and is being said today: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We make enemies of others who belong to a different group because of their skin color, social status or political party.

But you can’t love what you haven’t seen and known for yourself. Seeing involves not just perceiving someone as a member of a different group. Rather, seeing the other is seeing with the eyes of your soul, as one created in the image of God and cared for as you are. Seeing breaks down the stereotypes that our experience, imagination, and culture have created. Prayer is the way to seeing the other as our brother and sister in all their complexity, diversity, and giftedness. Prayer transforms our angle of vision.

Therefore, we can overcome the chasm of hatreds which engulfs us and our society. In Christ God has given us his unbounded love and invites us to treat others with the same heavenly love. This is God’s gift of grace in him who came to give his life for the reconciliation of all humanity.

Prayer: O God, grant us courage to behold each other as your gifts whom we are called to love as you love us all. Amen.

Why?

This week we focus on prayer. As the poet George Herbert wrote, prayer is “God’s breath” returning us to our birth that is–that is, it is a life-giving conversation with God, a reminder of our indebtedness and gratitude to God, who is alway eager to hear our prayers.

Rev. Rebekah Costello

I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you. Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141:1-2)

Prayer is the church’s way of participating in the divine life and acts of God in our world. The Holy Spirit urges us to call on God the Father, through the Son, bringing our needs, our pains, our thanksgivings, and the world’s injustices into the divine life. Prayer is foremost a discipline of the church, following the pattern of how God has spoken, through the Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, the Lenten discipline of prayer can become hollow to us amid longstanding injustice that breeds cynicism and merciless consumption that creates apathy. The cynical and apathetic parts of our soul question: Why pray to God if God already knows what we need? Why pray to God for anything if we have consumed all we need, and then some? Why pray for God to end the merciless and unjust ways of our world if the divine mind is impassibly determined? Under this weight, prayer becomes for us nothing more than an exercise in self-help overseen by a disinterested God. Imagine, rather, that prayer is a practice through which we actually participate in, contribute to, and argue for God’s acts of mercy and justice in this world! For certain, the Christian practice of prayer is asymmetrical. That is; we pray as creatures to the creator who has freedom and authority over us and all that exists. At the same time, God does seriously consider, in his freedom to act, upon what we have to say. Therefore, pray without ceasing.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to know and understand the gift you have given us— prayer. Help us to be always mindful of your invitation to be a participant in the life of God and your kingdom here on earth. May our prayers never cease. Amen.

Turning Away and Turning Toward

Jeff Wood

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.  Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4)

We are condemned, and yet we are freed. Doom and hope chase us all our lives. As Christians, we live within this great paradox. In Lent especially, we look inside ourselves with disgust, living in self-awareness that we constantly fall short of the glory of God.  Any minimal self-examination reveals it. We are sinners. 

Yet we also have hope.  We always have Easter’s resurrection hope before us.  How do we move from condemnation to hope?  The way to hope is the path of repentance

Repentance is turning away from sin. It is one of the very first messages of the New Testament, when John the Baptist appeared, crying:  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.  Whenever I taught about John the Baptist and repentance in Sunday School, I demonstrated repentance by physically turning around, first facing one way (call that sin), and then turning around the other way (call that Jesus). Repentance not only means turning away from sin; it means turning towards Jesus.  

In his monumental letter to the Roman Christians, Paul makes it clear that none of us is righteous. In Chapter 3, he writes: There is no one who is righteous, not even one (3:10).  Also, in the beginning lines of Chapter 2, he is quite clear that there is no place in Christianity for anyone to be self-righteous or to pass judgment on others.  We all live under God’s righteous judgment. Yet Paul invites all of us to receive God’s kindness and grace, freely given to those who turn towards Jesus and accept it. 

Prayer: Dear Jesus, forgive our sins and help us turn towards you.  Amen.     

Recognizing our ignorance.

Julie Hinz

[Peter said], “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.  Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:17-21)

Just prior to this passage we see the lame man healed in the temple. What a miracle! And what a gift for those present to witness such an act. And now Peter paves the way for all those present to see this miracle in the whole of God’s purpose in their world and their own response to that purpose; it is time for them to turn toward the truth. The key to this turning is the recognition of their own ignorance and that of their leaders. Peter does not ask them “if” they have sinned but tells them, yes. You were ignorant and sinful. Now, you are no longer ignorant. You have seen the power of God. It is time to repent and turn to God so that you might have salvation.

We are invited as well, to see our own ignorance, to recognize God’s plan for our healing and salvation, to repent and be renewed. A simple and yet most difficult task that must be undertaken daily. Just as the lame man was forever changed, we are called to that same life-changing act, of not only recognizing our sin but being reborn into a people focused on solely on God’s purpose.

Prayer: Great healer, create in us clean hearts, open minds, and willing spirits so that we might hear your call to repent and change, moving away from human ignorance and sin and into wisdom, understanding, and a desire to live into your purpose every day. Amen.

Naming Sin

Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Palmer

Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive. (Luke 17:3-4)

I’m not very good at rebuking people. Sometimes I yell at my kids when they misbehave, and I’ve had a lot of practice lately at censuring my political opponents in the abstract. But it’s hard to imagine myself rebuking an individual member of my community face-to-face, naming their sins, and asking them to repent. I’m much more comfortable skipping to the forgiveness part. 

When I look at where the Greek word for “rebuke” appears in the Gospels, though, a pattern emerges. The disciples and members of the crowds sometimes rebuke other people, but Jesus almost never does. He rebukes demons, devils, and unclean spirits that are hurting people. He rebukes the wind and the waves when they’re threatening to overturn the boat carrying the disciples. He rebukes a fever that’s afflicting Simon’s mother-in-law.

The kind of rebuking that Jesus does in the Bible, in other words, isn’t about individuals and their relationships with each other. It’s an existential showdown with the powers and principalities that cause harm. It’s a casting out of sin and danger that has just one purpose: making people well. This leads me to believe that when Jesus tells us to rebuke each other for our sins, the stakes are high. Skipping to forgiveness too quickly won’t loosen the grip that sin holds over the world. Sometimes repentance is a group endeavor.

Prayer: God, help me guard against the temptation to live with false peace, give me the courage to name and rebuke sin, and thereby deepen my capacity to forgive. Amen.

It doesn’t matter why…

Linda Street

So, he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
(Luke 15:3-7)

In this parable, it is usually assumed we are the lost sheep and thus have confidence that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will come find us when we wander off.  Although we are thankful that this is true, several questions come to mind.

What is up with this sheep???  Was it in denial about the dangerous reality of the world away from the flock?  Was it looking for greener pastures or a more comfortable setting?  Did the sheep take membership in the flock for granted and get left behind? Did the sheep have an argument with another member of the flock and march off in a huff? Or perhaps it was a black sheep and the rest of the flock shunned it??  Ouch…

Hmmm, I wonder—did the lost sheep really want to be found? 

Truth is, no matter why the sheep got lost or if it wanted to be found, the Shepherd never gave up. Similarly, no matter what sin we have committed or whether we want to be found, Jesus continues to call us by name.

And —a note for the flock.  Who was keeping an eye on this one who got lost?  How did the whole flock not notice that someone was missing?  Maybe there is room for repentance here as well?  Fellow sheep, we are accountable for each other.  Especially in COVID times.  Let’s keep an eye on each other.

Prayer: Loving Shepherd, help us to look out for one another and to continually search for the lost. Amen.

Sheer Grace

Rev. David Kluge

Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them.  The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:29-32)

No one likes the tax collector. This was especially true in our Lord’s day. Tax collectors were viewed as collaborators with the Romans who occupied their land and were notorious thieves. So why, as the Pharisees asked, was Jesus associating with Levi and his friends? Jesus certainly did not condone what Levi did in his selfishness. Levi was, in Jesus’ words, a sick man. He was as sick, if not more so, than the leper and paralytic Jesus had just healed. How to bring about change? That’s the question.

The approach taken by the Pharisees is all too familiar to us. It’s easy to stand back in our pious self-righteousness and condemn others for their sin. It’s easy to see the “speck” in our brother’s or sister’s eye but fail to see the “plank” in our own eye. (Matthew 7:3-5) But that approach only alienates.

In the verses preceding those of our text Jesus healed a leper and a paralytic. Both were acts of sheer grace and brought about a dramatic change in their lives. It is then that Jesus calls Levi saying, “Follow me!” That call too was an act of sheer grace and turned Levi’s life around. For most of us our call came with the waters of our baptism. That too was an act of sheer grace.

Prayer: Gracious and loving Lord you have called out of darkness into your light. May your love for us be the driving force in our lives to the end that the “sick” of this world may, like Levi, be led to a new and better life in your Son. In his name we pray. Amen.

Turning away from Whiteness

Valerie Stefanic

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3)

Here in Matthew, Judas has accepted money in return for his betrayal of Jesus, his master, friend and savior. The good news is that once he realizes the true depth of what he has done, and that his actions would lead to the certain death of his beloved Jesus, he was overcome with feelings of genuine guilt and great remorse. He was sorry for what he’d done. To no avail, he tried to turn it around by offering to give the money back. Ultimately, his guilt and remorse led him to kill himself.

As I read this verse and definition of repentance, as a black person, my mind cannot help but turn to the subject of racism and the idea that America needs to repent of racism. The continuing racism in this country has its roots in a financial decision, much like the decision that Judas made to accept money in turn for his betrayal of Jesus. America’s founders used kidnapped Africans as a resource to build this nation and expand the wealth of its founders and their descendants.

Policies that systemically and purposefully inhibit the growth of black people continue today.  We need repentance. Whites need to acknowledge the issue and openly admit that it was/is wrong. They must lean into it with empathy and feel true remorse for what has happened at the hand of their ancestors. White people must also unite along with blacks to change the direction and the narrative. Alas, white Christians need to act more Christian than white.

Prayer: My Father in heaven, I am thankful that of late, many white people have been awakened to the plight of black people in America. I pray that this movement continues and that more people are able to truly repent and to be willing to participate in actionable ways to change the narrative. I pray that ALL Christians continue to aspire to truly be like Christ; loving, accepting, merciful and uplifting of the downtrodden.  In Jesus’ name I pray.  AMEN.    

Return

This week we turn our minds toward repentance which involves sorrow for our sins, a turning or change of direction, and a resolution to not repeat the sins of our past.

Rev. Michael Costello

Come, let us return to the Lord, for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:1-3)

These words from Hosea need context. In chapters 4 and 5 the prophet makes clear that God was not pleased at how far Israel had strayed from God’s ways. Israel’s prospects were grim if they continued their sinful path. God said that he would return again to his place until Israel acknowledged their guilt and sought his face (5:15).

The Hebrew word used for God’s return in chapter 5 is used again at the beginning of chapter 6 when we read: “Come, let us return to the Lord.” In God’s own return Israel is given the opportunity to return themselves—to repent.

The exhortation that begins the Ash Wednesday liturgy reads, in part: “God created us to experience joy in communion with him, to love all humanity, and to live in harmony with all of his creation. But sin separates us from God … who does not desire us to come under his judgment, but to turn to him and live.”

The clarion call in Hosea is for each of us, too. Especially during Lent we return to God, acknowledging our sin, turning—repenting—toward the new life given to us in Jesus Christ. It is, after all, through his death and resurrection that God, in the words of the Te Deum laudamus, has “opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”

Prayer: Too often we stray from your will, Lord God. Help us return to you, forgive our sins, and strengthen us in faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Forgiveness: Completed.

Rev. Peter W. Marty
St, Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa
Editor/Publisher of The Christian Century

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. (James 5:13-16)

A couple decades ago, an English theologian published a book on the power of forgiveness. The title is what’s memorable to me: The Joy of Being Wrong. It’s hard to picture being wrong as intrinsically delightful in and of itself. There can’t be joy in trampling another life through offense or cruelty. What constitutes the actual joy of being wrong is confessing that wrongness to another. The admission to someone else that we have messed up is what’s liberating. To pull some dank reality out of an inner recess of the human heart and expose the musty truth to fresh air—that’s how we free up a relationship with God. That’s how we get right with our friends and lovers.

Ancient Jews knew only confession to God. Christians see value in confessing sins to one another in addition to God. But what counts ultimately is that we trust God to forgive unconditionally. We don’t confess our sins in order to be forgiven; we confess them because we are forgiven. Notice how often Jesus pronounces forgiveness to guilty people prior to them cleaning up their act or pledging to repent.

The writer of James reminds us that forgiveness doesn’t follow confession; it precedes it. “Anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven,” he writes. “Therefore [or, in light of such divine love, and with all defenses down] confess your sins …”

Prayer: O God, teach us to know, in Jesus Christ, that because you love us we can be comfortably honest in confessing our sins. Amen.