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Sermon for Sunday 30 September 2018

FIRST READING Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

4Now the rabble that was among {the people of Israel} had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. 6But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
10Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the Lord blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased. 11Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. 15If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” 16Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you.
24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it. 26Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” 29But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”


PSALM Psalm 104:27-35

27There move the ships, and there is that Leviathan, which you have made for the sport of it. 28All of them look to you to give them their food in due season. 29You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things. 30You hide your face, and they are terrified; you take away their breath, and they die and return to their dust. 31You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth. 32May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works. 33He looks at the earth and it trembles; he touches the mountains and they smoke. 34I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. 35May these words of mine please him; I will rejoice in the Lord.



1Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. 7Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. 12But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.] 13Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.


GOSPEL Mark 9:38-50

38John said to {Jesus}, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40For the one who is not against us is for us. 41For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. 42Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”



For some scholars, the Letter of James has been seen as problematic from the very beginning. First of all, it isn’t really a letter, it’s a sermon. It was circulated around the Church near the end of the first century, because it was thought to be worthy for instruction; and indeed, it is. It has some very notable axioms, such as, “Be doers of the word, not hearers only.” (1:22) These are worthy of being emblazoned onto a sign and put on your wall. The second major criticism has to do with structure and content.
The most notable argument against this letter from scholars has been, that it isn’t like Paul’s letters. Paul’s letters, of course, dominate the New Testament. They have, as one would expect of a trained Pharisaical scholar, an enormous theological depth to them. In the eyes of some, not only does the epistle of James not have that same kind of depth as Paul’s writings, but it’s forwarded that James’ sermon might even contradict Paul and Paul’s main theme, “We are saved by faith through God’s grace alone” (Eph.2:8.) This could be one reason why Martin Luther, in the 16th century, wondered why the Letter of James was added to the New Testament. Luther at one point called it, “an epistle of straw.” Luther would later in life soften his stance on James, and some even think he changed his mind.
For me, I argue that Paul wrote theology to all the gentile churches. James, on the other hand, wrote practical advice for a particular congregation, that has found universal application. Third: Paul in some cases isn’t always easy to understand; but James is. In fact, in the Second Letter of Peter, which like James is also a letter of practical advice, there’s a verse that says, “There are some things in Paul’s letters difficult to understand” (2 Peter 3:16.) Many of us would agree.
After one of author and poet Gertrude Stein’s lectures, Alice B. Toklas, her companion and devotee, turned to the person sitting next to her, and said, “Dearie has said some things tonight that will take even her years to understand.” It’s the same with Paul’s letters. They contain such depth of theology that the Church continues to struggle, even after more than after 2000 years, to understand them. But James’ writings are different.
The passages in the letter of James requires no effort at all to understand. You can easily comprehend what he’s saying, because he uses simple, straight-forward language, giving advice to the church on how to arrange its life together. In our epistle text for this morning, James is talking about those who are suffering, those who are sick, and those who are sinning. One could say that James is writing to a cross-section of a typical congregation: the sick, the suffering and the sinful. And James gives one prescription for all of them: prayer.
If you are suffering, he says, pray. If there are sick among you, pray for them. If there is someone among you who has sinned, and they confess their sin, then pray for them. If you take James seriously, as you should, prayer is what the Church ought to be spending a good amount of its time doing. I say we need to be a praying church; not just individually, but corporately as well. But for some of us, especially us Lutherans, that seems like such a radical idea that it needs an argument to support it. So, I’d like to offer two reasons for making prayer the primary agenda for our personal lives as well as the life of the Church.
The first reason we need to be a praying church is, we know what prayer will do. The second reason is, we don’t know what prayer will do. Now these two statements might lead you to repeat what Alice said to the woman next to her, Well, Pastor said some things this morning that’s going to take him years to understand. This may be true, but I’ll try anyway.
What we do know is this, that if we trust God, prayer will change us. I’ve spent some time studying prayer and looking at those people that we consider saints, those people who are spiritual examples for us. In the process, I had to answer three questions about why we consider them examples? What aspects of their lives do we most admire and wish we could emulate? What is it about their spiritual life that sets them apart? The conclusion I came to was this: it’s the depth and quality, the inner peace, the ability to accept all the seasons of life, and the love and compassion that goes out to other people so freely. These are the things in their lives that seem to be missing in our life.
Mother Teresa is one I lift up from time to time as a model of living a Christian life. It’s been a decade since she passed, and her canonization has called attention to her life. We knew of some of her sacrifices for the poor while she was alive, but now, many have heard the wonderful stories about her sacrificial service to the most abject and pitiful creatures on earth; the poor and the dying in Calcutta. When we hear of all the acts of mercy she performed, we wonder how she could spend years in such self-giving service. Most people I know would look at that level of misery and run away from it. She looked at that type of desperation and ran toward it. We ask ourselves, how could anyone live such a sacrificial life so willingly? The answer is, of course, prayer.
As a nun she devoted her life to a life of prayer. What prayer did, was to empty or cleanse her life of all that was a distraction, of all that is unessential, all that is debilitating, and filled her life with the transcendent power of God. So, what the world saw in this tiny, 5 foot nothing, fragile, frail, little woman was apparently an inexhaustible and inexplicable power to love. We saw God’s love for the least and the lowest. She lived out God’s love day in and day out, year after year, and through that love she made a huge difference in this world. That’s what we saw. What we didn’t see, however, was this tiny, little, frail woman on her knees, at morning, mid-day, evening, and at night, keeping the office of prayer, opening her life to God, inviting God to come and dwell with her. What we saw was God’s strength and love through His servant. And through prayer and faith in action, she made a huge difference in the world.
Richard Rohr is a Catholic Monk who runs a retreat center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has a wonderful word for this spiritual quality that comes from the result of prayer: “holy spaciousness.” That’s what prayer does he says, it creates “holy spaciousness.” It removes all of that which is distracting in our life, all the debris that accumulates in our life, all that we carry around with us year after year, and creates a “holy spaciousness.” Then Rohr points out, if you want God to come into your life, you have to make room for God.
Prayer is the way we make room for God. The reason that God doesn’t seem to come into our lives is that our lives are so cluttered. There’s no room in our lives for anything but the self and its preoccupations. Prayer is a means of emptying our lives of all that is distracting. You could say that prayer is a form of remodeling; a rearranging to make room for God. Prayer is also a form of hospitality, preparing for a visit. Prayer creates “holy spaciousness.” And when we make space for God, we know what prayer will do. It not only makes room for God, it also makes room for us to reach out in love to others.
I know to this point I’ve lifted up two faithful Catholics who could be considered experts in contemplative spirituality. If you don’t mind, I’d like include one more, Henri Nouwen. He too was considered by some to be the most popular writer in spirituality. He too was a monk, but spent most of his career in the secular world, teaching at universities; at Yale, at Harvard, and then going to South America to live as a village priest among the poor. Before he passed in the late 90s, he spent his last few years in Toronto, at a home for dramatically developmentally disabled people, called L’Arch.
Since his death, there have been interviews with people who had the privilege of meeting and talking with Father Nouwen. In many of those interviews, the same experiences were shared. Henri had a way of simply inviting people into conversation. In many cases the conversations lasted only fifteen or twenty minutes. What seemed to impress folks the most, is how he talked to them as if they were the only people around, as if they were the only people he had any concern for, as if he had nothing else to do but talk to them. He would ask about their families, their jobs, and would be intensely interested in whomever he was talking with. As one person put it, “he took us into the ‘holy spaciousness’ of his life.’” They all seemed to agree; they felt that they had talked with an old friend. Their conversations were nothing short of being a remarkable experience.
That’s what happens when we make room in our life for God, a holy spaciousness is created and then God can invite other people to join Him there. When we make room in our life for God, God will use us to send out invitations to other people, because we now have room in our life for all those whom God loves. James says the Church ought to be characterized by prayer, ought to be known as a praying church, because we know what will happen if we pray. When we put our trust in God, prayer will change us. Prayer will create a “holy spaciousness” in our life so that God will have a place and we will have room not only for Him, but for others as well. And for these reasons, we need to pray for the Church.
One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been a pastor, is that I bet that a month doesn’t go by that I don’t receive some sort of invitation to go to some conference on the renewal of the Church. Oftentimes it’s some Christian company or some mega church group offering a seminar on how to become another mega church. Their stated purpose is to renew the Church. Of course, the churches they’re targeting are the mainline churches, such as ours. The truth is, the vast majority of churches, especially mainline denominations here in the US, are languishing. We’re losing members, many are closing their door or just barely getting by. The reality is, there is no quick fix. There is no seminar, no magic program, but the answer is simple. People need God’s mercy and grace and we need to get that truth to them. The sad part is, these seminars won’t tell you this.
This is the reason I refuse to attend those seminars. I throw the advertisements away. However, I did run across an interesting one not long ago. It was addressed to “large church pastors,” announcing that the denominations are dead. In fact, the title of the conference was, “A Conference on Post-Denominationalism.” So there you have it, we have a new “post” now in the world. We now live in the “post-denomination” age.
The invitation was for large churches to come together and to share their resources, wisdom, talent, and also their benevolence funds, and have a fellowship of like-minded Christians in large churches across the country. In other words, they were announcing the end of denominationalism by starting a new one. I throw these advertisements away because the renewal of the Church will never come through a program, or through some technique learned in a workshop. The renewal of the Church will only come when we begin with prayer. We need to pray and invite the Holy Spirit to enter into the Church, and lead the Church back to the source of life, Jesus. Then, following the Master, we can move forward into the mission we were called to when Jesus ascended; to go out and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them what God has commanded.
I know of no exceptions to that. Renewal is not a bureaucratic decision. It’s not a seminar where we learn all the right marketing tools. It’s not the latest gimmick to entice people to come. Renewal, pure and simple, is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can only work when we make room in our lives for God. So it must start with prayer, individual and together as a community of believers. It will take a praying church to make room for God to enter its life, to be present with us so we can also make room for others.
I read a report from the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church from some 10 years ago. As you know, the Episcopal Church has followed some of the other mainline churches in some of its decisions and the results has been a fracturing of the denomination. Just prior to all of this, the House of Bishops met to consider what to do. The report I read said, “We were in search of a new way of doing business, and I think we’ve found it. Not surprisingly it revolved around studying scripture together and praying together in an honest, open way sharing with one another. One group even suggested that at the next convention, the House of Bishops should meet for eight days in small group Bible study and prayer groups and refuse to deal with any resolutions at all.”
The report concluded with this. “What a spectacle, the bishops saying by our actions that our primary agenda is prayer and Bible study. We would send a message to the Church that the Church has been longing to hear for a long time.” Sadly, the conference of Bishops didn’t listen to their own advice and now their denomination has fractured, and they too are struggling.
The Council of Bishops was right in one aspect. That fact that we should pray first, believing that God will answer is paramount, because we know what will happen when we pray. We will change. Both as individuals, and as a church. As we pray and make room for God, we will be renewed as individuals, and as a church. The second reason we should pray is because we don’t know what will happen.
That’s the message of the second part of this text that lifts up Elijah, praying for rain, as our example. Elijah was just like you and me. Elijah was just an ordinary man used in an extraordinary way by God. Elijah the prophet, alone going against Jezebel and the priests of Baal. Baal was seen as a nature god, so worshiping Baal was supposed to bring a beneficial effect to farming, bring rain when rain was needed, stopping the rain when it wasn’t.
Elijah, to confound the priests of Baal, prayed that there would be a drought. There was a drought. Later he prayed to God that there would be rain. The rain came. You’ll have to go back to 1 Kings 18 to get the rest of the story; not only did he get the drought and the rain, he also got death threats from queen Jezebel. The point is, surprising things happen when we pray. Elijah was just an ordinary man, like you and me. Elijah prayed. Elijah made room for God in his life and look what happened.
According to James, the Church ought to be praying. We need to become known as a praying church, both as individuals and as a Christian community. As a matter of fact, it needs to be our first response to any situation, good or bad. It needs to be the first thing we do in the morning and the last thing we do at night. And we need to do this for two reasons. First, because we know what will happen. When we pray in faith, we’ll change. We’ll be renewed. Secondly, we ought to pray because we have no idea at all what will happen. But most of all, we pray because we know God is listening and He will answer.

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