Monday, October 21, 2013

Prayers - Answered and Unanswered (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 20, 2013)

An assistant manager of a large department store saw a boy standing at the bottom of the escalator one day.  The assistant became suspicious.  He watched the boy for a while.  The boy had his eyes glued to the moving hand rail.  Finally, the assistant went over to the boy and questioned him.  “Is something wrong, young man?” he asked.  “No sir”, replied the boy, not taking his eyes off the handrail, “I’m just waiting for my bubble gum to come back.”


Have you ever watched and waited as eagerly for something as that little boy watched and waited for his bubble gum to come back?


When we were children we longed for Christmas to come and would ask our parents, “How many more days till Christmas?”  And when Christmas had come, then we would start to long for summer vacation.  And I’m sure that you can remember, as I can, riding in the car to the beach or the amusement park or some other delightful destination and wearing our parents out by asking, “Are we there yet?”


Jesus told a parable about a woman who longed for justice as a child longs for Christmas or summer vacation or a trip to the beach.  She had been wronged and the only person who could right the wrong was an unjust judge.  Imagine that you have been the victim of a hoax or have been cheated out of thousands of dollars in a business deal.  Imagine that the judge who will hear your case is corrupt, a person who takes bribes and sells justice to the highest bidder.  That’s the situation the woman in Jesus’ parable found herself in.


But she was not easily discouraged.  Jesus tells us that she “kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent’”.  Finally, the judge heard her case and granted her request, not because he had had a change of heart, but simply because he was worn out with her constant requests.


That is how persistent we are to be with God.  “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” Jesus asked.


What an odd parable!  Jesus compares God to a wicked, corrupt, and unjust judge. 


Jesus was employing a type of argument common in first century Judaism. It was called “from the lesser to the greater”.  Do you remember the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin?  If a shepherd will search for one lost lamb out of ninety-nine, how much more will God search for a lost soul?  If a woman will search for one lost coin out of ten, how much more will God search for you when you are lost and hurt and alone?  If a corrupt and unjust judge will eventually hear and render judgment for a woman who beseeches him constantly, how much more will God hear and grant your prayers?  From the lesser to the greater, a trivial illustration can be made to serve a great truth.


But this parable raises powerful, disturbing questions for us.  Luke introduces the parable by saying that “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”.  The point of the parable seems to be that if we pray long enough and sincerely enough, God will hear and grant our petitions.  But you know and I know many persons who have prayed for healing, or employment, or money for their rent or food for their children and whose prayers have not been answered.


I have no easy answers about why God does not hear and grant all the prayers we pray, but I have a few thoughts to share with you. 


One obvious reason that God does not answer our prayers is that we can sometimes ask for trivial, foolish, or even harmful things.  I guess the words that come out of our mouths when someone cuts in front of us on the freeway could be called prayers of a sort, but I hope we don’t really want God to answer THOSE prayers.  I had a cartoon on my refrigerator for years in which a kneeling minister prayed, “Lord, smite my worst enemy with a plague of locusts”, and in the next frame the minister himself was covered with locusts. 


It’s not difficult to see why God does not answer trivial, foolish, or vindictive prayers, but what about prayers for healing?  I know of no stronger case AGAINST the Christian faith than the problem of suffering.  The problem is not just why do the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper, but why is there suffering at all if this world was created by and is sustained by a good, just, loving, and almighty Creator?


I have no good answer.  In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis says that pain is sometimes God’s megaphone to awaken a sleeping world.  Sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes a case of the flu or even a broken limb can slow us down and open up time and space in our lives in which we can hear what God has to say to us.   But I could never go to someone with terminal cancer or AIDS and tell that person that their suffering was God’s way of trying to get their attention.  That would be the worst kind of pastoral misconduct. 


So, I do not know why our prayers for healing are not answered.  But I do know this:  sometimes our prayers for healing are answered even when the person for whom we pray dies.  There can be a deep kind of healing that can take place only in death.  And I believe that sometimes there are things we can learn only when we grapple with suffering over a long period of time.


I want to tell you about my own experience of pleading with an “unjust judge”.  At the beginning of my next-to-last semester at divinity school in the fall of 1981, the bishop of Alabama informed me that he would not ordain me.  He gave no reason then and has never given any reason.  It was devastating to me to learn that something I had worked for for three years and had prayed for was not going to take place.  I was angry and depressed.  I was outraged not only at the bishop but also at God.  So, unable to be ordained, I worked for a couple of years, then I received a small fellowship to study at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews and began work on my Ph.D.  I lived in Great Britain for almost three and a half years, and when I finished my Ph.D. I returned to the States and taught for a few years.  Finally, the bishop who had turned his back on me retired, and the Diocese of Alabama elected a new bishop.  Suddenly, all the doors that had been closed to me swung wide open; I was accepted into the ordination process and was ordained first deacon and then priest.  But in the years between finishing my Master of Divinity and being ordained, I not only acquired a doctorate and the invaluable experience of teaching in a university, I became a very different person.  I became much less rigid and dogmatic.  I learned to accept the fact that there are things we cannot understand and cannot change, however painful and puzzling they are.  I think I became warmer and more accessible.  And I know that I became much more sympathetic and empathetic to others who struggle with suffering and pain in their lives. 


In God’s infinite, mysterious, and often frustrating wisdom I believe that God knew that I needed to struggle, pray, and come up against closed and locked doors for ten years before being ordained.  I am a better priest for having had to wait ten years, and God knew that.  What I went through I would not wish on anyone, but it was something I needed to go through.  So, as today’s gospel says, we “need to pray always and not to lose heart”.


Christ Church has been through a difficult season, a season of conflict. But I believe that someone, probably many of you have been praying and not losing heart. They have been praying constantly and fervently for this parish. 


I hope that you are praying daily for Christ Church to grow.  That’s not a selfish prayer.  There are thousands of spiritually hungry people in this community and Christ Church can offer them spiritual nourishment.  That’s no more selfish than for someone who maintains a shelter for the homeless to pray that persons without a home would find a way to his shelter. 


I hope that you are praying daily that Christ Church  will develop and expand its ministry to the community.  Of course, to pray that prayer implies a commitment to support those ministries with your time and money.


And I hope that you are praying for our stewardship campaign and praying about your own pledge to Christ Church.


Does God hear and answer prayer?  Of course, but God answers our prayers in God’s time and on God’s schedule, not ours.  Phillips Brooks once remarked that we “think [our] prayer unanswered when really God not merely is answering it, but has been answering it for years, before ever it knew enough of itself to be prayed.”  (Philips Brooks, "The Silence of Christ", p. 131, in The Light of the World (1904).)


And the kind of prayer that we pray makes a difference.  Perhaps the most important thing that you can notice about the parable of the unjust judge is the precise nature of the petition that the woman brought to the unjust judge.  Her plea was this, “Grant me justice.”  And Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?… I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” 


God promises us justice.  In other words, God promises to give us what we need, not what we want.




Sunday, October 06, 2013

There is still a vision (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 6, 2013)

Habakkuk had a problem. No, I don't mean a name recognition problem, although he certainly had that. Not many Christians of any denomination would be able to identify the name Habakkuk, and even Old Testament scholars are uncertain about the meaning of his name.


What we do know is this: Habakkuk lived in Judah, the southern kingdom in the 6th century before Christ and was a contemporary of Jehoiakim, the last king of Judah before the Babylonian invasion.


We know this because of the way the book of Habakkuk begins.


God gave the prophet Habakkuk, a disturbing vision.  "Habakkuk", God said, "I am rousing the Chaldeans, a fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own.... They all come for violence... they gather captives like sand.  At kings they scoff... they laugh at every fortress... they sweep by like the wind... their own might is their god!" (Hab. 1.6-11)


It is not a coincidence that the Chaldeans occupied the same territory occupied today by Iraq.  There seems to be something violent and warlike in the character of the people of that region.


God's vision threw Habakkuk into confusion:  "Why are you silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?" (Hab. 1.13)  And we might add, "Why are you silent, God, while terrorists kill dozens of innocent people in a mall in Kenya? When  the elderly languish in poorly staffed assisted living facilities? When the working poor can't afford child care and health insurance? When diseases defy the best efforts of doctors and nurses?


But the answer God gives us is the same answer that God gave to Habakkuk:  "Write the vision; make it plain... For there is still a vision for the appointed time... it does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay... the righteous will live by faith". (Hab. 2.2-5)


When Habakkuk's world fell apart, God said to him, "The righteous will live by faith".  I don't know about you, but it seems to be an exceptionally feeble answer.  If someone comes to us seeking food or shelter, it will not do for us to tell them what God told Habakkuk, "Live by faith!"  It is not enough for us to say "Live by faith!" to the victims of natural disaster or disease.  So why did God forecast doom and destruction and then tell Habakkuk to live by faith?


The Greek philosopher Archimedes said that if he had a firm place on which to stand and a lever long enough he could move the world.  Jesus said that his followers could do the same thing with faith.  Faith is the thread that binds together the readings from Habakkuk, First Timothy, and Luke.  "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you".


Luke was paraphrasing a saying of Jesus from Mark. And with apologies to St. Luke, I have to say that it is a bad paraphrase. What Jesus said in Mark was "Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain.  'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you."  I'm inclined to believe that Mark's words are closer to what Jesus actually said.  But it offended the sensibilities of the author of Luke's gospel.  "A mountain!?  Who could believe that faith can move mountains?  A mulberry tree, maybe.  Yeah, that's it... a mulberry tree!"


These words of Jesus have given offense to Christians and non-Christians alike for two thousand years.  They are the words of a wild-eyed visionary.  Impossible, we say.  Faith is not magic.  Bulldozers move mountains, not faith.


Yet, I want to suggest to you this morning that Jesus' words are neither impossible nor even improbable.  They are among the truest and most practical words in the gospel.


Americans are a practical, can-do people.  We love Horatio Alger stories of men and women who go from rags-to-riches.  "Give us the tools, and we'll do the job".  That is one of America's great strengths, and it's one of the things that I like best about America and its people.


However, today's Old Testament and Gospel readings remind us that before one can accomplish anything, it is essential that we have what George Bush called, in one of his more unfortunate phrases, "the vision thing" or what Jesus called "faith".


The man or woman with faith or vision attracts people to him or her.  But faith can be a dangerous thing.


Marx and Lenin and Mao articulated a faith which for seventy years enslaved half the world's people.  Rootless and economically depressed Germans put their faith in Hitler and came close to world domination.


I have taught both history and religious studies at several universities. For several years I taught hundreds of students subjects that they would rather not have been studying.  At a private Baptist-related college in Alabama I taught introduction to the Old and New Testament to undergrads who resented the fact that they had to take these courses about ancient documents in which they did not believe. And when I taught the history of western civilization to students at another university, many of my students did not understand why that had to take six hours of this subject. 


These days students believe that their time would be better spent in learning how to do something, learning skills that would be valuable commodities in the so-called "real world".


What those students did not realize is that they were in college to get an education, not to get a job.  Idealistic?  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe I'm the practical one and the teachers of accounting, marketing, management, and computer sciences are the impractical ones.


What I tried to tell my students was that the most important thing they could acquire as a part of their university education was a vision, a sense of life's meaning, purpose, and direction -- in other words a kind of faith.  You can acquire job skills at any time of your life, but what you should try to acquire in your youth is a vision that will sustain your life, a vision that will make sense of whatever work you choose to do with your skills, some faith that will give purpose and meaning to whatever you do with your life.


However, it is not enough to say that we all need a vision or a sustaining faith.  That suggests that all faiths are equal -- that we can shop for faith much as we would shop for clothes or a new car.  A vision may be the murderous vision of a Stalin or a Hitler.  The only vision that truly sustains is the vision of faith in the God who was manifest in Jesus Christ, in the Love that embraced death on a cross, in the Life that rose in triumph from the tomb.


I promised to show that Jesus' promise that faith can move mountains was not moonshine but practical advice.  During World War II, Stalin sarcastically asked, "How many legions has the Pope?"  But now the joke is on Stalin, for Stalin lies dead and in all the places over which he formerly held sway, the Christian faith is once again free.


Faith is not magic.  It is not wishful thinking or positive thinking or any other faddish movement, but faith changes everything.  Scottish theologian William Barclay said, "I have never seen water turned into wine, but I have seen beer turned into furniture".  When our lives are possessed by faith, even the mountains of addictions that cover our lives with deep gloom can be moved and cast into the sea.


I am sometimes asked what are my goals for Christ Church. More than anything else, my goal for Christ Church is to give this parish a vision of the future, a vision that will inspire and sustain us. For several months now, I've been talking about making Christ Church a "Great Commission" church. Do you remember the four parts of the Great Commission? MAKE DISCIPLES of ALL NATIONS, BAPTIZING THEM in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and TEACHING THEM to observe everything I have commanded you. I firmly believe that that is a vision that can sustain us.


In the next two or three months we will be engaged in a long term planning process that will add details to this vision of being a Great Commission church. I want you to pray that God would guide us as we move forward in this process.


Jesus' promise of mountain-moving faith was not just a wild flight of fancy, and God's promise to Habakkuk that faith would sustain the righteous was not just a pious cliche.  Indeed, it is only faith that sustains.  When the sadness of life shatters your heart -- and it will -- the one thing needful for putting the pieces back together is faith.  "There is still a vision for the appointed time... it does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay..."