|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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|The vows we take upon
becoming members of a local United Methodist congregation call upon
us to faithfully participate in its ministries by our prayers, our
presence, our gifts, and our service.
The easiest part of that promise to keep is probably that part about our prayers. And it’s easy to keep because it’s dependent upon our relationship with God, and it’s pretty much up to us to define prayer.
So, being stuck with that responsibility, how DO we define it? It is sometimes argued that the prayer life of United Methodists leaves something to be desired. Maybe we don’t pray enough, or pray strongly enough, or pray for the right things, or pray in the right way.
And this tends to put me on the defensive because it all boils down to someone ELSE’S judgment call. And I prefer to think that if someone or something is going to be standing in judgment, there should be a direct link to scripture; and in that case, each of us should be perfectly capable, by reading our Bibles, to evaluate our own prayer lives.
We should, from scripture, be able to determine our attitudes and approaches to prayer.
For example, I think that Jesus is rather helpful to us in the sermon on the mount, when in the sixth verse of the sixth chapter of Matthew he suggests that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”
And he thought that those who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” were “hypocrites.”
He also attacked the Gentiles, because “they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”
Now these are sobering thoughts. Obviously, Jesus was not impressed with public performance or with the quantity of our prayer.
So what do you suppose that Jesus IS impressed with?
Well, there is a rather remarkable story in the opening chapter of the Gospel according to Mark. Jesus healed a lot of people in the gospels, but EVERY healing story had a different slant that draws our attention, and this story also does that.
“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Now, prayer can fulfill a variety of functions, as we all know. Some of these get over-worked, and others get under-worked. Perhaps the most underworked is the “thank-you” function, expressing our gratitude for all that God has given us and continues to give us.
And I confess, I get preoccupied with my wants, and am too often insufficiently grateful to God for all that God gives me. I need to spend more time counting my blessings.
Another underworked function is “I’m sorry.” We want God to be nice to us and give us nice things, but we’re too often slow to admit that we really don’t deserve them. We are reluctant to confess that maybe we have not been behaving as we should.
But the function of prayer that gets a real workout is “Please.” We have please lists all over the place. No matter how our lives are going now, we want them to be better. And if we have problems, we want God to solve them.
But look at what this leper just said. Yes, he’s begging. Yes, he WANTS something from Jesus. But look how he asks for it: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
We know how to pray like that, don’t we? As least we do, IF we truly pay attention to the Lord’s Prayer. At least every week on Sunday morning we pray, “Thy will be done.” And we are saying to God, “If you choose.”
But aside from the fact that Jesus told us to say it in the sermon on the mount, WHY do we say this? We KNOW that God can do anything God chooses, so why do we SAY it? Well, we say it to recognize, to acknowledge, who is in charge.
The leper could have just said, “Make me clean!” But instead, he said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And by doing so, he is doing MORE than asking; he is placing his TRUST and FAITH in Jesus’ hands. “If YOU choose, you can make me clean.”
“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean.”
And I have to wonder: would Jesus response have been different if he had heard only the words, “make me clean.” Or was he responding as much, if not more, to the words, “if you choose.”
Because with those words, “if you choose,” the leper is doing more than just issuing a request. The leper is establishing a relationship with Jesus. The implication in the leper’s words are, “I know you have the power.”
But beyond power, there is something else. The leper may also be saying, “I know you have the compassion.”
When we pray to God, when we make requests of God, are we also praying, “If you choose”? Are we trusting in God’s power, trusting in God’s compassionate love, trusting in God’s grace?
You know, there is so much we take for granted. Indeed, the very fact that we live and breathe this morning is because God so chooses. Our ability to get to this worship service is because God so chooses.
So on the other side of asking, maybe we should be spending more time telling God “thank you” for choosing as God has done.
In retrospect, as I was growing up, there were many ways in which my parents could have chosen to treat me differently. They were empowered to treat me however they wished. And they could have loved me or withheld their love. But as children we usually just take our parents for granted. Just as God’s children too often take God for granted.
So what became of the leper? “Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”
Gone. Cleansed. Healed. No big deal. Right? Sometimes I wish that the Bible stories didn’t say things like “immediately.”
What if, in this story, we had read, “after the leper struggled with the leprosy for another month, the disease slowly ebbed away and disappeared.”
Too often, because we don’t experience “immediacy” in response to our prayers, we think these stories don’t apply to us. But they do. And even if healing in our lives, whether it be physical, or mental, or spiritual, even if it takes a while, we STILL need to be in contact with God, recognizing, that if God CHOOSES, we can be made whole. We need to be expressing that trust and faith in God even when the answer seems a long time in coming.
And, indeed, MOST of God’s responses in Scripture are not “immediate.” Matthew points out in his opening chapter that there were 42 generations from Abraham to the Messiah. That is ANYTHING but immediate.
The children of Israel spent forty years wandering after they left Egypt before they arrived in the promised land. It took Christianity a few hundred years to gain any legitimacy in the secular world.
In fact, Scripture tells us that God has fully intended some things to take a long time. When the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, word came to Jeremiah, and is recorded in the twenty-ninth chapter: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters.
“For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you.”
This is not a God with a short-term perspective. This is not a God for whom everything is immediate.
It is wonderful that the leper was healed of his disease immediately. But let us not be deluded that all of God’s actions are similar.
OK. So the leper is healed. “After sternly warning him Jesus sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone.”
That’s right. You’ve been cured of an incurable disease, but don’t tell anybody. Put yourselves in the position of this man. Imagine that you have prayed to God; you have asked God for a gift of healing; you have placed your full faith and trust in God.
And IMMEDIATELY, God responds with God’s healing powers. Your disease is gone; your are cleansed; you are healed; you have been made whole. But you hear the still, small voice of God speaking to you: “Don’t tell anybody.”
I suspect that God could scream that at us and it wouldn’t make any difference. Would we keep quiet? Or would we be telling everybody we see about the power of prayer?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why do you suppose that Jesus said this to this man who has been healed of leprosy? Scholars tell us that the words “sternly warning” vastly understate the emotional tone of the original text. Apparently, Jesus was extremely emotionally agitated by this whole affair, and there are a variety of scholarly interpretations.
One interpretation is that he was so overwhelmed with compassion that he rushed in to perform a healing that he then realized was going to vastly expand his reputation.
And after having done it, he had second thoughts--NOT about the healing, but about its implications for his public relations.
So he proceeded to say to the man, “go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” In those days, folks suffering from communicable skin diseases were ostracized.
They could have no contact with healthy persons. But SHOULD their disease in some way be healed, the ONLY persons who were authorized to declare them healed were the priests. And without that authorization, a leper was ostracized for a lifetime.
So Jesus instructions are two-fold: don’t tell anybody what I’ve done, but go to the priest to be certified as healed.
And Jesus is probably thinking that this man will be so concerned with being certified as “clean” that he will rush off to visit the priest and forget about Jesus’ act of healing.
Wrong. “But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
Now, we can come at this from a couple of directions. Jesus could no longer go into a town openly. He has touched a leper, which was prohibited in that society. He HEALED that leper, and word probably spread to every leper colony in the country.
So maybe, in one sense, we should be concerned for what this has done to Jesus’ ministry.
On the other hand, I prefer to view this whole story from the point of view of the leper. Back up to the start. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” This leper has placed his full faith and trust in the power and compassion of Christ.
Indeed, it can serve as a model for our prayer life. And what is the response? Jesus is moved to compassion, reaches out, touches, and heals the man. Immediately. So overwhelmed are BOTH of them that Jesus sternly warns him to keep his mouth shut, but to go show himself to the priest. The healed leper, on the other hand, is so excited about all this that he spreads the word throughout the countryside.
Can WE get that excited about our faith? We may not have been healed of leprosy recently, but I’m sure that we all have something, actually lots of things, for which to be grateful to God.
What if I told you all, “say nothing to ANYONE about these worship services! Don’t give anybody bulletins, or newsletters, or Upper Rooms, or Bibles. Don’t tell anybody about anything that is happening in this church.” What if I told you that, and you went out and did it ANYWAY!?” Or is that too much to hope for? Choosing. The choice is yours.
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