Tag Archives: ordinary time

Recency Bias, Laughing at God, and Birthing New Possibilities

Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]
And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Read the whole passage)

This is the first Sunday of green. Which means that the green banners and paraments are out, and I have put on my green stole. A number of other clergy online remarked about the change. Keeping track of time in the church isn’t always measured by the same calendars. And in this case, many folks noted that the last time we gathered for in person worship it was in Lent, and the colour was purple. Since then we have worn Red, White, Red and white again, and now finally green. And for many this new season of green will be another few months of online only worship. 

In that realization there is lament. Lament at what has been lost, lament at what is now, lament at what might not be recovered when and if things “go back to normal.” 

And so we enter into the next season of the church, the long season of green or ordinary time. A time for hearing the stories of the bible and hearing our own stories in them. Because while we have been experiencing something that no one alive has really known, we are certainly not the first people of faith to face trial and tribulation… in fact there are more stories about that than just normal boring everything-is-fine stories in the bible. 

This season begins with the story of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah, then Abram and Sarai, who were called by God to pack up everything they had and follow God’s call into the wilderness. 6 chapters later the pair are well into their journey when they are met by three strangers asking for hospitality. So Abraham and Sarah welcome these passing strangers into their tent. Abraham and Sarah care for their visitors — mysterious messengers from God, with a message to deliver. 

Once the strangers have received the good grace and care of this wandering couple, one stranger promises to Sarah that she will bear a son in due season. 

At this Sarah laughs. 

Sarahs laughs because it is an absurd promise. She is old, she is past her child bearing years. She cannot have a child at this point in her life, that ship as sailed. 

Yet, when Sarah laughs, the stranger hears it and he wonders why. She denies it but stranger says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

It is mean to be heard as  comical interaction with between an elderly couple in the desert and unknown strangers. 

Sarah and Abraham, remind us of ourselves. As they follow God’s call to faith, God’s call to go out into the world, they give of themselves trusting that God will care for them as they go. At the same time, they struggle to trust that God’s promises of them are true, that there is something more for them than just waiting for the end of their lives. So as this stranger and unknown messenger promises something unimaginable happening, Sarah cannot help but laugh.

Their past, their experiences of life thus far are telling them that new life in this way, in Sarah’s body in impossible. They believe that the things that have just recently happened to them will continue to happen forever. 

There is a name for this phenomenon , it is called recency bias. 

We as human being tend to think that whatever has just happened to us will continue to happening forever. Sarah knows she cannot bear children because her body is no longer fertile. 

Recency bias affects us too. 

It is the reason why change is so difficult, our brains convince us that our recent experiences will be our truth forever. It is why people so often buy high and sell low on the stock market despite the adage. It is why when our favourite sports team wins a few games at the beginning of the season we start planning the championship parade. Or why when we have a bad meal at our favourite restaurant we might choose to stop eating there altogether.  

It is why we had such trouble believing the coronavirus was much worse than a flu, when the flu is what we already know as respiratory virus. It is also why with a few days and weeks of low case numbers,  we think we are quickly on our way back to normal and the end of this pandemic. 

We simply cannot stop ourselves from believing that whatever our most recent experience of something is will become the new truth forever.

And it is one reason why we  struggle so much with change and we struggle to anticipate what is coming next for us.

And it is also why declining churches cannot seem to turn things around despite trying “everything,” because they believe that their recent decline is their only future.

We simply assume that whatever has just been happening to us will keep happening forever. 

But now, like Sarah, we are being confronted with a different promise for our future… we are being told that what will come next for us cannot be determined by what just happened, but instead it is mostly unknown to us and rather known only to God. 

Only 6 chapters into the story of their call,  Sarah and Abraham have already forgotten the covenant. The covenant with God, where God made promises to Abraham. The promise of blessing, a relationship with God. The promise of land, a promised land for God’s people. And the promise of descendants. 

Descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

A promise that was going to have to start somewhere. Start in someone’s body, someone’s womb. 

Even when Sarah and Abraham cannot imagine a different future, God has already set it into motion. Even when it seems as though all possibility for life has been taken away and all there is left is faithfulness to death… 

God has different plans. 

God brings the promise of a nation into the world from Sarah’s frail and old body. God brings new life into existence when all there seemed to be was waiting for death. God brings Isaac into the world to be the next generation to receive the promised covenant. 

And all of sudden, everything is different. Sarah and Abraham’s recent past no longer determines their future (it never really did…), instead everything is unknown, unpredictable and impossible to anticipate… but also life-filled and hopeful and on the way to something new. 

Yet, it took taking Abraham and Sarah away from everything they knew, to unknown places and unknown path… 

And in that place of the unknown, in that place where the even the past was left behind, God begins the first steps of the new thing. The first steps towards the birth of a nation, to a chosen people constantly turning and returning to God, and to the eventually sending of the Messiah, to the one sent to save God’s people and all creation. 

And so here we are in our own wilderness. Here were are with our own laughter at the idea that God might have something new and unexpected in mind us for… 

And even as world longs for our recent past, for those pre-covid halcyon days when the world was great…. (it wasn’t that great).

And even as our recent past as the church makes us believe that slow decline is our only future because nothing we have tried has got the young people to come back…

We are discovering that in this moment, when so much has been put on hold, taken way and changed, that our future is unknown to us. That the people we will become on the other side is known only to God. 

And in this opportunity when we are in unknown places and on unknown paths, God just may be planning to birth something new and totally unexpected in us, in the church. 

And yes, this is laughably absurd. 

But look at what happened to Sarah and Abraham. 

That in the just a few faithful servants waiting to die, God began a chosen people, a promised and chosen people to whom the Messiah – the savour of all – would come. 

If Sarah’s laughter and this pandemic have taught us anything, it is not to trust our recency bias, not to trust our limited vision of our future… but to expect that in this moment of unknowns God just might be making us ready for the next thing. God just might be beginning in us something so new and unexpected that we too might laugh. 

So today, on this first Sunday of green, as our way forward is as uncertain and unknown as it may ever have been, and when all there seems to be is lament about what is lost…

God is inspiring us to laugh… to laugh at the absurdity of it all… And God is also beginning in us, something new and unexpected that will change us and change the world. 

Prayer is the starting line, not the finish.

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

For every prayer that is offered around the world today, there must be an equal amount of opinions and ideas, rules of thumb and conventions, that tell us how prayer works. As, seek, knock. Ask and keep asking. Seek and keep seeking. Knock and keep knocking. Pray boldly and you will receive. You need more faith to pray. You need to pray more. You need to pray for God’s will. You didn’t pray enough and you were punished with illness, suffering or death. Prayer brings us closer to God. Prayer doesn’t do anything. Prayer is for us, so that we know our needs. God hears the prayers of holy people more, especially pastors. God hears all prayers. God only gives us what we need. God will give you what you ask for. There are three answers to prayer, yes, no and maybe later. Prayer is like meditation. God speaks to us in prayer. You have to pray from the heart, you need to pray with words that have been prayed by the faithful for centuries.

Lost and confused yet?

Prayer is a key aspect of Christian life. We pray together each Sunday, we pray alone. We pray for many things here: for rain and sunshine. For Justice and peace. For those who are ill, who are grieving and in distress.

And still prayer can be a very frustrating aspect of Christian life. We want to know the hows, and the whens and the whys. Prayer carries with such expectation that it has the power to make things happen, and yet… we have prayed for and with those for whom prayers have not been answered. We have all had prayers that are not answered. And it begs us to wonder what use is prayer, and perhaps more painfully, why God does not hear us.

The disciples ask Jesus how to pray. And he gives them a mouthful.

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds familiar, but not quite. Of course it’s the Lord’s prayer, but not quite the one we remember. There is no earthly will of God mentioned in Luke’s version, but it is an earthy prayer that gives us a foundation. The Lord’s Prayer has grounded Christians for 2000 years. Daily bread, forgiveness of sins and salvation from trial and temptation.

This prayer is so engrained in us that we pray it without needing to think… like breathing. It becomes part of the most basic aspects of our living. It is a prayer that goes with us through life from beginning to end. A prayer prayed at baptisms and prayed at on death beds. A prayer prayed before meals and to end meetings, and each time right before we gather together at God’s table for the meal of bread and wine.

Yet, the disciples surely were not hoping for a prayer like this. They maybe wanted one of the cool ones like Jesus would pray. When Jesus would look to heaven and bread and fish would multiply, or dead children would be raised, or demons would scatter, or the sick, blind and lame would be healed, or when a man who had been a corpse for four days would rise up from a sealed tomb. The disciples, 70 of them, had been just sent out and had been healing and casting out demons in Jesus name. Yet, like us, they probably wanted to control such power, not for it just to happen without really knowing why. They want to know the trick, the formula to prayer.

We want prayer to be the same as rubbing a magic lantern. We hope that prayer can gives us wealth and happiness. We hope that it will save us from harm and heal everyone who is sick. Or at the very least, we all wish that prayer and its effects would be something we can measure simply and easily. But it isn’t… Jesus doesn’t do simple and easy.

(Pause)

With every new tragedy to scroll through facebook feeds and across the tickers on 24 hours news channels, we hear politicians and other leaders stand up and offer ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ for victims and families. Thoughts and prayers are offered so often, that these words feel like an empty phrase. Every time there is yet another horrendous act of violence, thoughts and prayers abound, but nothing seems to change. It makes us wonder, if all this praying is doing anything at all. It makes us wonder if there is a point to praying at all.

When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, it may seem like they are looking for some angle on power, on the ability to get stuff from God. They might be looking for what so many TV prosperity gospel preachers are offering.

But they might also be more like us and how we feel about prayer. They might be asking Jesus how to pray, because for them, prayer feels empty and powerless.

And so Jesus offers them a place to start, a beginning. Jesus give the disciples instructions on how to achieve great things in prayer, but how to start and begin.

Daily Bread, Forgiveness, Salvation from Trial.

God’s Kingdom come.

Jesus shows them that prayer doesn’t achieve the results but begins the process.

Praying for Daily Bread doesn’t feed all who are hungry.

Praying for Forgiveness doesn’t reconcile all peoples.

Praying for salvation in times of trial, doesn’t alleviate all suffering and pain.

Praying begins those things. Prayer is the starting place.

To put it another away, what would it look like if we didn’t pray for the world, the church and those in need.

How many refugees or migrants would ever find welcome if we didn’t pray for displaced persons week after week? None. Yet as pray for those without homes and displaced week after week, it is often people and communities of faith leading the way in sponsoring refugees, welcoming displaced persons at borders, offering shelter and compassion.

How many congregations would run food banks, serve at soup kitchens or offer meal programs if we didn’t pray for the hungry week after week? None! Yet, as we pray for daily bread, churches and people of faith have been the primary feet on the ground for feeding the hungry for years, decades, centuries!

Would we will be able to offer forgiveness if we didn’t pray that God would help us forgive? No we wouldn’t. Yet, as we ask for forgiveness, God shows us how to give forgiveness.

Where would we turn in times of trial, if we didn’t pray that God would save us week after week? We don’t know. Yet, as we pray that God would deliver us, God reminds us that we do not face the trials of our world on our own, but together as the Body of Christ.

Prayer is the beginning. In Prayer God reveals to us all the places where God’s Kingdom comes into world. In prayer, when we pray for daily bread, for forgiveness, for salvation from time of trial, we see that God’s Kingdom is breaking into the world with food for the hungry, with mercy and forgiveness for sinners like us, with salvation for those suffering under the shadow of death.

But even more than that, God gives us a way to speak about the needs of the world in prayer. God gives us words in prayer to speak about the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the dying without it sound like a depressing news report. Instead, prayer allows us to see where God is already at work meeting the needs of the world, and God gives us words to express this reality in prayer.

Prayer is a starting place, when we so often treat it like the end point. Prayer helps us to see where God is at work in the world, where God’s Kingdom is coming. Prayer helps give us the language to talk about the needs of the world without being overwhelmed and depressed by the brokenness of it all.

And so when we wonder with the disciples about whether prayer has any meaning or purpose, Jesus shows us that prayer is the starting place. The starting place to see God in our world. When another politician or leader or Facebook post offers “Thoughts and prayers” for something and we wonder if that does anything to help… Jesus shows us how to begin in prayer, how to begin with daily bread, with forgiveness and salvation from trial.

Jesus shows us that in prayer God’s Kingdom begins to come.

Amen.