Sunday, July 28, 2019

A Living Prayer: Sermon for Proper 12C, the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost

It was 1919. A terrible war had, for the ninth time in three centuries, plunged the world into fire and flame—but this time, the war had included machine guns and flame throwers and poison gas and aerial bombardment. Some villages in Europe had lost every single young man between the ages of 18 and 30.

And then, just as the war was over, a terrible flu pandemic had struck, spread by those same troop movements all over the world. One in three people on the entire planet were infected, and it is estimated that as many as 40 million people died worldwide, including my own great-grandparent. Race riots broke out all across northern cities as African Americans moved north for work during wartime, and came home from fighting overseas daring to believe that they should be granted the same rights as everyone else.

Meanwhile, all across America, Native Americans lived in squalor and extreme poverty for the most part. On the Osage Reservation, oil was soon to be discovered, which would result in dozens of murders as whites tried to get their hands on the Osage’s newfound wealth. One hundred years ago, exactly.

This is the context of the painting on the cover of your bulletin. It’s entitled Hunger and it’s by an artist living in New Mexico named Walter Ufer. Ufer’s painting is a commentary on hunger—physical and spiritual—in the face of so much loss and deprivation. And in the face of spiritual hunger, Ufer acknowledges the importance of prayer.

Seen along old Route 66 in Oklahoma

Prayer is a natural thing—it’s so natural that even people who claim no relationship with religion can often find themselves engaging in prayer at some point in their lives. Ultimately prayer reveals two things: what we think about God, and what we think about ourselves.

So what does Jesus’s prayer in our gospel today teach us about God? 

First, Jesus calls God by an innocent childhood name for parent, the equivalent of "Daddy," although our translation does not reflect this. This reveals to us that God loves us intimately and personally. For those of us who had loving, beautiful relationships with our parents, this language is especially comforting. For those of us whose relationship with our parents may have been difficult or even hurtful, this gives us a chance to try to rehabilitate those words in our hearts, to remember when we have received that tender love and care from others, or at the very least, when we have embodied that same love and care in the world for others as mentors, teachers, listeners, or advisers.

Hallowed be your name
Second, that God’s name is holy and should be revered and treasured. In these first two instructions Jesus gives us in the very first sentence, therefore, we learn that God is as close to us as a loving parent, and yet also worthy of awe and wonder and reverence throughout the universe. The old-fashioned phrase for this reverence for God in scripture is “the fear of the Lord.” Yet too many people have taken that phrase and supposed that God is a wrathful, vengeful God.

Our reading from Hosea this morning doesn’t help matters in this department, either. Yet what gets omitted in stories like the one from Hosea as we attempt to understand them is that the prophet’s lives were often used as pieces of performance art to try to bring the people back to their senses when they had abandoned their loyalty and worship of God. Hosea’s children’s names are meant to remind the people of Israel that they have turned their backs on God’s mercy and themselves have acted as if they were not God’s people by worshipping other gods. God hasn’t left or abandoned them—they have abandoned God. Even at the end of the reading, God promises that the people will return to God.

And we do the same thing—every time we elevate money or nation or entertainment over our call to be God’s light in the world. Remembering that God’s name is holy doesn’t mean just avoiding cursing or swearing using the name of God. It also means, since we claim the name of Christ and wear the name of Christ as self-professed "Christians," we should avoid profaning Christ’s name through our behavior to each other, especially those among us who are weak, vulnerable, or begging for mercy. That kind of sin can befoul the name of Christ far worse than any curse-word ever could.

A detail from the dancing saints mural at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco

Your kingdom come
Third, that God’s kingdom or rule within our hearts begins by our own invitation and openness. God doesn’t come in and impose God’s will upon us. God’s kingdom begins when we are brave enough to ask for the kingdom, to log for the kingdom, and to choose to live by kingdom values over the familiar but also soul-destroying vacuum in our own world. For the last several weeks now, every gospel reading we’ve heard has included the reminder that the kingdom of God is drawing near to us. 

It would be helpful if we would stop running away each time it approaches. Asking God’s kingdom to come is also committing ourselves to a new way of living and relating to each other, where we honor the promises we repeated last week in our baptismal covenant at our 10:15 service alongside our baptismal candidate: 
  To continue in fellowship with each other, and not just with the people that are already here, but those in the world who are outside our doors and our daily lives. 
  To resist evil rather than accommodate it, and to take seriously its presence in the world.
  To be brave in our proclamation of the Gospel no matter how weird, or worse, naïve, others might think us. 
  To seek the face and beauty of Christ in ALL persons, and proclaim their dignity and worth, no matter who they are or where they come from or what they need, to see the outstretched hand of the refugee as the outstretched hand of Jesus, who knew what it was like to be homeless and persecuted.

Give us today our daily bread
Fourth, God is a provider for us. When we ask for our daily bread, we are asking God to take care of us the way a father would take care of his children, providing for them through his own efforts. The word for “daily” can also be translated as “necessary,” but recent translators have suggested that the double use of daily in the original might mean “tomorrow”—give us tomorrow’s bread today. In doing this, God not just provides our food but grant us peace of mind and contentment.

As I noted in my reflection this week, this is the prayer of a humble laborer, who will rise from sleep hungry if there is no bread in the house before they go out to search for work the next day. Being given tomorrow’s bread today allows you to sleep at peace, knowing that at least the morning will not start with hunger but with strength, which of course also leads to gratitude. It’s a simple request, a basic request, a life-giving request. If we have tomorrow’s bread today, we can rest a little easier about the future, and center our prayers on God in gratitude rather than in fear.

Even the great Indian sage and freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There are people in this world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” With that statement, bread goes from being humble sustenance to something no one should be asked to live without. What if we understood God as our sustenance, as what keeps us from perilous hunger and need? Maybe it is just that simple and direct at times. Tomorrow’s bread is the bread of hope—and this prayer reveals both our dependence and our trust upon God.

And forgive us our sins, for we forgive ourselves everyone indebted to us
Fifth, whereas the version in Matthew refers to “debts,” which could just be a translator’s whim, Luke refers to sins, and asks God to forgive us. But here is where, after a series of rapid-fire short sentences, we get a subordinating clause, as we English teachers remind you: Forgive us our sins, FOR we forgive those who sin against us. In other words, this takes for granted that we have already forgiven those who have hurt us through their sinfulness. God is fully capable of forgiving—let’s face it, as much as we ae prone to sin and self-centeredness, forgiving has to be a huge part of our relationship with God.

And this is a reminder for us, and an admission—we all are prone to manipulation, treating each other with carelessness if not outright cruelty, and being far too comfortable in a system designed to promote winners and losers so long as WE don’t end up on the losing end. This culture in which we live is run by the gods of scarcity, exploitation, and want, after all—it’s the basis for our economic system. That’s especially why we are reminded in this prayer both of why we need to be forgiven, and why, as God’s children, we are called to forgive too.

And it is important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean we let toxic people back into our lives on the same footing as they had to hurt us in the first place—we need to make that abundantly clear. Forgiveness is not forgetting—forgiveness is a gift you give yourself when you have been wronged, so that the pains of the past don’t destroy or disable your future.

Yet the life of faith is a life of repentance and reconciliation. The word “repentance” often gets a bad rap—it makes people feel guilty, and ashamed somehow, even if they don’t know the reason for that shame. Yet repentance is necessary for everyone. Repentance literally means “to turn.” Even God is portrayed as turning away from wrath in the psalms. Even Jesus was brought to new understanding when the Syro-Phoenician woman refused to take offense at being called a dog, if only this Jewish holy man would make her little girl well.

Do not bring us to the time of trial. 
Sixth: Asking mercy rather than trial. This is another part of God’s protection over us. We pray to not be led to the time of trial—even if we may deserve it. We ask instead for God’s grace rather than God’s justice. In the modern version of the Lord’s prayer, I really like the way this request is phrased: “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.”

In the traditional language version we pray every time we worship, the phrase “lead us not into temptation” just does not square with what I have experienced God to do in my life—God doesn’t lead us into temptation; I can get there just fine on my own, even blindfolded and spun around three times as if I was getting ready to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Temptation is our playground.

For many of us, the biggest temptation we face every day is the temptation to tell ourselves we can’t do anything in the face of cruelty, injustice, and exploitation, in the face of the very real suffering that we witness in ways great and small every day. What we need, what we pray for, is for God to help save us in times of trial—in times when all like lost sheep we are prone to wander, and put our own concerns above those of God, and above the very real need and pain of the world.

What we pray for in this petition is for God to strengthen us to be God’s children in the ways that really matter—that when we are confronted with the temptation to say we can do nothing, or to say that helping is too much work even when it’s as simple as baking a casserole or listening attentively to someone, we instead be led from that temptation to being fully engaged in what our Jewish friends call tikkun olam—the repair of the world.

And what do we learn about our hopes and concerns about God from this prayer? We learn many things. First of all, that we are brave enough to approach God, knowing that God hears our prayer. It reminds us that prayer is not a one-way magic formula for getting the deity to do what we want; prayer is a conversation, based on a real relationship. We learn that we believe that God can intervene in our lives for both giving and forgiving. We trust God not to lead us astray, but instead, like the Good Shepherd, to never let us remain lost, or those afraid that their faith is not strong enough. 

In Gethsemane
We also learn that, like an older brother, Jesus is teaching us how to pray. He is engaging in an activity he is depicted as performing repeatedly throughout the gospels: going off by himself to pray to God. And finally, there is this reminder: perhaps the disciples wanted to have Jesus provide them with a magic formula for prayer. Jesus gives us this prayer to help us, but he never means that this prayer is the only one we should ever pray.

As we know, prayer can take many forms. Ultimately, the point of prayer is drawing closer to God and aligning our wills more closely with God’s will. Planting a forest is a form of prayer, as we heard about Jadev Payeng, who has spent 40 years turning a desert waste into a forest filled with life, one tree at a time. Being the church in the world even when the world is hell-bent on systems that are based on division, on fomenting distrust and exploitation, is a form of prayer. Worship is a form of prayer, of course. Feeding someone, as Jesus fed the multitudes, is a form of prayer. Caring for a sick stranger, as the Good Samaritan did, is a form of prayer. Washing the dishes or mending sandals is a beautiful prayer, as we heard about Brother Lawrence last week. Sitting in silent meditation is a form of prayer, as we open our hearts and still our monkey mind to listen to what God may be calling us to do.

We too, share the disciples’ plea. Teach us to pray, Beloved Jesus. Teach us to pray with our voices, and teach us to pray with our silences as we listen to God as much as we talk to God. Teach us to pray by our actions as much as our words. Make our lives a living prayer to You.


Preached at the 8:00 and 10:15 Eucharists at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.

Hosea 1:2-10
Psalm 85
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Luke 11:1-13

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