Monday, July 26, 2010

Coachings in Prayer

Readings for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost include Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13

Our readings today offer us coaching in prayer. What do we make of it?

Consider that gnarly story from the Book of Genesis, showing us the patriarch Abraham bargaining with the one holy God. The Book of Genesis is built of stories that claim to explain how certain things came to be, and you could say that here we’re encountering an ancient forerunner of the Jewish minyan, the quorum of ten required for public worship. It was the firm belief of the sages that wherever ten righteous children of God are assembled, either for worship or for the study of the Law, the Divine Presence dwells among them.

But look how we get there! God has heard the street reputation of two neighboring towns, Sodom and Gomorrah, where it was alleged that what would become for Israel the eleventh commandment, Thou shalt practice generous hospitality and respect the needs of the guest, was not being honored. God is on a reconnaissance mission to find out if this is true. But Abraham can see that God is loaded for bear, indignant enough to be ready to sweep away the residents of both towns.

Is God like this? Does God have anger management issues? Does God solve problems in the created order by wiping out the problem-makers? A lot hinges on these questions, which ask a larger question: When you pray, to whom are you praying?

Even by confronting God with his questions, Abraham (he is called in both testaments, “the father of us all”, so he’s asking on our behalf) appears to be sticking his foot in heaven’s door so as to nudge his way into revealing the true nature of God. Could Abraham have put his gutsy question, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” if he actually believed in an angry and violent God?

Isn’t this a story that feels like the outing of a merciful God? Aren’t we given the sense that in this primitive time God has a primitive reputation to defend? As if, to keep up with the other boys on the block, ancient deities of the thunder-and-lightning set, the God of Israel ought to throw his weight around in a like manner, bellicose in a zero-tolerance sort of way?

Until, that is, father Abraham comes on the scene. Drafted out of retirement by this very God, Abraham takes him seriously enough to relocate in old age, to father a child in old age, almost to sacrifice that child in obedience to this God. Oh yes, Abraham has every reason to rattle God’s cage and ask the question of theology and of prayer, “Who’s in there? Who are you?”

And to start with, Abraham will require that God be consistent. Our story today takes us into that arm-wrestling relationship between father Abraham and the one holy God, in such a charming tale as might lighten us all up enough to wonder, “Wait a minute: is this story about what God truly is like, or is it more about what humanity dares believe God to be? We might even say that this is one holy shakedown showing the evolution of theology and the evolution of humanity.

And it all culminates in a minyan, the ancient and still-honored tradition that places responsibility for so many people in the hands of so few: enough to save two ornery towns, says the story—if they can be found. Enough to carry the weight of the whole synagogue, the entire Jewish community, ten people willing to observe the sabbath together open the gates of the tabernacle for the Torah to be read and heard and honored.

On summer Sundays, we occasionally slide close to a sense of quorum, don’t we? How many Episcopalians does it take to carry a eucharist? I don’t know, but I do believe summer attendance helps each of us feel how important a decision it is to observe the sabbath together.

How many Christians does it take to claim the divine presence? Two or three, says Jesus, promising to be with us even in that close a quorum. Had Abraham known, he might have tried to talk God down further.

What I’d like you to see from Genesis is how the revealing of God’s nature also reveals human responsibility. That is our first coaching in prayer, this morning.

Now, “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.’”

John the Baptizer was an open air preacher who urged repentance at a time when the greedy rich were inspiring the poor and the merchant class to be greedy too. “Not so,” he told them: true life is not found in having. You have two coats? Give one to someone who needs it. You’re in a position of power? Don’t abuse it by soliciting bribes.” While we aren’t told how John taught his followers to pray, we can believe it featured human responsibility to meet and welcome the kingdom of God that John said has come near.

In the prayer that Jesus teaches, the kingdom or reign of God is one of the first concerns on his lips, but not until he teaches us to let prayer be personal. He wants us to hallow God’s name, to allow God’s holiness to be felt in our hearts. His focus on God’s name is like Abraham’s desire to know who it is he’s dealing with. And that name is deeply personal, Father. We may yearn also to call God Mother. Recognize here the same dimension of personal relation, as Jesus calls God Father. We see evidence in the Gospels that this got him in trouble with the high and mighty, who faulted Jesus for being so familiar with God (as if could Jesus could not have been familiar with God!).

You’ve noticed that Luke doesn’t speak of Our Father in heaven. That’s just one of several differences in Luke. Even the early Church had different ways of praying the Our Father--- worth remembering as in our time we pray it both one way and another.

Allowing, hallowing, feeling the holiness of God, we pray that God’s kingdom comes. There’s the theme of his prayer: the big picture, the deepest reality of God’s way that contantly breaks in on our many little ways, our many conflicting ways, our often aimless and wasteful ways. All else that we pray from here out must be consistent with the big picture of God’s way.

Give us each day our daily bread. And by the rules of the kingdom, teach us how to share it.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. Not, for Luke, “as we forgive those who sin against us,” but “for we are seriously practicing your call to forgive everyone who owes us anything.”

And do not bring us to the time of trial. When the new Lord’s Prayer was really new, I recall any number of people saying they didn’t like “trial”, and preferred “temptation.” What a headline that makes: “Episcopalians dislike trial, prefer temptation!”

Blame Luke. And credit Luke for talking straight in dangerous times when to be a Christian led to prison and often death. “Keep us useful to you, fruitful for you, this side of danger in these risky times.” But having started with “Your kingdom come,” we stake our lives on that kingdom mattering more than the dangers that could befall one of us, or ten of us, or fifty of us…but Lord, what if it were all of us who bear your name, your Spirit, and your presence? What would become of your kingdom if the forces of tyranny and greed and brutality swept us all away? We cannot imagine that being your will, you whose kingdom is within us.

Luke has no “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” But the power of will is the subject of the parable and the teaching that follow. The persistent friend who gets what he wants not because of friendship but because of his tenacious will, his not giving up, his endless knocking on the door. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

By his coaching so far, Jesus counts on us to ask and search in keeping with God’s kingdom, God’s way, not in line with our own way. That persistent friend was setting a table of hospitality for a guest, not feeding himself.

And to crown his lesson on prayer, sharp questions: If your child asks for a fish, would you give a snake? If hungry for an egg, would you give your child a scorpion? Apply this to your relation to God: rather than be anxious that you might not get what you want, recognize when you are given what you need, most of all the Holy Spirit, the prime gift of God.

Our final coaching on prayer today comes from St. Paul writing to the Christians at Colossae. “Abound in thanksgiving.” He gives many reasons that cause our gratitude to God, but the apostle of many words puts in a nutshell the most important priority we have in prayer: “Abound in thanksgiving.” His many reasons are all about what God has done in Jesus Christ to simultaneously free us for, and root us in, love. He wants us to remember who and whose we are.

It may be that no words do that better for us than the Lord’s Prayer. One day last week, I sat with someone who has lived nearly 100 years, and has little memory left about what just happened, moments ago. When we prayed, and I opened with the words “Our Father,” the tabernacle doors flew open and the words of that prayer came from her lips with a consistency she can no longer muster for herself, but is alive in her, ready to rise.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Standing in the Mystery

Among the readings for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost are Colossians 1:15-28 and Luke 10:38-42

It must have been fall when Mary Oliver wrote her poem “In Blackwater Woods.” Listen to its opening lines:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment…

The poem gives voice to a bittersweet melancholic aching over the beauty of the moment that soon will dissolve into the change and loss of a season. And the poem ends:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

That’s a poem I brought to a graveside in June, when Sherry’s family gathered in the College cemetery for the interment of her ashes. Mary Oliver, writing from the pain of her own deep loss in the death of her life partner Molly, has given us words that go to the heart of being mortal—words that recognize the pain of a family standing at the brink of a grave.

I’m judging that Oliver’s poem is a good place to start, as we consider the little family of Mary and Martha today. Each woman deals with her own mortality in a rather classical way. I wonder what happens when we see their story through the lens of that poem, and watch each of them holding something against her bones, knowing that her life depends on it, and then must let it go.

I celebrated the eucharist at Williamstown Commons on Wednesday, and read this Gospel there. In the circle were ten women and two men. I asked if they saw themselves as Martha, or as Mary. I got no takers, either time.

I wondered if this had something to do with where they are in life now, so I regrouped and asked, “What if we went back twenty years? Were any of you Martha when you were younger?’ That drew a smile from one lady.

Linda, from the activities staff, came in from the sidelines and tried her hand at it: “If Jesus came to your house, would you cook for him or wait on him?”

“Both!” answered Ruth.

Whereupon I, proper Anglican that I try to be, pounced on that moment of synthesis and agreed, “Yes, Jesus does need us to be both, doesn’t he? Both the activist and the contemplative are in us. We’re called to cook for him, and we’re called to sit with him.” (I didn’t think Linda had gone contemplative enough when she suggested that Mary had waited on Jesus: she had waited with him, in him, for him.)

So yes, this little story helps feed theology for two thousand years of teaching that we are saved, not by our good works, nor by our formulas and practices of faith: we are saved by God’s grace working through both faith and works, God’s goodness leavening the lump of both our believing and our serving, God’s Spirit shaping and reshaping us from the inside out and from the outside in.

The good news in this little story is that when our lives are completed, we aren’t going to be judged by how good we’ve been, either at cooking meals for Jesus or at developing our prayer life with Jesus. We’re shown in our second lesson today how we stand before God, and that is in the rich glory of a mystery, which is Christ in us, the hope of glory. We’re given the grace to stand before God, neither defining ourselves as Christian activists nor certified as Anglican contemplatives, but persuaded that Jesus Christ is in us and we are in him.

We stand in this mystery here at this table of new life, and we stand in this mystery at home in our kitchens, in our living rooms, at our workplaces, and in the great outdoors, in nursing homes, at graveside, at all times and in all places. What is expected of us, as we stand in this mystery, is that we be aware of what is being given to us, that we be alert to what is being asked of us, that we recognize the Spirit of God.

In our Gospel today, Mary’s doing fine at that, but Martha needs some coaching. The help she wants isn’t the help she needs. What she’s holding against her bones, believing that her life depends on it, is her work at the stove. It’s not all drudgery. This is part of her mortal life that she loves, feeding people, and she’s good at it. Her nature is to do. She’s at home in a culture of doing, and I’ll bet a whole lot of people around her depended on all that she did.

If I put myself in her sandals, I might need to admit that what I’m holding against my bones is my reputation as an in-charge competent person, and perhaps my high standards and demanding self-expectation. Don’t tell me I have to let go of my abilities and my standards! That’s not the help I want. I want someone to help me in-keeping-with my abilities and standards and expectation. Do I have to let go of those?

It would seem so, because Jesus is offering something more valuable, and more demanding, not what I want, but what I need.

And if I try to slip into the sandals of Mary, I’m receiving what I need as I sit with Jesus, who opens me to be all that I am, invites me into a culture of being that will keep renewing me all my days-- but the purity and intensity of these moments cannot last. What I’m hearing I will continue to hold against my bones, knowing that my life depends on it, but what I’m hearing calls me to active love, fruitful service, and, yes, to my sister, who has a proper claim on me. To act on what I know, it’s soon time for me to let go of this tutorial with the Teacher, and to get on with life in service to this larger life that he gives.

There is need of only one thing, we hear him say. Not contemplation, not action, but hearing the call, receiving the gift, recognizing the Spirit, exercising the freedom to choose, loving God in all and above all.

(Mary Oliver’s poem appears in her “New and Selected Poems, Volume Two,” Beacon Press, 2004.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Praying for our Nation

This sermon refers to scripture appointed for Independence Day: Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48. Limited reference is made to the readings for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost: II Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The American Book of Common Prayer declares that July 4th, Independence Day, is a major holy day with its own collect and appointed Bible readings. We can assume that the English Book of Common Prayer does not see this day in that same glorious light.

When a major holy day falls on a Sunday, its observance is moved to the next available weekday. Sunday, being a little Easter, always trumps a major holy day. So to hear the Prayer Book’s message about this day, we’re going to use its collect as our post-Communion prayer. And I’m going to draw on its Bible readings, ones that we have not heard today-- not that we haven’t heard enough already, but because these others may help us answer a question I’m about to ask you: On this Independence Day, what do we pray for our nation?

First, from the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, comes this command to welcome immigrants: “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords… who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt… Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.”

There, by the way, is the significance of those seventy disciples sent out by Jesus: they are the fledgling Church. Seventy people in the family of Isaac and Jacob were the seed planted in the sands of Egypt, becoming over many generations the enslaved Hebrew people who would shed their chains and settle in Canaan. Seventy disciples in the circle of Jesus were the seeds planted in the towns and villages of Israel, pioneers of the kingdom of God, curing the sick, breaking the demonic.

And few in number were our colonial patriots in this country who overthrew the tyranny of empire that sucked them dry; but these few became, through wave after wave of immigrants, as numerous as the stars in heaven.

And so, a first prayer for our nation now is that we not become short-sighted, mean-spirited, or fearful in our welcome of the stranger. As we draft immigration law, that we hear God’s command to love the stranger. In our parents or ancestors, we were once strangers. Let’s pray that we don’t forget that now.

Second, from the Letter to the Hebrews, appointed for July 4th, champions of faith are held high, leaders who “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them,” people of character ready to sacrifice now for the sake of those who would come after them. Just the opposite of our cocaine-brain sucking dry the profits of the present, mortgaging the future for what can be enjoyed now.

And so, a second prayer for our nation is that we continue to choose to be free. A great American philosopher, William James, said that, “Lives based on having are less free than lives based on doing or on being.” Worthy of our freedom to do and be is the New Testament’s motto, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Third, from the portion of Matthew’s Gospel for Independence Day, “you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, turn that around and win him over, not by disdain and violence, but by love… and so show yourselves children of the Most High.”

A third prayer for our nation is that we learn to stop breeding enemies, to be sparing in our labeling anyone as enemy, to remember that the God to whom we pray is an impartial God whose favor and judgment, just like sunshine and rain, fall equally on both sides of every boundary we draw.