Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today I was at Christ Church, Rochdale. The readings for the day can be found here.

The Book of Common Prayer says that prayer “is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” (BCP 856)

Take that in for just a moment, especially if it challenges the way you have been taught to think about prayer. Prayer is not just about words. Sometimes we don’t have the words. It’s not just what's in our head or on our lips. Sometimes a prayer is showing up for a friend in their hour of need – it’s an action. It’s not just something we do inside of a church building or in the privacy of our own homes. It’s a way of life. We are invited to pray our lives.

Responding to God. By thought and by deeds. With or without words.

But we are prone to forget. One antidote to our tendency toward amnesia is to pray the Lord’s Prayer on a daily basis. It is at the heart of our life as followers of Jesus, and of our life together, as the Body of Christ. It is not an easy prayer to live, but our familiarity with it can prevent us from hearing just how radical a prayer it is. The goal is to pray it not just on our lips, but with our lives; to do so is to be invited to a life of transformation and to become more fully alive in Christ.

Whatever else it means, the prayer our Lord taught us is about being open to the reality of God’s presence here and now. Most of us are more familiar with the way Matthew remembered it, but today we get Luke's recollection which is even more succinct. It begins by recognizing God’s otherness; God’s holiness. We are beloved creatures of God, but we are not God. Only God is God. So we begin by praying that God’s name be hallowed (made holy.)

And then we pray for the Kingdom of God to come into our midst: here and now. And for us to have eyes to see when it does. Wherever there is mercy, compassion, and hope there are seeds of God's Reign among us - and our work begins by noticing. 

We pray for daily bread. Not for security, but for sustenance. For enough to live this day because that’s really all we get is “one day at a time.”

And we pray that forgiveness might become a healing circle in our lives that brings together love of God and of neighbor, and with it new Easter life. It’s not a one-way thing. As forgiven people, we are empowered to forgive others. And as people who forgive others we are able (by the grace of God) to more fully accept God’s forgiveness of us. The forgiven are called to become forgivers. The forgivers are called to recognize that God’s love includes us too. That opens us up to be agents of reconciliation in a world where that is a desperate need.

There are two images that we heard in today’s gospel reading that go along with the Lord’s Prayer. One is about a person who goes to his friend’s house at midnight. His friend is in bed already but he is there because the cupboard is bare and another friend, a guest has arrived. The word companion comes from two Latin words that literally mean “to bread with.” A friend is one with whom we break bread; or share pizza and a beer with, or coffee and a donut, or cake and ice-cream. We break bread with those we care for and if we have nothing in the fridge then we need to knock on our neighbor’s door and borrow something so we can set the table. 

But as followers of Jesus we also look for opportunities “for strangers to become friends” – as Brian Wren’s great Eucharistic hymn puts it. When we sit down to share a meal with someone, even someone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt, or someone who has misunderstood us or whom we have misunderstood – there is potential for new life, by the grace of God, when we companion with them. If there is someone in your life that you need to reconnect with in this way, perhaps the prayerful response to this sermon today will be to be in touch with them and make a lunch date.

The other image Jesus uses is of parent-child. The vast majority of parents want what is best for their kids.. So if the kid asks for fish we give them a fish, not a snake. If they want scrambled eggs we don’t give them liver and onions. Now what is not said here, but is clearly implied for anyone who has been a parent is that sometimes the answer is no. Candy apples and cotton candy and ice cream all need to be consumed in smaller doses than healthy foods. But underlying this image is the fundamental point: that God cares for us like a loving mom or dad. God desires our well-being. God gives when we ask.

Prayer is not about negotiating with God or trying to manipulate or bribe God. Nor is it about claiming God for our partisan, narrow points of view. I heard a "prayer" at the Republican National Convention this week that appalled and shocked me. Now don’t worry, While I have plenty of opinions about what I heard this week in Cleveland I know this isn't the time or place to go into all of that. But a prayer from a person who purports to be a Christian that says that the other major party in this nation are “the enemy” is very dangerous, and my argument with it is not partisan; it's theological. To claim that we are one conservative nation under God and that Democrats are "the enemy" has nothing to do with Jesus, and is in fact a good example of idolatry. And I'd say the very same thing of a prayer that reversed the pronouns if one comes out of Philadelphia this week. (See also this post.)

God is not on “our side” – the side of "liberals" or "conservatives." God is not on our side as Americans, because we worship a God of all the nations. God is not even on the side of Christians; our own Scriptures tell us that God created of one blood all the peoples of the earth and that Jews and Christians and Muslims are "cousins" who all call Abraham our "Father." All the way to the end of the Bible this holds true. There, in the Book of Revelation the seer on Patmos imagines people from every tribe and language and people and nation singing Holy Holy Holy. 

We are one. God is always bigger than our divisions and prayer is meant to lead us toward that truth, not shrink God down to our own biases. And so we pray that we might be open and humble enough to see God in those we differ from, not condemn those we don’t like as “God’s enemies.”

In addition to today’s gospel reading, I want to call your attention today to the sixth verse of the second chapter of Colossians, which may be just as important a teaching on prayer as today’s gospel. It goes like this:

“As therefore you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

These words encapsulate the whole of the Christian life and the heart of what prayer is about as a response to God’s goodness and grace. The right response to such a gift is gratitude – thanksgiving. As the thirteenth-century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, once put it, “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it would be enough.”

We are so accustomed to consumerism that we are tempted to treat this gift as a commodity. So we receive Jesus as we might a new car or a winning lottery ticket. And then we may want to try to sell him to others. Or hold onto him as our own. But on our best days we know that this gift of Jesus is different. The gift of love—love divine, all loves excelling—is not a commodity. It’s not to be parsed out.

I had a parishioner when I was a young priest in Holden who used to say this in my early days in Holden – that to love the new rector (in that case, me!) wasn’t a betrayal of the former rector. That love didn’t work like that. That there was enough. Anyone who has been a parent and had more than one child knows precisely how this works. You have that first child and you think you could not possibly love anyone or anything more. And then a second comes along and you love that child fully as well, without conditions. We get that, even if we live it imperfectly. But God’s love overflows for each and every one of us – liberal and moderate and conservative, young and adult, black and white and all the shades in between.

There is enough love.

The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving in Greek. It is at the core of our life in Christ. So we gather here each week to say “thanks be to God”—for our lives, for these lives, and this bread, and for this cup, and for this moment, and for this day. Faith like that requires intentionality. We gather here not because of guilt or to satisfy an obligation but so that we can bear with one another and support one another and love one another. That is the faith we have been given. We enter into that process of transformation by opening ourselves to God and neighbor and the heart of that is what we call prayer: with or without words, on our knees or standing tall, in our thoughts and in our actions.

When we abound in thanksgiving we cultivate generosity, until we ourselves become givers, as God is a Giver. We give of our time, talents, and treasure. We don’t say with false humility, “I have nothing to give, I am worthless.” That is to deny what God has done and desires to do through us. If we trust the God who has made us in God’s own image, then we know that God doesn’t make junk. So we give thanks for the gifts we do have and try to discern how best to share them with the world. I think all of us know this in our bones because it is how we are made. And yet most (if not all) of us suffer from various degrees of amnesia from time to time. And so we gather here week after week to remember.

Preaching about prayer is perhaps the theological equivalent of apple pie or motherhood: everyone is for it, even when we aren’t always sure what it is. But my hope today is that you will continue to pray as you welcome a new priest into your midst. She’s a great person. But she’s a human being. There will be challenges as there are in every human relationship. But let this relationship be undergirded by prayer. I encourage you to pray for your new priest and her family every day and start with gratitude. Begin with thanksgiving.

But also be prepared along the way to move through this relationship one day at a time, and to forgive, and to love. In so doing I think you will be drawn closer to the love of God and then more faithfully able to share it with one another, and beyond these walls. To be a good neighbor in this neighborhood. To let the light shine from this hill for the neighbors to see.  

Notice in today’s gospel reading that the disciples assume that praying is something that needs to be learned. It is not automatic. It is not an innate skill we are born with. The disciples see Jesus praying and they ask him to teach them how to pray. We too, need teachers along the way, and over time our prayer lives will develop and change. Aileen will have some things to teach you but like all good teachers she’ll also have some things to learn from you. What a great gift!  

It has been my joy to share a little bit of the journey with all of you – through the time of saying goodbye to Molly and into this new time of getting ready to welcome Aileen. This is a great congregation and I trust that you will continue to grow in grace and love, to grow more and  more into the full stature of Christ. Remember to pray, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Remember it is all done, with God’s help, and one day at a time.