Intentions, Revisited

Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2022 || Proper 25C || Luke 18:9-14

Today’s sermon is a natural follow-up to last week’s, so here’s a quick recap. When we pray, we never initiate a prayer; we only ever respond to God’s invitation to pray. Everything we do in response to God’s movement in our lives is a form of prayer. Everything – literally everything – begins with God. And in our lives of faith, we can inhabit right relationships with God and one another when we humbly recognize our true place in the great web of relationships. Here’s a hint: it’s not in the middle.

But our egos try to convince us otherwise. Or maybe I shouldn’t pluralize that. Let me try again. MY ego tries to convince me otherwise. My ego tells me that of course I’m in the middle, that of course my identity should be centered above all others, that of course any experience that didn’t happen to me is not valid. There are centuries of unjust social structures that buttress these things my ego tells me. And so I have to practice reminding myself that my ego is lying to me, that I am not, in fact, the center of the universe.

And still, that sneaky sneaky ego keeps tricking me. Here’s a recent example.

A few years ago, I began praying an intention every morning. I’ve spoken about it before in sermons. The intention began its life like this: “I set my intention this day: to be at peace with all creatures including myself.” Over the years, I added two more phrases to it so it settled into this form: “I set my intention this day: to be at peace with all creatures including myself, to have compassion for myself and others, and to set my heart on Christ.” At some point, I noticed my intention wasn’t really much of a prayer since I wasn’t addressing God at all. So I tacked “Dear God” on to the front.

I prayed this intention every single morning right when I opened my eyes. These words were the first ones on my lips. Until a few weeks ago.

A few weeks ago, I realized my ego had hijacked my intention from the very beginning. Just like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel lesson, I paid lip service to God with a terse greeting, then I got to the really important subject of the prayer: myself. “Dear God, I set my intention this day.”
Dear God, I…”

Right there my ego took over and forced the prayer away from God and into my considerably smaller majesty. “Dear God, I…” “I” was the main mover and shaker of this prayer, not God. That’s the mistake the Pharisee makes in his prayer. It starts the same as my intention: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” At first blush, it sounds like a prayer of thanksgiving. But it’s not. It’s a backdoor prayer of self-aggrandizement. It’s a prayer to the Pharisee’s own ego, not a prayer to God.

My intention, accidentally, had the same problem. As much as the words of my intention were helpful and lifegiving, I was not allowing God into my little kingdom. “Dear God, I…”

Contrast this with the tax collector in Jesus’ story. The tax collector also prays, but notice who is the real subject of his prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” God is the subject of the tax collector’s prayer. The ego is not present at all. Through his prayer, the tax collector seeks a right relationship with God. Rather than giving his résumé of righteousness, the tax collector places himself in the great web of relationships as one who has missed the mark and needs God’s mercy.

As I said, a few weeks ago, I realized my ego had hijacked my intention. Despite the lifegiving phrases of the intention, I wasn’t leaving any room for God to work in my life. So, following the tax collector’s example, I changed the beginning. It no longer starts, “Dear God, I…” Now it begins, “Dear God, help me.”

With this one simple modification, my posture in the prayer changed completely. The intention was no longer about what I was going to do, but about what I needed God’s help in order to do. And this change – this repentance – brought me, in this instance, back into right relationship with God. My ego is still lurking. Some mornings, I begin the prayer the old way, and I have to catch myself. But most days it comes out in the new form: “Dear God, help me to live my intention this day: to be at peace with all creatures including myself, to have compassion for myself and others, and to set my heart on Christ.”

The difference is small, but so, so vital. It’s like the satellite NASA crashed into the asteroid last month. Altering the course even a fraction of a degree has massive implications down the road. With my intention, God prompted me to make it less about what I’m doing and more about how God is leading me onto new, lifegiving paths.

This week, I invite you to take inventory of your prayers. How often does your prayer open you to all the possibilities that God’s grace showers upon you? And how often does your prayer shackle you to your own limited imagination and resources? If you set a daily intention – a spiritual practice I commend – how much room do you leave for God actually to help you live into your desired ways of being?

The ego is a sneaky, sneaky trickster. We need it to own our sense of self. And yet, too often it hogs the spotlight and knocks us out of right relationship with God and other people. But God keeps calling us back, again and again, into that right relationship, the one in which we acknowledge our dependence on God and one another. During our prayer, God will open the ears of our hearts to hear that lifegiving call.

Photo by Declan Lopez on Unsplash.

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