Finishing the Race

Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2016 || Proper 25C || 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Jeremy is my best friend from college. We co-hosted a radio show together that had exactly zero listeners. (This was quite liberating, by the way.) We spent hours in the quad just tossing a Frisbee back and forth. He’s a great guy, who now has a beautiful wife and daughter. Now he’s an endocrinologist in Georgia, but when we were at Sewanee together, mostly I sang in the choir and he ran. He was a member of the cross country team, so he ran a lot. Like everyday.

I’ve never understood the appeal of running as an end in itself; for me, running has always been a necessary evil, a part of training for soccer. But Jeremy loved it. He was always a good runner, but never truly elite. When he ran marathons, he never started in the front of the pack with the elite runners. He just wanted to finish the race in a time that he set for himself, a personal goal. Continue reading “Finishing the Race”

Fueling our Hope

Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2016 || Proper 24C || Luke 18:1-18

Today’s Gospel lesson begins like this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

This is strange: rarely, if ever, does the Gospel writer tip his hand while introducing a parable. Jesus seems to enjoy speaking in parables for the simple fact that parables make his audience dig deep into his words and find meaning for their lives by searching for meaning in his stories. But I think we should let the Gospel writer Luke slide just this once. He has our best interest in mind, after all. Luke doesn’t want us to miss the meaning of this story because living out this parable makes our lives fundamentally better. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” To pray always and not to lose heart. In other words, the story is about having the stamina and fortitude to pray persistently and to hope all the time. Continue reading “Fueling our Hope”

Our Response

(Sermon for Sunday, October 20, 2013 || Proper 24C || Luke 18:1-8 )

“Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So Luke tells us before sharing the story of a woman whose primary attribute is her unflagging persistence. But I wonder how many of us might like to tiptoe past Jesus’ reason for telling the story in the first place – his desire for his followers (then and now) to pray with dogged persistence, to pray always.

We might like to tiptoe past this notion because it seems so unrealistic. How could we possibly pray all the time? Surely Jesus is engaging in hyperbole. Perhaps he’s thinking that if he starts as high as “always,” then when we bargain him down, we’ll still be praying sometimes.

Or perhaps not. After all, Jesus doesn’t seem to be one for haggling. Perhaps he really does yearn for us to pray always, to pray with the same unflagging persistence as the widow in the parable demonstrates in her quest for justice. If that’s the case, then the popular understanding of prayer isn’t going to cut it; that is, an understanding of prayer as simple wish fulfillment. We need a bigger definition of prayer.

silverchair
Pauline Baynes (c) C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.

And so I submit as Exhibit A my yearly dive into C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. This time around, the beginning of Book Four, The Silver Chair.

Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole are trying to escape a mob of bullies at the Experiment House, their ghastly boarding school. Jill has been crying, and the bullies can smell tears from hundreds of yards away. From their hiding spot, the two targets hear the angry shouts of the searchers. Eustace looks at Jill and wonders aloud if they might be able to escape to That Place. He begins calling out, “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” Even though she doesn’t know what he’s saying, Jill follows his example: “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” The bullies draw near, and Eustace and Jill scramble through the laurels and up a steep slope. The weathered old door in the wall is always locked, but this time – miraculously – the knob turns. And the two children step into Aslan’s country.

Immediately after they arrive, Eustace falls off a cliff, but a lion arrives just in time and blows him to safely to Narnia. The lion – naturally – frightens Jill Pole. She tries to slip away, but the lion begins questioning her. Her showing off caused Eustace’s fall, she confesses. For that display of pride, the lion gives her a task to perform. “Please, what task, Sir?” asks Jill.

“The task for which I called you and him here out of your own world,” says the lion. This response puzzles Jill. Nobody called them. They called out to – Somebody – a name she wouldn’t know. Wasn’t it she and Eustace who asked to come?

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says the lion, Aslan, the Christ-like figure of Lewis’s fiction.

This exchange between Aslan and Jill Pole illustrates most vibrantly the foundational principle of our bigger definition of prayer. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.

The Catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer states the same thought like this: “Prayer is responding to God, by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words.” Years ago, when I first read this definition, I was flabbergasted. I had never thought of prayer as anything more than asking God for stuff. God, please give me a kitty that doesn’t scratch me. God, please help us win our soccer game. God, please make Grammy not sick anymore. Now, please don’t misunderstand, I’m in no way condemning these prayers of intercession and petition. Rather, every kind of prayer fits into a larger framework. Petition and intercession, which popular culture misunderstands as “wish-fulfillment,” are several bricks up from the foundation of prayer.

That foundation is, of course, God. More precisely, the foundation of prayer is God’s presence in our lives and God’s call upon our hearts. “Prayer,” says the Catechism, “is responding to God.” We never initiate a prayer. Our prayer is always a response because God has always been active, has always been breathing our lives into being.

Think of prayer as a phone call. You and I never dial the number: we only have the option to answer the phone when it rings. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you. When we choose to answer, we affirm our desire to participate in our relationships with God. Prayer, then, is the inclination of our lives towards God, our response to what God is already doing in our lives.

How full of light and love would those lives be if we took seriously Jesus’ desire for his followers to pray always? How much light and love would we bring to those around us if we strove with unflagging persistence to respond to God in every situation?

If prayer is everything we do in response to God, then Jesus’ call to “pray always” seems a little more realistic – still challenging, still demanding discipline and rigor, but more realistic just the same.

Monastics down through the ages have practiced this bigger definition of prayer. Even the lowliest jobs at the monastery – peeling potatoes or weeding fields – were prayer. Monks prayed many times a day in their chapels, but the labor they performed in the meantime was prayer, as well. They “prayed always,” because they saw everything they did in their lives as a response to God’s presence. While we don’t have strict priors delegating our labors, we can still import the monastic example into our lives.

Look at your day, your week, your year. How do your engagements and actions display your response to God’s movement in your life? As a member of a family, God calls you to love and enjoy and forgive your spouses, children, parents, and siblings. As a person made in God’s image, God calls you to discover your authentic self, the version of yourself that God sees and celebrates. As a servant of God, God calls you to perform that one way in which you can bring light and love to the lives of those around you. When we respond to God in all these areas of our lives, we pray. We affirm our relationships with God. We live the abundant lives that Christ offers to all.

The prayers we pray this morning in our worship service, the lessons we hear, the music we sing, the meal we share, all nourish us for a life of prayer between now and next Sunday. Jesus yearns for us his followers to pray always, to respond to God’s movement at all times. This brand of unflagging persistence surely is challenging. But the good news is this: even attempting to pray always is a response to God. Even realizing that we aren’t praying always is a response to God. Every impulse towards generosity, welcome, hope, joy, love, and service is a response to God. As are the cries of our hearts when all is dark. Each day of our lives, we are met with myriad opportunities to pray, to be responsive to God’s movement. And this same movement gives us the grace to respond.

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says Aslan to Jill Pole. “We love because he first loved us,” says the writer of the First Letter of John. Likewise, we pray because God first called us – called us into expansive, abundant relationship with God. What will our response be?

Esperanza

(Sermon for Sunday, October 17, 2010 || Proper 24 Year C RCL || Luke 18:1-8)

On August 25, 2010, a crucifix traveled 2,300 feet down into the earth. The Apostles’ Creed tells us that Jesus, after he suffered and died on the cross, “descended to the dead.” This crucifix, this representation of the cross supporting the weight of the crucified Lord, descended to the living. Twenty days had passed since the mine collapsed, trapping 33 miners nearly half a mile beneath the soil of the Atacama region of Chili and nearly ten weeks from rescue.

(image from mirror.co.uk)

Backing up to August 5th, the day of the collapse, a single thought began to spread from the miners’ families to the community to the city to the country to the world: Oremos por nuestros hermanos, “Pray for our brothers.” On August 22, a note scrawled in red marker came to the surface: “We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us.” The message was a glimmer of hope. And over the next several weeks, the glimmer turned into a beacon of hope shining in the depths of the earth.

That crucifix, that image of the suffering Christ, which descended to the living, was a physical representation of the hope that was already present in that shelter half a mile down. The persistent, unceasing prayers of the world – from the pregnant wife of miner Ariel Ticona to the bus driver coming off a double shift in Boston – sustained the hope of the miners. And so, in a fit of divine synchronicity, the Gospel reading for the Sunday following the miners’ rescue would, of course, begin like this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Rarely, if ever, in the Gospel does the writer tip his hand while introducing a parable. Every once in a while, the writer will explain a parable once the story is over. But most often, parables stand alone, with neither introductory material nor closing explanation to help the reader. Indeed, Jesus seems to enjoy speaking in parables for the simple fact that parables make his audience dig deep into his words and find meaning for their lives by searching for meaning in his stories. So, when Luke prefaces Jesus’ parable today with the story’s apparent meaning, we’d be justified in being a bit indignant toward our Gospel writer. Luke doesn’t give us the chance to figure this parable out for ourselves. He tells us the meaning of the parable like a teacher going over the answers to a test before passing out the exam.

But while our indignation toward Luke might be justified, I think we should let him slide just this once. He has our best interest in mind, after all. Luke doesn’t want us to miss the meaning of this story because living out this parable makes our lives fundamentally better. Living out this parable helps us live lives full of God. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” To pray always and not to lose heart. In other words, the story is about praying always and never giving up, or to put the meaning in positive terms, to have the stamina and fortitude to pray persistently and to hope all the time.

We’ve seen over the last seven weeks in Chili that prayer and hope are linked together. In the midst of disaster, prayer and hope rose to the surface and sustained the people affected by the mine’s collapse. Now, let’s be clear. We use the word “hope” for simple, everyday situations such as “I hope the train is on time” or “I hope this week’s episode of Glee is better than the rest of the season, which has been pretty dreadful.” This everyday use of “hope” is of a different magnitude than the hope we are talking about here.

Hope (you might call it capital “H” hope) is the active component of not losing heart. In a world that excels at distracting us from following Jesus Christ and seducing us with the ease of apathy, hope keeps us relying on God to direct us down the right paths. Hope in God allows us to take the long view of our own futures, trusting that God, like a master chess player, has already seen twenty moves ahead. Hope in God opens us to possibilities for our lives that the urgent need of now simply dismisses offhand. Hope in God tells us that God will never lose heart in us, and therefore, we should never lose heart in God.

Hope is the active component of the heart’s steadfastness, and prayer is the active component of hope. Prayer nurtures hope by reminding us that, despite the world’s distraction and seduction, God is present. The Catechism at the back of the Book of Common Prayer says this about prayer: “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deed, with or without words.” Notice how this definition adds much needed depth to the popular understanding of prayer. The popular understanding simply makes God the recipient of our prayers: if I pray for my cat to stop scratching me, and the next day she does anyway, I am liable to think that God is not present. But the Catechism’s definition goes back a step in the process of prayer. Prayer is “responding to God.” Therefore, each and every time we pray, we are participating in the life-changing act of acknowledging that God is present in our lives. God calls prayer forth from us. We respond by praying. Each time we enter this exchange of call and response, God fuels our hope with God’s steadfast and eternal presence.

This is why Jesus tells the disciples a parable not just about the need to pray, but the need to pray always. A continuous life of prayer, of response to God, offers us continual awareness of God’s presence. This awareness leads to hope, which, in turn, enables us to live lives open to all of God’s possibilities and to trust in God’s directing creativity.

The widow in the today’s parable exemplifies this need for continuous perseverance and dedication. She keeps coming to the judge, and, in the end, her persistence pays off. Her unwavering commitment to obtaining justice moves the judge, who grants her request simply to get her out of his hair. If she had gone to court once, been dismissed, and never returned, the judge wouldn’t have given her a second thought. But her persistence changes her situation.

This persistence, this dedication to a life of prayer changes our situations, too. Like the persistent widow, our commitment to prayer signals our commitment to respond to God in every situation. The more we commit to prayer, the more apt we are to invite God into our lives and our decision-making. And opening ourselves to God’s presence allows us to soak up the hope that radiates from God’s movement in our lives. Seen from this angle, prayer works very much like food. If your mom or your husband calls you downstairs for meatloaf, you don’t call back, “No thanks. I ate last month.” Prayer leads to openness and trust and hope in God only when we integrate prayer into our daily lives.

The miners surviving 2,300 feet below the surface fed off of the hope generated by God’s presence, a presence proclaimed by the vast multitude of prayers descending on Chili from around the world. Upon his rescue, miner Mario Sepulveda spoke haltingly about his own persistence and hope: “I was with God and I was with the devil, but God won. I held onto God’s hand, the best hand, and at no point in time, how do I explain this, at no point in time, did I doubt that God would get me out of there.”

Sepulveda’s persistent awareness of God’s presence allowed him to survive for 69 days beneath the earth. The parable of the persistent widow teaches us that a life of prayer leads to hope, and hope leads to renewed lives lived in the fullness of God. I invite you to enter into a life of prayer, to find the hope that proceeds from that life, and finally to share the joy of our hope in God with everyone you meet. This happened in Chili: Elizabeth Segovia, wife of trapped miner Ariel Ticona, did not lose heart that her husband would be rescued. She joined her prayer with the prayers of millions. And halfway through the seven-week ordeal, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. And she named her “Esperanza,” which means “Hope.”

Note

Quotations and dates for the mine rescue from CNN.com.