Sermon for Sunday, February 11, 2018 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9
Our spiritual lives are topographically interesting. Two of the most enduring images of walking with God are the mountain and the valley, the high place and the low. You’ve heard of the proverbial “mountain top experience,” which can spark faith for the first time or renew the well-trodden paths of faith. And you’ve prayed the immortal words of Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…thou art with me.” The mountain and the valley: these are the peaks of our spiritual lives and the troughs.Continue reading “Spiritual Topography”→
I began this two-part sermon last week talking about our partnership with God in Christ; how Jesus’ invitation to “take his yoke” upon us is an invitation to plow the field with him, walking alongside each other. If you’re anything like me, you find this invitation easier to accept during terrible and tumultuous times, and you lay aside the yoke during the mundane dailiness of life. I closed last week’s sermon asking these questions: How much more meaningful would our lives be if we invited God to be present in those mundane times: to be part of the washing up and the lawn mowing and the daily commute? To be part of studying for a test and eating dinner and jogging? How much more often would we notice God already at work in the world around us if we invited God to be at work in the world within us?
This noticing happens when we pay attention. And when we pay attention we discover God is already at work in our lives whether or not we sent the invitation. I’d like to take the rest of this sermon to introduce you to a spiritual practice I have been using for the past eleven years in order to remain attentive. It is called the Ignatian Examen, a daily introspective prayer of awareness derived from the work and witness of 16th century Saint Ignatius Loyola. Continue reading “Take My Yoke Upon You: The Examen (part 2 of 2)”→
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”→
Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2015 || Proper 27B || Mark 12:38-44
I’ve been preparing recently for Confirmation class, which begins later today. We have four tenth and eleventh graders and their sponsors ready to begin a five-month journey through their faith: learning, discussing, sharing stories. The next time the bishop visits, these four will have the opportunity to make a mature profession of faith if they so desire, and I am really excited to get to walk with them these next several months. Because I’ve had Confirmation on my mind, I’ve been thinking and rethinking some of the “nuts and bolts” of the way we express our faith as Episcopalians. Every once in a while, I like to preach on these “nuts and bolts” because in my job I get asked the same dozen or so questions about our practice all the time, and exploring such questions can help us all deepen our engagement in worship and in mission.
One of these questions has to do with the second half of our Sunday service – Holy Communion in particular. “What is Holy Communion,” I am often asked, “and why do you say such a long prayer right before it?” The second half of this question hit me again this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson, in which Jesus takes the scribes to task for all sorts of things – a few of which struck a little close to home.
“Beware of the scribes,” says Jesus, “who like to walk around in long robes” (looks down at self wearing an alb and chasuble) “and to be greeted with respect in the market-places” (not many people have the definite article at the beginning of their title, but priests do – ‘the Reverend Adam Thomas’) “and to have the best seats in the synagogues” (I guarantee you my chair is more comfortable than yours – look at that cushion!) “and places of honor at banquets” (Okay, okay, finally something that’s not true – as long as I have a lefty seat at the corner of the table, I’m good). “They devour widows’ houses” (All right, moving further away, this is good) “and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (gulps).
For the sake of appearance say long prayers. We say a lot of long prayers on Sunday morning, and one in particular is longer than all the others put together: the Eucharistic prayer. We haven’t gotten to it yet this morning, since it happens later in the service. You’ll know when we arrive at the Eucharistic prayer because I will be standing behind the altar when we start it. So Jesus indicts the scribes on six different issues, and by my count I’m guilty of three, innocent of two, and the final one is pending. For the sake of appearance, they say long prayers. I can’t dispute that the Eucharistic prayer is long – most graces before a meal don’t last five minutes. So to break even on these six charges, I have to prove that I don’t pray this prayer for “the sake of appearance.”
Before I start my defense, you need to know I’m not the only one implicated in this. You all are co-conspirators. At the beginning of the prayer you and I share a short dialogue, right? (The Lord be with you. And also with you. And so on…). In this dialogue, I ask your permission to pray on your behalf, and you grant it when you say, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” So that’s the first thing to remember: even though I’m the one talking, we’re all praying this Eucharistic prayer together.
Now that you have joined the defendant’s side of this indictment with me, let’s explore this question: If not for appearance, why then do we pray such a long and involved prayer before receiving Communion? My answer is this: we are part of God’s story. We nurture our faith when we take time each week to locate ourselves in this great story. And when we locate ourselves in the story, we realize that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the story is still being told. And when we have this realization, we give thanks to God for our participation in God’s story through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Now I know that was a pretty dense answer, so let’s unpack it a little bit. First, we locate ourselves in the story by praying, “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself.” We fell away from you, but you gave us another chance by sending your Son. We and Us. Not They and Them. This story is about us. We don’t deserve mercy, but God doesn’t care one lick whether or not we deserve it. And that’s called grace.
With this grace emboldening us, we then fulfill Jesus’ request made at his last supper with his friends when he took bread and broke it. But notice that when I narrate the breaking of the bread, I don’t actually break it. Not yet. I break the bread later for the utilitarian purpose of sharing it. The reason I don’t break the bread when Jesus does is because I am not standing in for Jesus. And we are not reenacting the Last Supper. This is important, so listen up. We are not reenacting the Last Supper; we are participating in it. There has only been one Last Supper, and we were there. We are there each time we partake of Christ’s Body and Blood. We are there with everyone who has ever received the sacrament. We are there with the great cloud of witnesses that we invoke later in the prayer. We are there as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. Thus, the broken bread makes us whole: one body in Christ made up of many members, each supporting the others in worship, love, and service.
That’s why we invite the Holy Spirit to fill the bread and wine with the presence of Christ: not simply to remember what Christ did, but to participate in what Christ is doing. The story is not over yet. The Bible might be finished, but the story continues – God’s story of making, redeeming, and sustaining this little Creation of God’s. When you come to the altar rail and put out your hands, you signal your fervent desire to participate in this great story. In the Eucharistic prayer, we tell the story together, and in the telling and in the sharing we take on our role as the characters in the current chapter. We are the people to whom Christ offers his Body and Blood in order that we might both feel closer to him and feel strengthened to serve. We are the people enlivened by this precious nourishment. We are the people with a story to tell.
And that’s why we give thanks. The Eucharistic prayer is a prayer of Great Thanksgiving: thanksgiving for God’s mercy and grace; thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice and sustenance; thanksgiving for the Holy Spirit’s presence and empowerment. We give thanks that we are a part of the story. And it is quite a story. I don’t know about you, but a five-minute praying of the story seems downright short when you realize all that it entails. But of course, we don’t tell the story just once a week for five minutes on a Sunday. We tell the story each day of our lives.
We don’t pray this long prayer just for the sake of appearance. We pray this long prayer to give thanks for our part in God’s great story. And then we receive Holy Communion to strengthen and nourish us to continue telling that story together.
Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2015 || Lent 5B || Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13
This is the last Sunday of the year in which we are worshiping according to the older, Rite I format of our liturgy. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the reason we’ve been using the more traditional language was so we could say that beautiful line about inclining our hearts towards God. But there’s another reason, one that I didn’t mention then because I was fairly sure I was going to preach about it today. There’s a special prayer found in the traditional rite that is not duplicated in the modern one, a prayer we’ve been praying directly before communion for the last several weeks. Today, we will pray it one last time. The “Prayer of Humble Access” goes like this:
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”
Before we dive deep on this prayer, let me tell you why I’ve been wanting to preach about it. For the longest time, I detested this prayer. I never wanted to attend a Rite I service because I did not want to say this prayer. I had my reasons: it felt too much like gratuitous self-flagellation; like I was groveling; like I had forgotten to put on my hair-shirt. It didn’t seem to mesh with the joyfulness of receiving Holy Communion. But, to be honest, those reasons were a smokescreen.
The real problem I had with this prayer was that my Pride* would not countenance me saying these words. The sin of Pride is the sin of forgetting who made you; the sin of reconstructing your life so that all of the good things that happen to you happen because of you. My Pride made me trust in my own presumed righteousness. My Pride generated a false sense of worthiness to sit at the Table. And so I never could get to the part of the prayer where we stop talking about ourselves and start talking about God. I’d be willing to bet, for one reason of another, that some of you have had similar issues with this or other prayers we say in the Episcopal Church.
Somewhere along the way, thanks in large part to my mentor and former rector Margot Critchfield, God engendered a change in me, so that, instead of embracing my Pride, I started to fight it. I still lose a lot of the time, but the Prayer of Humble Access has turned from a stumbling block into a reliable source of defense against my Pride.
So let’s take a look at what we are actually praying when we say this venerable old prayer, the words of which go all the way back to the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549.† What we will find are words that put us in right relationship with God and teach us about the mystery of this Holy Communion we share.
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord…” The first thing to notice is the owner of the table behind me. The altar does not belong to St. Mark’s Parish. It does not belong to the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. It does not belong to you or me. The table is God’s Table. Whether this is your first Sunday with us or you’ve been worshiping here forty years, you are still God’s guest when you come forward to receive Holy Communion. Therefore, when we do come forward, we are practicing our acceptance of God’s invitation again and again. This is one of God’s more obvious invitations, so accepting it each week helps train us to accept the less obvious invitations God sends us when we aren’t surrounding God’s Table.
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” These words answer the question: “Where do we put our trust?” My old prideful answer told me to trust in my own righteousness, but the prayer places our trust in much more secure hands – in God’s “manifold and great mercies.” So what we’re really saying with this first sentence of the prayer is that we cannot hear God’s invitation to the Table until we relocate the object of our trust away from ourselves. The invitation has nothing to do with how good or righteous we are. We come to the Table because God’s mercy draws us there.
This is good news, especially when we are mired in the darkness like the writer of today’s psalm. The poet cries out, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.” Even in the midst of the deepest darkness, God’s mercy and compassion can draw us back home. In Hebrew, the word translated here as “compassion” has the same root as the word “womb.”‡ Thus, God’s compassion can bring us back to a moment of glorious togetherness like when a mother feels when her baby kicks. We find this togetherness, this connection, when God’s mercy draws us to the Table for our sacred meal.
“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” This is the sentence that always made me cringe so much in my Pride. But the next sentence turns the camera around: “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” So what these words lay bare is not our unworthiness, but God’s great generosity in having us as guests at God’s Table. This is the same generosity God extends to the people of Israel through the voice of Jeremiah the Prophet in today’s reading. The people have strayed again and again and again, and still God calls them back, makes a new covenant with them, and writes God’s law on their hearts. Like those ancient people, we are unworthy, except that God’s grace makes us worthy to receive God’s gifts.
And what is the greatest of gifts? The last words reveal all: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” We reach the crux of the prayer, the part my Pride never let me reach in days past. And just look what that Pride barred me from asking for! With these words, we reveal our deepest longing for a mutual indwelling with Christ. Dwelling in him means touching the peace that passes all understanding. And to have him dwell in us means feeling our hearts resonate with the yearnings of his heart, the yearnings that lead us to love and serve and sacrifice and rejoice.
In the end, this beautiful prayer that we will pray later in this service speaks to our longing for the deeper connection with God that Holy Communion offers. So today, when you come up to receive the gifts of bread and wine, which are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, keep the Prayer of Humble Access on your lips. And remember what it teaches: God has invited us to the Table. God’s compassionate mercy allows us to accept this invitation. God’s generosity grants us the grace to connect deeply with God. And this connection blossoms as a mutual indwelling between Christ and us. Praise God that we have the opportunity to connect with God so closely, so intimately. Praise God for the gift of such Holy Communion.
* I capitalize Pride here because I’m speaking of the word in its sinful connotation. There’s a reason that Dante placed Pride at the base of the mountain of purgatory in his The Divine Comedy. All other sins have their roots in Pride. That being said, of course it’s okay to say that you take “pride” in your children, and so on. That’s pride of a different order.
† The version of the prayer we use in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has a few variations form the original form and the modified one still in use today in England. Check out this Wikipedia article to see the other wordings. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Humble_Access
Sermon for Sunday, October 19, 2014 || Proper 24A || Matthew 22:15-22
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Give to God the things that are God’s. Two weeks ago in the sermon and last week at the forum hour between services, we talked quite a bit about giving to God. We said that all giving to God is really and truly giving back to God. We said that good stewardship comprehends the intentional awareness that what we have isn’t really ours; therefore we cultivate an attitude in which all that we are and all that we have is a gift given back and forth between us and God.
But I was struck this week when reading Jesus’ words in our Gospel lesson that we never talked about what giving to God really looks like. If you think for even more than a few seconds about the idea, you realize that this act of giving is, in the end, metaphorical. Or perhaps a better word is ephemeral. We just don’t have the opportunity to hand something physically to God, as I might hand you a birthday present. The trouble is we use the language of “giving” so often when we speak of our interaction with God that I’m afraid we now tend to skip past the real world impact of this necessarily ephemeral action. So I’d like to spend the next several minutes exploring with you this real world impact and at least make a start at answering the following question. What do we really mean when we say we are giving something to God?
Notice first how often we use this “giving” language. Let us give thanks to the Lord God. It is right to give God thanks and praise. Give that burden on your heart to God in prayer. All things come from thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee. These three common phrases illustrate the three biggest categories of our use of the term “giving to God.” We give our thanks. We give our burdens. And we give our material possessions, our stuff.
With each of these categories, let’s start with what they look like when two humans engage in them. Say Tom and Brad go out for ice cream. When they arrive at the cash register, they both reach for their wallets, but then Brad says, “I’ve got this,” and motions for Tom to put his wallet away. Tom then says, “Thank you” to Brad for the ice cream. What is happening in this exchange? Brad gives Tom something, a gift Tom wasn’t expecting. Tom says, “Thanks” in acknowledgement of the gift.
Thus, in regards to giving thanks to God, the act of giving thanks is the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given us. The act of giving thanks is our response to the giver. Therefore, giving thanks keeps us in right relationship with God because by it we practice again and again living into the reality that we are not the prime movers of our own lives. We are simply the respondents.
Our fallen world often causes us to drift toward isolation and disengagement. But the act of giving thanks reminds us that we are not, in fact, unmoored. We are tethered to the God who continually calls us into being. Our lives have a source. And they have a culmination. Both the source and culmination are the eternity of God’s love. In between, we stay anchored to God when we respond to God’s gifts with our thankfulness.
This is one of the reasons we share Holy Communion each week. We begin the Eucharistic prayer by stating how proper it is for us to thank God for everything. In the words of the various prayers, we catalog what we are thankful for. And then we stretch out our hands and receive the Body of Christ, a response to God’s love, which nourishes us to continue to respond.
So giving thanks anchors us to the prime mover in our lives. What about giving our burdens? Let’s return to Tom and Brad. Tom comes to Brad with a heavy heart. He said something that hurt another friend’s feelings. He tried to apologize but the damage had been done and the friend isn’t talking to him anymore. He’s afraid he has irreparably damaged their relationship. He needed someone to talk to and is so glad Brad is willing to talk. By offering an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, Brad helps bear Tom’s burden.
So how does this conversation change when it happens not between two friends but in the context of prayer to God? We don’t necessarily hear audible words of comfort or feel the warmth of a physical embrace. But something important happens nonetheless. Our burdens often make us feel small. They threaten to crush us under their weight if we spend all our time trying to hold onto them. In a way, our burdens function similarly to the idols we talked about two weeks ago. They can warp our lives around the need to carry them and end up taking all our energy.
But giving a burden up to God releases us from this functional idolatry. Rather than the burden being between us and God as a barrier, the burden is shared between us and God as a bridge. The burden becomes another way we connect to God, since we are both carrying it, as do two people trying to lug a couch up the stairs. So just as giving thanks anchors us to God as responders, giving our burdens tethers us to God in the sharing of the weight between us.
These two categories of giving link us to God, and so does the third, but we have to look more closely as we now move from the ephemeral to the concrete and turn to giving our “stuff.” Quickly, back to Tom and Brad. Tom needs a trench coat to finish his Halloween costume. Turns out Brad grew out of his old one, so he gives it to Tom to keep. The important thing to note in this exchange is the physical handing over of the item, wherein perhaps they shake hands or high five or express some form of camaraderie.
When we give God our stuff, we obviously don’t give it directly to God. God can’t use a trench coat, after all. Instead, we give our stuff to other people, either directly like when we purchase, cook, and serve food to those in need at the WARM shelter or indirectly like when we pledge money to God’s work at St. Mark’s. Our other two categories of giving tether us to God in one way or another, and so does this third category, but we have to look more intentionally for the link.
Thankfully, Jesus makes this link for us just a few chapters after our Gospel reading this morning. He tells us that whenever we give food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty or clothes to the naked, we are actually giving to him. Therefore, whenever we give to God some possession of ours, God grants us the opportunity to seek Christ’s presence in the person receiving the gift in God’s stead. By intentionally recognizing God at the heart of the receiver we connect more deeply with that person and with God who makes all connection possible.
This theme of connection animates all of our thanksgiving. We give God our thanks. We give God our burdens. We give God our stuff. In each instance, our giving anchors us, tethers us, connects us more deeply to God and to each other. This is what we mean when we say we are giving something to God; this is what happens: We respond to God with thanks, we partner with God in sharing our burdens, and we meet Christ whenever we give of ourselves to help another.
Sermon for Sunday, March 2, 2014 || Last Epiphany A || Matthew 17:1-9
In the end this is going to be a sermon about prayer, but first I’d like to start with a quotation from my favorite book:
“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.”
Does anyone know what book that quotation comes from?Let me add the next few lines:
“At last Aragorn stirred. ‘Gandalf!’ he said. ‘Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight?”
Yes, my favorite book is and probably always will be The Lord of the Rings. Isn’t it cool that J.R.R. Tolkien seems to be alluding to today’s story of the Transfiguration (not to mention the Resurrection) in this passage from The Two Towers?
The coolness of this allusion aside, I think Tolkien is on to something with his description of Aragorn’s reaction to the bright and gleaming figure before him: “Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.”
If Peter were a little more laconic, Matthew might have written the same thing about the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ Transfiguration. Words fail James and John, but Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind – something about honoring the moment with shrines for their brilliant Lord and his impossible companions. But before Peter can finish speaking his mind, the weather shifts. Sudden clouds engulf them, and they hear a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved…”
And like Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli encountering the white wizard in the wilderness, the disciples Peter, James, and John stand on the mountaintop, stand between wonder, joy, and fear – and find no words to say.
And this is where we bring prayer into our discussion. How often have you tried to pray and ended up not really having anything to say? You put your hands together, closed your eyes, took a deep breath. You said, “Dear God, it’s me…” And then your mind unraveled. Random thoughts spilled in and maybe you voiced one or two, but then you felt silly because they didn’t really feel special enough for prayer. So you gave up, put the attempt out of your mind, and went about your day.
The trouble is that when you quit you were just on the cusp of a breakthrough. You were just on the cusp of the least awkward silence imaginable. You were just on the cusp of beginning to listen.
While the Transfiguration is not outwardly a story about prayer, we see this same progression. Peter sees Jesus dazzlingly bright there on the mountaintop, and he addresses him: “Lord.” And then Peter’s mind unravels. Random thoughts spill in. He voices the first one: “It is good for us to be here.” Talking gives him some semblance of control, so he plows ahead: “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for…”
But the word “Elijah” dies on his lips. The cloud consumes him. Silence consumes him. And between wonder, joy, and fear, Peter stands and finds no more words to say. In the midst of the cloud, he hears a voice. He hears a voice, but not with his ears. The silence remains even as the depths of his being resonate with the truth of God’s words. He feels their truth as a glow in his chest, like a reflection of Jesus’ transfigured radiance. The words shimmer – an afterimage before Peter’s eyes: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
And then, I think mostly for Peter’s benefit (as well as ours), God adds the all-important instruction: “Listen to him.” With this command, God gives Peter and us the permission to lapse into silence when we pray. God invites us to be the respondent in the conversation, not the speaker. God asks only that we listen with the ears of our hearts.
So I invite you to close your eyes now and let us practice for a few minutes this silent prayer, this listening that is so hard for most of us. We’ll end the sermon with a long moment of silence, so please know it is intentional. Close your eyes now and we’ll begin.
You do not need grand words lofty enough for the Almighty. You do not need to pen personal litanies worthy of Shakespeare or John Donne. You do not even need the right words. When you come to God in prayer, you need no words at all. You need only the willingness to be patient, to be still. Let the random thoughts dance through your mind before prodding them toward God as tangential offerings. As you sink into stillness, notice not the absence of noise, but the presence of silence – because true silence is a presence, like the cloud that engulfed the disciples on the mountaintop. Notice that the depth of the silence makes unnecessary any words that might now float through your mind. Brush them aside.
As you listen to the silence, as you tune yourself to God’s movement in your prayer, feel yourself suddenly living between wonder, joy and fear. Wonder rises up as a symptom of consciously inviting yourself into God’s presence. Like the disciples viewing their dazzling Lord, you see with new eyes and hear with new ears. Luminous mystery abounds and the only thing you can do is drink in a deep breath of the Spirit. You wonder where God is calling you, and you lose yourself in the wonder of the silent, indefinite moment. And you listen.
Along with wonder comes joy – not happiness, exactly, because happiness is too fleeting an emotion to describe the solid companionship you feel right now. You feel the presence of Christ. You are not alone. You have never been alone. He touches you on the shoulder as he did the disciples after they fell to the ground upon hearing God’s voice. You realize that joy is a natural byproduct of being aware that you are in God’s presence. And you listen.
Along with wonder and joy comes fear. You have laid yourself bare before God. So used to praying the same words in the same ways, you no longer have their protection. You are vulnerable. You realize that if you listen, you might actually hear something. You’re not sure if you’re ready for God to be that present in your life. But then Jesus’ words from our story today rise up from your gut: “Do not be afraid.” You continue to feel the joy of his touch, and you know in a place deeper than normal knowing that he will never abandon you. The wonder returns – more radiant, more real. The silence remains. The wonder remains. The joy remains. But the fear is gone. And you listen.
I invite you to remember this meditation when you bring yourself to God in prayer. As for now, let us remain silent for a moment. Between wonder, joy, and fear you stand and you find no words to pray. So instead allow the silence to descend like a cloud. And listen.
(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.
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?
After a midsummer hiatus, here’s the final part in a six part video series produced to accompany the book Digital Disciple. This video series is designed to be used in a class setting to introduce the material and spur discussion. Of course, watching it by yourself is fine too!
Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page and participate in a little quiz about this video. We’ll pick a random winner from those who participate and he or she will receive an autographed copy of the book, the DVD, and the t-shirts that Adam wore in the video (again, not the actual shirt but one just like it). Check it out!
(Sermon for August 28, 2011 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15)
Eustace Scrubb had read only the wrong books. The books he had read had “a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but,” says C.S. Lewis, “they were weak on dragons.” And so when Eustace accidentally accompanies his cousins Edmund and Lucy on a voyage aboard the ship Dawn Treader, you might imagine that he is, shall we say, out of his element. The further the ship sails from Narnia, the more ghastly becomes Eustace’s behavior. He is truly a horrible boy – lazy, selfish, dishonest, self-centered, and his attitude only goes from bad to worse.
So you won’t be surprised to hear that, when the ship finally comes ashore after a brutal storm, Eustace slips off by himself to avoid a day of hard work. And because he’s read only the wrong books, you also won’t be surprised to hear that, when he stumbles into a cave full of treasure, he has no idea that he has trespassed into a dragon’s lair. He has no idea that falling asleep on a dragon’s hoard turns one into a dragon. And he has no idea that he has become a dragon until he realizes that he’s running on all fours and that the reflection in the pool is his own. Now that he has become a dragon, “an appalling loneliness” comes over him, and he begins to see in himself the monster that his cousins and the crew of the Dawn Treader had tolerated for the entire voyage. How could Eustace possibly undo the enchantment? How could he shed the dragon’s skin?
Consider that your cliffhanger until later in the sermon. Before we return to Eustace the dragon, let’s turn our attention to this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture. Moses grazes the flock of his father-in-law far afield. At Mount Horeb, he sees a bush blazing merrily, but the bush isn’t turning to coals and ash. Intrigued, Moses turns aside to look more closely. And God encounters him there. “Come no closer,” God calls to Moses. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Remove the sandals from your feet. On the surface, this command reminds Moses that he and God don’t share the same position. Moses is a supplicant, and he comes into God’s presence unshod to show the vast disparity between the two. Okay, show of hands – which of you took off your shoes when you settled into your pew this morning? Yeah, neither did I. From a cultural point-of-view, removing our footwear signals informality rather than respect. So, we need to look at God’s command here from a different perspective.
On a deeper level than the simple removal of a garment, God’s command to Moses to take off his sandals presents a challenge to each of us who hears this story. This challenge begins with a question. What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter into God’s presence?
Our answers to this question build the wardrobe of costumes we wear all the time without realizing that we are dressed up. We wear these invisible costumes and affix invisible masks to our faces in order to set up buffers between ourselves and other people. If other people get too close, then they might impel us to change, to see the world differently than we desire, to remove ourselves from the centers of our existence. Our costumes are our first line of defense to remain the people we’ve always told ourselves we want to be. The trouble is that the costumes also disguise us from ourselves.
And so we stumble into God’s presence wearing carefully crafted costumes and masks that create barriers between us and everything that is not us. And just as God commands Moses to remove his shoes, God tells us to take off the costume.
What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter God’s presence? What makes up our costumes? Here I can only speak for myself, so listen for where your experience connects with mine. After praying with the question, I decide that the first piece of my costume to remove is Fear. This is the fear that forestalls any type of change. This is the fear that keeps me from entering into any kind of relationship because the other will cause some sort of transformation in me. This is the fear that keeps me from diving into a pool, not because I’m afraid of diving, but because I don’t want to get wet.
The second piece of the costume is Ignorance. When fear keeps relationships from beginning, ignorance is the necessary byproduct. I am blind to the situations of those I don’t take the time and energy to know. Again, this is part of the buffer. If I actively keep myself from developing an understanding of another’s plight, I won’t be putting myself in the position to have to decide whether or not to help, to relate, to get my hands dirty.
The third piece of the costume is Apathy. When ignorance fails, and I do find myself in the position to make a choice – to be in relationship or not – apathy sings the siren’s song. Apathy is the inertial force that keeps me complicit and complacent to the woes of others because I just can’t quite dig up enough empathy to care.
There are many more pieces of the costume, too many to talk about in this sermon, but there’s still the mask. My mask is Pride. When fear and ignorance and apathy all fail to keep me from being in an authentic relationship with another, there’s always pride to keep me living a disguised life. This is the pride that takes all the credit for my giftedness and assumes that I can get along quite well on my own because I seem to have done so thus far.
And this is where we return to Eustace, the horrible boy of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After he becomes human again, Eustace relates to his cousin Edmund how he left the dragon behind. A lion had come to him in the night and bade him undress. Since he had no clothes, he began shedding his skin like a snake. He scraped off his scales and stepped out of the skin. But then he looked down and saw another layer was there. He peeled this off as well. And “exactly the same thing happened again,” said Eustace.
And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? …So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
Then the lion said… ‘You will have to let me undress you.’
The desperate Eustace lay down and
The very first tear [the lion] made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been.
When we stumble into God’s presence, God invites us to remove our costumes. Like Eustace, we might be able to slough off some pieces ourselves, but the real costume only comes off when God intervenes and pulls the invisible garments away. When we pray, “I will, with God’s help,” we acknowledge that we cannot take off our disguises until we stand before the God who is the only one who truly knows what we look like. We cannot remove our costumes until we ask God to take them away, to leave them lying next to us, thick and dark and knobbly-looking.
And when we participate with God in this removal, there is just so much room to fill. Hope takes the place of Fear. Awareness fills in the gap left by of Ignorance. Engagement replaces Apathy. And Humility settles in where Pride once kept the disguise wrapped around us so tight. Shedding the costume is hard work that takes a lifetime. But we are not alone. We are in God’s presence, and God is forever helping us shed the dragon’s skin.