Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
July 25, 2010
Luke 11:1-13

Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen

Do you remember how you learned to pray? Perhaps it was as a child, learning to say grace before meals: “God is great, God is good, now we thank God for our food…” or prayers before bed: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” Perhaps you learned to pray the rosary, or maybe you memorized the confession and the Lord’s Prayer in confirmation class. If you were raised in the Episcopal Church, as I was, the words of the liturgy may have seeped into your consciousness, “we acknowledge and bewail our manifest sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed,” whether you understood them or not. Or if you grew up in a family where church going and prayer were not part of your routine, your first prayers might have been born out of desperation, “Help me, God,” or “Take care of her God,” or even, “I’m sorry, God!” or from a heart overflowing with relief and love, “Thank God he’s okay!”

Prayer is one the most elemental parts of our lives as people of faith. In our corporate worship we join in prayers to praise God and to ask God’s blessings for ourselves and others. As a parish we regularly pray for forgiveness, for healing, for strength, for patience. In our private prayers we ask for guidance, for God’s presence in our lives and for help in living as God would have us live.

As fundamental as it is to our lives though, in many ways, there is nothing harder than prayer. It’s often described simply as “talking with God,” which seems easy enough, right? But prayer requires us to open ourselves up, to bare our souls to God, and to let go of our need to be in control. At times, rather than being a source of peace and comfort, prayer can raise our anxiety levels. We wonder if we are praying enough, if we are we doing it “right”. We wonder what should we pray for and what it means when our prayers aren’t answered or at least not answered as we’d like them to be. We wonder if prayer still matters.

20th century preacher George Buttrick captures our ambivalence about prayer when he writes, “If God is not, and the life of man poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short, prayer is the veriest self-deceit. If God is, yet is known only as vague rumor and dark coercion, prayer is whimpering folly; it were nobler to die. But if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, [our]worthiest art, [our] best resource and sublimest joy.”[1]

In today’s gospel we get Jesus’ own take on prayer. Throughout the gospel of Luke we find Jesus praying: he withdrew to deserted places or to mountaintops to pray, he prayed before he called his disciples and when he fed the five thousand; he prayed in the garden before his arrest, and from the cross. Prayer was an integral part of Jesus’ life, and his disciples had witnessed this as they traveled with him.

Of course, as religious Jews, his disciples were no strangers to prayer themselves. No doubt they began their days with the shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” blessed their food before eating, and prayed before they fell asleep at night. And yet, in watching Jesus immerse himself in prayer, they saw or felt or sensed that there might be yet more to know and so they ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Jesus replies with a prayer that is simple, straightforward, and covers all the basics—in a way a template for how to pray in general. The strength of this prayer is testified to by its persistence through the ages. In this prayer Jesus gives us a vocabulary, words to address God—Father he said, but we might just as well say Mother or Parent—the point is that we are to address God intimately, as one with whom we are in relationship, as one who loves us as a parent loves a child, indiscriminately and unconditionally. And then, hallowed: holy, sanctified be your name; your kingdom come. In the ancient world, where God’s name was too holy to be uttered, this invocation envisions God’s power and dominion in a world that then, as now, must often have felt out of control.

It is only after our relationship with God and God’s dominion in the world are acknowledged, Jesus tells us in this prayer, that we are to petition God to meet our needs. And in those petitions—which are corporate “we” not individual “I” we ask for the essentials, for those things we need to sustain life: food for the journey, forgiveness for our sins—those thing which take us away from God—and notice this: that forgiveness is hinged on our forgiveness of those indebted to us; and finally faithfulness—let us not be put to the test O God, because we surely will fall short.

This form of prayer Jesus gave to his disciples and to us, of course, is not the only way to pray. But in its beautiful simplicity it holds out for us something even more important than the words it employs; it holds out for us the promise that we often seem to be seeking when we question the reasonableness, the usefulness, the validity of prayer. In this prayer, Jesus invites us into relationship with the God who created us, loves us, and who desires, even needs our prayers. Jesus invites us into intimate relationship with the God who is Holy, the one in whom the power and glory reside, and then Jesus assures us that we can—should—ask that Holy One for those things we need, and we should be persistent, shameless even, to use a more precise translation of the Greek, in our asking. Jesus invites us to pray and then to release those prayers as we might release a helium balloon, letting them go where the spirit will take them, letting them become fuel for God’s action in the world.

When we enter into that kind of relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Holy, in and through prayer, then prayer, no matter what words we use, or whether we use words at all, indeed becomes for us our “worthiest art, best resource and sublimest joy.”


[1] George Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1942) 15. Emphasis mine.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 18, 2010
Luke 10:38-42

Imagine this scene. You’ve invited your extended family for Thanksgiving dinner. Aunts, uncles, cousins have traveled great distances so the family can be together. You’re delighted of course to welcome them but there is so much to be done: beds to be made, food to be prepared and served, a table to be set, pots and pans to be washed, and you bustle about tending to one thing and then another, confident that it will all be accomplished and grateful that you have your sister to help you. You know that family gatherings like this are important—but still, there’s a lot to do, and you’re beginning to feel a bit worn. As you move from task to task, you look around to see what your sister is doing, but she’s out of sight. Then, much to your surprise, you see that instead of helping you, she’s sitting in the family room, listening to your grandmother tell stories about her childhood.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you can easily imagine how Martha must have been feeling in today’s gospel story, and you might empathize with her complaint to Jesus, “Make her help me!” And you might feel stung, as Martha surely did, when Jesus takes Mary’s side. It’s not what most of us would expect to hear.

Like the story of the Good Samaritan we heard last week, this story of Mary and Martha is a familiar one. And just as “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous for one who cares for others, so have the names “Mary and Martha” when uttered together, come to stand for the dilemma we find ourselves in from time to time, caught between the duties and constraints society places on us on the one hand and the desires of our hearts on the other.

It’s easy for most of us to identify with Martha, with the feeling of being put upon, having to take care of everything, having to be responsible while others are off, seemingly having more fun. Martha’s complaints were, by most measures, legitimate: As our OT reading illustrated, hospitality was a fundamental value; it was her role to provide a meal for her guests, to make sure their needs were attended to, and she had no one else to help her. So why does Jesus scold her and not Mary?

The answer to that lies, I think, in the nature of Jesus’ message to his followers throughout this part of Luke’s gospel. Jesus consistently challenges his listeners to go beyond their comfort zones, to push the boundaries and restrictions that govern their lives, to put their relationship with him above even other culturally and religiously mandated behaviors. Jesus’ rebuke of Martha follows his chastisement of the man who wanted to bury his father before joining the disciples and the one who simply wanted to bid his family farewell. When Jesus says to Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part,” it is not so much a rebuke of the work Martha does—because it is good and necessary work—as it is a validation of Mary’s choice to take another way: to sit and listen, taking on the role of learner, of disciple, a role normally reserved for males.

Jesus legitimizes Mary’s choice to act as disciple and in doing so he seems to legitimize women’s place in the life of the church. That would be radical enough, but I think Jesus’ message extends even beyond that. In the 1st century world of Palestine both men and women were entangled in and restrained by a complicated web of rules and expectations that defined what it meant to be respectable members of society. Jesus’ call to follow him was also a call to break out of that entanglement, to let go of the societal and cultural bonds that restrained them and to take on his yoke instead. This is a liberating message because when taken to heart it allows us to fully claim our identity as God’s beloved children, nothing more and nothing less.

By chance, we hear this liberating message at the start of a week that will include the feasts days celebrating the lives and ministries of six remarkable women, women who like Mary chose, in their quest to follow Jesus, a path different from that prescribed for them by society. Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Macrina, a fourth century teacher and theologian. Macrina came from a family of wealth and power, but she convinced her mother to use the family fortune to start a monastery on the family estate. Macrina had ten younger brothers—three of whom became noted bishops: Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Peter of Sebastea. Most of what we know about Macrina comes from a tribute written by Gregory, which credits Macrina with being their teacher and their spiritual director, the one who guided them on their journeys in faith.

On Tuesday we will observe the feast day of four 19th century women, all of whom defied the bonds placed on them by society to seek justice for the oppressed and downtrodden. Two of these women, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, were born into slavery, and after escaping those bonds worked tirelessly to free others and to abolish the practice of slavery in this country. After the civil war ended they joined their voices with those of the other two women whose feast day they share, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, in the long struggle to gain equal rights for women.

And Thursday is the feast day of Mary Magdalen. Although tradition is rich with stories about Mary Magdalen, we know very little about her actual life. Some argue that it was she from whom Jesus exorcised seven demons and some claim that it was she who wiped Jesus feet with her hair after anointing them with oil. The gospels record that she was among the followers of Jesus, and that she was present at his crucifixion and burial. It was Mary Magdalen who found the empty tomb and it was Mary Magdalen who was sent by the resurrected Jesus to tell the others what had happened, earning her the name of “apostle to the apostles.” Like the Mary in today’s gospel story, Mary Magdalen chose following Jesus, chose the role of disciple over the traditional roles her culture sanctioned for her.

The six women whose lives and ministries we celebrate this week are a diverse group but they have at least one thing in common. Like Mary in today’s gospel these women refused to be bound by the limits that society placed on them, instead choosing a different way. These women are wonderful icons of women’s discipleship and women’s ministry, but they are more than that. Their lives and work remind all of us, women and men alike, that as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, in Christ, we are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female; we are neither gay nor straight, black nor white, young nor old, rich nor poor. In Christ we are not bound by human categories nor by the roles and restrictions society places on us. Rather we are called first and foremost as God’s beloved children. No matter what other roles or vocations we choose to take on, it is in this identity that we become most truly ourselves; it is in this identity that we are freest to love the One who made us, and to seek and serve Christ in all we meet. And for that we give thanks to God.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Sermon for Independence Day

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 4, 2010 Independence Day
Matthew 5:43-48

"But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Today’s gospel, the one set in the lectionary for Independence Day, comes from one of my favorite parts of scripture—the Sermon on the Mount, that long discourse in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus lays out for his audience just what it means to be a disciple. For me, it is truly a handbook for being a Christian. Not everyone views it that way, of course. Figures as illustrious as Martin Luther have argued that the Sermon on the Mount puts discipleship out of the reach of ordinary people by setting an impossibly high standard for behavior, what with the “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” and “do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth.” I prefer to think of it as setting the bar high; as giving us an ideal to strive for: being perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. And although we could spend our time lamenting that of course we will never be perfect, or excusing ourselves by saying that since we will never be perfect we may as well not try, it seems to me to be more profitable to strive for becoming more like the God who created us than to dwell in the ways we fall short.

There is no doubt that Jesus does set high standards for us. He begins the portion of the Sermon on the Mount from which today’s gospel is drawn by claiming that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but rather to fulfill them, and then he outlines a number of different ways that his followers are called to go beyond what the law would demand in their relationship with others. It’s easy, he concludes, to care about the folks we like, but if we are to enter into God’s kingdom, we must also care about those we DON’T like, and the ones who don’t like us. No small task, that.

Jesus is not the only one to set high standards. The founders of our country did so as well, and as we celebrate our Independence Day we do well to recall just what those standards are:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In a society in which the divine right of kings was largely unquestioned, in which there were clear social hierarchies and in which power was invested in those with means, these ideals were, like the injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount, almost impossibly out of reach. And the rich irony is, even the author of these words and the endorsers of the declaration from which they came applied them selectively. Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned human slaves. It took almost 100 years before black men in America were accorded the right to vote and close to another 100 years before it was safe for them to do so. And although women asked for the vote in 1848, they didn’t receive it until 1920, almost 150 years after those words were enshrined in the founding document of our country.

The founding fathers, you see, were defining “all men” as “people like me.” To be fair, they were no different from the major philosophers, theologians and scientists of the day in believing that white males were the epitome of creation, and white males were the group they defined as “all men.” The beauty of what they wrote, of the principle they established, however, is that it is expansive and inclusive enough to take in all of humanity, as we come to grasp that humanity is not limited by gender or race or orientation or any of the others human categories we use to make sense of the world. Just as we must care about those whom we don’t like, so too must we uphold the rights of those who may not be just like us.

And though we’ve made great strides, we still struggle with both standards. We seek to include all of humanity under the umbrella of liberty and justice, even as we nit-pick and argue about how to do so. And we labor as well with loving those we really don’t like—loving our enemies, loving those who don’t see the world we do, loving those whose desires for us are not always good ones.

But love them we must. Care about them we must. Because God does—God loves each and every one of us without prerequisite. God makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. And our call is to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.

We won’t make it, of course, not in this lifetime, just as this great nation will not live up to its ideals of liberty for all. But that’s no reason not to try, not to strive to be the people we are called to be. As a nation that means endeavoring to be true champions of justice and beacons of equality; it means welcoming the tired, huddled masses who yearn to breathe free; it means defending the rights of the least among us.

And as followers of Jesus, children of God, it means aiming always to live into the image of God in which we were created; it means turning the other cheek when we’d rather fight back; caring for others who might not care for us in return; giving to other when we’d rather hoard for ourselves; it means loving God and our neighbor and putting that love ahead of everything else.

Easy? Not at all! But think about this: We do this for the God who created us to delight in us and who loved us enough to become incarnate among us, to live and die among us, to take on our pain and our suffering. We do this for the God who continues to love us beyond measure even we when we are utterly unlovable. We do this so that the Kingdom of God might flourish now and forever. Is that not reason enough to try?