Today we are speaking about prayer, and as we look at prayer I want to hear this text from the perspective of the disciples who knew the Hebrew text and who were witness to Jesus’ prayer life. Who watched him wander off alone into the hills, like Moses before him. Who watched him sink to his knees in the garden of Gethsemane. Who watched him pray over the sick and injured. Who wanted some of that for themselves. Hungry for the presence of God, willing to walk away from everything they knew if only, if only God would draw near, would touch them too, would be present to them too. Or who had had their lives changed forever by being the subject of one of Jesus’ prayers. I don’t think we can really hear this text apart from the whole of Jesus’ prayer life, one which his disciples witnessed every day.
I know that I pray best when I’m on my knees. When desperation has driven me there, when my heart is breaking, and I can no longer deny my need. It’s then that my reliance on God is most evident, most visceral and real to me. When everything is great, the sun is shining, the children are playing and all are well, it’s so easy to get distracted. It’s easy to take credit and say I earned this or I did this, I cooked this meal, threw this party, curated this art, etc, and as I congratulate myself on things going well gratitude takes a back seat. It becomes harder to notice the depth of God’s love and providence when I am taking credit for it. In fact, when I take credit I get anxious because if I’m responsible then I had better keep it up.
The conversation between Jesus and his disciples about prayer was driven by the way they saw Jesus being impacted and changed by his prayer. I imagine that the disciples could see that something was different, was powerful about his relationship with God and that they might have said something like:
Teach me to pray, Rabbi, because I see you speaking to God and God always seems to hear you. Teach me, because so often when I pray it feels like no one is listening and I don’t know what to ask for and, well, I’m afraid to ask about that stuff that scares me, that leaves me feeling like, if God doesn’t answer now, then I must be forsaken, I must be forgotten, I must be outside of God’s grace, of God’s love, and if that were true, if it were true, I couldn’t bear it.
So teach me to pray so some of that love will rub off on me and then I can believe. Just give me the right words, the right motions, do I put my hands like this, or like this? Do I have to kneel? Is it okay to ask for anything? Even that stuff which breaks my heart?
I imagine Jesus being a little tired and frustrated with having to explain again that you might just have to be vulnerable, that you might just have to acknowledge how deeply you need God and how dependent one is on God’s grace. So Jesus’ response begins with relationship. Do you know who God is to you? That God is like a father to you, loves you more than any earthly father could? And that it was important that God be a father and not a mother because inheritance came through fathers in that time, so to have an important wealthy father was to have a blessing coming in the future. This is not an abstract question, not rhetorical. This is not an abstract idea but one we can take refuge in and one that is repeated frequently throughout scripture.
Still, it’s just too amazing isn’t it? That God, very God, holy and mighty, looks upon us with the tenderness of a loving parent and that because of this we can ask for anything, lay any problem on God’s broad shoulders, and be fully who we are as we ask because God loves us just as we are. No improvement project needed.
But still, Jesus’ disciples, having already heard this repeatedly as they grew up, ask again. Jesus, how should we speak to God so God will hear us like God hears you?
And Jesus gives them a threefold prayer, pray for the present-give me enough to make it through today, pray for the past-forgive me what has been, just as I forgive those who have hurt me, and pray for the future, Thy kingdom come, not my idea of what should be or could be but yours. Jesus tells them they can pray for any time, any need. Ask for what you want, he says, God, very God, who knows you are made of dust and who loves you beyond anything you can understand, will answer you. Trust in that. And don’t stop asking for what you need! Ask and ask and ask, some would call that nagging but go ahead and nag, ask and ask and ask. Bang on that door when you have need and ask again. But know that God doesn’t just give stuff or cures or answers, God gives God’s very own self.
Because this wouldn’t be a very honest sermon if we didn’t talk about those prayers that go unanswered even when we’ve banging on God’s door with a great deal of fervor. There are too many prayers that go unanswered. Prayers in the midst of genocide and murder, prayers in the halls of the hospital, prayers whispered in the dark.
As a child I used to pray every night for a golden dress like Cinderella’s and with all the childlike trust of a five year old I would go to the closet every morning looking for it and undeterred would do it again the next day. I had this magical thinking going on, that if I prayed the right words at the right time in the right way, God would give me this dress and make me a beautiful princess. And I wanted to be that beautiful princess so badly. It wasn’t as frivolous as it sounds, not to a child. I was a true believer, like all of those who pray for lottery tickets and parking spaces. If I asked just right, maybe, just maybe I would get my wish.
But then I have to go back to the Garden of Gethsemane. Maybe prayer isn’t about wish fulfillment but something else. Something deeper. Maybe God doesn’t give stuff because stuff isn’t what it’s about. God gives God’s very own self to us.
And the hospital prayers? The ones raised in the midst of genocide, war and horror? The ones that are about so much more than stuff? For that we have to go to Jesus’ crying out on the cross. A prayer of anguish and loss, a prayer of recrimination, where are you God? Why have you abandoned me? We love it when God gives answers. When we can look back and say, I see where God saved me, but this isn’t how it always is.
We must sit with Job in the ashes and stubbornly persist in our faithfulness when everything around us is falling apart. When the evidence of God’s love seems sparse and we don’t have our mountain top experiences. And when God says to us, “well, where you when I created the earth, we have to join Job in trembling before a mystery we will never quite understand, a mystery we are in awe of. The bravest words in our text today are, “Let thy will be done and not mine,” because we are always so full of ideas and expectations. Trusting in God’s providence when our best ideas fail and our expectations are not met is an act of courage and faith. God gives God’s very self to us, but not in the way we always hope.
Prayer is transformative in nature, it breaks down our fear, fills our loss, drains our grief and anger, leaves us emptied out. It confronts us with God’s claim on our lives, calls us into action even if that action is only further prayer and contemplation.
Prayer comforts us and remind us that we are to be Kingdom people in a world where the kingdom of God seems very distant. We are to hold onto the hope and the promise even when things seem to be falling apart and know that God is with us in even the darkest moments. We must be willing to bring our whole selves before God, frightened or joyful, angry or rejoicing, broken or celebrating, just bring it all, because God can take it and God is with us. Enter into prayer knowing that it may not take away the cup that is before us, and it may not bring us the stuff we have prayed for, but it will change us, it will remake and transform us and our relationship to God, and trust that this is enough.
We are kingdom people. We are not alone, we are the sons and daughters of the King and as such we may have great heroes journeys ahead of us, but we will enter them bravely as children of the King,
Maren Tirabassi writes:
And the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. And he replied, “keep it light…”
one small brush of the grand and lifting wing,
holy are all the names of God.
Your kindness come
and your kiss be felt warm
on every lump of soil,
gust of wind,
lapping of salt sea and fresh water.
Give us today
and let us recognize it
as a gift —
the bread and beauty of it —
and that it is like no other.
Forgive us all the love
we owed but hoarded,
and our careless or angry trespassing
on the lives of your children,
even as, with unbearable effort,
the taking and the trampling
of what is precious to us.
Draw your hush across our lips,
and pull us back
from what we would regret.
Find us an escape or stay with us
when there is none,
for yours is the place our hands are held,
yours is the courage of the sequoia
and the broken atom,
yours are galaxies of starlight,
and the hum of bees —
Now … and when we come to sing
all our todays
into your tomorrow.
Lean in to God’s love, you will find that Love has been there all along, leaning toward you. Prayer brings us into God’s presence in a particular way, one which changes us and changes the world. It reminds us that we have enough, and we are enough, and that even when things fall apart, God is with us, and we will never walk alone. amen
Colossians 1: 15-29
15 He is the image of the unseen God,
the first born of all creation,
16 for in him were created all things
in heaven and on earth:
everything visible and everything invisible,
thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers –
all things were created through him and for him.
17 He exists before all things
and in him all things hold together,
18 and he is the Head of the Body that is, the Church.
He is the Beginning,
the first born from the dead,
so that he should be supreme in every way;
19 God was pleased to have all fullness dwell in him
20 and through him to reconcile all things to him,
everything in heaven and everything on earth,
by making peace through his death on the cross.
21 You who were once estranged and of hostile intent through your evil behaviour; now he has reconciled you, by his death and in that mortal body, to bring you before himself holy, faultless and irreproachable-
23 as long as you persevere and stand firm on the solid base of the faith, never letting yourselves drift away from the hope promised by the gospel, which you have heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become the servant.
24 It makes me happy to be suffering for you now, and in my own body to make up all the hardships that still have to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church,5 of which I was made a servant with the responsibility towards you that God gave to me, that of completing God’s message,
26 the message which was a mystery hidden for generations and centuries and has now been revealed to his holy people.27 It was God’s purpose to reveal to them how rich is the glory of this mystery among the gentiles; it is Christ among you, your hope of glory:
28 this is the Christ we are proclaiming, admonishing and instructing everyone in all wisdom, to make everyone perfect in Christ.
29 And it is for this reason that I labour, striving with his energy which works in me mightily.
The Poetry of Sedition
The fullness of God, very God, the grand canyon carving, comet hurling, DNA writing God, came to reside in the frail, time bound form of a human being and if we are not astonished at this we do not understand it. God’s fullness was pleased, pleased to dwell in him, to abide, to take up residence, imagine, just imagine. The overwhelming act of the fullness of God drawing near. Like staring at the sun, one can only come so close to God. The ancients knew that to gaze upon the face of God, the full aspect of God, was to be consumed, annihilated. Even Moses, God-law writing Moses, Moses who spoke to God on the mountain, only saw God’s backside, only saw God in the act of departing, of moving away. But in today’s scripture, this poem attributed to Paul, we dare to imagine God’s fullness being pleased to dwell among us, being pleased to abide deep within one just like us.
So Paul goes on to remind us that all the things we are taught to give priority to in this world, the image of Ceasar, painted on pottery, carved in stone, looking up from every coin, all of this self-promotion by the one styling himself as ‘the son of god’ was, is pretty irrelevant. It’s all secondary and eh, not really all that important.
Paul tells us it’s time to give notice to the images we are asked to worship, whether it is the perfect figure, the unattainable thigh gap, the shiniest, newest sports car, the elaborate house with full guest bedroom suites and in-house theater, the pedigreed dog, the well, I could go on. You all know these images, the ones that advertisers dangle in front of us during prime time TV suggesting that if we only had this, could only succeed here, could only, could only…all would be fine. It would be great in fact! And most of us have bought into one or two of these because they sneak up on you. They fill your life with should’s. I should be this, I should have that, I should be able to..speak five languages, write poetry, translate Greek and Hebrew (oh wait, that’s my inner demon speaking). We begin shoulding, judging and evaluating our lives and discovering that we have fallen far short of where we ‘should’ be.
Like falling in love the spirit moves where it will and faithfulness asks that we follow the spirit into each adventure like a lover, never asking if this is what it should be but falling head over heels in love with God. It’s awkward, it’s clumsy and it breaks all the rules. It is an act of sedition against all the should be’s and musts that have been grilled into us since we were children. To prefer God’s touch and presence to propriety, to seek after any glimpse of God always watching the eyes of passersby and strangers on the street looking for any sign of the image of God. Looking for some glimpse, some sign, perhaps not the fullness but does God dwell in you, some partial piece, some little bit, dwelling in you?
The fullness of God was pleased, pleased to dwell within him. A largesse that must have been all consuming, did not Jesus’ humanity feel the threat of being burned to a crisp by the nearness of God? And Paul, in his arrogance states he is here to complete Jesus work and we begin to doubt our text and question Paul when he says there is anything left to complete as if Jesus were not lit from within by a light too bright to look upon, too consuming to be understood, and the commentaries and study bibles begin to apologize for Paul, you know he didn’t mean that literally. He wasn’t really saying that he could complete Jesus’ work nor that anything was left untidy, unfinished, a work half done or cut short by an untimely death, he didn’t really mean it, they say, and we might wonder at Paul, shaking our heads a little bit, just as we might wonder at our commentaries so quick to excuse his indiscretion.
Our text becomes not the unerring, all knowing, final truth but the writings of a man who so desperately wanted to know God, to be close to God that he welcomed suffering, pain and loss in the attempt to get closer to the God of abundance, life and vitality. To a God who no suffering, pain or loss, not even death itself, could consume or diminish. So the commentaries apologize for Paul’s zeal while encouraging us to accept suffering, loss and pain as a way of getting closer to God and if we really hear them we ought to doubt. We ought to wonder at Augustine, that African monk whose guilt and struggle with his own passions caused him to decry all earthly passions. We ought to question Calvin who could not stand to watch a woman walk toward him to receive communion and therefore suggested we all stay seated please and for the first time communion in the pews was born, because the beauty of a human form was too disturbing and he wanted nothing to distract him from the beauty of God. So we question these saints and their feeble attempts to get closer to God by looking away from God’s beloved—which my friend is you and me.
For if we do not see God’s image when we look at each other, if we do not see God’s image when we look at the wonders of all creation, we have missed the freely given reflection we have of this great artist, the one we know intimately by the works made manifest around us every day, if we only dare look.
For God has not left us alone and God has not simply disappeared nor removed God’s very self from us but continues to shift and move, to create and disperse these creations, as one sunset fades into the brilliance of the night sky, only to be followed by another glorious sunrise, like the flowers giving way to heavy pendulous seedpods, like love letters written in the curve of every wave that washes the beach, God reaches for us.
What then, is truth, if, as the Catholics decried during the reformation, “All you protesting protestants have a paper pope, where we lionize and follow a spiritual descendent of St. Peter, at least the image of God beheld in a living breathing man, you praise and lionize the writings of others as if they were infallible.” Because if they seek certainty and security, some final definitive answer to the mystery of God in a man, we too often seek it in the writings of men.
But not today. Today we are wrapped in poetry, the poetry of Paul and the poetry of some long forgotten psalmist, attributed to this person or that but long lost to history in truth. The poetry of scripture calls us beyond the written word and into experience, to let God reach in and touch our hearts, hold our minds captive with a turn of phrase, “God’s fullness was pleased, pleased, to dwell in him.” To allow that simple phrase, fullness of God, to suggest, to imply more than we can ever know, and if we are attentive, to open our minds and hearts in awe and wonder.
The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord, yes? Or maybe no, because the word translated as fear is closer to awe and trembling, is closer to some visceral comprehension of the fullness of God, God, very God creator of the winds. God, very God, who whispers words of encouragement to the seed buried in the earth and causes it to grow. God, very God, who turns the earth on its axis and causes the stars to take up their stately dance.
For there is more, there is so much more than fear and correct theology, there is the subtle, tender lift in your chest, an openness ripe with vulnerability which threatens to overwhelm you and knock you to your knees if you allow it to touch you, to soak into your flesh, as if you just might drown in it. And this is to stand in awe and trembling, this is to bravely face the all consuming presence of God’s love and if we aren’t a little afraid, perhaps we don’t understand, because this will change everything.
All too often we join Paul in our attempt to complete God’s work because the rawness of real encounter is so frightening, is so vulnerable. So we try to contain God with the correct theology, correct worship; we name God and claim God, saying we know God best, and God laughs gently and says, “Yes honey, I love you too,” and slips away like a gentle breeze. Because we can’t contain God or limit God with even our best, most profound understandings. Because we forget sometimes, that knowing God is an experience and not even the most brilliant creeds or confessions can grasp or contain that experience.
Like falling in love the spirit moves where it will and faithfulness asks that we follow the spirit into each adventure like a lover, never asking if this is what it should be but falling head over heels in love with God. It’s awkward, it’s clumsy and it breaks all the rules. We need poetry, music, and art to even begin to communicate this experience. We need these arts because they give us courage to enter the dance, to let our hearts and souls be stirred. We need these arts because we know that God speaks the language of our heart and for each one of us that language is peculiar, is particular, and God speaks to us in all that particularity.
Falling in love with God we might write poetry or sing songs, we might join in the careless dance of David abandoning all propriety. Falling in love with God we dare to trust that we are eternally loved and will never be forgotten or abandoned and trusting in that, lose all our fear. And what wild reckless fools for God we become when we lose all fear!
Paul says, You who were once estranged and of hostile intent through your evil behavior…but the enemy is not hostile intent nor evil behavior, it is fear. Perhaps it is the fear that all of this is just too good for you, or you won’t measure up and all those should’s and should not’s rise up like an army against you, but stand firm and hear the good news. This wild, audacious love is for you and will never let you go, nor will it constrain you, but wherever you wander in whatever foolish attempt to find love and happiness, it is always with you, tugging at your sleeve and saying, “I’m right here. If the game is love, you ought to know I never lose. Turn to me and let me love you and I will hold you through whatever storms might come.”
Falling in love with God we might write poetry or sing songs, we might join in the careless dance of David abandoning all propriety. Falling in love with God we dare to trust that we are eternally loved and will never be forgotten or abandoned and trusting in that, lose all our fear. And what wild reckless fools for God we become when we lose all fear! We might even abandon all those foolish and misguided attempts to make everything OK and everything certain and instead join the dance! We might even feel that gentle tug on our sleeves and hear that voice saying, “Hey you, yeah, you, I love you to the moon and back.” So let your heart grow tender and let awe and wonder take up residence. Stand outside under the night sky, listen for the hooting of the doves, run your hand through the tall grass as you walk on by, and know in your heart these are all love letters from the one who dearly, dearly loves you and in whom all things hold together. Amen
I have no manuscript for this sermon. This has been a tough week for our nation. I urge you all to take care of yourselves, be kind, especially when it’s hard, and throw starfish whenever you can.
A reflection on Luke 10: 1-20
Click here for audio~06020102
When I was a young newly married woman I lived in Germany on a military post. At first blush it appeared that I was off on an incredible adventure, living in a foreign land but in military housing we had enclaves of Americanism. There were residents there who never ventured off post. They stayed where the language, the customs, the community, especially the food, were familiar. Others of us dared to venture out into the unknown, to be greeted with strange sayings such as Gruss Gott and to be eyed warily as foreigners. A few brave souls learnt the language and moved into the community, taking jobs and finding housing off post, but most of us would spend most of our time on post, resting in familiarity. Anywhere where a group of immigrants, or transient workers, which I guess in a sense is what military families overseas are, live there tends to arise a pocket of home, a neighborhood that remembers and sustains the culture of home.
We take great comfort in familiarity. It connects at some deep visceral level and assures us that we do, in fact, belong. We know the social contracts that are implied and not spoken. We know the social customs and the familial ties that pass unseen to visitors. Here in church we know when to stand, when to sit, which version of the Lord’s prayer to recite—and we can recite it by memory. I remember that moment when, as a child, I realized I had it fully memorized. I began to recite it looking around to see if anyone noticed that I could recite it by memory and silently judging those who were reading it off the page. Knowing the Lord’s prayer by memory was sort of like my membership card, proving I was an insider. Today I’m back to reading the various prayers and creeds as different versions compete in my mind, is it debts and debtors, is it sins and transgressions, is it trespasses? Are we using inclusive language? But I still have that insider, I belong, familiarity. I mean doesn’t everyone, everywhere stand for the Gloria Patri? And does anyone need to see the music anymore?
But then I venture into another church, something different and I experience my first altar call. I find myself surrounded by people who can’t sit during a song and they simply must wave their hands in the air. And I am reminded that our ways of being are just as strange, just as foreign and unknown to those who visit us. One church I visited introduced me to prayer stations. The pastor stating, “there are many opportunities to respond to today’s message, you might want to light a candle over here, draw or write a prayer on the grafitti wall back there, write a confession on rice paper and release it into the baptismal waters knowing that just as it dissolves there so your sin is absolved,” he went on, and I sat there stunned. He wanted me to do what? But over time as I surrendered my preconceived ideas of what church has to be, must be, in order to be real church my experience was transformed, was widened and I began to see the Holy Spirit moving and shifting through each of these experiences.
In our scripture today we hear Jesus sending the 70, or 72 depending upon the version you read, out into foreign areas, strange new places, where they were to abide and dwell with the first peaceful resident who would take them in. They were not to seek a familiar enclave or to search for the best possible experience, “I’m going to stay with Sam because he has a hot tub!”And they were not to take their own sustenance or means of sustenance along with them. Leave your spare clothes, your extra cash, your comfy slippers, and don’t stop to chat with people on the way, get moving! Go, go now, into the strange new places and meet those who are unlike yourself.
I think Jesus knew that our human tendency is to stay with those most like ourselves and when possible to avoid being dependent on others. I think he knew that if his disciples were to truly meet others, to get to know them, to know their stories and their lives, that they had to live together. They had to ask for what they needed. They had to meet these people right where they were if genuine, authentic relationships were to be formed. I think Jesus knew that our human nature is to avoid vulnerability, is to avoid change, is to protect and defend and be self reliant, but this is not the gospel way.
Oh, and how we want to make it that sometimes! We want promises and assurances and we want to be right and certain. We want to bask in the security of what is familiar and routine. But God asks us to grow into something new. God asks us to allow ourselves to be transformed and made over, the old is passed away, behold I do a new thing!
But that middle bit, the part where transformation takes place, it’s messy. No catepillar ever became a butterfly without going through the chrysalis. I can imagine a hundred awkward scenarios as the 70(2) went out. It seems like it’s always the simple things that mess us up. Do I take my shoes off or keep them on? Where is the bathroom? Do I stand or sit? When we come together as church here we, as the insiders, know all of these things.
Jesus’ invitation to us, today, is to set aside our expectations and enter fully into relationship with all people, those who may enter this sanctuary, and those who may never do so.
We are to set aside that which is familiar so that we might meet people right where they are. Parker Palmer, who wrote a wonderful book called, Let Your Life Speak, reminds us that the soul is a quiet and shy thing. It does not like to be pushed out into the open and force will cause it to disappear like water from a tight fist, but if coaxed with promises of welcome, of hospitality and gentleness, it will show up. When we put aside our way of being in order to meet others right where they are, we become a welcoming, hospitable church that invites others to be fully present, with all their crazy ways of being, and all of the gifts that God has given them to give.
In the 1950’s just after the second world war a Japanese woman petitioned a presbyterian church for membership. They said no. No they didn’t need nor want any of her type there. With incredible grace and humility she continued to attend anyway. It is not unusual today to see the sanctuary decorated in hundreds and hundreds of origami cranes, because as she sat in the pews with the restless children, she would teach them some simple origami to keep them quiet. Eventually their heart was softened and she was granted membership. She has long since passed away, but that church was gifted great kindness and humilty through her witness.
We are called not only to meet others where they are but to welcome strangers with such a full and gracious hospitality that they will be empowered to give of themselves and all that they are. We are called to enter into relationship with all who come, allowing them to change us as much as we seek to change them. Each and every time we seek to witness to Christ’s love for the other and we seek to see Christ’s image in the other, we risk becoming a new creation, transformed, made new. No outward sign will do, only a change of heart will suffice.
To really know and understand something, we must move into action, our thoughts and our best understanding must flow through our hands and out into the world where we can see them. The seventy (two) who were sent to all nations, were asked to be act as/like Jesus, to put into action that which they had been taught. Is it ever enough to to simply know? To know and refuse to act, is much the same as not knowing.
Jesus invited the seventy[two] and us! to do something very Christlike, to empty ourselves of all of our preconceptions and right answers, to meet those who so desparately long for connection right where they are, and to love them, just as they are. The seventy[two] had learned this way at the master’s knee, but to fully realize what they had learned they needed to put it into action. And they returned with incredible joy! Love, community building, salvation, restoration, healing! It had all happened for them just as they had seen it happen for Jesus. And Jesus reponded, “I saw the adversary fall from heaven like lightening!
We have only to give up our desire to seek safety and familiarity, to go, go now! Trusting that God will go with us, and risk a little vulnerability, risk making a mistake or two, and meet others, right where they are.