Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pray Uppity

It seems to me, as I reflect on the week I spent at the St. John's Monastery in Minnesota, just how much I have prayed 3 times a day with brothers (or sisters at St. Benedict's in St. Joseph), and another couple times a day, plus a time each day of Lectio Divina with my own brothers and sisters in the dispersed community of St. Brigid of Kildare.  At some times in my life, that amount of prayer would have equaled a years' effort. 

 What first struck me a couple of years ago, when I went to St. John's the first time, was the silence.  Most people don't know what to do with silence.  Some just can't stand it.  They will turn on a TV or a radio not to be entertained or informed, but just so that void can be filled.

But in this week, silence was a constant companion, and for those used to it, a companionable one.  We each had our own room, or “cell”, I guess in monkish terms, and that was a place of quiet and peace.  The brothers would walk in silently to pray, and walk out just as quietly. 

The main structure of Benedictine prayer is to pray the Psalms, all 150 of them, in a week.  Each Psalm is either recited or chanted, and there are always three or four, plus other worship elements.  And there is at least a full minute of silence between each element, between each Psalm.

Being comfortable with silence is something many of us human beings grow into.  For us in the developed world, silence doesn't feel natural, the way it might for the vast population of the US. 

Now this is not a sermon about how “I am such a better pray-er than you.”  We were all raised, those of us who were raised in the church, anyway, to believe that prayer was a requirement, a duty.  Maybe, for some of us, it even became a chore. 

When prayer feels the same to you as doing the dishes, we've missed the point. 

We're trained by our culture about what prayer should be.  We assimilate the proper ratio of praise to petition, and to use poetical words.  We've all learned the way to do it.

Have you noticed, though, that the Lord's Prayer does it wrong?

Have you noticed that the Lord's Prayer rushes through a perfunctory praise section, and gets right to the asking for stuff? 

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done...”

“All righty”, we say,  “got that done, now to the petitions, which is the point”

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Don't you think that's kind of odd, that the language seems to put a one-to-one equivalency between what we forgive and what we're forgiven for?  That isn't what it means, I think.  I think it means that we are to forgive as God forgives, meaning, in the same manner, with the same generosity and the same forbearance. 
  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil...”

In other words, “please God, keep us fed, don't let us be punished as harshly as we might deserve, and help us to be graceful with the people who have hurt us.”  oh, and keep us safe.

And then we get a little more praise at the end.

Jesus prays it wrong, according to the ways we were taught as Christians.


Jesus then goes on to talk about persistence in prayer.  He tells the story of a man who goes to his neighbors' house at three in the morning, because he's just received a guest, and the guest is hungry.  The man has no food in the house, so he goes to the next door neighbors' hoiuse and says “help help!  I need some bread for my guest!”  Well, the neighbor of course tells him he's not going to get up, it's three in the morning, the door is locked, all the kids are asleep.

But Jesus tells us that if we are persistent, the neighbor will of course get up.  There's another story of the same type, a few chapters later in Luke, which Jesus tells the story of a woman who is persistent in her complaint with a Judge, and the judge finally grants her her justice just so she'll stop bothering him. 

Where I grew up, the word “bold” was generally a positive term-you could get bold flavors, paint in bold colors, or someone had made some bold (and therefore admirable) decisions.

Then I move to Northeastern PA, and learn that it is a negative attribute here.  It means “uppity”, or “impolite”, or “rude.”

Folks, this text is telling us to pray boldly.  We're being told to pray impolitely; we're told to pray persistently.   
There's a quote that I want to share with you all, which was very new to me this week, but is apparently an old chestnut, from George Buttrick:

“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 noble to die. But if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, worthiest art, best resource and sublimest joy.”

What he's basically saying is:  If God doesn't exist, prayer is a self delusion.  We
re hollering our worries and joys into a vacuum.  If God does exist, and yet we don't know anything about God, God is just a great big unknowable entity, then prayer is pathetic and sad.  We don't know whether God cares. 

But if Jesus can be seen as evidence of God's character, if we know about God because we know the stories of Jesus, then we know we lift our prayers to someone who hears and cares. 

Now, of course, Buttrick believes the third choice.  Scripture tells us that Jesus is indeed a reflection of God; the term “Emmanuel” means “God with Us.”  Everything we know about God's character, we know through Jesus. 

It pays, therefore, for us to pay attention to the words of Jesus in the Bible.  It behooves us to attend to what Jesus tells us about prayer.  They are the answers to the test!  It is God telling us how to pray to God!

And God's telling us to be bold... to be impertinent.  God tells us to be uppity!

God tells us to be persistent.  This is how we are supposed to pray.  Not lady-like, or gentlemanly, but whooping, and crying, and sighing and groaning.

Thy will be done, give us this day our daily bread, forgive us as we forgive others, and don't let us get into trouble.     


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tree Stumps and Tombstones

Preached July 14 in the Throop and Dunmore UMC's

This is the very beginning of Romans.  You may remember in your Bible studies about Romans that this book is the pinnacle of Paul’s theological thought.  Of all the letters that Paul wrote to the churches in the Mediterranean sea region, Romans is the one that is written to a congregation that he did not start.  It is an existing congregation that he is introducing himself to.  He doesn't know the context, as he would in Corinth or Colossae. 

He’s presenting his bona fides to the Roman Christians.  So the first part of this letter is a very basic understanding of the Christian faith, one that he builds on later, but is simple here. 

2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, (NRSV)

All of this statement is basically orthodox (and did anyone else notice that, even though it is 5 verses, in this version of the text, there is not a complete sentence in it anywhere?  It is one fragment), and nothing that the Romans would see as controversial.

Until you get to verse 5, where he states that gentiles can also be part of the body of Christ.  That might be a little controversial in Rome, or anywhere else, for that matter.  That was a relatively recent decision to the believers, certainly within 30 years.  And here’s Paul saying this is what Christians are called to do and be, and this is what I am about.

The most operative part of the verse, however, is the second half of five, where it says that “we have received grace and apostleship…”  In the Common English bible, it says it this way:

Through him, we have received God’s grace and our appointment to be Apostles.

When Paul says “we”, here, he isn't talking about himself, or Peter, or James, or John.  When he says we, he is talking to his audience.  We are Apostles.  And while yes, he may or may not have been thinking about future generations of Christians, it is nonetheless our entry into this text.  We have the same access to grace through Jesus Christ into the love of God.  It would then make sense that we, too, are called to be Apostles. 

So, now that we are all Apostles, let me tell you about another one.  The founder of our practice of Christianity was named John Wesley, who was born in 1702, and was an Anglican priest.  (Anglican means Church of England, which in America is today called the Episcopal church). 

He had a difficult ministry, I don’t know if he ever had his own parish.  His spiritual journey is well documented though, though his own diaries and sermons.

For all his being raised the son of a priest and a wonderfully inspired mother, he still was in doubt about his salvation.  It took a difficult sailing voyage and recent failures in his life to put enough stress on the question of salvation, however, and the answer began to be seen in watching German Pietists sing joyful hymns and pray in peace while on the same ship.  (According to Free Online dictionary, it is A reform movement in the German Lutheran Church during the 17th and 18th centuries, which strove to renew the devotional ideal in the Protestant religion.)

He began to seek earnestly for that same sense of peace, and it took a few years.  But one evening, he went to a Bible study run by these Pietists, and found himself assured of his salvation in a way he had not ever had before.  Methodists call it his ‘heart strangely warmed” experience.  He knew that, if he were to die, he knew that where he wanted to go, he would.  And he wanted to share it with the world.

So he began to preach this new message wherever he could, guesting in other pastor’s pulpits.  But after a while, he rubbed to many people the wrong way, and was not asked into pulpits anymore.  He decided then to become “more vile”, and began to preach on top of tree stumps, or wagons, rock ledges, or stacked boxes.  One time, he even stood on his father’s crypt to preach. 

When he changed the venue, he changed the audience, and the movement started among working class and the poor.

They did not know, had not heard, about the grace that God extends in Christ.       

This is who we are, as Methodists.  Yes, we are Christians, just like Paul writing to the Romans, we believe in the essentials of the faith.  We believe in the Trinity, We believe that Christ was the son of God, we believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.  Everything else in the Christian faith is discussion and opinion.

Nowhere in our faith do we have a political requirement.  Nowhere in our faith do we have a requirement to maintain a social status quo, Nowhere are we required to defent our society when it deviates from the gospel.  In fact, we are called to extend grace to those to whom grace is not extended.   

What do we do when people are hungry?  Tell them to pick themselves up and go get a job and some self respect?  Not if you are Christian.  Not if you are Methodist.  You walk by a beggar in New York city, he’s got a buck after 6 hours in the cold. 

We can find ways to help those who are in need without enabling behaviors we don’t want to support.  My old internship church in Dallas would do food bags for the homeless that are so much more prevalent in warmer places like the south-we would take plastic newspaper bags, toss in some tuna that could be opened with a pull tab, some crackers, carrots or celery or something, and a Gatorade, and keep them in the car for when we came to street corners.

We've always had great ideas as Methodists, as Christians.  Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, once, “Thank God for the Methodists!  No religion has put more soldiers in the field, and more nurses in the hospitals (not an exact quote).  It meant that Methodist acted on their convictions, and they knew their actions were their evidence of faith.

This is who we are, this is who we've always been.  As Methodists, we emphasize grace, over almost everything else, while holding to the basics.  Everybody is entitled to grace.  Everybody is entitled to the love of God.  The only way that gets communicated is by our actions.  We can sit in church and feel all warm and fuzzy about the folks at the local soup kitchen, or addicts’ recovery house, or veterans’ home, or children’s home,  but until our bodies are in their presence, until our feet are on the same floor, our hands are building or cooking or making what they need for life, there’s no witness. 

This is who Methodists are.  This is who we are.  The guy who founded the movement, preached off of tree stumps and tombstones, preached the message of grace and love.  It is possible to have a relationship with God.

Paul said, we are apostles.  Just like his people, and there is no difference between us and them, other than that we are not wearing togas.