July 20, 2015

The Problem with Prayer

Proper 11, Year B, RCL (Track 1)

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 Outside of my wife & children, a long bike ride, and a perfectly grilled steak, one of my favorite things is when the Collect of the Day and our Scripture meld together the way they do today. That’s really the general idea, of course, that the second prayer of our liturgy, a unique prayer for each Sunday of the year, should gather or collect the general feeling of our Scripture and the seaons of the church year. Some weeks, it’s hard to see that connection. Other weeks, it’s a bit more clear. Today, it’s about prayer, both in word and deed. Prayer is a tricky thing. Too often, we pray for what we want, what we think God should do. Fix this. Feed them. Heal it. Stop that. But King David discovers in our reading from 2 Samuel that what we think and what we can do for the building up of God’s kingdom is tiny compared to what God can do, that our hopes and dreams pale when we actually pay attention to God’s hopes and dreams for the world. David wants to build a permanent structure for the Ark of the Covenant, the place where Ancient Israel believed God resided. David thought it unjust that he had a house of cedar, an extravagant luxury by the standards of the day, but God’s dwelling place was in a box in a tent. The prophet Nathan, David’s connection things religious in Israel, most likely had heard that David was a man after God’s own heart. So when he presents his grand plan to Nathan, Nathan seems more than willing to support it. “Go and do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you,” he says to David. I’m willing to bet that more than once, if we’re really honest about it, we’ve been like David. We’ve had some grand plan, maybe even something we are certain God would be a fan of, and we’ve not taken the time to be in prayer about that grand plan. I will confess that I have been there more than one time in my life, and no, being a priest does not make one immune from that mistake. One of the biggest obsitles we palce in our own prayer life is that we rely too much on our own hopes and dreams. We sped too much time telling God what we want or what we want God to be for us instead of listening, really listening, to what God may have in mind, or telling God how to build us up instead of listening how God wants to build us up to be the person God made us to be. That’s what David finds out in 2 Samuel 7. David’s plans for the Ark are nothing compared to God’s promise to do for David. “The Lord will make you a house,” God says to David (via Nathan). God makes a promise that David’s lineage and legacy will continue forever. This is the passage Christians have been pointing to for nearly 2,000 years as definitive evidence that Jesus would come from the House and Line of David, we as often hear from Luke’s Gospel on Christmas Eve. It is certainly a powerful image. But it’s not a wish or desire that David could have come up with on his own. Maybe his desire to build a house for God was an act of Thanksgiving or Gratitude. Maybe it was pure or ego or a way to sow off to those armies and nations that he had vanquished. Samuel does not tell us David’s motivations and even two Psalms about this very subject (89 & 132), focus more on God’s promise to David than David’s initial plan. Yet, as we prayed at the beginning of our liturgy today, God knows our necessities before we ask, and even our ignorance in asking. As Paul writes in Romans 8: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” There are many definitions of prayer, but the one that I like best is actually in our Prayer Book. Our tradition defines prayer as responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. King David was more than willing to respond to God with a tremendous deed; and God responded with tremendous words. One of the most common conversations I have with people is about their uncertainty or discomfort or lack of understanding about prayer, conversations often riddled with guilt or fear. I have, in many conversations, pointed people to our Collect for today, encouraging them to say this prayer once or twice a day, to pay attention to the words, to the thoughts of this prayer, and what it says about our relationship with God, and what it says that prayer can and should be. Like David, we cannot possibly think of the best possible thing for which to pray because God is going to think of something better for us. That’s not to say we shouldn’t ask God to offer healing to an ailing loved one or for guidance and relief in a job search. But God is so much bigger than we can pray for. I think our Collect for today can change how we as a parish and as individuals see where God is working in our lives and the direction God is leading us. I am committing myself to pray this prayer every day for the next six months. I hope you will join me. I firmly belive that if we open ourselves up to how the Holy Spirit is moving we will be genuinely amazed. Let us pray together: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

July 5, 2015

Our Job as Christians...

Proper 9, Year B, 2015


As Christians, we have one job. And it’s in five parts. The five parts of our job are defined in the Baptismal Covenant (Book of Common Prayer, p. 304), said at every Baptism and Confirmation (and any other time I can find a reason to use it).  Our job description is to continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the prayers and in the breaking of the bread; to persevere in resisting evil, and when we do fall in to sin, repent and return to the Lord; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self; and to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. I can say with boldness that our job description does not have an extra line that says, “Other duties as assigned.” Everything in who we are as followers of Jesus Christ, worshiping and serving him in the Episcopal Church, is within those five statements.
Our Collect, the prayer I said near the opening of our time together, calls on us today to remember that job description. I know it’s been a few minutes, so let me remind you of what was prayed:
O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (Proper 9, Book of Common Prayer p. 230)

In an increasingly polarized world, I think we need this prayer more than one Sunday a year. We need to be reminded that the Holy Spirit unites us and strengthens our devotion to our Creator. It’s easy to see someone at the store or on the sidewalk and think, “That’s nice that you’re breathing the same air I am,” or “How quaint that we share a ZIP code,” and not realize how deeply connected we are to one another.
I have no doubt that you’ve been following the news the past couple of weeks. Both our federal court system and our denomination confirmed what societal patterns have been showing us for several decades now: That what we understand of marriage has been undergoing a change. On June 26th, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 that marriage is a fundamental right to all Americans. On July 1st, the House of Deputies at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, concurring with action by the House of Bishops the day before, voted overwhelmingly for the blessings of all marriages beginning the first Sunday of Advent, 2015.
The Deputies and Bishops of the 78th General Convention took many other actions during their nine-day business meeting in Salt Lake City. They elected, in a landslide, an amazing preacher, teacher, and leader to be the next Presiding Bishop. They directed money towards new ways of nurturing and developing faith communities across the country, recognizing that bricks-and-mortar buildings are the not the wave of the future. They advocated for the presence of the faithful in places that are afflicted by gun violence as a means to end that epidemic. They held open and frank conversations around topics like race and alcohol. And they did all of that in the spirit of faithful Christian love to which we are all called.            But none of that made the national news. None of that was what was trending on Facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets. What sparked attention was the decision, after 39 years of conversation, study, and debate, to make the sacramental rite of marriage available to any couple that can get a marriage license at the courthouse. It should be of no surprise to anyone. CBS News, and Good Morning America, and Yahoo! News don’t really care about religion or what’s happening in a church convention. Media outlets love to go bonkers over which celebs are dating whom, and who’s not together anymore. There is something about relationships, and who’s in them and who’s not in them, that we seem to always get hung up on.
I have yet to speak with anyone who doesn’t have an opinion about the Supreme Court ruling, or how General Convention voted. There are people who were elated, saddened, overjoyed, deeply troubled, dancing in the streets, and grinding their teeth. There are also people scratching their heads, looking around for what to make of it all.  I’d venture to say that all of those emotions, and maybe more, are represented in this nave today.
Just because the vote was overwhelming does not mean it was unanimous in either the House of Bishops or the House of Deputies. But it was cordial. It was respectful. It valued the person of a differing opinion and a different life circumstance. People on all sides of the issues point to Scripture to back them up, as Christians have been doing for thousands of years. Take a look at several of the conflicts in the book of Acts, especially around how and when to admit Gentiles as followers of Jesus, to see some examples. Even those at General Convention who voted in the minority, especially the 20 bishops who did so, publically pledged themselves to continue the conversation with the majority while committing themselves also to making their diocese a spiritually and emotionally safe place for everyone, regardless of their conviction. That’s not an attitude that has happened in the past.
            I’m not going to stand in this pulpit and tell you how to feel about the latest developments. I’m not going to chastise you for being angry. I’m not going to tell you it’s insulting for you to be so excited. I am not going to give you a funny look if you are conflicted or confused. How you feel is how you feel.
I am going to tell you that there will be further conversations, both at Christ Church and in the Diocese of East Carolina, about marriage in the 21st Century, why and how marriage has changed over the past several decades, and prayerfully consider how we as followers of Christ can faithfully respond.
I am also going to tell you that we are going to be as cordial and as civil and as respectful as the Bishops and Deputies were at General Convention. This community, and many other communities large and small, will be watching how we as people of faith work through these issues. As we have conversations, we will listen to each other, not to respond with whether we agree or disagree, but in order to understand each other. So that each of our stories becomes part of our faith journey together.
And we will do this over meals, not microphones. Conversations like this are better over coffee and not a soap box.
            While this may be the swirling topic, it will not be the only topic. We will continue to talk about how we cover the five points of our job description as we find it in the Baptismal Covenant. We will continue to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and we will continue to respect the dignity of every human being. Not only is our job description laid out in the Baptismal Covenant, Jesus offers some clarity in today’s Gospel lesson. Just as Jesus sent out the disciples to offer healing and to proclaim the Good News, Jesus sends us out to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, to share our story of where and how Jesus is working in our lives and in the lives of those around us. If we keep our focus on the task of proclaiming the Good News, and loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, our differences will work themselves out in ways that give God the glory.
            Our conversations will also be guided by prayer.  Let us keep in mind the words of St. Francis of Assisi and the prayer that is attributed to him.
Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen. (Prayer attributed to St. Francis)