July 24, 2016

On Jesus & Prayer

Proper 12, Year C

During my last year of seminary, I had the honor of serving at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. It’s a parish with a long history of making a difference in the lives of those in the community around them. They are also known for being very orthodox in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, and yet, having some very unorthodox ways of practicing that faith. There is incense at every Sunday service, and a grand procession for the Gospel reading and the offertory. But the only person in a vestment is the priest, and the 100-or-so worshipers gather around the altar for the Eucharistic prayer. One of the somewhat unorthodox traditions at St. Stephen & the Incarnation is the Prayers of the People. After the regular part you may be expecting (though, it’s rarely the same week-to-week), is what I called “open mic time.” The people are seated, and if someone has a specific need or concern that they would like to share with the congregation, they raise their hand and the intercessor would take the wireless microphone to them. There are only a couple of prayers that I remember specifically, but one was by a lady I will always remember. Her name was Joyce[1]. She was approaching 80 and lived by herself. She raised her hand and Isaiah, who was the worship leader that Sunday, took the microphone to her. She said in a rather quiet but unapologetic voice, “I need to have some work done on my house, and it’s going to cost a lot of money. I ask your prayers that I make the right decision when I pick the contractor and that I don’t get taken advantage of.” I always think about Joyce when I read one of Jesus’ teachings on prayer for many reasons, not the least is the pure honesty and vulnerability that she displayed in that moment.

Jesus spends a great deal of time teaching us about prayer, both through his words and actions. Jesus prays before selecting his disciples. He prays before all of the feeding miracles we read about in the Gospels[2]. He goes to quiet places to pray[3] and he talks about the importance of praying quietly to God, not being so loud that others can hear you.[4] Jesus prays when he raises Lazarus from the dead. He prays in the garden before his arrest[5], and even on the cross he cries out to God to forgive those who are doing this him.

When Jesus prays, and what Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, he’s talking about wholeness; he’s talking about healing and reconciliation and one-by-one, prayer-by-prayer, bringing ourselves, our neighbors, and the world into a closer relationship with the God who created us and loves us. When Jesus talks about prayer and when we see Jesus doing prayer in action, we see the world being restored to wholeness. What Jesus is not doing when he prays is calling for bad things to happen to those who disagree with him. Jesus rebukes the Disciples for suggesting that when they encounter a group of Samaritans who don’t welcome them[6]. What prayer is for Jesus, and therefore what it should be for us, is about wholeness and healing. It’s so important to say that out loud that I’m going to say it again: What prayer is for Jesus, and therefore what it should be for us, is about wholeness and healing.

I have seen too much in the news lately about groups of Christians, whole churches even, who publically pray for bad things to happen to those who they see as their “enemy,” those they see as a threat or those who don’t have a similar world-view. For the last eight years or so, it’s been getting worse, and it’s past time for Christians to more deeply know what Jesus taught about prayer and for that small but vocal set to not speak for all of Christianity. That’s not what Jesus was about. It does damage to all of the body of Christ for there to be people who are publically and loudly making those claims and praying for those things to happen. Those are not prayers that are humble and vulnerable; those are prayers that are demanding. They are clanging symbols and noisy gongs because they are not grounded in love.[7] Christians are called to be bold in what we ask, but never to tell God what it is God should do. Jesus shows us a better way.

Shortly after Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha, we find his disciples asking him about prayer. So he teaches them some key concepts, found in other Jewish teachings on prayer, probably not all that different than what John taught his disciples (though we don’t really know since it’s not recorded…). The first thing we do in prayer is honor God, conveying to God that we know the sacredness, or the hallowed ness, of who God is. Jesus tells us to acknowledge that God’s ways are higher than our ways, God’s kingdom is better than any kingdom we can create on earth.

When the Israelites were nomads for 40 years after they God led them out of Egypt, God provided them with food, called Manna. God’s instruction was to only take what you could eat for that day, otherwise it would go bad. So Jesus reaches way back into the history of his people when he teaches that we should pray “Give us each day our daily bread.” Our Anglican brothers and sisters in New Zealand translate that line as “With the bread we need for today, feed us.” In other words, Jesus is teaching us to ask for what we need today. Tomorrow has worries of its own, Jesus also teaches. So don’t fix your mind on that.

When a teacher of the law asks Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responds with the one of the most ancient teachings in Judaism[8]: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[9] So the next thing Jesus teaches is that when we miss the mark with God and our neighbor, when our humanness overtakes our Child of God-ness and we don’t love God and we don’t love our neighbor – we have to ask for forgiveness. And we have to be willing to forgive our neighbor when they don’t do right by us, too.

Jesus knew, also, that his audience would have known all about Abraham, and Noah, and Job, and Jacob and how they had been tested at one point or another. Maybe by God, but often by those around them who would lead them astray. So Jesus says, “Save us from the time of trial.” Jesus himself knew what it was like to be tempted, too, and that without the diligence of asking for God’s guidance to navigate those temptations, we are likely to fail.

Jesus could have stopped there. He could have said, “Yup. That’s about how you should pray.” But he didn’t, of course, because he’s Jesus, and he always gives us more than we ask for.

He paints this picture of someone who has locked the doors and put the kids to bed, and here comes that neighbor who needs something. And this neighbor always needs something. And not because he’s a friend, but because of his persistence, the one with the locked doors will give the neighbor what he needs. Jesus tells a similar story in Luke 18 about a judge who grants a widow’s persistent request, not because he’s a fair judge but simply because of the persistence of the widow in her asking. What Jesus is saying here is that God hears our prayer. God hears those thoughts and cries in the middle of the night. Where I think we struggle is in waiting for the response, and part of that is because we have attempted to make God into a wish-granting genie. We have become such a culture of instant gratification in the last 40-50 years that too often we expect God to grant our prayers A.) now and B.) exactly as we asked. So one of the toughest disciplines in our prayer life is that of waiting and watching and listening for how God will respond. God knows our needs before we ask, but I think God likes to see the faithfulness in the persistence of our asking, and the patience in our listening and watching. Sometimes in prayer, too, we find that God can lead us in a different direction or show us a better way than the outcome we have been praying for. God’s response to us is always based so much more on what we need and less on what we want.

I firmly believe that Jesus is calling us to be bold in our prayers, to not be afraid of being persistent in naming to God the deepest desires of our hearts, those things on our minds that we just can’t shake, the ills of the world and the burdens carried by those whom we love. Jesus tells us to ask and it will be given; to search and we will find; to knock and the door will be opened. But what we receive, what we find, and what’s behind that door may not be the outcomes we were expecting.

May we approach our prayers with the boldness to ask, the willingness to seek, and the courage to knock, and the humility to say to God, “I’m putting this in your hands to do what is best for all your children.”

[1] Not her real name.
[2] Luke 6:12
[3] Mark 1
[4] Matthew 6
[5] John 17
[6] Luke 9:51ff
[7] 1 Corinthians 13
[8] Deuteronomy 6:4-5 & Leviticus 19:18
[9] Matthew 22:34-40

July 17, 2016

Martha & Mary—Both/And, not Either/Or

The 9thSunday after Pentecost

On the third Monday of each month, Christ Church provides a worship service at HomePlace and McCarthy Court, over on McCarthy Boulevard. Jane and Melinda assist me over there, and we make a great team. There was a woman who lived at Home Place, a dear, sweet woman, who would warmly greet us when we arrived, and thank us profusely for coming when we left. She would tell us how much it meant to her that we would provide communion. She grew up in St. Louis as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. She was one of four daughters and had a twin sister, who by her telling could not have been more opposite from her. The woman at HomePlace was named Martha; her sister was named Mary. Martha told me on more than one occasion that she loathed the Gospel story we heard today because so many times, Martha is made out to be the wrong choice of the one to follow. There have been countless articles and books written about “being” Martha and Mary. Which one are you? You should be Mary, but you’re acting like Martha. Tsk Tsk… “How do you pay attention to Jesus and not look lazy,” Martha once said to me with a smile. “And when you and your sister, your twin sister, are named Mary and Martha, and your dad preaches on that Scripture… well, every eye in the church is you during that sermon.” My favorite was the two or three times she’d put her hand to her forehead and say, “What were my parents thinking!?!”

Martha moved to Virginia Beach a couple of years ago, but our conversations came flooding back as I was reading the Gospel passage for this week. Martha’s stories about her own life experiences shed some light on all the modern ways we look at this story. We miss many of the implications that made it such a powerful example to Jesus’ followers and those early readers and hearers of Luke’s Gospel.

The revolutionary part of this story is that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to him. That was a place reserved for disciples, those who would go out and teach what the teacher had taught. And it was usually a role reserved for men. For as much as the Gospels like to tell us all the questions and grumbling that the main 12 disciples did, there is nothing recorded in Luke’s Gospel about their reaction to this situation. Maybe they know Marth and Mary and this is part of what happens with them. Or maybe they are tired of getting rebuked by Jesus and so they don’t want to say anything else.

Either way, there’s this moment that has a woman in equal standing (or sitting, as the case may be…) with the men are disciples of Jesus. And the one person who can’t stand it is her sister, who is sweating it out in the kitchen, making snacks or dinner for everyone. You can hear it, can’t you…

“Jesus! Will you tell my sister to get in here to help me!?” Martha says.

I picture a very chill and relaxed Jesus saying my favorite one-word sentence: “No.” To be honest, I kind of wish that Jesus had been more explicit in his invitation to Martha to sit and join them. But he says something along the lines of “there’s always time to cook and clean. Right now, be like your sister. Sit. Listen.”

I’m reminded of the cover of Sports Illustrated last summer after American Pharaoh won the Triple Crown. They had a beautiful shot of that beautiful horse crossing the finish line. And nearly every single human hand in the picture is holding up their cell phone to capture the moment. (Before you say, “oh… young people today…” remember that they aren’t usually the ones who can afford track-level, finish-line seats. At the Belmont. When there’s a Triple Crown on the line.) Huffington Post called it the saddest picture of American culture in the Twenty-First Century. Instead of living in that historic moment, they watched it through a 5-inch screen.

And instead of sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing what he has to teach her, Martha gets all worked up about being a good hostess. How many times have we (and I’m so, so guilty of this, too!) thought we knew good and well what we were supposed to be doing, but we hadn’t taken the time to be prayerful about it. Is this what I’m suppsosed to be doing? Where do you need me, Lord? And be willing to wait and listen for the answer!

The tragedy of the Mary & Martha story is how our 21st Century interpretation has painted it as an “either/or” kind of choice. We either sit at the feet of Jesus or we are busy with the worries and work of the world. We are either working on those important matters in the world, or we are focusing on Jesus. Now, I want to come to Martha’s defense a little to say that the work of hospitality and welcome, the work of being a parent or a child or a friend or a sibling is important work. The work of giving a voice to the voiceless is important work. And holy work. Sitting in our living room or a quiet chapel or under a tree and pondering Jesus is a nice thing to do, but it doesn’t solve the problems of racial injustice or children who will go to bed hungry in our community tonight. But not taking the time to be in the presence of the Holy, to hear what our God has to say about these things, thinking that we know best and not asking God for guidance and direction… that won’t solve those issues either.

Martin L. Smith is a noted author and teacher of spirituality. He spoke at Sewanee this summer when I was there, and he talked about the importance of the re-marriage of Spirituality and Mission. For too long, he said, we’ve thought about ourselves as being connected to God as Spiritual beings on a human journey, or we have sought to be mission-minded, to advance the Gospel. But we have been miserable at seeing how important it is for those two things to merge together. They have to be seen as interconnected and deeply dependent upon each other!

We cannot do the important work of the Gospel, even the work that the Prophet Amos calls us to in today’s Old Testament reading, we can’t do that work if we don’t’ take the time to sit with Jesus, to listen to Jesus about how he wants us to respond to the needs of the world. Otherwise, we will be so caught up in the busyness of the work that we forget that there is a better way.