Returning to Pray, Proper 24(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Brother Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) Episcopal Monastery in Cambridge, MA witnessed profound spiritual healing in Cairo, Egypt. Brother Tristram noticed a man kneeling before the altar at Saint John the Baptist Coptic Church. Two others flanked the kneeling man with their hands on his shoulders. Seventeen others stood praying around this trio.

The man kneeling stood up, leading the group to another altar where he knelt again. Brother Tristram inquired about their actions. The man kneeling was dying. Doctors exhausted all options. Family members brought their loved one on a pilgrimage, praying at all the church altars and Holy Shrines in Old Cairo. Brother Tristram reflected on his experience. “I was struck by their fervent faith and their love, both for this man and for God. I don’t know what happened to him. I had witnessed an event of profound spiritual healing.”[1]

Jesus told the parable of a persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8, using her as the model to pray always and not lose heart. Someone wronged her, and she sought justice. It was normal during her time for people to accept their fate. This widow was different because she did not accept her fate. She repeatedly visited the judge saying, “Grant me justice.” When the judge refused, she kept coming. The judge finally granted her justice so that “she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (Luke 18:5) Jesus asked if he would find this amount of faith on earth.

The widow modeled faithfulness in prayer. Her actions expanded the idea of prayer to include the believer’s entire and whole life.[2] The widow showed continual prayer. Continual prayer differs from continuous or perpetual prayer. Some churches have continuous prayer on Maundy Thursday leading into Good Friday, with groups of people praying hourly through the night before the Altar of Repose. Continual prayer is prayer that starts and stops and starts again. Returning to God in prayer day after day is continual prayer.

Prayer is conversation with God. Christians believe that God initiates prayer. When we pray, it is the Holy Spirit speaking to us, calling us to prayer. God is always communicating. We are not always listening. Prayer is a conversation beginning with God and flowing to us. Our response to God completes the prayer cycle.

Brother Geoffrey Tristram of SSJE teaches the importance of Christians having an altar or sacred place in their homes, a place to return day after day to pray. The altar can be a table with candles, a cross, bible, or prayer book. On the other hand, it can be an unassuming place near a window overlooking nature’s beauty. This becomes a place of continual prayer.

Returning to the same place to prayer trains the body to pray. Crossing the prayer threshold signals to the body it is time to pray. This is significant since there will be times in your life when you cannot find the words to prayer: a loved one dies; life’s circumstances weigh you down. Prayer in those moments are the “sigh prayers” of Romans 8:26, “Likewise 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.” Your body will lead your spirit in prayer when returning to the same place to pray daily.

Some couples renew their wedding vows on anniversary milestones. One couple at an Episcopal parish in Dallas, Texas renews their wedding vows each year near their anniversary date. Year after year the couple returns to the church, standing in front of the altar during a weekday Holy Eucharist service, repeating prayers and offering their marriage to God for continued blessing. One year the couple renewed their vows in Jerusalem while on pilgrimage. The couple’s choice to continually return to God and the place of marriage helps shape their marriage.

Jesus uses the widow is his parable to model faith and prayer. Her only weapon is persistence.

We as Christians cannot lose heart. We cannot give up even when prayers seem to go unanswered. Can we find the faith to prayer in the midst of disorderly lives? Return to God in prayer. Return to your place of worship week after week. Return to your home altar, your place of prayer in your house, day after day. Returning to God, church, and your home altar allows the Holy Spirit to mold your body to pray, transforming you into a Christian who continually converses with God. Amen.

The Reverend Jemonde Taylor is the eleventh rector of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, NC. Jemonde serves the Diocese of NC by being a part of Diocesan Council, the Disciple Board, and co-chair for the Nominating Committee for the Twelfth Bishop Diocesan. He is a consultant to the Office of Black Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Prior to serving Saint Ambrose, Jemonde was priest missioner at Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Dallas, TX as a part of the Lilly Transition into Ministry Program. Jemonde studies the spirituality, worship, and history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and leads pilgrimages to Ethiopia for Epiphany.

[1] Tristram, Geoffery. “Intercession.” SSJE. October 20, 2009. Accessed September 29, 2016. http://ssje.org/ssje/2009/10/20/intercession-br-geoffrey-tristram/

[2] Fitzmyer, Joseph, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), 1176.

Download the sermon for Proper 24(C).

The power of God, Pentecost 21, Proper 24 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:27-34 or Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 119:97-104 or 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” — Genesis 32:26

We often hear Jacob’s name in church. He is third in that list of three patriarchs whose names identify the God we are worshipping: “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and sometimes we add “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I like this specificity; it reminds me that no matter how often I mutter, “Oh, God!” in everyday life, addressing nobody in particular, this is the God of our life, faith, and worship. And of the three patriarchs, Jacob is the one whose story reminds me why our ancestors remembered him so often and so vividly that they named themselves in him and for him: Israel, “one who strives with God.”

The Genesis stories about these root ancestors portray them as God’s friends, and like all good friends Abraham and Jacob, particularly, speak boldly and argue with God, not letting God get away with anything. When God and Abraham are looking at the wickedness of the inhabitants of Sodom, Abraham nudges his friend and says, “You are surely not going to destroy the righteous with the wicked, are you?” Persistently, insistently, hopefully, the patriarch will not let God go until God has agreed to change his mind about destroying the city. And here is Jacob, wounded, panting, exhausted after a long night’s wrestling with the mysterious one he is sure is God; persistently, insistently, hopefully he hangs on and cries out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

It seems our ancestors were so impressed by the daring confrontations these patriarchs had with this God, that when they came to polish up the all-important foundational memories and traditions of Moses the Lawgiver, they drew Moses’ character in the same fashion. Not a deferential character, this Moses; he repeatedly, insistently, persistently, hopefully confronted God with the burdens of leading the people of God through the wilderness. Just like Abraham and God surveying the city of Sodom, Moses and God surveyed the sons and daughters of Jacob worshipping a golden calf and Moses insistently, persistently, hopefully refused to let God wipe them off the face of the earth.

These are surprising scenes for us as we look at our own relationships with God, our habits of worship, our attitudes to prayer. We look at the widow in today’s gospel, insistently and hopefully banging on the judge’s door, and we realize she was a pain in the neck and we do not want to be like that. We look at Jacob’s story with even more horror: the man was a liar and a cheat, his life-long modus operandi was to manipulate and make deals, with his brother Esau, his father-in-law Laban, and even here at the ford of the river wrestling with God himself. We surely do not want to appear in the presence of God like that.

Years ago, in a little book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard – herself, at that time, an Episcopalian – mused:

“Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a package tour of the Absolute? … On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church: we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life-preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pews.”
Ms. Dillard was making a different point, but it seems relevant to the discourse of insistent, persistent, loud-mouthed, courageous confrontation with God, full of hope and even certainty. The widow in Luke’s Gospel is like the patriarchs and like Moses: she is very sensible of the conditions she lives in, and of the conditions of God’s power and might. God can be moved to listen, to respond, to care, to act with justice. When we bring our own situations into the voice of prayer – honestly, insistently, persistently, courageously, hopefully – then the conversation with God moves in life-changing ways. So Abram became Abraham, and Jacob became Israel: new names for newness of life. And the woman yelling and knocking at the judge’s door received justice: the transformative gift of salvation for her.

Some parishes are going through something of a crisis at the moment. Vestry members gather in quiet prayer together. They are reasonably well dressed for the most part, though without velvet hats. They recite prayers in soft urgency, and they discuss the issues courteously. But perhaps they should wear crash helmets and yell honestly, insistently, courageously, hopefully – even with certainty – that the power of God to move in life-changing ways might hurt us as it hurt Jacob. For only in such wrestling, sensible of such conditions, can our lives together be preserved. Send up the signal flares!

Amen.

Written by the Rev. Angela V. Askew
The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York. E-mail: aa659@mindspring.com.

Patina of faith, 22 Pentecost, Proper 24 (C) – 2013

October 20, 2013

Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Psalm 119:97-104 (or Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 121); 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

In North America, the railroad gauge – the distance between rails – is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. A strange number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s how railroads were built in England, and English expatriates designed the American railroads.

But why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and they were using the tools and jigs that had been used to build carts and covered wagons.

OK. Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, that was the space between the ruts in the English roads, ingrained through centuries of use.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match to avoid destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for imperial Rome, their wheel spacing was standardized.

So, the standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an imperial Roman war chariot, and they were made just wide enough to accommodate the backsides of two war horses.

At one level, this story is laughable – so much for civilization’s supposed advances and innovation. But what if we looked at the story in a different way? What if we saw it as wonderful?

In a way, it’s good that the only progress we make is through building on the accomplishments and insights of others. To be sure, when NASA wheels its latest rocket boosters onto the launch pad rails, they’re the width of a horse’s backside. But what does that matter? Surely the point is that we cannot do anything without reference to what has gone before. We take the old knowledge and apply it to the new context. As Sir Isaac Newton, father of modern physics, once said, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Oddly enough, it is this same sentiment that Paul seems to be reminding Timothy of in our New Testament reading today.

Paul says, “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.”

Tradition is much more meaningful if we know its provenance.

You know what they say about Episcopalians? Do something once, and they hate it. Do it twice, and they don’t mind it. Do it three times, and it’s a cherished tradition.

Our rituals in church might seem arcane until we bother to take the time to trace their ancestry; then they can come alive in new and exciting ways. Unfortunately, tradition seems more often to be regarded in a negative light. For example, the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way” conjures up images of people who blindly and unthinkingly do the same things over and over and over again.

We are living in the midst of turbulent times in the church. The world is changing at a faster pace than any other time in human history, and we often struggle to make sense of it. We know that the Episcopal Church has to adapt to survive. We often hear suggestions that the church needs something radical to shake it up, such as radical new liturgies or some radical new thinking. We hear it in church, and we hear it in the world of business – phrases such as “radical departure.”

But what does “radical” really mean? We can easily forget that it means “getting back to our roots.” So a radical departure, in a sense, becomes a paradox. If it is to be “radical,” it’s anything but a departure from; in fact, it’s a return to.

What is it that Paul, if he were writing to us, instead of Timothy, might be saying that we need to return to?

Well, to start off, he’d probably be posting a message on our Facebook walls. Old knowledge, new context.

First, he would surely reiterate what he said to Timothy, that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” And then he would add, “but notice that I said ‘inspired by God’ and not ‘the literal word of God,’ so don’t forget to make use of the intelligence and powers of reason that God gave you to apply the essence of the gospel to today’s situation.”

Second, he would reinforce what he said to Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” And then he would add: “And just look at the church now. People going to church expecting to be entertained and wanting the preacher to make them feel good about themselves, as if church was just a spa for the soul.”

Faced with manifold challenges, it is tempting for us in the church to market our services and programs as if they were consumer products or self-help accessories to complement our busy lifestyle choices. It is tempting for us not to demand too much of people, tempting for us to make church as convenient as possible, tempting for us to simply collude with a culture that flits like a butterfly from one shiny thing to another, and tempting for us to pander to the myth of instant gratification.

Today’s gospel reading, the story of the persistent widow and the pestered judge, is, at first sight, confusing. It seems as if Jesus is saying that the unjust judge is like God.

He isn’t, of course; in fact, Jesus is saying the opposite.

The widow goes to the unjust judge time and time again and only gets anywhere because the judge wants to be rid of her. With God, the widow can go time and time again and will get God’s full attention every time. Jesus isn’t saying that the widow won’t visit any the less if it’s God. He’s saying that, unlike the unjust judge, God isn’t interested only in his own comfort and getting the pestering widow out of his hair. When we go to God in prayer, no matter how persistent we are, God will always be there to listen and to give counsel. In fact, God is so unlike the unjust judge that he wants us to go back time after time to appeal to him for help. A deep and meaningful relationship with God is built over a lifetime of such meetings with Him, not just a quick fix for instant gratification.

These meetings with God augment each previous one, building up, over a lifetime, a cumulative richness in our souls that bespeaks something of God. Like a piece of treasured antique furniture that has been handed down through the generations, it will have its share of knocks and dents, but will also a have a precious, unique patina patiently gained through years of everyday, prayerful life.

 

— The Rev Nils Chittenden is missioner for Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of North Carolina, and chaplain of the Episcopal Center at Duke University. After attending seminary at the University of Cambridge, he was ordained in the Church of England in 1995. His ministry since then has been varied, encompassing cathedrals, campuses and community organizing as well as parishes. He moved to the U.S. in 2010. He and his wife have two cats and two beehives.

Pray without ceasing, Pentecost 21, Proper 24 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Today’s psalm, Psalm 119, gives us 176 ways to say the same thing: “Happy are those who walk in the way of the Lord,” and “Oh, how I love your law!” and “All the day long, it is in my mind.” At 176 verses, it is the longest of all psalms. It consists of 22 eight-line stanzas, each stanza beginning with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is an astonishing exercise in puzzle working, poetry, and praise.

Psalm 119 calls for the kind of continued learning Paul commends in his letter to Timothy. As a subject of our recitation and meditation, it offers an entrance into a life of continued, endless prayer. So Jesus tells a story to underscore our need to pray always and not lose heart. It is what Paul elsewhere commends: “pray without ceasing.”

And note the forceful summary by Jesus: for those chosen ones who pray day and night, justice shall come and come quickly.

Are we even aware of this linkage? That our prayers are to be linked to justice?

Don’t we often tend to be rather selfish in our prayers? We would always like immediate results – but would like those results to be centered on what we want rather than what we need.

And what Jesus says we need is to pray always and not to lose heart.

There is no better place to begin to pray always than with Psalm 119. One hundred and seventy-six verses reminding us to have Torah, God’s law, in our minds all day long. The word “Torah” or one of its synonyms appears in almost every one of the 176 verses: Torah, law decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances.

A rabbi was once asked, “What does a rabbi do?” He replied, “A rabbi is to lead God’s people to study Torah so that one day everyone will know Torah. On that day when everyone knows Torah, everyone will be a rabbi so that there will no longer be any need for rabbis.”

This is the dream of God as revealed to the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” God wants us to become experts in loving the law and living the law.

We in the church tend to suffer grave misunderstandings about this word law. These misunderstandings come from misreading of Paul, compounded by particular Christian theologians throughout the ages. The word “law” sounds static with the sole purpose of convicting us of sin and misdoings.

Whereas a regular reading of all 176 verses of Psalm 119 would reveal a much richer range of meaning. The “law” is a treasure, a gift, really, that makes one wise and happy. The psalm is written in the first-person narrative voice, making the words of the psalm personal, words that belong to us, words that are given by God to be ours. Torah is not a static set of rules, but a map that provides a personal way of life, a guiding force, a pathway from which it is all too easy to stray but is sweeter than all alternative paths available.

At its core, Psalm 119 as a source of our daily prayer and meditation directs us to endlessly reflect on the Decalogue – the fancy theological name for the Ten Commandments. The first “table” or “tablet” of the Ten Commandments focuses on our love of God; the second “table” or “tablet” focuses on our love of neighbor.

Jesus spent much of his time discussing the law, Torah, with any and all persons he could. Jesus demonstrates that continual focus, discussion, and meditation on God’s law is what leads one in the way of life that is really life, and offers justice for all people. Torah, as understood at the time of Jesus, was a continual unfolding of God’s will, new each day, new in each age. Torah, or law, was not confining, but empowering, and necessary to being God’s people in the world.

And meditating on the law day and night, as Jesus lives and instructs us to do ourselves, reminds us of our God-given responsibilities to love and care for our neighbors, especially those in greatest need.

It turns out God does have a plan to care for those in greatest need: we are that plan.

How wonderful it would be if all of us, every day, would read all of Psalm 119. How might the world be different if our love of God’s law was something we treasured in our hearts all day long? For Jesus this is faith: Torah in action every day.

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, MD, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.