Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Missing Easter

Sermon preached Easter Sunday April 24, 2011

Text: John 20:1-18

John Updike was a well-respected American writer who died in January 2009. He had a wonderful gift for language. He could use his gift to evoke a smile. Updike was a golfer, and sometimes took up his pen to describe that experience, as in an essay “The Trouble with a Caddie.” Updike was sharing his most recent encounter with a caddie wherein he found out more about the person than he really wanted to know. So, in addition to my golf worries, I had to shoulder concern over his job prospects, his state of fatigue and hangover, his girlfriend’s literary life, and his tip. (Golf Dreams, 42)
He could use his gift to send a shudder through a person as you read the beauty of a sentence. A book, once read, can only be reread; a machine, used, imperceptibly wears out. But she, she came to him always beautifully clean, and unexperienced, and slightly startled, like a morning, and left, at noon, immaculate (The Music School, 83)
In one of his short stories, “Short Easter” Updike writes the story of a man named Fogel, age 62, and an Easter day that seemed out of whack because it happened also to be the beginning of Daylight Savings Time. Yet there was even more to the story than that. Easter had always struck Fogel as a holiday without real punch…. Generally the festivity that should attend the day had fallen rather flat: quarrelsome and embarrassed family church attendances, with nobody quite comfortable in pristine Easter clothes; melancholy egg hunts in some muddy back yard, the smallest child confused and victimitized; headachy brunches where the champagne punch tasted sour and the conversation lagged. (The Afterlife and Other Stories, 95-96)
Fogel’s Easter Sunday is spent, in part, doing yard work, and he is none too excited about that, either. One of his fantasies was a kind of ray gun that, directed at a plant or a tree, would not only kill it, but instantly vaporize it into a fine, fertilizing ash. Agricultural labor, this endless plucking of weeds and replowing of fields, had always seemed to him the essence of futility (102-103). Maybe he would have rather gone to church? Yardwork is followed by a neighborhood brunch which Fogel also considered pointless – the same dozen aging couples, with three widows and a bachelor, that they saw every weekend (103)
Easter disappoints Fogel, still there remains a sense for him that there may be more. The final line of the story reads: Everything seemed still in place, yet something was immensely missing (106).
We are here this morning because we know that something would be missing in our lives if we did not mark this Easter day by coming together for worship. Without Easter, without the word that God raised Jesus, that Christ is risen, our lives would be missing a certain dimension of faith and hope, of wonder and possibility. With Easter we know that life is more than the futility of the same old, same old.
One of the gifts of Easter to us is the gift of hope in the face of death. In I Corinthians 15, Paul writes, “For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality…. Thanks be to God , who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The message of Easter is that we, like Jesus, can trust our lives to God even in the face of death. God will receive our lives in love and renew them in love. We are a deeply hopeful people, and we don’t want to miss that today.
But even if we trust that Easter offers us some assurance about life in the face of death, we still risk missing Easter, we risk missing its most potent punch, if we confine the meaning of Easter and the power of Easter to a single day, or if we make it only a message about trusting God in the face of death.
You may know that the Easter resurrection story is not the first resurrection story in the Bible. It is not even the first resurrection story in John’s gospel. In John 11, we have the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and there is a fascinating exchange in that story between Jesus and Martha. Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha responds: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” This exchange is a precursor to the raising of Lazarus.
Martha is a little like those of us Christians who put our focus on the message of Christian faith and Easter on life after death. Yes, I know that my brother will be given life again in the future. There is a word in Easter about trusting God with our lives even in death, but the power of the resurrection story is a power for life even now! Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Even now, resurrection happens. Even now the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead is at work to bring life and new life into our lives and into our world. Even now, the heavy stones that seem to be in the way of richer, fuller, more abundant life, more meaningful life, are being rolled away.
This past week writer Anne Lamott was interviewed on National Public Radio. She was asked about the meaning of Easter for her and she shared this story. When I was 38, my best friend Pammy died, and we went shopping about two weeks before she died, and she was in a wig and a wheelchair. I was buying a dress for this boyfriend I was trying to impress, and I bought a tighter, shorter dress than I was used to. And I said to her, “do you think this makes my hips look big?” and she said to me, so calmly, “Anne, you don’t have that kind of time.” And I think Easter has been about the resonance of that simple statement; and that when I stop, when I go into contemplation and meditation, and when I breathe again and do the sacred action of plopping and hanging my head and being done with my own agenda, I hear that “you don’t have that kind of time,” you have time only to cultivate presence and authenticity and service, praying against all odds to get your sense of humor back (National Public Radio, All Things Considered, Monday April 18, 2011)
Easter is about those transforming moments in our lives when we come to realize that life is about presence and authenticity and service, and also, maybe, about getting our sense of humor back. Easter is about knowing that Jesus is resurrection and life, not just at some future time, but here and now. We risk missing Easter if we look for it only in the future.
We also risk missing Easter if we look for it only in the grand gesture, if we look for it only to come with fireworks and bullhorns. We need grand celebrations and wild gratitude from time to time. Dramatic changes are often needed and welcome in individual lives and in the world. Yet we know that after Easter Sunday comes work-a-day Monday. After the dinner comes the dishes. Where is Easter then?
Thursday evening at Ruby’s Pantry I talked with a man I first met when I was in high school. He was well beyond graduation then. He and I were in a Jesus People group. He told me that he was going to be marking his fortieth high school graduation this summer. Then he said, “I thought Jesus would have come back by now.” He is looking for Easter in the grand gesture, but where is Easter in the mean time?
Easter is all around, if we are open to seeing it. Easter is there when children from families who don’t have much ask how they can help our daughter Beth when she goes to Haiti, donate their own pencils, bringing some tooth brushes to help children they will never meet. There is a little bit of Easter there. Though it was only Thursday, Easter was here this past week. I heard one man coming into Ruby’s Pantry say to another – “Hi ________.” And when the person he was talking to looked puzzled, the man continued – “Remember, Denfeld High School twenty-five years ago.” People connecting with old friends, maybe both struggling a bit – there is a little bit of Easter there. Another man that evening said, “we kind of messed up your Holy Thursday worship” and I was able to tell him that we thought this was a great way to mark Holy Thursday – on a night when the church remembers Jesus eating with his friends, we decided to help feed our friends in the community. There is a little bit of Easter when the story of Jesus really changes us, even in that small way, helping us see worship as more than what happens when we sing and pray, as important and necessary as those are.
Then there was this moment that night that sent chills up my spine. While people were waiting for their numbers to be called Thursday night, I was playing some cds recorded by our own Tom King. I got to the end of one cd and there was this beautiful orchestral piece and I was curious about it. I kind of remember hearing it, but it really grabbed my attention at that moment. So I looked at the cd notes – “St. Croix Summer” - Thomas Wayne King, composer; arranged and scored by Carol Donahue; recorded at First United Methodist Church, and among the artists: Nicole Craycraft, Jenna Mattson, Kevin Peterson, Rebecca Peterson, Michael Hintzman, David Craig, Erin Wiig; conducted by Mary Whitlock. I thought how wonderful, how beautiful – people sharing their gifts and talents to make beautiful music which became the worship music for a really unique Holy Thursday service here at First UMC. Gifts shared, beauty created, people fed, things turned a little upside down. There was a little Easter here Thursday night, but we would miss it if we think Easter can only happen in the great and grand and splashy.
So you are here today. You’ve not “missed” Easter, but you still might. If you think of Easter as something that will be over after the ham or turkey or lamb dinner; or if you think of it as something that might only be relevant again in another year, or when your health fails, you might miss Easter, might miss its purpose and power. So as not to miss Easter, ask yourself where you need Easter most in your life today and tomorrow, where you need the presence of the God who is about resurrection, where you need the presence of Jesus who is resurrection and life. Do you need courage to confront your own inner issues, to deal with the wounds within? Do you need the grace to forgive or to be forgiven? Do you need to know that you are loved deeply just as you are? Do you need some faith to keep working to repair a frayed relationship? Do you need hope to keep working for a better world and to struggle against a cynicism which says nothing is going to change? The message of Easter is about a loving God, a living Christ and a lively Spirit. Easter is about faith, hope and love, even now. Easter is about the small moments in our lives that make so much difference. Don’t miss it. Amen.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Doorway Into Thanks

Sermon preached Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011

Texts: Philippians 4:4-7; I Thessalonians 5:15-24

Poetry is not always the best way to begin a sermon. I know some, in fact, who would prefer never to hear it here or anywhere else – unless maybe the poem begins: “There once was a man from Niagara, who took too much Viagra.” Of course the rest of that poem may not be suitable for a sermon. I really wouldn’t know because I never finished writing it.
Now that I have your attention, I do want to share only a small part of a poem, the poem “Praying” by Mary Oliver (Thirst, 37) “this isn’t/a contest but the doorway/into thanks, and a silence in which/another voice may speak.” I deeply appreciate these compact words on prayer – the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.
I also appreciate another writer’s brief words on prayer. Here are the two best prayers I know: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 82)
Over the past six weeks we have been focusing on prayer. This is the final in a series of six sermons on prayer. Some have been reading Marjorie Suchocki’s book on prayer, In God’s Presence. During the sermon series I have said over and over again that the heart of prayer is relationship and transformation - a deepening relationship with the God of Jesus Christ, and being transformed by God’s love. In the series we have discussed meditative and silent prayer, prayer as asking, prayer as complaint and lament – and today we are going to walk through the doorway into thanks. We are focusing on prayer as gratitude and thanksgiving.
Prayer is a doorway into thanks. It is a doorway, an invitation, not an imperative. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say Rejoice.” “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” These are words of encouragement, invitation, exhortation – not so much words of command. Invitations to prayer as rejoicing and giving thanks are invitations to a deeper and richer relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Marjorie Suchocki: “a prayer of pure thanksgiving creates an even more deeply personal dynamic between ourselves and God” (In God’s Presence, 116).
Prayers of gratitude deepen relationship, and they transform us. In his book How To Want What You Have, Timothy Miller talks about how gratitude changes us. Gratitude, he says “is always a could, never a should” (165). He distinguishes between feelings of gratitude and the practice of gratitude, which is what prayers of gratitude are, the practice of gratitude. The practice of Gratitude is the intention to think and behave in such a way that welcomes the experience of Gratitude, regardless of your circumstances or previous experiences. Then he goes on to say how this practice can change us. The feeling of Gratitude is a shy bird…. You practice Gratitude by carefully building a home in your heart to accommodate it. The bird does not always come, but if you make a home for it, it comes often enough (169).
If the heart of prayer is relationship and transformation, prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving have a vital place in our praying. It is important to remember that the invitation to this kind of praying comes to us regardless of our circumstances, and I have come to think of prayers of gratitude as part of a journey. Praying is a doorway into thanks, but there can be a long hallway from the open door to the bright light of thanks. I want to illustrate this with two stories.
Marjorie Suchocki tells a moving story about getting to gratitude in her book on prayer. I remember a night during a time in my life when all seemed like despair. My whole world had fallen apart, and the pain seemed almost beyond endurance. Marjorie is invited to go sledding with some friends on a bright, crisp winter night. Breaking through the woods into the clearing, I suddenly saw the sky filled with subtle changing lights. It was one of those rare occasions when the northern lights could be seen even as far south as Ohio, where I lived at the time. I could not move from the wonder of the scene – so much unexpected beauty! And it seemed to me then that there is a joy of beauty deeper than any pain, and a glory to living and experiencing beauty, no matter what the hardships. And just as my pain and despair had been experienced by God, even so my joy was experienced by God. (122-123) Because of her practice of prayer, Marjorie was open to new experiences of gratitude and thanksgiving, even when life was painful and difficult, and experiencing beauty, she rejoices with God – shares her joy with God.
I was in high school when I first encountered Max Ehrmann’s prose poem, Desiderata which contains these words: With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
My own journey with prayer as gratitude is a journey in which I seek to be reminded that it is still a beautiful world, that God still works to create beauty in the world – where the beauty is sometimes named love, sometimes named compassion, sometimes named peace, sometimes named justice. Some days that is easy because I know I have so much to be thankful for: basic necessities, living in a country where I can express opinions freely, a marriage that continues to grow after almost twenty-nine years, children who create such pride and joy, a caring church community, music which makes me smile or sing or dance, books whose words are beautiful and/or whose ideas spark my imagination, and the list goes on. Gratitude comes easy sometimes. I am also aware of the challenges in our world – economic, social, environmental, political. Economic insecurity looms heavily. War and violence continue across the globe. We seem unwilling or unable to really grapple with some of our deep economic and environmental issues – and they are intertwined. But the pain of the world is not just out there. I feel it acutely inside myself, too. There are scars etched by the cut glass of broken dreams, pains carried from wounds of the past, sometimes haunting self-doubt, worries about my children and their hopes and dreams. There are those days when one problem barely gets managed before another one rears its head. Prayer is a doorway into thanks, but there are times when the hallway from the door to the place of gratitude seems long and dark. There are times when we move from joy to pain to joy – like Palm Sunday to Good Firday to Easter.
Joan Chittister, in one of her books writes, It’s not always possible to rejoice in our struggles. But it is always possible to trust them. Then, we may surely give thanks, not for the blessing we have, but for the blessings we cannot see. In every struggle there is a hidden blessing. (Becoming Fully Human, 106) My journey with prayers of gratitude is a journey to get to that place of trust, and not just about what’s happening, but also about what has happened. Henri Nouwen once wrote, “It is a difficult discipline to constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way in which God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future” (in Melanie Svoboda, Traits of a Healthy Spirituality, 102). To be able to give thanks for all that has led me to this place, to be able to express gratitude for all that is happening, at least at some level, that is where I am going in my own journey with prayer as thanksgiving and gratitude. Rejoice in the Lord always. Give thanks in all circumstances. Remember it is still a beautiful world.
A final story. Huston Smith is a highly regarded scholar, writer and teacher in the field of religion. Our First and Ten men’s group read his book, The World’s Religions. A community interfaith book group which I convene just read his memoir, Tales of Wonder. As he ends his memoir, Huston Smith recalls the story of St. John Chrysostom. John had gotten cross-wise with the Czarena of Russia for criticizing her for neglecting the poor, and he was ordered to be executed – drawn and quartered. John’s last overheard words were: “Praise, praise for everything. Thanks, thanks for it all.” And Huston Smith, now ninty and recently moved into a care facility echoes these words about his own life – praise, praise for everything. Thanks, thanks for it all. He shares these words even as he has shared the death of a daughter to cancer when she was fifty and the murder of a granddaughter. Still he wants to offer thanks and praise for life.
I want to get to that place too, and offering prayers of gratitude opens me to the beauty and wonder of life and to the mystery of God’s love. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Rejoice always; give thanks in all circumstances – prayer is the doorway into thanks, and I am walking through it again and again and again. Amen.


If we cannot be happy in spite of our difficulties, what good is our spiritual practice.
Maha Ghosananda

If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.
Emma Goldman

In the deepest sense, all prayers are prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 115

Our thanksgiving to God moves from thanks for God’s gifts to thanks for God’s self; it is as if we touch God back, and experience a sense of God’s self as an overwhelming presence of love. Our thanksgiving then become swallowed up in joy, which is itself the praise of God…. In all our praying, then, there is a thanksgiving for the gift of prayer itself. Through prayer, we know ourselves as we truly are: in God’s presence.
Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 124

We grow in love when we grow in gratefulness. And we grow in gratefulness when we grow in love.
David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness: the heart of prayer, 176

This is how God prays: by dancing.
David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness: the heart of prayer, 189

Praying is the verb that goes with religion. Praying (in the widest sense) is what keeps religious experience from drying up into nothing but religious structures.
David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness: the heart of prayer, 213

Friday, April 15, 2011

Prayin' the Blues

Sermon preached April 10, 2011

Texts: Psalm 13; Job 17:6-7, 23:1-6

Play excerpt: Bessie Smith, “St. Louis Blues”

Bessie Smith

The blues. Some of us may like blues music. Many of us like music that has roots in the blues or intersects with the blues – rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country. Whatever our musical preferences, we seem to have more difficulty prayin’ the blues.
Are any of you familiar with the ACTS model of prayer? This model suggests that prayer should revolve around four movements: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication. It is not a bad model for a prayer life. We express our sense of the goodness of God and God’s love for the world and for us. We acknowledge the ways we have not lived out that love in our lives. We give thanks to God for the good gifts of life. We ask for the well-being of others, for the world, for ourselves. A couple of weeks ago, I preached a sermon on prayer as asking and included in that a discussion of praying for forgiveness as we pray for ourselves. I also spoke about praying for others and for the world. Next Sunday, the sermon will be about prayer as gratitude and thanksgiving.
What is distinctly absent in the ACTS model is prayin’ the blues, is lament, is complaint, is grieving. Why? Are we so concerned that we will become whiny, that we ignore such praying? Are we so convinced that things could be worse that we have no right to express dismay at the way things sometimes are? Are we concerned that complaining has no place in our conversation with God? I don’t know, but this I do know – when we neglect lament and complaint we cut off a powerful and necessary form of prayer, a biblical form of prayer.
My spirit is broken, my days are extinct…. I am one before whom people spit. My eye has grown dim from grief, and all my members are like a shadow…. My complaint is bitter. Job
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? The Psalmist (Psalm 13)
Lest you think this is but a single, isolated psalm, listen: Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble (10:1). My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol (88:3).
If we take the Psalms as our cue, honest cries from the heart are vital to prayer as relationship. Psalm 10 (v. 14-15) says of God: “Indeed, you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands.” God, it seems, may be more open to our laments and complaints than we are willing to share them.
I appreciate the honesty of Marjorie Suchocki in her book In God’s Presence. Have you never been very angry with God? There are times when our sense of justice is outraged, or when someone we love is in horrible pain, and we cry out to God for relief. But the injustice or the pain continues, even as we pray for redress. We pray, and release the praying, and continue to experience the assault on our spirits by the situation of great grief. Has your soul never, like mine, screamed its rage at God for seemingly doing nothing? Sometimes I have an image of beating my fists against the chest of God, sobbing like a comfortless child…. It is all right to share rage with God who understands…. We are called to honesty in prayer, regardless of the state of our emotional well-being. God receives us as we are, and how we are is no surprise to God. (37-38)
God receives us as we are, and how we are is no surprise to God. God notes trouble and grief, and trouble and grief manage to make their way into each of our lives.
We hurt sometimes. Relationships don’t work out – our affections are not returned and we feel the pain of rejection. Life is difficult – there are moments when the only choices we have are between not so good and even worse. Some days the best that is possible is getting through relatively unscathed. We know disappointment – a job does not pan out, the vacation we planned and anticipated turns out to be little fun. We see others suffer. We watch while our parents age and feel the pains and difficulties of aging. We see our children – they break bones, their hearts break, and while we know that some heart break is inevitable, we wish we could protect them from it all. People we care about hurt. This week acquaintances of mine, people who in the last year plus have lost a son, now have a grandchild suffering from hydrocephalus. People we love die. We look at the world and see that it can be an absolute mess – one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, is the country hit by a devastating earthquake; Japan is reeling from an earthquake and tsunami, and a primary source of power – nuclear energy – has proven to be a curse as well as a blessing; Libya remains a deeply conflicted country; Afghanistan is not a peaceful paradise, nor is Iraq a model of Mideast democracy. Peace between Israel and Palestine remains elusive.
Have you never been very angry with God? There are times when our sense of justice is outraged, or when someone we love is in horrible pain, and we cry out to God for relief…. Has your soul never… screamed its rage at God for seemingly doing nothing?
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?... Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble. My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.

And God wants to hear from us, hear it all. We are called to honesty in prayer, regardless of the state of our emotional well-being. The heart of prayer is relationship, and solid relationships are rooted in a deep and searching honesty, and that includes those moments in our lives when we are in pain, those times in our lives when we witness suffering and injustice.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a brilliant philosopher and theologian and committed Christian. When his son Eric was 25, Eric died in a mountain-climbing accident. Wolterstorff used one of his God-given gifts to deal with his grief. He wrote, wrote a book called Lament for a Son. Parts of the book are like prayers of lament. Their honesty is instructive.
I skimmed some books on grief. They offered ways of not looking at death and pain in the face…. I will not look away. I will indeed remind myself that there’s more to life than pain. I will accept joy. But I will not look away from Eric dead. Its demonic awfulness I will not ignore. I owe that – to him, and to God (54)…. To the most agonized question I have ever asked I do not know the answer. I do not know why God would watch him fall. I do not know why God would watch me wounded. I cannot even guess…. I am not angry but baffled and hurt. My wound is an unanswered question. The wounds of all humanity are an unanswered question (68). Faith endures; but my address to God is uncomfortably, perplexingly altered…. I must explore the Lament as a mode for my address to God (70)
Lament, complaint, prayers arising out of grief and pain and hurt are not meant to deny that there is beauty, joy and love in the world. Wolterstorff will accept joy. Next week we will be focusing on prayer as thanksgiving and gratitude. Yet prayer as relationship entails honesty. Again, Nicholas Wolterstorff: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic…. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. (34) Deep honesty in the midst of the pain, grief, disappointment, heartache, injustice, that is a part of life in this world – prayer invites such honesty, and when we dare pray with that kind of honesty, we find a God who recognizes how painful life can be, and who cares.
Prayer as lament gets to the heart of prayer as relationship. It also gets to the heart of prayer as transformation. Prayers of lament are hopeful acts. They are prayers of faith. We trust God is listening. We trust God cares. We trust that “God works with the world as it is in order to lead it toward what it can be.” We trust that “prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what can be” (Suchocki, 57) We trust that transformation is possible, and to pray prayers of lament is part of changing ourselves and our world.
Perhaps transforming our hearts through acknowledging our hurt and pain works something like this process described by Elizabeth Lesser: Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness…. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a larger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy…. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180)
Praying our prayers of lament can be part of moving our hearts toward tenderness and compassion. Praying our prayers of lament may help us discover the power of anger in the work of love and justice. We see that kind of transformation in the Psalms. A Psalm “regularly holds together hurt and hope, pain and praise” (The Discipleship Study Bible) Psalm 13 begins: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? It concludes: But I trusted your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Prayin’ the blues is a lot like the blues themselves, where lament transforms toward joy.

Play excerpt: “St. Louis Blues” Louis Armstrong. Amen.

Louis Armstrong

Friday, April 8, 2011

Silence Speaking

Sermon preached April 3, 2011

Texts: I Kings 19:11-13

I am going to begin this morning by playing thirty seconds of a rather well-known piano piece composed by an American composer. (Thirty seconds of John Cage’s 4”33” – which is a silent composition).
That is the first thirty seconds of John Cage’s 4’33”. If you want to check it out there is a 9 minute, twenty-three second fully symphonic version on YouTube. Part of what Cage was trying to do in this composition is make this point: There is no such thing as empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. Ironically, when I printed off a set of John Cage (1912-1992) quotes from the internet, the last page printed blank.
Cage was an ironic advocate of silence, considering it “impossible” in one sense, but necessary in another – necessary in helping us pay attention to what we otherwise might miss.
John Cage was not the first advocate of silence. As early as the Bible we are given an encouragement to silence through the story of Elijah. God tells Elijah to go stand on the mountain, and God will pass by. Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence…. Then there came a voice to him (I Kings 19:11-13).
Was the writer here just reporting the story as it had been told him, and told many times before? Probably. Yet the writer tells the story with such beauty and conviction one wonders if this writer, too, knew what it was like to hear the voice of God whisper through the sound of sheer silence.
If “God bids us to pray, invites us to pray, inspires us to pray” as Marjorie Suchocki asserts (In God’s Presence, 28), and part of our prayer is silence, perhaps God is the original advocate of silence. It certainly seems that God has been speaking out of silence for quite some time. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:1). Out of the quiet of that moment – creativity.
The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation. That has been the underlying conviction for this series of Lenten sermons on prayer. The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation. There are places in relationships for silence. Think about how much gets communicated silently, without words. Facial expressions communicate volumes, and we are often tuned in as much to those as to the words someone speaks. To gently grab someone’s hand can communicate love, tenderness, compassion, sympathy – and you don’t need words necessarily to tell you which one it is because the context often let’s you know. A hand held on a date usually communicates some level of romantic love. A hand grabbed standing before a casket communicates sympathy and compassion. When we want to listen deeply and well to someone, we give them the space to speak, allowing that silence for a while is an invitation to share. At the heart of prayer is relationship, and silence is an important part of our relationships, including our relationship with God. In silence our relationship with God can achieve a deeper intimacy.
And silence is transforming. Commit yourself to some silent time in your life and see if it doesn’t change you some. But silence as silent prayer does more than just lower your blood pressure. Richard Foster in his book Prayer: finding the heart’s true home writes this: We live in a wordy world with our sophisticated high-tech telecommunications systems…. [Silent] prayer is the one discipline that can free us from our addiction to words. (155) He quotes one of the desert Christian fathers, Ammonas: know that it is by silence that the saints grew, that it is because of silence that the power of God dwelt in them, because of silence that the mysteries of God were known to them (155). Intimacy with God involves being changed by God.
So how might we go about silent prayer? Paying attention to breathing is an ancient and important technique. Get comfortable, find a prayerful posture, invite God’s presence and breathe. Count the breaths. Use prayer beads or your fingers. A great way to count to ten is simply thumb = one, then touch each of your other fingers up to five. Do the same thing with your other hand, thumb = six, etc. Keep some kind of timer handy, but probably not something with a loud bell. Pick a time – three minutes, five minutes, ten minutes. Let thoughts come and go, while trying to focus simply on being in the presence of God.
Silent prayer helps us pay attention. It helps us learn to hear beyond words, to listen beyond sounds. But words and sounds are not our only potential spiritual distractions. Silent prayer when used with art or icons helps us internalize images more helpful to our spiritual growth than much of what we may see day in and day out. The use of pictures in silent prayer also has a long history. Here is a Russian icon from the fifteenth century painted by Andrew Rublev. It is sometimes called “the Savior of Zvenigorod” because it was painted for a church in Zvenigorod, Russia. Praying with this icon, Henri Nouwen writes, “Thus, seeing Christ leads us to the heart of God as well as to the heart of all that is human.” (Behold the Beauty of the Lord: praying with icons, 84)
Silent prayer is an important part of prayer as relationship and transformation. It takes us into a deeper intimacy with God. It opens us to the possibility of hearing God in new ways. Getting closer to God, growing more attentive to God, we are changed. In her poem “Praying” Mary Oliver calls prayer: “the doorway/into thanks, and a silence in which/another voice may speak” (Thirst, 37). And so it is.

Three minutes of silent prayer, with Rublev’s Christ icon projected.

I wish us all encounters with God in sounds of sheer silence. Amen.

John Cage, 4'33"

Friday, April 1, 2011

Please, Please, Please

Sermon preached March 27, 2011

Texts: James 5:13-18; Philippians 4:6-7; Matthew 7:7-11

So help me complete the phrase – “Like a good neighbor…. (State Farm is there).” Here is today’s trivia fact – this song was written by Barry Manilow in 1971. So how many of you have seen the recent State Farm commercials? You sing the song and, abracadabra, there is your State Farm agent, or a sandwich, or the girl from 4c, or Bob Barker with a new car.
I am guessing many of us would like God and prayer to work that way. Marjorie Suchocki in In God’s Presence identifies this kind of thinking. We sometimes seem to imagine God as equivalent to the great genie in Aladdin’s bottle, with prayer as the magic rubbing that draws the genie forth to do our bidding (16). She says we may also “hold an attitude toward God and prayer that seemingly casts us in the role of dictating our memo for the day to our divine secretary, who is then to translate the memo from words to action” (16).
We would like God to be our genie in the bottle or our personal secretary. We would pray the James Brown prayer – Please, please, please. Praying like that we may instead imagine God as the “divine egoist,” another Marjorie Suchocki phrase. We imagine God already knows what we need, but God likes to be asked. It is as if the divine ego needs to be stroked in a particularly pleasing way for God to respond to the petitioner’s request…. If we use the correct formula, the right adjectives, then God will be pleased and will answer us. (16)
Is this really who God is and how God works? God is a good neighbor, and God is there, but God is not like the State Farm commercials. At least that is not my experience of God. Neither is this “God as genie” very theologically astute or biblically accurate. I think Marjorie Suchocki says it better. God works with the world as it is in order to bring it to where it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes the way the world can be. Prayer opens the world to its own transformation. (18-19)
Prayer changes the world – not magically, not like a genie in a bottle. God meets the world where it is. God works with the world as it is, with its own power. God seeks to persuade the world in the direction of its own good. At the heart of prayer is transformation.
At the heart of prayer is also relationship. God bids us to pray, invites us to pray, inspires us to pray…. Prayer is God’s invitation to us to be willing partners in the great dance of bringing a world into being that reflects something of God’s character. (Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 28-29). Marjorie Suchocki again, and her words will appear here a lot today as we are reading her book together. There are still plenty of copies available and I encourage you to buy and read this book.
The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation, a deepening relationship with the God of Jesus Christ, and being transformed by God’s love. The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation and asking and interceding are important in that.
When we pray “asking” prayers we confront our deepest hopes, hurts, needs, fears, sorrows, joys, and dreams. When we ask and intercede, we identify places in the world where we want to see change – healing, well-being, justice, reconciliation, peace. So we pray. So we ask.
The Bible certainly encourages prayers of asking and intercession. Jesus encourages: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you…. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?... How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! Paul, in Philippians, writes to encourage as well. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Yet a third New Testament writer, the author of James, offers advice for when a person is hurting or ill. Are there any among you suffering? They should pray…. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…. The prayer of faith will save the sick…. Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. There are images here which suggest God the genie or divine secretary, but we know that prayer is not like that – not like the genie or a vending machine. Jesus says that God will give good things, but what is best in complex situations is often difficult to determine. God offers the highest good in every situation, but there is no guarantee we will respond to God’s persuasive power. Paul encourages prayer, and then says that peace will be the end result – not necessarily getting just what we want. James says the prayer of faith will save the sick, and while I believe prayers for healing are important, they also take place in a human context and one fact about human life is that it will end for each of us at some time. Some prayer for healing will finally fail, or better, will be answered with a healing on the other side of this life.
Still, we are encouraged to pray. So we pray. So we ask.
We pray for our own lives. Among the important prayers for our lives are prayers for forgiveness and prayers for transforming grace. Using the prayer of Jesus as our model, a prayer we pray every week, we ask for forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We often pray, “Forgive us the wrong we have done, As we forgive those who have wronged us.” A few years ago, I began, with some regularity, to use the language of “sin” in my praying of the prayer that Jesus taught. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” It helped me grasp more adequately the hurt that I sometimes cause, even without intending it. It helped me grab hold of the hurt I sometimes feel. The need for forgiveness is real. The need to forgive is important. Marjorie Suchocki: Impulses toward confession are God’s way of leading one past the block of one’s sin toward a richer and deeper self lived within communal interdependence…. Confession… unblocks us, opening us up for our good (73).
Another important prayer for my life, a prayer for transforming grace, is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. It is really misnamed. It is not a prayer for serenity; it is a prayer for grace, at least as Niebuhr first penned it in 1943. God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. (Reinhold Niebuhr, Justice and Mercy, front piece). I pray for God’s grace, and in that grace serenity in the face of things that cannot be changed. I pray for God’s grace, and in that grace courage to change things that should be changed – in myself and in the world. I pray for grace, and in that grace wisdom.
We pray for others. We pray for their well-being. Marjorie Suchocki: In God we meet…. Praying for another’s well-being allows God to weave us into that other’s well-being. In this manner we become part of those for whom we pray, and they become part of us. (46, 47) We pray for their healing, even as we know that something will end life for each of us. Still we pray for healing, pray prayers of healing right to the end. We even pray for others who may not be our favorite people. We pray for enemies. I appreciate Marjorie Suchocki’s honest way of praying for those we may not love praying for. Oh God, I wish they would rot in hell, but I pray for their well-being anyway, and ask you to forgive my own evil wishes even though I prefer to keep on wishing them; God help us both. Amen. (54)
We pray for our church. I hope this is a significant part of each of our praying. Our prayers for our church make possible new things for our life together. God works with our church as it is in order to bring it to where it can be. Prayer changes the way the church is, and therefore changes the way the church can be. Prayer opens the church to its own transformation. In The United Methodist Book of Worship (504), there is a prayer for the church that I am particularly fond of, a prayer composed by the twentieth-century social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). Though he died in 1918, this prayer, in its beginning, feels very contemporary. O God of all times and places, we pray for your Church, which is set today amid the perplexities of a changing order, and face to face with new tasks. Baptize her afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. We would do well to pray for our church regularly, that God would baptize our congregation afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.
We pray for our world. The world as it is is not where we would like it to be. Too many go hungry. Too many resort to violence and too many suffer violence. Human resources don’t seem enough ordered toward a common good. The resources of the planet are not being well-managed. We pray for our world. We pray for peace, justice, reconciliation, care of the planet. We pray for courage to change the things that should be changed. We take this kind of praying seriously. Marjorie Suchocki warns: Be careful for what you pray, for God may use you in addressing those things for which you pray…. Prayer creates a channel in the world through which God can unleash God’s will toward well-being. Prayer puts you in the way of that channel, and you will become part of God’s rolling waters. (52)
The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation. Prayer as asking - asking for our lives, for others, for church and world - can deepen our relationships to God and to others. Prayer as asking changes us and changes the world. There is one final thing I want to say about prayer as asking, and again use Marjorie Suchocki to help me say it. When we pray, we release our prayers to God, and that is important. We trust that God prompts the prayer for purposes that are deeper than we can know. Thus we release each prayer to the God who receives it…. Released prayer is more like breathing, it takes the same depth of one’s heart’s concern to God, offering it and releasing it, offering it and releasing it. To release prayer is to count on the fact that it is God who receives and deals with this prayer, not oneself. To release our prayers is to recognize that we do not control what God does with our prayers. (35)
In everything pray. It is like our spiritual breathing. In the end, because we pray, our world will be different. Our lives will be different. We will know a peace that goes beyond our comprehension. If we hear a “please, please, please” in prayer, perhaps it is not just our own asking. Perhaps it is also God’s invitation to prayer. Amen.