Sunday, July 29, 2007

Proper 12C

Genesis 18:20-33; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

No one believes this to be true more than my six-year-old son, Charlie, who asks and searches and knocks all the time. His skill with asking the question “why?” is unparalleled, except perhaps by his ability to search every square inch of the house for his shoes and finally find them in the middle of the living room floor. And if you open the door for him just an inch, he’ll gleefully hook you with his favorite joke in the world:

Knock knock…who’s there…banana…banana who…knock knock…

Orange you hoping I’m not going to do the whole thing? Charlie, like most six-year-olds, I think, can ask and search and knock knock with all the persistence of Abraham bargaining with God. Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city…Suppose five of the fifty are lacking…Suppose forty are found there…How about twenty…What about ten…

To his credit, Abraham has turned his life inside-out for God without so much as a “why?”. He and wife, Sarah, have left their home and begun their journey to a place known only as “the land that I will show you”. They have been promised descendents as numerous as the stars, but have yet to hear the pitter patter of tiny feet searching for tiny shoes. In this morning’s reading from Genesis, it is as though all of Abraham’s unasked questions come tumbling out at once in his bold challenge of God’s decision to destroy sinful Sodom.

His persistence pays off. God answers every question, giving Abraham exactly what he was looking for, although, in the end, not even ten righteous would be found in the condemned city. Paired with our gospel reading on the subject of prayer, we hear of Abraham’s accomplishment and are perhaps surprised the disciples (like us, so full of questions)…we are perhaps surprised the disciples don’t say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to bargain, teach us to get what we want”. Brother John Kavanaugh writes, “I ask God for everything I want but am nowhere near as successful as Abraham. I ask for health, miracles, x-ray vision to find lost articles, and, interminably, to be a better person. Why not? Jesus said we should pray for our daily bread. That covers a lot. How many times, late at night, have I pounded on the door of heaven, remembering his words from Luke’s gospel: ‘Ask…search…knock, and the door will be opened for you.’”

For once, though, the disciples may have asked Jesus the right question when they said, Lord, teach us to pray. Luke tells us they spoke to Jesus just after he had finished praying – perhaps they had been watching, listening, wondering just what transpired between Jesus and the God he so dearly called Abba, Father. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that they observed their Teacher at prayer – Luke’s gospel is filled with accounts of Jesus praying and teaching others about prayer. He prays right after his baptism, when the Holy Spirit comes upon him and a voice from heaven says, You are my son, my Beloved. Jesus prays all day and night before he names the twelve apostles. He often withdraws to pray, alone or in the company of just a few. Over and again, persistently, Luke sets his stories of Jesus’ daily life and work in the context of prayer. Once when Jesus was praying…while he was praying…he prayed more earnestly…when he got up from prayer…

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray…” In this morning’s reading, it is as though all the disciples’ unanswered (but not, bless them, unasked!) questions about how to follow Jesus come tumbling out at once in this earnest request. Lord, teach us to pray.

How they must have delighted, as we still delight today, in the answer, in the words that Jesus gave them. When you pray, say, Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial. The Lord’s Prayer, as it has been in every generation, will be spoken by millions of women and men in hundreds of languages this morning, in worship, at bedsides, at summer camp, in battle, in prison cells, at work sites, at home and on the streets, alone and in community. All these, and many millions more who may not say or even know the beloved prayer, will ask and search and knock this morning, pounding on heaven’s door in the darkness of their lives, hoping that God will lend them an answer, an opening to what they want but cannot find.

To some, Jesus’ teaching about prayer sounds like a blank check – ask for anything you want, knock all night long if you have to, pray long enough and hard enough, and God will answer your prayer. To others, it sounds like a bad joke, because if it were true – everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened – if it were true, one preacher wrote, every little girl would be braiding pink ribbons in her own pony’s tail, and every little boy would be Michael Jordan, and all children everywhere would be living in peace. Lord, it’s not working. Lord, teach us to pray.

But there is, I believe, truth in Jesus’ words to his disciples that day, there is an answer to a question they might not have intended to ask. Lord, teach us to pray. In the simple prayer Jesus offered, and in his parable of the late night guest, and in his invitation to ask and search and knock, Jesus teaches his disciples – and so he teaches us – something of what prayer is and something of the One to whom and in whom and of whom we pray. Jesus teaches us not how to fit prayer into our lives but, rather, how to fit our lives into prayer that is, like the One to whom and in whom and of whom we pray, persistent, ongoing, never-ending.

Listen again to Abraham’s conversation with God, so like a child speaking with Abba, Father, wondering just how far he can go before he reaches the limit of God’s mercy and patience, but Abraham gives up before God does. Long before the words will be spoken to his descendents in the desert, Abraham begins to understand that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…

Listen again to the Lord’s Prayer, so familiar to us that we might not have heard it in a long time. Our Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come… In all these words, Jesus is teaching us about God, who cares for us as a loving parent, who alone is hallowed, holy, whose reign of justice and mercy is over all things. Like a parent God tends to our daily needs for sustenance, forgiveness, and deliverance.

Prayer is not about ourselves. It is not about the people we love or the world we live in. It is not making things happen. It is not about striking a bargain. Prayer is about God who is always already present in us and in the people we love and in the world. It is about opening up before God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. In prayer, we open ourselves to God, who gives us the Holy Spirit – the gift of God’s very self as the breath and life and prayer within us, a gift far more wonderful than anything we could think to ask for. Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “Speak to him, for he heareth, and spirit and Spirit can meet. Closer is he than breathing. Nearer than hands and feet.”

Speak to God, for God hears, and spirit and Spirit can meet. As Episcopalians we are fortunate to have not just the Lord’s Prayer but a whole book full of prayers to help us speak, to help us make that space in which we are open before God, in which spirit and Spirit can meet. That book defines prayer, though, as responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Prayer is more than what we do here, more than what we say at the dinner table or lying in bed at night or in the minutes before the big presentation or the big test. How can we, instead of just saying our prayers, be persistent in prayer? How can we pattern our lives after the One who teaches us to pray? How can we make prayer the context of our lives?

One of the great saints of our faith made his life a prayer in this way. In the morning when he woke up, he would clasp his hands together and begin, “Dear God…” and then go about his day. In the evening, just before bed, he would clasp his hands together again and say, “Amen.”

Thank goodness that for six-year-olds learning to tell jokes, and for all of us learning to pray, persistence, not perfection, is all we need. Charlie’s knock-knocking sometimes falls flat, but his smile as he delivers his punchline never fails to make me laugh anyway. Perhaps in the same way, when my prayers seem to fall flat, when I don’t use the perfect words, when I don’t get what I thought would be the perfect outcome, God smiles at my effort.

We can be sure that when we pray, what we will get each and every time is God, who is nearer than hands and feet, who surpasses any answer we could hope for, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. We can be sure that the Holy Spirit will rise in us like breath, renewing and refreshing us to face what challenges or threatens or frightens us. When this is what we ask for, what we search for, what makes us pound the door of heaven, we can be sure that it will indeed be what is given to us, what we find, what is opened to us each and every day.

And so, let us pray. Dear God…

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Proper 10C

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

It is, by now, such a familiar story. A long and perilous journey filled with narrow passages and wide shadows. The way forward winding through seen and, worse, unseen dangers. The road traveled by people who are not who they at first seem to be. And then, just when all hope is lost and life is left for dead, something quite unexpected happens. Help arrives in the person of an unlikely hero whose showing of compassion and courage and commitment makes possible a new beginning, a new life, a new journey. So goes the familiar story of the good…Harry Potter.

Fans and foes alike of young Harry are all this day in the midst of the Octave of Potter, these magical eight days between the record-breaking release of the fifth movie and the much-anticipated release of the seventh and final book. How will it all end? Is Dumbledore really gone? Is Professor Snape good or evil? What really happened the night Harry received his scar, the night his parents’ love for him proved more powerful than the darkest curse ever conjured? It is by now such a familiar story…

After tucking Little Charlie in bed on the eve of the movie’s opening day, I settled down in the living room with my bible and a few scripture commentaries spread across the sofa, my sermon notebook open to a clean page. I looked over the readings a few times and wrote down a few first thoughts – what is a plumb line, lovely prayer in Paul’s letter, I can’t believe I’ve never preached on the good Samaritan before…The television was on, turned down low, but some familiar theme music caught my ear and when I looked up I saw a familiar face with a familiar scar.

An hour later, I returned to my notebook and read the notes I had scribbled during what turned out to be “Harry Potter: the Hidden Secrets”. I wondered if the director of the tv special had ever preached on the good Samaritan before, because the secrets revealed in the special had nothing to do with potions or charms or any sort of magic at all. Instead, they were about the real and perceived connections between Harry and other characters who are family, friends, strangers, enemies, mentors, teachers, classmates…neighbors of sorts, connected by the thread of that ever familiar story of coming of age and finding one’s place in a world that is not always safe and yet not always dangerous.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? a lawyer asked Jesus, intending to test whether Jesus really belonged in the place of teacher. The lawyer knew the right answer, of course, when Jesus in turn asked for his reading of the law on the matter. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. These familiar words were part of a longer prayer prayed twice daily by faithful Jews, acknowledging God’s compassion for and commitment to the people of Israel. You shall love God with everything that you are…You shall love your neighbor as yourself…You have given the right answer, Jesus said to satisfied lawyer. Do this, and you will live.

If there were a tv special called “The Good Samaritan: the Hidden Secrets,” I suspect the first secret revealed would be the look on the lawyer’s face at the very moment he realized Jesus had said not know this but do this, and you will live, the very moment those words seeped into his heart and soul and mind and sapped his strength. Of that moment, the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Love God and neighbor? Do this and you will live? Do this and you will die, of physical, emotional, and economic exhaustion!” Suddenly eternal life at the end of the road seemed an impossibly long way off, and the road itself overcrowded with people who didn’t know the way like he did. Alright now, Jesus, the lawyer said, desperate to justify his journey, to draw some boundaries, to limit his liability so that he would have a prayer of being able to meet it. Just who is my neighbor, in case the question of loving one ever comes up?

Theologian Frederick Buechner suspects the lawyer wanted a legal definition of neighbor, clearly delineating his range of responsibility, “something on the order of: ‘A neighbor (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”

Who is my neighbor?!? Here is another secret – this question is holy, for in answering it we come of age and we find our place in the world and we glimpse, here and now, something of “the depth and breadth and sweetness of eternal life.” Who is my neighbor? Jesus replied not with a legal definition but with a story. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers…

Jesus didn’t need to say, because the lawyer and everyone knew, that the way from Jerusalem to Jericho was long and perilous, filled with narrow passages and wide shadows, seen and unseen dangers, and people who are not who they at first seem to be. That a traveler would be so brutally attacked, stripped, beaten, and left half dead by the side of that road was a familiar tale. Now by chance a priest was going down that road…so likewise a Levite…Twice hope rises for the battered man and twice it fades as these men see him but cross to the far side of the road and pass him by.

Jesus didn’t need to say, because the lawyer and everyone knew, that priests were the chief religious leaders in the Jewish faith community, and Levites were their lay associates. Both men would be familiar with the command to love their neighbor. But they would also be familiar with the command to enter the Temple clean and undefiled, and touching a corpse would make them unclean. And they would be familiar with road itself, and the possibility that the ones who attacked this man were waiting in the shadows. Perhaps they were in a hurry. Perhaps, just a few shadows back, they had tended to someone else. In any case, weighing their obligations? their fears? their weariness? who knows…they did not stop to help.

And then, just when all hope is lost and life is left for dead, something unexpected happens. Something utterly unexpected. Now a Samaritan while traveling came near him…Jesus didn’t need to say, because the lawyer and everyone knew, that Samaritans were, by Jewish definition, socially outcast religious heretics. But listen to what Jesus does say. When the Samaritan saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds…then put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him…In the original Greek of this gospel text, the phrase “moved with pity” reads something more like, “moved to the depths of his bowels with compassion.” And so help arrives, out of no religious or moral or legal obligation, but rather straight out of the heart and soul and strength and mind of an unlikely hero whose compassion and courage and commitment make possible new life.

Now, Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The lawyer said, for the record another right answer, The one who showed him mercy. And Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.

The story as Luke tells it ends there, in that moment when the lawyer stands face to face with Jesus, with the Way, with the one who daily walked among socially outcast religious heretics and worse, among seen and unseen dangers. Face to face with Jesus, who daily walked among those who would finally strip him, beat him, and leave him for dead on the side of the road. Face to face with Jesus, who daily walked among those for whom his love would prove more powerful than death, among those for whom he would give everything he had to give them a new and eternal life, among those he sent out into the world to go and do likewise, to tell the story, to be the story of compassion and courage and commitment, to show mercy, to be good neighbors. The story ends just as it is beginning…for the lawyer, for us, what will come next?

The competition of countless obligations, the pressure of never enough time, the perception or reality of physical, emotional, and economical exhaustion, the media bombardment of images of suffering and need, the fear of being attacked and left for dead ourselves, the urge to define ourselves by drawing lines that separate us from others, the feeling of inadequacy in the face of a world full of neighbors…these things are familiar as we make our own way down the not-always-safe road through this life.

Who is my neighbor? The question is holy, because to answer it, we must first know who we are. We are people, as Paul writes, whom Jesus has rescued from the power of darkness and welcomed into the kingdom of God. We are people, as our baptismal liturgy says, marked as Christ’s own forever and made members of the household of God. We are people called in that same liturgy to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are people who respond to that call together, as a community of sisters and brothers, saying I will, with God’s help. We are people who follow the Way only to find that the eternal life toward which we journey in hope is present here and now in the compassion and courage and commitment that bid us stop for our neighbors in need.

In the words of one wizard’s story: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities…We’re in a time when we must choose between what is right and what is easy. And remember, Harry, whatever happens, you’re never alone.” In the familiar words of our own faith story, Let us walk with each other, let us walk hand in had, and they’ll know we are Christians – they’ll know we are neighbors – by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. Amen.