Monday, December 16, 2013

the god of the jesus prayer

Year C • 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25
Sirach 35:12­–17 • Psalm 84:1–6 • 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18 • Luke 18:9–14
(Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures)
Delivered on Sunday, October 27th, a.d. 2013
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

Sermon available as a PDF by clicking here.

The Sermon
Happy are they who dwell in your house, [O Lord]! 
they will always be praising you.
(Psalm 84:3)

God is Good and Loving and Out to Get Me!
I grew up in the church, and I loved it. Church was one of my favorite places to be. I was baptized as an infant, confirmed as a pre-teen, and had a very powerful and transformative spiritual experience when I was 14 or 15. I attended Sunday school, and I served as an acolyte, week in and week out. I loved participating in the liturgy, and I read and studied the Bible with great regularity and interest. I loved God, and I loved Jesus. By the time I was ready to graduate from high school, I was thoroughly convinced that God was good… and loving… and out to get me. Yes, I believed that God was good and loving and out to get me, and at the time, I saw no contradiction.
Now I don’t have time to explain how I came to view God in this way, but I will say that my distorted image of who God was seriously affected how I prayed. At times, I didn’t pray at all. At other times, I limited my prayers. For example, I stopped praying for things that I wanted or even needed. Why? Because I was convinced that if I asked God for something, God would make a concerted effort to ensure that I didn’t get what I asked for. Praying just drew God’s attention. So I learned that it was better not to pray. Better not to pray than to risk God sabotaging my dreams.
God was good and loving and out to get me, and I had plenty of evidence to support my hypothesis. For example, when I was about 11 or 12 or 13 years old, I got one of those nasty colds that settles in your eyes. The kind where your vision is slightly blurred, and you keep blinking to clear them up but to no avail. I was miserable, and I remember praying, “Dear God, can you please take this eye cold away. Just give me a regular cold instead, but please, O please, can’t you clear up my eyes.” Well, you can guess what happened. Within in a few days time, I was sneezing and coughing AND blinking my eyes. I now had a cold in my chest AND in my eyes. I remember then going to church to acolyte for midnight mass. I was vesting in the sacristy, and I told my priest about my prayer and what became of it. He just laughed and said, “Yeah, you’ve got to be careful about what you pray for.” That confirmed it for me. God was good and loving and out to get me.

God is Good and Loving and Out to Do Me Good!
When I entered college as a religion major at Friends University, this distorted image of God was firmly in place. But something happened during my junior year. Through reading and studying, through important friendships, and through the messages of guest speakers that came to the University, my images of who God was and of who I was began to be healed and transformed. That year, one of the speakers at chapel gave a talk on the radical, unconditional love of God. His name was Brennan Manning, and he had written a book entitled, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out. It was a painful, yet transformative year. I became increasingly convinced that God was not only good and loving but that he was out to do me good. I say it was a painful year because while I was convinced of this truth in my head, I had such a hard time getting my heart to follow suit. I just couldn’t seem to get this truth to take up residence in my gut, which is really where faith resides. I could offer up all manner of biblical and theological arguments for why God was good and loving and out to do me good, and for why I was beautiful and precious in God’s sight, but my gut always betrayed me. In my head, I knew God loved me; but I was still afraid.
And so, do you know what I began to do? I began to pray again. Specifically, I began to pray for things that I needed, even things that I wanted, big things and small things. It didn’t matter because if God were truly out to do me good, then I should be able to trust God with anything, no matter how small or great, no matter how noble or selfish. Early on, when I began to pray this way, my stomach would get all tied up in knots and I would panic because my old, distorted image of God would stir up feelings of fear and anxiety. When this occurred, I would simply remind myself: “God is good and loving and out to do me good. God is good and loving and out to do me good. This is true. Even though my gut is not convinced, this is still true, and so I am going to act as if it is true. I am going to pray as if it is true. I am no longer going to hide anything from God. Instead, I am going to step out in faith. I am going to trust God enough to offer up to him all of my wishes, wants, and needs, all of my hopes and dreams.” And do you know what happened? Over time, my trust in God’s goodness began to take root and my fear and anxiety were slowly replaced by freedom and peace.
This experience taught me something important, something that Christians throughout the centuries have known, namely, that praying shapes believing. That is, how we pray to God informs and reinforces what we believe about God. At one point in my life, I believed that God was out to get me, so I stopped asking God for anything, and that practice of hiding from God served to reinforce my distorted image of who God was. It became a downward spiral because praying shapes believing. But then the truth of who God really is broke into my life and I began to understand that God was on my side, that God not only loved me but he liked me. And when I began to step out in faith, when I began to risk asking God for what I wanted and needed, my faith began to flourish because praying shapes believing.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector
Last week Jesus told us a parable about our need to pray always and not to lose heart. In it, a curmudgeon of a judge rules in a widow’s favor, not because he is concerned about justice and fairness, he’s not, but because the widow wears him down with her repeated demands for justice. Speaking to those of us who think God must be similarly worn down before He will act on our behalf, Jesus says: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them” (Luke 18:7­–8a).
Jesus then follows this parable with another parable about prayer and justice, which we heard read today. It is a parable about two men, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector, both of whom have gone up to the Jerusalem temple to offer up prayers to God. I would like to take a few moments to look at their prayers, the posture of their prayers and the content of their prayers, to see how their prayers reflect and shape their views about who God is.

The Posture of Their Prayers
     First of all, imagine if you will, the temple complex in Jerusalem, at the center of which stands the temple proper, where only priests are allowed. Leading up to the temple are a series of courts—the court of the Gentiles, the court of women, and the court of Israel, where only Jewish males are allowed to pray and where our Pharisee and our tax-collector are to be found. Imagine also, large crowds, hundreds upon hundreds of Jewish pilgrims, offering up their prayers to God, eyes toward heaven and praying aloud. It’s very noisy; it’s very crowded.
      The Pharisee, however, is “standing by himself.” He has separated himself from the other pilgrims, those whom he despises, giving thanks to God that he is not like any of them—thieves, rogues, and adulterers. The tax-collector also stands apart, but for very different reasons. It’s all that he can do just to be there in that place, so close to God and, at the same time, so aware of his own sin, shame, and helplessness. And so, he stands far off, beating his breast, with his head downcast, not even daring to look up to heaven.

The Content of Their Prayers
     The content of their prayers is as different as their postures. The Pharisee offers God an inventory of his spiritual virtues and practices. “I fast, not once but, twice a week; and I give a tenth of everything I take in.” In other words, the Pharisee identifies those things that cause him to stand out from the crowd, in the hope that God will notice him, that God will commend him for his faithfulness, and on that basis will love and accept him. He is desperate for his heavenly Father’s love and acceptance, and he seeks to secure it through his performance. He is like prodigal son’s elder brother who says to his father, “I have worked like a slave for you all these years, and I have never once disobeyed you.” With his prayer, the Pharisee seeks to show that he is worthy of God’s love, and consequently, he cannot go home justified. He cannot go home at peace with God, not simply because he despises other men, but because he believes that God’s love is conditional. So long as he believes that his relationship with God is dependent upon his own performance and virtue, he will never be at peace with God. His prayer reinforces a distorted image of who God is.
      The tax collector is also desperate for his heavenly Father’s love and acceptance. But, unlike the Pharisee, he does not have anything to offer to God. He does not have anything to commend himself other than his sin, guilt, and shame. And so, with nothing to offer, he simply throws himself upon God’s mercy. During the past few weeks, as I have reflected upon this parable, my thoughts were repeatedly drawn to the simplicity of the tax-collector’s prayer. What struck me was how different his prayer was from the Pharisee’s, though not exactly its opposite. The Pharisee lists his virtues, but the tax-collector doesn’t list his vices. He does not offer up a litany of sins, but simply asks for mercy. “God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am.” It’s a simple prayer, born no doubt out of desperation, but also born of faith. Why do I say faith? Because his paucity of words reflects an abundance of trust in God. The tax-collector’s prayer reminds me of a book I once read; it had a chapter entitled, “If God Is So Smart, Why Am I Doing All the Talking?”
Unlike the Pharisee, the tax-collector doesn’t do all the talking. He doesn’t use many words. He doesn’t have to because God is pretty smart. Moreover, God is pretty trustworthy. Jesus once said, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:7–8). God knew what the tax-collector needed, so it was enough for him to pray, “Lord have mercy.” The tax-collector came to the temple with nothing, and he went home with everything. He went home justified, reconciled to God and therefore at peace.

Prayer Cultivates Faith
What we pray and how we pray, shapes how and what we believe about God. And so, we need a practice of prayer that reminds us of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Stewardship is about taking care of the resources that God has placed within our care. Stewardship, however, is not simply about maintaining what we have been given, it is also about cultivating and multiplying those resources, be they time, talent, or treasure. In the past several weeks, we’ve heard that faith is not something we create, rather it is a gift from God. But for faith to flourish, it must be cultivated. Like a grain of wheat, faith has great potential for growing and producing more faith. Yet, like a grain of wheat, faith’s potential can lie dormant. Faith must be planted in our hearts and minds, in our bodies and in our guts at the core of our being. For faith to flourish, it must be cultivated, and prayer is one of the principal methods because praying shapes believing.
During this stewardship campaign, I would commend the tax-collector’s prayer to you, either in its longer form, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or in its shorter form, “Lord, have mercy.” Take five minutes a day to sit down and slowly repeat these words over and over again, either silently or quietly aloud. “Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, have mercy.” And when your mind wanders—and it will wander—very gently without any self-recriminations, return to the words, “Lord, have mercy.”
When we pray this simple prayer, we are stepping out in faith. For instead of trying to control God with our many words, we are putting our trust in God. When we pray this simple prayer, over time, our faith will flourish because our God is faithful and our God is good and loving and out to do us good.
Lord, have mercy upon us. Amen.

The Scriptures
RCL, Year C, Proper 25, Thematic Track

Sirach 35:12–17
Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
         and as generously as you can afford.
For the Lord is the one who repays,
         and he will repay you sevenfold.
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it
         and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
         and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
         but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
         or the widow when she pours out her complaint.

Psalm 84:1–6 (BCP 707)
    1      How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
                     My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
                     my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
    2      The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
                     by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
    3      Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
                     they will always be praising you.
    4      Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
                     whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
    5      Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
                     for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
    6      They will climb from height to height, *
                     and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18
I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
     At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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