Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Pray - Jesus Style

"Pray - Jesus Style"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

May 24, 2020

Genesis 21:8-21 and Luke 11:1-13

If I were to subtitle this sermon, it might be: “Go in to go out.” As I was waiting yesterday for another Zoom appointment that never happened, I picked up a small compilation of poetry called “David Whyte: Essentials.Here’s the opening poem:
Start Close In

by David Whyte
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
another’s voice,
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
private ear
that can
really listen
to another.
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.
Start close in,
Start with
Start with your own
To hear
becomes an
Start right now
Start close in,
Whyte goes on to comment on his own poem: “This poem was inspired by the first lines of Dante's Comedia, written in the midst of the despair of exile from his beloved Florence. It reflects the difficult act we all experience, of trying to make a home in the world again when everything has been taken away; the necessity of stepping bravely again, into what looks like a dark wood, when the outer world as we know it has disappeared, when the world has to be met and in some ways made again from no outer ground but from the very center of our being. The temptation is to take the second or third step, not the first, to ignore the invitation into the center of our own body, into our grief, to attempt to finesse the grief and the absolutely necessary understanding at the core of the pattern, to forgo the radical and almost miraculous simplification into which we are being invited. Start closer in.”
To pray is to start closer in. The intention is not to stay there, but to connect.
Everybody prays. They may not know it – or call it that, but they do. The crudest form of prayer – the only form for some – is a kind of bargain. Abraham does this repeatedly in Genesis. His plea to God to forgo the sacrifice of his son Isaac came to my mind as perhaps the first prayer for mercy in the bible. Abraham again and again calls on God to intervene to alleviate his predicament – both before and after this famous episode – and promises something in return. I’ll follow where you lead, he says, even though I haven’t a clue where you are leading me, YHWH. But then I looked for that prayer in the bible and didn’t find it. Abraham did not beg God to spare his son. He just went along with the plan. So, I started from the beginning of Genesis, looking for the first quotation of any prayer in the Bible. I found it just a few verses before Isaacs trip up the mountain with his fatherSarah is jealous on behalf of her son Isaac because of Abraham’s older son Ishmael’s status as first son. Sarah demands that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be disowned and exiled. Abraham is in a quandary, but doesn’t even ask before God says, “Do what Sarah asks. Ishmael will not be disowned.” Among the peoples of the book, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this is the origin story of the division of Jews and Arabs into opposing tribes. Muslim tradition has the story flipped, though. It is Ishmael that God asks Abraham to sacrifice, and this is emblematic of the very meaning of the word “Islam” – submission. We have much to learn from Islam about prayer.
Hagar, having depleted the food and water she could carry in the wilderness,leaves Ishmael in a protected place and lamentsDo not let me look upon the death of the child! Did she know that was a prayer? Perhaps not. But inthe depths of her despair, she cried out to whomever would listen. It was a prayer that could be expressed by an adherent to any religion, or to none. It was a pure expression of her fear and grief – the certainty that she and her child had been abandoned. Perhaps she expected no response. Out of the depths she cried, and the messengers of God opened her eyes to what had been there all along, both a source of life in the well and a blessing for the future of her offspring. It was affective prayer – a pure expression of her feeling – her situation.
Everybody prays. Rolheiser’s eighth commandment or invitation to mature discipleship is “Pray – affectively and liturgically.” By this he means that it is not enough – if you want to be a disciple of Jesus – to pray affectively – that is from the depths of feeling or emotion. Nor is it enough to join robustly, frequently, and regularly in spoken congregate prayer – liturgical prayer. There must be balance between what rises from the impulse to pray without artifice from the depths of the heart, and the communal, intentionalorganized prayer that we think of as words addressed together to God, who is as close as our breath and who is beyond knowing or even imagining. To Rolheiser’s division of prayer into two balanced parts I might add a third, which is prayer that takes us outside of ourselves and connects us deeply to the underlying and overarching Other” that is displayed in nature and beautyLet’s call it “existential” prayer. Especially in the beautiful part of the world in which we live, many claim that this form of prayer is enough – to “commune” with nature. I’ll admit that I probably don’t pursue this form of prayer, which we might also call unscripted immersion, often enough. But it is also, by itself, not enough. And here’s why. It does not transform the world, and that’s what disciples of Jesus are called to do.
Prayer changes the world. Oh, it’s not as though, by praying, we are bossingaround the great cosmic butler to rearrange the furniture, or pack a basket for an outing, or tidy up our messes and make us presentable to society. Prayer is an acknowledgement of our limited power and control. We are not complete in and of ourselves. We are not sovereign. We are not even separate. Both our control over the world around us and our separateness as individuals are illusions. Authentic prayer – affective, liturgical, and existential – is predicated on these three fundamentals: we are not in controlwe are not alone, and we are not separate. I’m obviously not saying we have no impact on the worldWe are the world  part of it. That has become increasingly clear in recent days and years. And as human, we are at the meeting point of the particular and the universalIn our very existence we carry the threshold between creation and Creator within us. That’s what it means, I believe, to be human. And the doorway that was opened to establish that threshold is the One whom we follow. But it is folly to believe we are in charge. Again, that’s not to say we have no responsibility. As followers of Jesus we have added responsibility as stewards of his mission.
Prayer changes the world.
And, dare I say it, prayer changes God.
Process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki presents this claim in her book In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on PrayerShe says, “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 what the world can be. Prayer opens the world to its own transformation…. Imagine that God is not totally independent from the world – and indeed, from the image of God brooding over the waters in Genesis, to God’s wooing of a people in the lore of Jewish history, to the incredible nature imagery of the Psalms and wisdom literature, to the intimate images of relationship between God and the Jews in the prophetic literature, to the story of God’s incarnational activity in the Gospels, to the images of God’s Spirit brooding over and through the church in the epistles, to the culminating image of God’s renewal of all creation in Revelation, does not Scripture itself contradict the notion of a God totally independent of the world? Our texts portray a God deeply involved with the world and its events, with God wooing the world to deeper modes of community and caring, wooing us toward deeper relation with one another and with God’s own self…. God is not independent of the world, but interdependent with the world…. God, in creative relation with to the earth, woos the earth to become a world, and woos the world in the hope that it might yet become a peaceful and just reflection of the divine image.”
You see, say I, God prays too.
The disciples may still have been thinking in the magical cosmic butler mode when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. They may have thought they needed some unique formula of just the right words. After all, probably every rabbi/teacher/ healer modeled prayer for their disciples – like the Baptizer had to his. The followers of Jesus did not want to be left out. Ironically, Jesus teaches them to pray in exactly the same formula that was used in the temple and synagogue. Jewish prayers at the time of Jesus followed a formula of first praising God; second, naming the reasons for that praise in the communal experience of God in history; third, voicing petitions and intercessions; fourth, stating the conformity of the petitions with God’s will; and finally returning to the praise of God. This liturgy formed the worship life of Jesus and his followers, and became the pattern for early Christian prayer.” So, prayer – Jesus style, was no different than what the disciples already knew. Jesus’ emphasis for his followers was that they do it together. The words are ‘our’ and ‘us’  not ‘my’ and ‘me.’

One last thought for today on this subject that comprises the core of spiritual maturity – the efficacy of prayer. Theistic people of faith attest that prayer works. We are fond of citing examples when what happens after we pray demonstrates prayer’s power because we get what we prayed for. There is a little problem with this proof. It begins to suggest that outcomes depend on our prayer, as if prayer is a switch, or better, a rheostat – as if the more power and intensity we put into prayer somehow better determine the outcome. This simply is not true. And the inverse is the downfall – which is the implication that if we don’t get what we want – what we prayed for – that somehow we were lacking in faith or that God has turned away from our pleas. Just because we don’t get what we want doesn’t mean we haven’t prayed well enough – that we haven’t changed the world. Prayer is powerful. Prayer does change the world, beginning with ourselves and extending through the web of relationships with others and with the divine Other. To circle back to an earlier Sunday in this pandemic disapora  faithful prayer, trusting prayer, is an expression of the four part contemplative stance: Show up. Pay attention. Collaborate with God where the Spirit is moving. Release the outcome. Now, that is prayer – Jesus style!

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