Text: Matthew 6:1-18 (The Message)
“Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like these heathen. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income. Thank you, God, for making me so special. Oh, and by the way, I hope everyone is getting video of this on their cell phones. Amen.”
“God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner. Save me by your grace for I have no other hope.”
Now who do you suppose went home right with God? I’ll tell you, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself” (Luke 18:9-14, The Message).
This parable from Luke’s gospel is his version of Matthew’s story that Melanie read for us this morning. Both link the practice of prayer with humility.
When I was in seminary, there was a kind of prank going around. We would drop a reference to Hezekiah 6:4 into the conversation as if anyone worth their salt would be familiar. The more honest folks would not pretend to know the verse but would grab their Bibles to look it up. Can anyone here this morning quote that verse?
Of course you can’t, because there is no book of “Hezekiah” in the Bible. It just sounds as if there should be. One variant on the prank was for you to quote the verse before people scrambled to find it. As I recall, the quoted verse was, “He who tooteth his own horn tooteth loudly.” Silly as it may seem, I think this made up quote actually follows Jesus’ teaching in bringing us to a place where we can turn round right. He who tooteth his own horn not only tooteth loudly but also with little or no substance. It is a loud, empty braying as with the one who speaks with all the eloquence of mortals and angels, but having no love at the center, rings like a noisy gong or a lonely, clanging cymbal.
We talked Tuesday in Bible study about how hard are these passages from the Sermon on the Mount. They challenge us to live more fully not only into the righteousness of God’s Beloved Community but also ever nearer the very heart of God. Jesus’ teaching is not just to give us a set of standards by which to live our lives. It is, more importantly, to bring us into right relationship with God. Of course, one of the principal practices of establishing right relationship is prayer.
When you pray…what? How would you finish that sentence? When you pray…
I think your responses indicate what a challenge, as well as a satisfaction, prayer might be. In many ways, prayer is a conundrum. Volumes have been written on it, sermons preached, lessons taught. It’s clear in Jesus’ teaching that it is not self-aggrandizement. You’re probably better off communing with God in the privacy of your own room than strutting your stuff in public. When you toot your own horn in the midst of the assembly, you’re more likely to drive a wedge between you and God than you are to draw closer.
I suggested in the Midweek Message this week that “though there are numerous paths to prayer…we might agree that prayer is that which brings us closer to God, which supports and enlarges [our] sacred relationship” with the Holy One. I wonder if there is agreement. Is there some sort of bottom line for us in that suggestion? At the same time that routine ritual may not bring us very close, moments of complete surprise may lift the veil to sacred.” As I do so often, I come back around to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetic affirmation that “earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God…only those who see take off their shoes.”
What moves us to take off our shoes? What do we see in the world around us that draws us nearer the heart of God? Where do we encounter God in our daily lives? These revealing times and places are the substance of prayer. They may be contained and expressed in sacred ritual and they may burst on us without expectation or warning.
In preparing for this sermon I came across an excellent essay by Jane Vennard, who teaches spirituality at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. While I am reserving the essay for future contemplation in Adult Spiritual Formation, let me share a few things she writes about in exploring a life of prayer. One thing she says in the beginning of her essay about her course, which is entitled, “Life of Prayer”: it “is…an invitation to integrate prayer with life. Life with only a small section devoted to exploring prayer is quite different from putting prayer at the center of life” (Jane E. Vennard, “Exploring a Life of Prayer,” http://www.religion-online.org). How would our lives – yours and mine – be different if we put prayer at the center?
In our Words of Preparation today, Brian McLaren declares that “The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away from the world’s games and pressures. In secrecy, in solitude, in God’s presence, a new aliveness can, like a seed, begin to take root. And if that life takes root in us, we can be sure it will bear fruit through us…fruit that can change the world” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 139). Is this what Vennard believes would be a result of a life of prayer? Surely it would be counted among the possible outcomes. We turn inward so that we may eventually turn outward with integrity and power born of our sacred relationship with God who moves in and through us toward the fulfillment of creation.
Some other key things that Vennard asserts about prayer are these. Prayer may grow from a sense of “pain, agony or despair when a prayer [is] pulled out of us with surprising strength” or it may blossom from “times of great wonder.” As with Browning, she insists that “God speaks to us in many ways if we are open and willing to see and to listen” and she concludes that “although…holy people have much to teach us about prayer…a life of prayer is available to all of us — young and old; alone and in the midst of family; working, retired, and unemployed. God calls all of us into relationship.”
Here is a quick review of the forms she suggests that prayer might take. First there is prayer as action. She tells the tale of student bemoaning the loss of her ability to pray. When asked to recall her “first spiritual experience,” the woman tells a story about being on the playground with her peers when she notices another little girl sitting under a tree alone and weeping, obviously excluded from the group. She chooses to go sit with this other child. “We did not speak,” she says, “we just sat together for the rest of the playtime.” The instructor’s tender response was to tell her that her “compassionate response to a person in need was a spiritual experience. Action can be a form of prayer.”
Vennard continues, prayer is “any activity that nurtures our relationship with God. If reading Scripture brings you closer to God, that is prayer. If having tea with a friend nurtures your relationship with God, that is prayer. If sitting still in a summer garden feeds your soul, that is prayer. Listening to music, teaching Sunday School, serving in a soup kitchen – all can become prayer.”
Prayer can take on forms like praise and thanksgiving; sorrow and anger when we lament and cry out, even shaking our fist at God as in some Psalms; or intercessory prayer when we respond in compassion to and for others. There are prayers of the heart in which we take on a mantra, a simple phrase or word that keeps linking us back to God, such as “God have mercy on me, a sinner” or “Help! Thanks! Wow!” Centering prayer is the discipline of committing ourselves to 15 or 20 minutes, twice a day of silent contemplation of God’s presence. Lectio divina is an ancient Ignatian practice of reading, reflection, response and rest, working with a sacred text. Prayer can be spoken, silent or embodied.
It is easy to see then how a life of prayer involves the discipline of finding and cultivating forms that work for you. Vennard teaches that “The practice of prayer can be comfortable, challenging, easy or difficult. Like human relationships, our relationships with God will go through many stages as we become more intimate. Sometimes the relationship will fill us with great joy, other times it will seem boring and stale. Sometimes the relationship will be as natural as breathing. Sometimes it will demand hard work and require a lot of time and energy. We may even have times when we break our relationship with God, going our own way, paying no attention to God or to prayer. But God does not turn away. God keeps calling. And after a time, a longing wells up in us to return to God. This longing is a sign of faithfulness, for our hearts have been touched; we have heard God’s call.”
What is it that draws you closer to the heart of God, that brings you into right relationship with Holy One, that helps you see the sacred in every common bush as well as in the challenges and struggles of living for you and others? When you pray…fill in the blank. I imagine it involves all of the above and more. Still, God calls and our hearts are restless until they find a way to rest in God. Amen.