Monday, October 22, 2007

Pentecost 21 - Year C

A rabbi stands before a casket; a casket way too small. The devastated parents are sitting in the front row. All ears are tuned to this bearded little man, wondering what he’ll say. Wondering what he could possibly say that would be of any comfort to the family, or to anyone who’d lost someone WAY too early.

The rabbi slumps. One hand on the casket. Mutters a prayer to himself, his head shaking.

After a moment of silence, he raises his fist and shouts, “God! How could you have let this happen!?”

The congregation nods in agreement.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t pray like this. At least not out loud. Some wouldn’t even call it a prayer. Not a prayer we’d pray, not in church. Not usually.

Prayer is something we do with our eyes closed instead of gazing towards the heavens. Prayer is where we keep our hands folded instead of shaking a fist at the sky. Prayer is where we keep our heads bowed instead directing them towards the one we say we’re talking to. If you look closely at our body language when we pray, you’ll see it’s a posture of submission.

I’ve been wondering if that’s a good thing. Are we saying to God or to ourselves that our prayers shouldn’t be seized with the Rabbi’s raw emotion? Are we saying that to be submissive toward God is to deny sharing our deepest pain with the One who knows what we’re feeling anyway? Are we saying that we shouldn’t show our truest selves with the Creator?

Or are we protecting ourselves from ourselves, not wanting to confront what’s REALLY in our hearts, pretending that life may have a few bumps, but is generally okay. And making sure that no one else gets infected by our occasional bouts of human messiness?

If so, then maybe we have to re-evaluate how we pray.

One of my favorite prayers doesn’t come from those luxuriously poetic Celtic prayer books I keep on my shelf, or even from the utilitarian prayers we find in our worship books.

One of my favorite prayers comes from Homer Simpson. Before you tune me out, let me explain. One Thanksgiving while offering table grace, Homer loses it, offering thanks for “the occasional moments of peace and love our family has experienced…well, not today. You saw what happened. O Lord, be honest! Are we the most pathetic family in the world or what!?”

To which the family offers a hearty “Amen!” Prompting Selma, Homer’s sister-in-law to mutter out loud “Worst. Prayer. Yet.”

And we -the audience - are supposed to agree with Selma’s assessment and laugh at Homer’s obnoxiously inappropriate prayer. Because, by polite standards, that prayer was a joke.

But I thought, “Wow! What a great prayer! It’s real. It’s heartfelt. It flows from genuine pain. I think God is more interested in hearing prayers like that than the prayers we often rattle off at church. There are worse prayer models to follow.”

By the end of that Thanksgiving episode, the family conflicts are resolved; the runaway Bart comes home regretting how badly he hurt his sister Lisa. Lisa forgives him. The epic yet disastrous meal which is their Thanksgiving is cleaned up, and the family gathers around the table for simple turkey sandwiches. The soundtrack cues the Thanksgiving song, “We Gather Together,” and Homer prays another prayer, “O Lord,” he says, “on this blessed day, we thank thee for giving our family one more crack at togetherness.”

Again, another great prayer.

It reminded me of last week’s clergy meeting where we talked about our prayer lives. One pastor regretted how most of his prayers were the “O God please help me hold my tongue when I talk to a difficult parishioner” variety.

(BTW, that wasn’t me. So please don’t look at me like that)

To which other said, “That’s still a prayer. And we grow spiritually through those prayers.”

“Maybe,” I thought. “But I’d like a deeper spirituality than throwing a prayer against the wall to see if it sticks. I’d think that God wants more from us as well.”

But our discussion got me thinking: just what is this prayer thing all about anyway? Every time I wonder about prayer I’m transported back to my first day at my first parish. I went to the hospital to visit the council president’s father-in-law. He was dying of cancer.

When I arrived at his room his family was holding a bedside vigil. Like I said, it was my first day on the job – EVER. I had no idea what to do. So I opened my pastoral toolbox and pulled out the only tool vaguely I knew how to use – prayer.

I prayed for him, giving thanks for the gifts he’d offered to the world. Then I prayed for him to die peaceful and holy death, that God’s Spirit would comfort him as he died. I prayed for the family gathered around him.

After my prayer I noticed a small tear trickle down the dying man’s cheek. He couldn’t speak or respond. But obviously he could hear. Something was happening.

He died the next morning.

“Pastor, we want you to preside at the funeral,” the son said.

“Wasn’t your dad a member of the United Church?” I asked.

“Yeah, technically. He never went. Not even at Christmas or Easter. Only weddings and funerals. Church just wasn’t important to him,” he said.

Just what a pastor wants to hear. At least he wasn’t feeding me a line.

“So, why do you want me?”

“One thing you need to know about my dad. There wasn’t anyone in town he didn’t drink beer or play cards with. And a lot of pastors came to see him when he got sick. But you’re the only pastor who prayed for him or talked about God. And it touched him when nothing else did.”

So I did the funeral.

I tell this story not to make myself sound like a good guy or to trash my colleagues. But because prayer sometimes does things. I don’t know what. But prayer does something.

And I don’t blame my friends and colleagues for not praying. I wonder if they share my struggles. Maybe they’ve prayed so many prayers that went unanswered that they wondered what the point of praying was.

I was green. Wet behind the ears. A novice. I didn’t know any better. My struggles were a few years in front of me.

I prayed at hospital beds, but heard from funeral directors instead of the Almighty. I prayed with families to stay together, only to have them visit the lawyers instead of being visited by the Holy Spirit. I’ve prayed too many prayers for justice, for hard hearts to soften. Only to shudder from the chill of injustice.

So, one of the reasons why I struggle with prayer is because so many times prayers go unanswered. So I think “why bother?”

Sometimes I’m told that unanswered prayer – God’s silence - is God’s way of saying “No.” “No” is an answer to prayer, I’m sometimes told. But I think there’s a difference between a “No” – which is a definite answer, and stark silence – which feels like you’re being ignored.

And that’s what I think today’s gospel reading is about. Jesus compares prayer to a widow hassling a judge until the judge give her what she wants, not because he’s so wise and compassionate, but because he’s sick of being hassled.

It’s like Jesus is saying, “You pray and you get nothing. Don’t let God get away with that. You need to get in God’s face. God’s made some pretty bold claims about what God can and will do. So pray some bolder prayers.”

He’s right.

Prayer’s a cry for help. It’s the cry after you’ve just had the latest blow-out with your spouse and you say, “God I just don’t know how much longer I can do this!”

Prayer’s when you say “God my kid is out of control and I don’t know what to do!”

Prayer’s when you say, “God my parents are driving me crazy. I feel like I’m living in a straight jacket!”

Prayer’s when the x-rays come back and you say, “God, I don’t want to die. Please help.”

It’s the prayer of the persistent widow. She kept at it because she knew that God could do something. Maybe she’d seen God alive and working before and she wanted God to do the same thing NOW!

Maybe she was praying because there was nothing else she could do. That’s something we can learn from her. And maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at.
So perhaps, like the persistent widow, some people keep praying because their hope is stronger than their pain, and their expectations of God are greater than their frustrations with life.

I’ve been amazed by people praying until the bitter end, on their knees until their joints hurt and muscles cramp, who will not stop or move until they’ve heard from God; people who storm the silence of heaven with shouts of praise and cries of anger, because they know there is a resurrection day and they want to see it NOW.

So maybe faith is heart felt desperation, not a sunny, smiling confidence.

I don’t expect people will stop praying, and praying BOLDLY. At least I hope not. The world needs all the prayers it can get. Every time you hear about prayer being answered, remember that you are getting a peek into the kingdom of God.

There is no simple formula for success, no one way to pray for instant answers. So we keep praying, we keep pestering God, then, with God’s help, we won’t lose heart, and we will become what we pray for: a people of peace, a people of healing, a people of bold, audaciousness, getting in God’s face.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pentecost 20 - Year C

NB: I got a wee bit 'o help from my wife and a kernel from Barbara Brown Taylor. - kgp

This passage is a week late, don’t you think? After all, today’s gospel reading is the traditional Thanksgiving lesson. It’s also the reading for Pentecost 20, year C. And since I didn’t get to preach last week, you get my Thanksgiving sermon today!

How have you been told this story of the Ten Lepers? Have you been told that there were 10 cleaned of skin disease, and 9 were ungrateful wretches and only one returned to say “Thanks” – so you better get some gratitude attitude? Is that what you’ve heard?

That’s what I heard. Year after year. Like guilt-stirring clockwork.

Well, I’m going to tell you to leave that interpretation behind. It’s not that I’m against thankfulness and gratitude. But this story isn’t about Jesus wagging his finger at us for all the thank you cards we forgot to write. It’s a bit deeper. At more wild and crazy than that.

Picture 10 lepers – 10 people with skin disease. Maybe Hansen’s disease, or maybe psoriasis, or ringworm, and anything that discolours the skin.

That’s how the book of Leviticus describes it in the bible. And it says how to deal with folks who have it. If you had this you were “unclean” and were expected to keep your distance from “clean” folks. You had to show you had a problem. “Who has this disease shall wear torn clothes,” the bible says, “and let the hair of their head hang loose, and they shall cover theirs lips and cry ‘Unclean! Unclean!” They shall remain unclean as long as they have the disease; they are unclean; they shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” (Lev. 13: 45-46)

If you ever did manage to become clean – and without proper nutrition and hygiene your chances were pretty slim – then you would go to the priests in Jerusalem, get them to look you over from head to toe, and every – I mean EVERYWHERE - in between. And if you were healed, you could offer a sacrifice, then try to resume your normal life – weeks to years after the initial discovery of the disease. But really, healing was as rare as a hippie in the oil patch.

So these lepers were outcast. All 10 of them. They probably lived in a pack so they could have some kind of human contact. But one of the 10 had a double-dose of outcastness. He was a Samaritan. Those half-believers who had a temple in Shechem, not Jerusalem. And they didn’t bother with tradition forms of worship. They made up their own. We assume that the other 9 were “fully” Jewish because Jesus sent them to the priests and they went. But it was only the Samaritan gatecrasher who returned to thank Jesus.

But this double-dosed outcast, this Samaritan is not actually supposed to come back at all. After they beg Jesus for mercy Jesus sends them to the temple priests. And they were made clean along the way.

But the Samaritan is actually disobeying Jesus by coming back to say thanks. He’s supposed to be on his was to the temple. But it seems he can’t help himself. He comes back and throws himself before Jesus – an act of worship to be seen by everyone – to thank him.

So this story is not the ungrateful 9 vs the thankful one; it’s the obedient 9 vs the disobedient spontaneous 1.

You and I, here in church: we’re the 9. We’re doing the right religious thing. We’ve come to this holy house to offer our thanks and praise, and there’s some guy in a big white dress here to do preside over the religious stuff. We try to do what God wants.

But you’ll note that Jesus doesn’t condemn the 9. After all they’re doing exactly what he asked them to do. But Jesus knows that there’s a difference between the 9 who are good, faithful, church folks, and the disobediently spontaneous one.

As the “nine”, how do we feel about the “one”? Are we angry at his rebellious faithfulness? Or do we excuse his spontaneity because he’s so interesting? Maybe a little bit of both?

Do you know anyone who’s really a “one”? Someone who’s living their lives on the edges of our faith, flaunting the expectations of what it means to be good, church folks.

Maybe we prefer “Ones” to the “nines.” In today’s first reading Naaman wanted the “One” – the prophet - to heal him. Instead he got the “nine.” The little slave girl.

Or are the “ones” a threat to our contented faith? Putting hard won religious expectations in peril?

When I preach, I try to use examples of the 9 rather than the “one.” Ones are too volatile. We can relate to the 9 much more easily. Ones make the faith too hard. You rarely get ones from me because they live unachievable faith for us “nines.”

You only get “ones” from me when they act like “nines.” For example: Mother Teresa. A “one.” I noticed that Lindsey has a picture of Mother Teresa on t’shirt with the caption, “Super Model” on it. Indeed, Mother Teresa is a super model for us to have as someone who lived her faith heroically, amidst the dying in the poorest parts of the world. Definitely, a “one.”

But, chances are you’re not going to abandon everything here in Lethbridge to devote your lives to serving the poorest of the poor half-way across the planet.

But lately we’ve been hearing that her diaries have surfaced, showing a woman suffering from tormenting doubt. We hear that her relationship with God was often strained or even estranged. That she shook her fist at who she thought was an absentee Saviour.

Some religious pundits are tearing their eyebrows out over this because they say that hearing about Mother Teresa’s doubt stains her memory and taints her legacy. It might stall the process of her becoming a Saint. We shouldn’t talk about the agonizing doubt of someone who lived so heroically faithful.

But I think her diaries enhance her memory and give her ministry greater credibility. Mother Teresa is no longer an image on a stained-glass window, more angelic than human. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to hear that a “One” like Mother Teresa shares some doubts of a “nine” like me.

Or I think of folks like Shane Clairbourne, the activist Christian who lives a radically simple life. When he goes to speaking events he asks to be billeted with families instead of being put up in a hotel. Because Jesus would never stay in a hotel.

Or he finds a group of homeless people and sleeps where they’re sleeping. I might have been able to do that 15 years ago when I was a wild-eyed romantic with dreams of becoming a “one.” But now I’ve settled into my “nine-ness.”

But when I listen to him speak, it’s not his radical gospel lifestyle that engages me, it’s his humble, everyday, spirit. And the distance between us shrinks.

Or the stories I like best about Martin Luther, the father of our church family, are not the ones where he stood up against a tyrannical imperial, Church. Where he preached an uncompromising gospel against a corrupt ecclesial hierarchy.

But the stories I like best are the one where his potty mouth got the best of him. Where he stayed in bed for days suffering from depression. Where he questioned how a pastor from the middle of nowhere could change the direction of the entire Church.

If “ones” like them can accomplish so much despite their doubts and frailties, than there’s hope for “nines” like you and me.

One thing I love about our church is that we are a church of “nines.” We are not a flashy, smiley, church that’s going to set the world on fire with a huge blast of God’s glory. That’s not who we are.

Instead, we set small bonfires of God’s love, here and there. We tend them. Stirring the embers, making sure they don’t blow out. All the while starting other bonfires down the street. And it’s a lot of work. It’s the work of the “nines.”

Jesus loved the “nines” as much as the “ones.” It’s the nines keep the church ship afloat. And have been for 2000 years. We are the ones doing the hard, day-to-day grunt work of the kingdom that God wants us to do. We may encounter moments of “One-ness” but, it’s our “nineness” that God is interested in. Because that is who we are. And God uses us just as powerfully as God uses the “ones.”

For me, it wasn’t until I became comfortable in my “nine-ness” that ministry became a delight. It wasn’t until I stopped thinking I had to be some superhero of the faith, that God showed me the joy of ministry that happens under the radar screen, when nobody’s paying attention.

It’s in that man’s garage, that women’s office, that parking lot conversation where the nines do their best work.

So, I’m guessing that the nine who didn’t come back weren’t any less gratesful than the one who did. They just showed their gratitude by doing what Jesus asked them to do.

And for us, that sounds like a good start.

May this be so among us. Amen.