Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pentecost 22C

I once went to a workshop where the presenter had us do a revealing exercise.

He first asked us to assume the posture of someone who is happy. So, we all sat up straight in our seats, shoulders back, chin square, and lips smiling.

Then he asked us to assume the posture of someone who is depressed. So we hunched over, slouched our shoulders, put our heads down, fixed our eyes at the floor, or in some cases, closed them.

Then we went back to our natural posture.

Then, he said, “Let us pray...” and we assumed a prayer posture, which soon became obvious to many people in the room that our prayer postures looked a whole lot like the posture of a depressed person.

Interesting, isn’t it? We say that prayer connects us to God, but does our body language say something about that connection?

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard some criticize the way we morph our bodies when we pray. Some say that when we pray we try to make ourselves smaller in a false humility. And prayer is supposed to enlarge us, deepen our relationship with God, and broaden our vision of how God works in our lives and in the world. We don’t have to make ourselves smaller for God to be larger. God already is.

Others say that closing our eyes while praying pulls us inward rather than pushing us outward, creating a mass of self-centred Christians whose eyes are shut to the suffering of others. Closed-eyed prayer becomes all about ME and MY needs rather than about US. Open-eyed prayer helps us see the world that needs more of God.

I don’t know if any of that is true. But I do find it interesting that our default prayer posture mirrors the body language of a depressed person. Especially after reading today’s gospel.

Jesus encourages persistence in prayer. Nagging. Crying. Stamping your feet until you get your way. A curious way to think about prayer, don’t you think? It’s not what we usually picture when we think of prayer. This is not what a depressed person does. 

Some think of prayer the honest outpouring of the heart, or the ancient poetry of the liturgy, or humble - or maybe even mindlessly rote - prayers before meals. Whining or grumbling at God, irritating the Divine isn’t what how we learned to pray in confirmation class.

Jesus says to pray always and not to lose heart. He says to keep at it, keep hammering away at God, keep poking the Almighty until you get the response you’re looking for.  That’s how to get God’s attention. That, according to Jesus, is how to pray.

If you think about it, that IS how we pray as a church family. Especially when we use liturgies over and over and over again, praying the same assigned prayers, many of them written thousands of years ago. 

When we follow the traditional liturgy, God knows that on Pentecost 22 - Year C, God will hear a specific set of ancient prayers. These same prayers reach God’s ears over and over and over and over and over again. Relentlessly. Which, to God, must sound like nagging.

But, if Jesus is to be believed, we’re just following his instructions. And we’re still waiting for God’s end of the bargain to be upheld.

So, upon Jesus’ directions, we keep praying, and praying, and praying, and praying, until those words begin to do something to US.

We keep praying and we begin to be shaped by the words we pray, praying until those words become part of us, praying until those words take root inside of us, and we are changed.

We keep praying until we become God’s answer to our prayers. We keep praying until we become the Word we’ve been waiting for.

We keep praying until we see the world as God sees it. We keep praying until we start seeing others as beloved creatures of God. We keep praying until forgiveness takes hold of our hearts. We keep praying until justice becomes our daily food. We keep praying until compassion grips our lives.

I think that’s why Jesus says to pray and to not lose heart. Because, it is in the act of praying that God works within us. It is in those words we say over and over and over again that God’s Word takes shape inside us.

Words create a world. It’s not just the words we proclaim that create, but the words of prayer we offer in tears, through clenched teeth, and even through mindless rote repeating, that mold us into who God wants us to be.

We believe in a God who, with a word, created something out of nothing. 

We believe in a God who shows us that words have tremendous creative power; and who shows us that words that have devastating power to destroy. 

We believe in a God whose word is written on our hearts. 

We believe in a God who saves us through the Word that was made flesh.

So prayer isn’t just offering our hope and fears to an invisible God with the hope that this God will do something. But prayer is  also God’s way of giving us power. Prayer changes US, not God.

Prayer, in the words we use, transforms us from those who wait for God to act, to those whom God has given power to act.

Prayer isn’t passive. Prayer is God acting in us, so that we become the answer to that for which we pray.

That’s why we’re careful about the words we use in church. I know I am. Although some of you might not think so. 

But when I craft the liturgies and compose my sermons, I linger over every word. I try to be colloquial and parochial, hitting the balance between common language and sacred speech, between earthy nattering and heavenly declarations. It’s in the connection between those two realms that God lives in Jesus.

I try to link life and faith, connecting to where we say God is and where we haven’t thought about God being. In the words I offer you, and words ask you to pray, I try to shape how you think about God in your life and in the world, because I believe in a God who creates a world with a word.

So, pray, and do not lose heart, because in your praying, God is at work in you. In OUR praying, God is changing US, so that WE become the answer to that for which we pray.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Pentecost 20C

“Lord, increase our faith!” the apostles plead.

A reasonable request. Especially when they saw Jesus work so many signs and wonders ,and heard him preach endlessly about the kingdom of God. If they wanted more of God in their lives, and if faith was the entry point in connecting with God, it makes sense that they’d ask for more faith.

And who could blame them? As people of faith, isn’t that what we all want? A larger faith to make us more than we already are? Better at being Christian? Greater confidence about what we believe? A stronger witness to what we see God doing?

My guess is that the apostles’ prayer is your prayer today. That’s why you’re here this morning. “Increase our faith!” we ask, or even demand of Jesus, because we feel that our faith could be stronger. We know our limitations. We’ve reached the boundaries of belief. And we know we can’t find more faith on our own.

So we come to church with our tiny faith tucked neatly in our pocket, out of sight, but hoping that here - among God’s people, through God’s redeeming Word and saving sacrament, our little bundle of faith will grow into maturity. The details may be different but the concern is common to everyone.

You think that your faith could be larger than it is. You feel like you lack the strength of certainty that Jesus seems to have, and that you often see in others.

You have questions that haunt you, doubts that dog you, and you maybe even have pain that simply won’t go away, a pain which constantly reminds you that you are weak and frail. And you lack the inner-resources to move your life ahead in any meaningful way.

Or you’re searching for something bigger than yourself or even bigger than your world, you’re looking for something that binds everything together so that the mess and chaos of the world will make some kind of sense.

You worry that hope is an illusion, a story we tell ourselves to make an unknown future a little less scary. You’re afraid that you’re forgetting how to love, because you’ve been hurt so badly.

You want to know that the droning of your daily routine matters - somehow - in God’s Grand Design. You want to believe that you haven’t walked the planet in vain, and that your life and your labour will live on after you’re gone.

You want faith that will help you truly know that when you close your eyes in death, you will open them again in the presence of God, and all your sorrows, questions, doubts, and frailties will be traded for confidence, newness, and strength.

And so, in response to all our longings, all our fears, and all our questions, we gather here as one family, lifting up the deepest concerns of our hearts, and together we pray, “Lord, increase our faith!”

Well, FORGET IT!! Jesus won’t help you. He didn’t even help his followers.

He makes FUN of them saying, “Hey folks, if you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this Mulberry tree, ‘Hey there, Mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” But look at you! Hello! When was the last time you did THAT? Have you seen any flying bushes lately?

So we say, Wow, Jesus, we KNOW that we can’t do that, we can’t through force of will or heartfelt prayer or mental telepathy defy the laws of gravity and nature. Are you belittling the meagre faith we DO have because we can’t commit an ostentatious display of faith?

I came here for encouragement, not to be insulted. Why is asking for more faith such as bad thing?

At least that’s what it looks like Jesus is saying.

Well, it’s not. It all depends on what you mean by the word “if.”

The Greek language has two types of “if” clauses: those which express a condition contrary to the fact (ex: If you had faith [implying which you don’t]) and those which express a condition according to the fact (ex: If you had faith [implying which you do]). Verse six is the second kind of “if” clause.

“IF you had faith the size of a mustard seed [which you do], you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Jesus is saying that you already have all the faith you need to work miracles in your life and in the lives of others.

IF you have the faith of a tiny mustard seed (and you do), you can confront your doubts and fears, putting them to rest and learning to trust God with your life and with your death.

IF you have the faith of the tiniest of all seeds planted within you (and you do), you have the strength to meet the days ahead with confidence, believing that God at work in your life.

IF you have the faith so small you can hardly tell it’s there (and you do), you will know that God is using you for great things in this world.

IF you have faith so small you’re worried you can’t see it, (and you do) you will love because God loves, and God will never let you go.

I think we don’t see our faith because it IS so small. But small doesn’t mean weak or limited. We expect anything of worth to be large, grand-scale.

But Jesus always uses images of smallness to describe God’s kingdom. Yeast. A penny. Treasure buried in a field. A mustard seed.

Small things are easily hidden - or even forgotten. Overshadowed by competing demands. Drowned out by loud voices who insist that we stay in fixed our place, mired in our fears. Securely stunted.

But the mustard seed that God planted in you also makes it grow. Not in a snap of the fingers like the apostles’ demanded, but in our everyday living and dying. The moment by moment encounters of our lives.

Our mustard seed faith reaches beyond our limits and touches the world in ways we may not even see. Our mustard seed faith works WITH us and IN SPITE of us.

And our mustard seed faith works WITHIN us, so that our lives may be slowly and silently transformed into the image of the one who planted it there.

Our mustard seed faith is God’s work within us, helping us to feed the world with God’s love, nourishing others with God’s care and compassion, opening our branches wide for others to rest on.

So, we pray, Lord, increase our faith. Indeed, he already has. 

May this be so among us.  Amen.