A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on September 23, 2007
Year C / 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Jeremiah 8:18--9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; Luke 16:1-13; 1 Timothy 2:1-7
So … summer is officially over … fall has officially begun. And as if to makes its point, Jan and I woke up yesterday morning listening to the gentle patter of rain … I got out of bed and unzipped the window and looked out upon a high sierra meadow glistening in an early morning drizzle. You’re right, we weren’t at home yesterday morning. We were camping up at Calaveras Big Tree State Park which is a bit northwest of Yosemite on Highway 4. The temperature was a brisk 44 degrees and there was water falling from the sky, but we were warm and dry and absolutely entranced by our morning in a mountain meadow. I have camped outdoors most of my life and I’m happy to say that we’ve learned how to be relatively comfortable in nearly every condition. That was not always the case, however.
I will admit that the following memory was evoked by a conversation this past week with a couple of our young boys in Logos who are also Cub Scouts … or Scrub Sprouts as we used to call it.
The year was around 1969. I had followed in my brother’s footsteps and joined Troop 476 that met in a ramshackle disaster of a building in Port Angeles, Washington. There were an unusual number of tenderfeet joining the troop that night, so I was given the dubious distinction of being the patrol leader of this raggedy group of pre-teen, pre-adolescent, pre-pubescent boys. Oh … my … goodness. Truly … don’t walk, RUN! Have I shared this story before?
Our first outing with me as the patrol leader was to a fall “camporee” at the local fairgrounds. In my position as the esteemed leader of these young “men”, I was responsible for making our camping arrangements and selecting the menu for our first memorable assault on the American wilderness.
In that day, nobody, and I mean NOBODY owned tents. Rich people owned tents and we were a bunch of lower middle class 11 year olds, so we used the next best thing: a gigantic stretch of thick black plastic sheeting. Somehow at the campground we managed to sort of prop up this enormous piece of plastic so it didn’t suffocate us at night. Now of course there just might have been a few “gaps” in the arrangement here and there, so wouldn’t you know that the night of the campout it poured BUCKETS. And, yet, I’m happy to report that owing to my burgeoning skills as a leader, NO ONE got wet, except for this one REALLY annoying boy—the one rich kid in the patrol. This was the boy who had an expensive sleeping bag that he boasted he could float down a river in. By the grace of the scouting gods, that very kid woke up in a puddle of water many inches deep. And he was not floating. And he was not amused. Great was our mirth and merriment. I think his parents threatened a law suit.
But the really great thing about that first campout was our inaugural meal together. I put a lot of time and thought into how best to keep the troops fit and happy and so we had cube steaks cooked on a hot rock warmed to just that perfect degree of rawness … topped off with snack pack chocolate pudding and orange soda. Yummm!!! Our family members came out that first night to make sure we were at least alive when the night began. And as they watched us lightly warming our cube steaks on the rocks and then peeling them off onto our paper plates, you could see their involuntary gag reflex in full display. I’m pretty sure no one actually died from the experience. And I’m also pretty sure that none of us has ever eaten cube steak again.
And I’m quite certain that as they watched us wrestling with the plastic and picking bits of rock from our teeth, that the one dominating thought of scouts, parents and troop leaders alike was: you know, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to be a LITTLE more organized.
In recent years we’ve seen some enormous public tragedies and one of the things that seems to have stood out is the organization, or lack thereof. In NYC, following 9/11, Rudolph Giuliani practically paved his way to a possible presidential nomination by his sterling organization and command of the situation. In the aftermath of Katrina, however, Michael Brown became the butt of every late night joke by his inept handling of the aftermath of the hurricane. “Heckuva job, Brownie.” Following Katrina, I think the general consensus was, you know, it wouldn’t hurt to be a LITTLE more organized.
This is likely what the author of these epistles to Paul’s young protégé, Timothy, thought. The young Christian church was suffering growing pains. They were spreading and growing larger and the problems that come with unregulated growth were beginning to afflict them. Competing versions of Jesus’ story and the truth therein were beginning to struggle. Chaos was threatening to sink the ship of the early church and in light of the indisputability of Jesus’ “delay”, some of the guiding minds of the church said, in effect: “While we wait for the return of our Lord, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt for us to be a bit more organized in the meantime.”
I’ve consulted with a few “organizational experts” in my time. Yes I have. And while I don’t claim to have been completely converted by any of them, I do know that the advice that always holds the most promise is the simplest. As in preaching, so in organization: K-I-S-S … Keep It Simple, Silly.
And the author of First Timothy—who is NOT Paul, but who writes in the spirit and voice of the apostle—keeps it good and simple.
But you know, before we consider what the author of the epistle DID advise, it is worth considering what he did NOT advise: Nowhere does he suggest that the church and its members simply withdraw from the struggles of the world while waiting indefinitely for Jesus to reappear. No matter how advisable it might seem within the context of our current conflicts, there is no suggestion to the young church that they simply “pull out” … no hint that the world was a “failed experiment” that was no longer worthy of their presence and their energies.
Instead, the author of the Epistle gives advice for remaining engaged and strong and focused while engaged. So I think it is very interesting that in the midst of helping the young church be better organized, the first piece of advice that is offered is a bit … “counter-intuitive”. And in our modern highly-organized era, we’d do well to pay attention, both in our church and in our own personal lives. In fact, much about our faith in this modern world is counter-intuitive compared to much of what claims to be “wise” in modern ways.
The author of First Timothy begins by saying, simply: “PRAY”. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in “The Message”: “The first thing I want you to do is pray.” I imagine that some of my past organizational advisers wanted to offer me the same advice. But this is not “in the event nothing else works” kind of advice. This is “first things first” kind of advice. Before you do ANYTHING else, pray. Pray first. And pray ONLY if that’s all you can do. As we read through the gospel portraits of Jesus, we find that he was very clearly rooted and grounded in this living connection to God’s own being. Slipping away to a lonely place, climbing a mountain, kneeling in the garden—Jesus found the strength for his own life and ministry in his time spent joining his own heart with the heart of God. Martin Luther, who was the kick-starter of our Protestant heritage, is famous for saying: “I have so much business, I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.”
OK … perhaps some of us are thinking we’ve nearly reached nirvana by achieving three MINUTES daily in prayer. But three hours? But you know, it’s not the time spent, but the intentionality. The appointment. Perhaps time set aside as a “tithe of your time” as I think I heard Nancy Smith say it once. It is when we utterly forsake some sense of daily connection with the divine source of all creation that makes anemic our attempts to live out our faith, to employ in this hard-bitten world our faith-inspired values.
Right around the corner from our boy scout shack in Port Angeles was the home of a new friend I made in boy scouts. I was the patrol leader—I had a LOT of new friends J. One day I went to my new friend’s house. It was snacktime, so we ran inside to have our snack and before we were allowed to gobble down our cookies or whatever, we were forced, by my friend’s very religious mother, to bow our heads and to thank God out loud for our snack. It was, I’m pretty sure, my last snack in that house—I was terrified thinking what we might have to do over lunch or dinner. Right then I became aware that different Christians—because that’s all I knew at that time were Christians—put very different emphases on prayer. In the home of my Baptist minister dad, we prayed over our meals, but I guess we figured we had a kind of blanket coverage that blessed our snacks as well.
I think I realized at that time that prayer for me was not just a kind of pious mumbo-jumbo—though by no means do I intend to disparage the faith and prayers of my friend’s mother, which were extremely sincere. Prayer for me was not muttering the right words for the right occasion. I realized that for me ,“prayer” was more than words, more than a rote recitation at a prescribed time. In fact I think this event set me on the path of realizing that prayer is both hard to narrowly define, and hard to prescribe for anyone, including your own self.
Prayer can be words … or not words. Prayer can be solitary … or in a great company. Prayer can be in a state of stillness … or filled with action. Prayer can be sweetness and light … or soul-shattering agony.
More important than anything is that (1) to be a person, and (2) to be a community that intends to live out of a posture of faith, and (3) to be a living demonstration of that faith, it is critical that the One who is at the center of that faith is One to whom you attend with regularity and intentionality. I remember Susan Johnson saying in sermon at a biennial quite a number of years ago: “No prayer, no power … little prayer, little power … much prayer, much power.”
If prayer for you seems to be something that only other people do you may wish to start here, with the phrase that my pastor in my teenage years used to introduce prayer in morning worship: “Prayer is the practice of honesty” to which I added in my own early years of pastoring: “Honest to ourselves, honest to God.” Inotherwords: being absolutely and nakedly honest about your own full being, full of hope and joy and brokenness and promise, in the presence of God—which is all the time—is not a bad place to start. And when we pray corporately, in morning worship, we do well to pray with that same honesty about ourselves as human beings and as American citizens and as members of this congregation.
Now there’s another thing that Eugene Peterson says in his translation that I like. The New Revised Standard Version, the version that’s in the chair in front of you, translates that we should offer: “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings”, but Peterson suggests that what is being implied is: “Pray every way you know how”. Each person praying out of their own natural tendencies in the midst of each unique moment is going to pray … uniquely. Be creative … be authentic … be honest … be daring … be humble and audacious … but, be faithful. Pray every way you know how … but PRAY.
It seems to me that this is one of the stumbling blocks for a good number of people who yet wish to call themselves by the name “Christian”. They hear this admonition to pray, realize that “praying” is not something that comes at all naturally to them, and conclude with a fair degree of finality: “Well, I guess I’m just not religious.” And with that they begin or continue their disengagement with the faith … and with the practices of the faith. But I would counter—and I think the witness of much of the Bible would back this up—I would counter that “prayer” is a far more expansive term than is allowed by our sometimes narrow sense that it is a pious language spoken by pious people. I would challenge the “less religious” among us—and at times, that’s ME—I would challenge us to take seriously Peterson’s translation: “Pray every way you know how.” Take seriously the challenge to try … to reach out in any way that is unique to you … to persist … to find your own forms and times and postures that work. I’m vaguely recalling the words of a struggling pray-er who said something like: “In reaching out in the dark, you will find a hand reaching toward you.”
And for what or for whom shall we pray? A parking spot in front of Tiffany’s? A perfect three-minute egg? For Uncle Ned’s daughter’s fencing instructor’s dog’s intestinal worms to go away? Maybe. But if these, everything else as well. It is here that the author of First Timothy hopes to shape the fledgling church, not just in praying alone, but in the strong suggestion that they “pray for everyone”.
Richard Foster wrote a classic book nearly thirty years ago on the spiritual disciplines that was influential for me in my latter college years and my time in seminary. In writing about the discipline of prayer, Foster suggests that “to pray is to change”. He says: “Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.” If Foster is correct, then the author of First Timothy wishes to expand the praying sympathies of the early church to include the whole world. “Pray for everyone!” he says. This is a remarkable thing because in that time there were plenty of reasons to narrow down your soul’s energies to simply your own people … your own kind. It was enough to be sympathetic and prayerful for the needs of your community and the many persecutions that Christians faced. But to pray beyond those boundaries … to pray for those whose practices were heretical … to pray for those who persecuted the followers of Jesus … and, most astoundingly of all … to pray for the rulers … the emperor and his ilk???
Now let’s imagine what it can look like to become so narrow … so selective … so shrunken in the scope of your prayers, that you not only pray only for your own kind, you no longer care at all for anyone but your own kind. Clarence Jordan preached a sermon about Jesus’ radical statement that we should “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us”. But Jordan acknowledged that for many people, good Christian people, even good American Christian people, our prayers, and therefore our sympathies and therefore our God was WAY too small. He said in his sermon: “I think most of us reflect the idea that is inscribed on an old tombstone down in Mississippi, “Here lies John Henry Simpson. In his lifetime he killed 99 Indians and lived in the blessed hope of making it 100 until he fell asleep in the arms of Jesus.” Now Indians don’t count—99 of them. You can live “in the blessed hope” of getting just one more, and round it off to get an even 100, and still “fall asleep in the arms of Jesus.” But if you had killed just one white [person], you’d fall asleep in a noose. “It’s all right to kill Indians, because we don’t care about Indians, but you’d better not kill a white [person].”
Now if you took the advice of First Timothy, and you prayed diligently for EVERYONE, could you kill … anyone? Now you may find Jordan’s story shocking and horrifying and wonder how our ancestors could have been so blind to the common humanity of our native neighbors. But when we consider that while we lost nearly 3000 of our citizens in the collapse of the World Trade Centers, we have willingly entered a conflict that has not only taken the lives of nearly 4000 of our own men and women, but has killed tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan citizens as well.
Prayer is the practice of honesty. Many of us started our young faith lives with prayers like: “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” But obviously an adult faith lived in conscious discipleship of Jesus demands of us a painful honesty about our world and our place in it. And the practice of prayer for EVERYONE combined with an understanding that prayer is the primary means by which God changes us means that as we pray we move differently in our world.
Every day and every prayer changes us. Every day and every prayer moves us, however infinitely slowly, toward greater Christ-likeness … if we will persist. If we will pray, God will faithfully partner with us in transforming not only ourselves, but the world in which we live. Prayer that persists is prayer that works … and Margaret Silf suggests that:
Prayer that works is prayer that makes a difference,
contemplation that turns into action,
on behalf of peace and justice in a troubled and unjust world system.
Prayer is energy, the energy of love and transformative power.
It is given to us to use for the good of all creation.
In prayer God gives us the fuel of life, and asks us to live it.
I have to confess that I struggle as a “pray-er”. It has never come easily for me, especially the challenges of being a solitary pray-er. It’s clear to me that we all have our gifts, and we all have our challenges. But where prayer “works” most fully for me is in community. It is the prayers that are prayed when we are together—ALL the kinds that we pray when we are together, where I feel the strongest connection with the divine spark.
The time in the New Testament where Jesus most notably taught his disciples about prayer, he offered a corporate prayer, a community prayer that combined a profound dependence upon God with a compassionate way of being with one another. “Our Father …” begins the prayer, and most of us have prayed with such rote regularity that the words spill from us so easily that we are in danger of losing the power and the meaning of the prayer. It is why I have not only drawn back from the regular use of the prayer, but have also sought to employ new, but faithful, interpretations of the prayer.
As we imagine that God is reaching out to us in prayer … and as we imagine that God is asking us to reach out to the whole world when we pray … and as we imagine that God’s powers of transformation within us and through us may be the greatest when we pray, let us hear in new words and accents the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples:
Earth-Maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all.
Loving God, in whom is heaven.
The hallowing of your name echoes through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the earth!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever.
From the Book of Common Prayer of New Zealand