Never lose heart

Sometimes a preacher really has to work to figure out how to connect the Bible to today’s world. Sometimes the Gospel feels so culturally different, the times of Jesus feel so long ago. Sometimes we struggle to see the relevance of Scripture to our lives today. Then, every once and awhile, our calendar of readings assigns a text like the one we just heard.

“I have no fear of God, and no respect for anyone…”

In my life I have never seen a political campaign season so palpably affect a society. After last week’s debate I know people who found themselves feeling exhausted, frustrated. This week many of us felt a state of depression about the state of our national conversation.

There are a lot of echoes between the widow and the judge and our presidential candidates. I’ll let you have fun finding your own echoes. Feel free to email, or tweet at me, tell me the parallels you can find. I’m not going to dwell in the details today.

The Gospel introduces Jesus story this way: “Jesus told his disciples…about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” I think the two are connected. I think faith is for times like these. I think prayer is for times like these. I confess, I still consider myself a novice at prayer. I know, I look the part, but I still have a lot to learn.

A few weeks ago at Left Bank Books in the Central West End, I picked up a memoir by Scott Cairns, a literature professor at Missou entitled “Short Trip to the Edge.” The book recounts the first of his many travels to a place called “The Holy Mountain.” Mt. Athos is in Greece, it is an entire State of the Country filled with nothing but Orthodox monasteries. The mountainous isthmus is ruled by a collection of monastic foundations. The Greek government really just provides light and power, the monks take care of the rest.

Cairns converted to Orthodox Christianity later in life. In the book, he describes the path of Christianity much the way our parable does today, as an attempt to learn to “pray always.” If you meet an orthodox monk, you might notice him carrying around a knotted loop of rope. He might be silently passing the knots through his fingers while repeating the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Others say shortened versions: “Jesus have mercy” or even simply saying: “Jesus.”

An aside I know some of you have prayed a version that prayer. When I was learning to drive, my father often referred to the handles above the window of the passenger seat of the car as “Jesus handles.” He would often grab them as I braked hard and say, “Jesus!”

Returning to the Holy Mountain though, the simplicity of the prayer, the repetition, the tactile feeling of the rope in your hands, helps the prayer to be constant. Cairns tells his readers he wants to learn to pray constantly. He’s gladdened when he discovers himself falling asleep and waking up saying the words of the Jesus prayer. There is a desire to be a literalist about the Gospel’s words, to learn to “pray always.”

As I said, I’m a novice at prayer. I’m not sure I’ll ever fall asleep and wake up saying the Jesus prayer. But one of my seminary professors inspired me to continue to try to take prayer seriously. Mark Dyer taught systematic theology at Virginia Seminary when I was a student. Before he came to the seminary he was the Episcopal Bishop of Bethlehem Pennsylvania. He once got a laugh out of the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem by telling him that he was the bishop of Bethlehem. Church humor.

Before Mark was an Episcopal Bishop, he was a Roman Catholic benedictine monk. He always took prayer seriously. As a monk, Mark went to church six times a day to chant the office. Along with his brothers he sang psalms and bits of scripture day in and day out. Even after he left the monastery, Mark had a discipline of daily prayer. Even when he wasn’t in the seminary chapel, Mark would read from his prayer book in his study. He’d say the daily morning and evening prayers. When I was a young priest in Washington DC, Bishop Dyer was my first presenter when my young adults group started a program we called “Theology on Tap.” He spoke on the topic: “Monks and Beer.”

Mark told some funny stories about monks making beer, and monks drinking beer, but he found a way to present a life of prayer as an ordinary life. He told one more recent story. Mark talked candidly about a recent health scare. In the last years of his life Mark had heart problems, and at one point he needed an emergency bypass. He recounted finding himself on a hospital gurney, being rolled backwards away from the ER and towards the operating room. As the anesthesia began to take hold, without really thinking about it, Mark said he was surprised to find himself silently chanting some of the prayers from the monastery. He said that’s when he realized how much a life of prayer had shaped his soul. Mark died just two years ago, and is missed by many.

A couple of weeks ago I was back at Virginia Seminary for the annual convocation, and I was asked by Mark’s widow, Dr. Amy Dyer, to join a group that was telling stories about Mark around the lunch table. The story I just told you was what I shared with the group. I’m a novice at prayer, but I’ve had some really great teachers.

The seminary is in Alexandria Virginia, inside the Washington DC Beltway. While I was there, I also had the chance to visit the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. As an American, you have to go. If you have the opportunity, take it. The museum begins underground, telling the progression from slavery to freedom. Down in the basement there are fragments of a slave ship. You see a child’s shackles. As you move up, you begin to see glimmers of hope. There’s Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal. There’s posters for rallies, and copies of Dr. King’s speeches. As you make your way back to the ground floor there is a wall sized photo of President Obama taking the Oath of Office.

Above ground there are more exhibits, and one in particular captured my attention. The exhibit focuses on black schools, black colleges, black social organizations, and black churches. The title of this exhibit is simple: “Making a way out of no way.” Making a way out of no way. There are exhibits about African American midwives, about black fraternities and sororities. Artifacts, photos, and videos tell the story of how faced with exclusion from institution, faced with systemic racism, faced with day to day bigotry, black communities came together, educated one another, and built social capital.

The church features prominently. Back when I lived in Washington I spent quite a lot of time in Smithsonian museums. Never have I seen so much religion in one of the National museums. It did my heart proud. “Making a Way Out of No Way”, and the historical sections below make it clear: the Black Community in this country learned to survive, learned to thrive, through prayer. How did they make a way where there was no way? They prayed, constantly, ceaselessly. They prayed with their voices and with their feet. And through that prayer and that persistence, they found a way. And where there wasn’t a way to be found, the black community made a way.

That’s the story of the widow. I heard a preacher once call this widow a saint. “Santa Persista” he called her. She is persistent. Faced with a tyrant. Faced with a man who is so self-involved, so unjust, that he does not fear God, does not respect anyone, she finds a way. That judge might have been caught up in his own image of himself. That judge might have been so focused on himself that he couldn’t hear her pleas, but she wasn’t going to let him off the hook. She persisted. She didn’t lose heart.

Hear the Good News: be persistent. Faced with injustice, faced with depression about the state of our world, be persistent. Keep knocking. Keep asking for justice. Keep looking for hope. Even when the leaders seem callous, uncaring, self-involved, keep praying and keep demanding justice. The Bible isn’t only relevant to ancient culture. Faith is for times like ours. As much as they were for his disciples, Jesus words are words for us today. God will grant justice. God does hear prayer. Pray, pray without ceasing. If you are busy praying, you will never lose heart.

Prayer is simple

I warned those of you who were here last week in my sermon that the prophet Hosea gets really dark this week. I almost felt like we should have placed a disclaimer above the First and Second Readings: “The parish leadership has rated this Sunday as PG-13.” I talked at length last week about the reason that prophets use these words. They’re trying to wake us up. They want us to see the injustice in our world, to take off our blinders. Then there’s Paul’s letter that is really about debunking ethnocentrism and telling Christians that EVERYONE is welcome to follow Jesus, but I won’t blame you if his choice of metaphor is a distraction. “Spiritual Circumcision” doesn’t really work for postmodern ears. Alright, that’s enough on the first and second readings. See when the word “whoredom” comes up three times, or the epistle gets tied up in historic knots about human anatomy, the preacher has to address the scandal. Consider it addressed. Now we’re going to leave aside all the “whoredom” and the “circumcision.” I’m going to spend the balance of my sermon on the Lord’s prayer.

If you were asked to “give a summary of the Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write the Lord’s Prayer:” advice from Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury. More than any creed, more than any book of theology, this simple short prayer expresses the fullness of Christian faith.

I’m struck by the disciple’s request. “Jesus, teach us to pray.” You might expect a complicated response. We tend to make spirituality out like it is some complicated topic. I’ve heard Christians tell me, “I can’t pray. I don’t have a degree in theology.” Sometimes I think we imagine Jesus responded, “It will take you years to learn to pray.” But he doesn’t. That’s not the Gospel. For Jesus prayer is simple. These words of the Lord’s prayer, these simple words, are the backbone of all Christian prayer. Spirituality is simple, not just for experts. Little kids can pray. Just say the words Jesus taught you, and go from there.

I suspect like many of you, I learned the Lord’s Prayer in Sunday School. Each week we sang a song about thanking God for creation. I remember there was a butterfly who thanked God for her fine wings, a fuzzy wuzzy bear who thanked God for his fuzzy wuzzy hair. I don’t remember all the words to the song. I do remember all the words that we prayed after the song because we prayed what Jesus taught: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come…”

The words we have today come from Luke’s Gospel, and they’re not quite the familiar words that I memorized in Sunday school. The Lord’s Prayer we say here at Holy Communion is based on Matthew’s more developed poetic version. Luke’s version is even simpler:

“Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
That is a short prayer. I’m going to shorten it even more. I think everything beyond the first two lines is really just commentary on those first lines. Asking for our daily bread, forgiveness of sins, remembering that we also must forgive our debtors, asking that our faith not be tested, these are simple requests. They all flow from the assertions made in the first two lines. This morning I want to take a closer look at these two lines of the Lord’s prayer: Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come.

Father: Of course as Julian of Norwich wrote in the 14th century: “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother.” The importance of this address is not in the gender, but the parental familiarity, the informality. Traditional practitioners of the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus were apt to start prayers with long formal addresses to God. “Blessed are you Lord God, King of the Universe…”and they’d go on from there. This is the difference between someone calling upon “The rector of Holy Communion, the Rev. Father Michael Richard Angell, Master of Divinity, Reverend Sir.” or saying, “Hey Mike.” (I much prefer the second). Jesus uses the familiar for God, which would have been scandal to his contemporary rabbis. As such, Jesus intimates that God is close to us, very close to us, closer than our own breath (As Thomas Merton said). Prayer is simple because God is accessible, available in every moment, familiar. You just have to knock. Say some simple words. Ask and it shall be given unto you.

Hallowed be thy name: this may seem like a throwaway phrase. Why would we ask God to keep God’s own name holy? God doesn’t need to keep God’s name holy. We do. Because if we do not keep God’s name holy, we keep something else holy. The writer David Foster Wallace once spoke to the graduates of Kenyon college. I’ve read the quote from this pulpit before, because it is good advice. Here are the writer’s words to some graduating seniors:

“in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

Foster Wallace goes on to list several other things that people in our day worship. Power, intellect, the list goes on. He finishes with this sentence: “the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.” Father, Hallowed be thy name. The line takes us out of the default settings. “Father, hallowed be thy name.” When you pray, Jesus taught his disciples, you put God above all else, you re-order your universe around God. You re-prioritize God above all else.

Thy Kingdom Come. I once attended a lecture by the great Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, who said this was the most frightening line in all of scripture. Gustavo said our prayer these days was not “thy kingdom come.” Instead, our prayer today is often, “Our Father, who art in heaven, STAY THERE!” Stay there. We’ve got this God. Thanks for the offer. We like our kingdom just as it is. Thy Kingdom Come asks us to admit that the world as it is, is not the world as it should be.

As they say in AA, the first step is admitting you have a problem. These days we might not need as much convincing. Last year Ellis and I went up to our family’s place in the mountains of Colorado. Some of my favorite memories from childhood involve playing in the forest around our cabin. It’s still beautiful there in Grand Lake, but visiting also tugs on my heart because huge stands of trees in the forest have died. Once, green pine trees stretched further than the eye could see. Now half a mountain can be covered with the grey of dead trees. Our rising global temperatures allowed a pine beetle to lay waste to the forest. You don’t need to convince me of the truth of climate change. I’ve seen it with my eyes, and smelled it in the air. When I was a kid, my home State didn’t try to burn down every summer.

Praying “thy kingdom come” in those dead forests asks God to restore God’s rule, to bring life where human action, and human inaction, have brought death. I mention climate change partly because we’ve had such a terribly hot week, and partly because “thy kingdom come” is bigger than just our present fights. It helps to think ecologically today, and not just about the issues of race, immigration, and religion that pervade the news. I have to confess, as we straddle these two political conventions, I am tired. I am worn thin by the fog of political cynicism coming from both sides of the aisle. In the words of Stephen Colbert:

“Cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge…So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

Thy Kingdom Come asks us to say “yes.” Jesus’ Kingdom was not the Law and Order of Rome, but freedom, justice, mercy, and wholeness for all of life. Can you imagine that kingdom? Can you imagine such a place? Can you imagine a world where ALL people hear “yes”, where all people feel welcome? Rich or poor, straight or gay, woman or man, cis gender, trans, black, white, brown, every skin color in between. Smart, not so smart. Athletic, not so athletic. God imagines a world that welcomes all. God says yes. Thy kingdom come involves us in saying a deep and hopeful “yes.” I once heard an Episcopal priest say we should put on hardhats when we say “thy kingdom come.” I’m not sure if the hardhats function to keep us safe or to identify that we are working. Probably both.

Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. I have been praying these words since I was a little kid in Sunday school. I suspect you have too. These are the words that have been prayed at the greatest celebrations in the most glorious Cathedrals in Europe, and they have been prayed in the muddiest fox-holes at the most trying times of human existance. These words are prayed every time an airplane takes off. The Lord’s prayer is prayed before middle school tests, and by people facing difficult diagnoses. These words of prayer are words of solidarity with Christians across the planet from every walk of life, and words of solidarity with followers of Jesus across time and eternity.

Father, hallowed by thy name. Thy Kingdom Come. These simple words stick with us. They tell us that prayer is not only for experts. Jesus’ prayer reminds us that we are loved by a God who is familiar to us. These words ask us to return to God, to hold God’s name holy above all else, and these words invite us to become involved in God’s work. They invite us to say yes to God’s hopeful vision for our world. If you are presented with the back of an envelope, I wouldn’t start with this bit from Hosea or Paul’s letter about circumcision. I know no better summary of our faith than the Lord’s Prayer.

Love in the Time of Distraction

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, “Love in the Time of Cholera,” two central characters fall in love in the first pages. The young Florentino and Fermina carry out an ill-advised romance. When her father finds out, Fermina is rushed away to live with family in another city. But Florentino writes to the young girl, and their relationship continues.

At one point in the romance, the young Florentino proposes marriage. Fermina, hesitant, asks for more time. Florentino sends passionate letter after passionate letter asking for her answer. Finally she responds, with a note scribbled on a scrap of paper from a school notebook: “Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.”

In the novel Florentino is the hopeless and hapless romantic. Fermina ends up a pragmatist, so much so that she does not marry Florentino, but instead chooses a young doctor. She doesn’t feel the same passionate love as Florentino, at least not at the degree he feels the burn. So she chooses Dr. Urbino and knows her future will be secure. Plus, her father approves.

This balance of the romantic and the practical features strongly in our Gospel text this morning. Mary and Martha, the two sisters with very different viewpoints. Some of you heard me preach a sermon earlier this year, where I wondered exactly how Mary was different. If Mary was alive today, would we diagnose her? Would we say she was on the autism spectrum? Or had a learning difference? Textually, I’m not sure you’d be far off in exploring that possibility.

If so, it makes Jesus’ words this morning radical. If Mary was intellectually different, it would also make his decision to take her side pretty characteristic, pretty Jesus-y. This was the guy who told adults to act like children. He ate with outcasts. He spent time with lepers. He told the people to take care of the poor. Jesus conspired with women. It seems very in character for Jesus to tell a disciple that her intellectually different sibling has chosen the better part. Jesus points us to unexpected teachers.

I have to confess, I do feel quite a bit for Martha in this story. We do a lot of hosting at our house, which both Ellis and I love to do. But I know well that the last moments of meal preparation, after the guests have arrived, can be a stressful time. My inner Christian feminist wants Jesus to stand up and continue the conversation as he helps Martha and Mary in the kitchen.

This morning, though, I want to take a slightly different tack. The traditional interpretation of Mary and Martha is allegorical. The sisters are taken as representative characters who stand for different ways of approaching Jesus and the world.

Jesus is invited into the house of Martha, the sister of his friend Lazarus. Martha busies herself with preparations. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. She listens to his words. Martha, not listening, barges in and tells Jesus to reprimand Mary. Make her help me, she demands. Jesus responds, “you are distracted by your many tasks. Mary has chosen well.”

Now, there is a danger in an allegorical interpretation. We could try and simplify this reading and say simply, “Be like Mary, not like Martha.” You need more contemplation and less action. Prayer is what Jesus wants, not work. That’s tempting, especially in summer when we try and keep church and sermons a little shorter. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

I think the allegory here is not in contrasting the two sisters quite so directly, but rather looking at that word “distraction.” Jesus does not assume that Martha is wrong. Action is not unnecessary. Jesus wants his dinner, after all. He doesn’t say that she has chosen badly. He says simply: “You are distracted by many things.”

When we pull away from the binary, wrong verses right, Mary vs. Martha, and we hear “you are distracted by many things,” the Gospel might get a little less comfortable. I know it does for me. How easily could Jesus say these words to me? In fact a spiritual director or two of mine *has* said these words to me. “You are distracted.”

We live in a world that is full of distraction. The satyrical newspaper “The Onion” carried a headline a few years ago proclaiming “Americans spend 90% of their waking hours staring at glowing rectangles.” If you think about it, it’s frighteningly close to true. Now, I’m no luddite. I’m not going to say we need to trade in all of our technology, but I do wonder whether our media environment means we are more and more prone to distraction. How many of us feel phantom vibrations even when our phone isn’t in our pocket?

We have gone from a society where precious few were constantly “on call,” doctors, policemen, firefighters, to a world of smart phone owners who are never free from work. I worry that such distraction can be toxic to our inner life. Prayer, relationship with God, takes cultivated attention, and we give a lot of our attention away. Did you hear about Pokemon Go this week? The game is addictive. I’ve been playing. So has Ellis. It is fun, one you can quickly lose hours of your life and huge amounts of phone battery. But the game can be a little worrying. People are so distracted staring at their phone screens and virtual reality that they’re walking into objects, and getting robbed in actual reality. You’ve got to have some balance.

Can we make mindful decisions about how to interact with our devices? A priest friend recently told me that he has decided not to look at social media before 10:30 in the morning. He was in the habit of waking up and looking at his friends’ posts before he even got out of bed. He discovered that it was often making him anxious before his day even started. He decided instead to read the Bible or some other spiritual writing right after waking up. He says it has helped him get grounded in the early morning. He can save news and opinion from his social networks, which can be distressing, until he is more fully awake.

Several years ago my sister encouraged me to challenge the default mode, to change my settings around email. She set up her email so that she COULD access it on her phone, or on her computer but so that neither device would give her a reminder for every message. The default setting with a buzz or ding for every email was just too much, so she changed her way of interacting. In her words, “I want to check my email, I don’t want my email to check me.”

For some of you, the smartphone and Facebook are not your distractions, but I bet you can fill in some blank.” I would have more time for prayer, more time for silence if only I spent less time doing ____” The responses I shared from my friend and my sister are, I believe, creative ways to engage a world that offers constant distractions. Jesus’s words to Martha are a reminder, we are the stewards of our time.

We are the stewards of our time. Think back on your last week, your last month. Another way to think about Jesus’ teaching this morning is to ask yourself. Are my priorities reflected in the way I spend my time. Is my time showing what matters to me? If we are going to find time for prayer, time to read the Bible, time for meditation, time to share a meal with a loved one, time to reach out thoughtfully in service, we have to overcome ever multiplying distractions. If it was true for Martha, how much more true are Jesus’ words in our own day?

Distraction obviously exists on a personal level, but it has social resonances as well. How often are we distracted as a society? As I watch the political cycle these days I am troubled. How captivated are we by bluster and bluff? Are we asking political candidates questions of substance? Are we too content to be distracted by sideshow antics? There are social justice ramifications when we become distracted.

To illustrate this point fully, I have to stop avoiding the prophet Amos. Our reading this morning is really bleak, and just wait for next week. Amos wasn’t what you’d call a “Feel Good” prophet, a prophet like the Isaiah we read near Christmas. This is no “comfort comfort ye my people.” Amos vividly prophesies death and destruction.

In these next weeks as we read Amos, know that there is a direction to Amos’ lament. At the end of the book, the people *will* rebuild the ruined cities. God’s justice will return to Israel. But Amos’ words today are intentionally confrontational. Amos is trying to get his peoples’ attention. He is trying to rise above the distraction.

The Israelites have become so distracted by the pursuit of wealth that they are willing to defraud and enslave. They’ve been so distracted by wealth, they are asking God, “When will the sabbath day be over, so that we can get back to trading.” They even say that they want to “buy the poor for silver” in the words of our text today. Do they not hear their own words?

It is little wonder that God tells them to be silent. It is little wonder that the famine Amos prophesies is a famine of hearing God’s word. The people have been so caught up in *doing*, they haven’t reflected on their actions. The people have stopped taking time to listen for God’s voice of justice, to remember their story, and to reflect. Action without contemplation is dangerous.

You need both action and contemplation to follow Jesus. One without the other can be ineffective and yes, it can be dangerous. But balance is possible.

At the end of “Love in the Time of Cholera” Fermina and Florentino do get together, in the later years of their lives. She has had a reasonably happy marriage. He has had many lovers. But when Florentino discovers Fermina has become a widow, he courts her again, and they argue about whether to renew their relationship. Eventually he writes her another letter. She reads it:

“It was a calm letter that did not attempt to do more than express the state of mind that had held him captive the previous night. It was as lyrical as the others, as rhetorical as all of them, but it had a foundation in reality. Fermina…read it with some embarrassment because of the shameless racing of her heart.”

Coming together in old age, Fermina and Florentino balance one another. The romantic has become more measured. The practical woman who just didn’t want any eggplant in her marriage has a heart that will race.

In love as in the spiritual life, we need to balance both poles, the contemplative and the active, the romantic and the practical, Florentino and Fermina, Mary and Martha. As whole people can we pay attention to Jesus in prayer and in deed? We live in a world that is hurting. Can we focus on the One who yearns to bind up the broken, to make all of creation whole? Can we learn to let go of some of the distractions and follow Jesus?