Sermon 2016.10.23 - Dangerous Prayers
Scripture - Luke 18:9-14
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
How many of you have heard the saying: “Be careful what you pray for, you just might get it?”
Certainly there are things for which we pray that are a bit more dangerous than others. For instance -- asking God for patience is a one of those dangerous prayers that we never really like having God answer - especially if you are an impatient person! Or I think about Mother Theresa’s - who experienced ecstatic visions of God’s love, and her famous prayer, “Lord, let me love you like no other has loved you” and for the next 50 years experienced a profound sense of God’s absence, what is known as the “Dark Night of the Soul” - and yet still demonstrated her love for God and others by ministering to the last and the least in the slums of Calcutta.
Prayer can be a dangerous thing, and yet it is central to the Christian life and discipleship. One cannot be a Christian and not - in some way - pray. I love this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that says “to be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
Yet prayer means a lot of different things to people. How we pray and what we pray for and why we pray varies greatly depending on your perspective. For some, prayer is a list of needs or wants that we bring before God to ask for God’s intervention. For others, as has been attributed to CS Lewis, “prayer is not for the purpose of changing God, but rather for changing us.”
But the bottom line is that prayer shapes and forms us. It sustains us and nurtures us. It brings us closer to one another and closer to God. It opens up space in our lives for the holy to enter and transform us as we are vulnerable before the one who knows our deepest and truest selves.
Prayer is what we find the two men in our story from this morning engaged in.
The only thing we know about who Jesus addresses this parable to is that they were people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. We don’t know if this was a group of priests, some very devout Jews, or a mix. All we know is they considered themselves better than others and scorned those who they thought were unrighteous and unworthy.
Their biases would have been set from the beginning of the story - “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The Pharisee - a careful follower of the law - would be someone that would be held in high regard. Pharisees at the time weren’t people who held any kind of political power - they tended to be a modest sect who cared very much about helping people honor God in their everyday life. For them, this was done through careful observance of the Torah - which were the laws handed down from Moses. The hearers of this story would have expected a Pharisee to be in the Temple praying.
They would not, however, have expected the tax collector to be at the Temple. Tax collectors were among the lowest of the low in Jewish society. These were Jews who collected taxes from their fellow Jews for the Roman Empire. They could walk up to any man and tax him for what he was carrying - and more. The way they made their living was to collect from each person they taxed *more* than what they were required to take. They would hand over the proper sum to the Roman government and keep the extra for themselves. This was how they put bread on the table. Tax collectors were hated and despised and so those hearing this story would not have expected one of the men praying in the Temple to be a tax collector.
And the original hearers of the story certainly would not have expected the Pharisee to be deemed as the self-righteous one and the tax collector the one who was made right before God.
The Pharisee’s prayer is all about himself - I “this” and I “that.” I’m thankful, God that I’m not like *those* people - I’m not a robber or an adulterer or a tax collector. I do all these great things like fast and give. And it is a true prayer -- no one can fault him for that. He doesn’t ask anything of God, and it’s certainly a prayer that distances himself from his neighbor. It’s a prayer that reveals his ultimate reliance upon himself for his vocation and salvation. Whatever his purpose was in going to the Temple to pray, we don’t know - but his prayer reveals that in his view, he’s got nothing to worry about -- he’s doing the right things and avoiding the right things. He’s got it all under control. God hears this prayer.
The tax collector, on the other hand, prays a very different kind of prayer. His posture is different than that of the Pharisee - head bowed, beating his breast, not even looking up to heaven. Instead of a long litany like that of the Pharisee, his prayer is short and to the point - God, be merciful to me, a sinner. He didn’t enumerate his sins (though to be sure, the hearers of this story most likely could have come up with a list for him) - he simply asked God for one thing - mercy. He came to the Temple, daring to trust the depth of God’s mercy and that there might be some reserved for him. His reliance is not upon himself - though as a tax collector it would have been his natural inclination to do so to get by in the world. His reliance is upon God, and God’s boundless mercy, not his own works or his own strength. God hears and answers his prayer, and goes home as one who has been made right with God.
The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer was that it set up a divide between him and the tax collector. It’s even represented in the physical distance between them in Jesus’ parable. Instead of being a prayer that opened up the Pharisee’s life to be transformed by God, it closed him off to anything but his own righteousness and barred him from seeing God’s love and mercy for others. There was no way for the Holy Spirit to enter draw him closer to love of God and love of neighbor -- even his practices of fasting and tithing fail to move him toward the heart of God.
Now if I had to pick one of these characters to identify with -- you bet I would want to be like the tax collector. After all, God seemed to appreciate his prayer better. But truth be told, more often than not I am more like the Pharisee - trusting in my own self for my salvation, relying on doing the right things to be made right with God, and dismissing those who are “other” - not intentionally - but certainly through my lack of engagement with differing opinions and living in my own epistemic bubble.
To put this another way, if our response to this parable is, as Episcopal blogger and author Sarah Dylan Breuer puts it is, “"I thank God that I'm not like that awful Pharisee," we're in trouble.”
To be honest, that was my first reaction to reading this Scripture passage, and then I thought about my actions during this past Wednesday night’s political debate. I kept one eye tuned to the screen to listen to the candidates’ words and one eye tuned to my Twitter and Facebook feed, ready to like and retweet every snarky comment about the other side that scrolled by. And almost unbidden, that little prayer bubbled up inside of me “O God, I thank you that I am not like those on that other side, who believe this and that…and I’m certainly thankful I am not like this candidate or that candidate...” and the unconscious prayer goes on and on….and it sets up this divide between me and those who might think differently than I do. It’s a divide I don’t want to build, but it happens each time I consider myself superior to anyone else.
We all do this, don’t we? It may start innocently enough - a quick “thank you, God, that I am not like this other person or that group of people” - a fleeting comparison of someone else’s situation or beliefs or actions...but the problem here is that all too often that assessment turns to disapproval and judgment -- the “well, I would have done that differently” or “if he or she only knew about this” or “they don’t know any better” -- and that leads to judgment without understanding -- judgment that labels and dismisses -- judgment that dehumanizes -- judgment without empathy. It closes us off from seeing the other person the way Jesus sees them - as persons loved by God.
It also prevents us from acknowledging the areas in our own lives where we need to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
When I acknowledge my own failings - my own struggles, my own weaknesses, my own brokenness - it makes it a bit easier for me to make room for others in their own sin and brokenness. When I stop trying to do all the right things to earn favor from others or from God, it makes me realize that God loves me exactly as I am...and God loves others exactly as they are. When I stop needing to prove my righteousness at the expense of others, I see the face of Jesus in those I had previously dismissed.
That’s the invitation of this story -- to take a cue from the prayer of the tax collector, and acknowledge the places in our lives where we stand in need of God’s mercy….acknowledge that we can’t make ourselves right before God under our own steam...acknowledge that we may act a bit more like the Pharisee in this story than we care to admit. But in recognizing this reality, we make room for God’s transforming love. We make room for the Holy Spirit to work in us to be more like Christ. We receive God’s gift of grace and mercy...and we begin to make room in our hearts for those we previously considered ourselves better than.
“God be merciful to me, a sinner.” It’s another dangerous prayer. It’s a prayer we are all called to remember, especially in this tense election season where our tendency is to vilify anyone with whom we disagree. But it’s a prayer that opens us to our common humanity, affirms God’s overwhelming love for each one of us, and leads to a deeper love of God and neighbor -- leads us to see God’s kingdom made real in those wrestling with addiction, those living with abuse, those struggling with mental illness, those without homes, those with whom we disagree politically, those who have harmed us, those who are refugees, and the list goes on.
I want to share with you a retelling of this Parable, written by Reverend Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a poet and United Methodist pastor serving in Acton, MA. He writes this:
Two people came into the temple to pray. A white man came up front and prayed, “God, I thank you that I’m not black. Thank you that I’m not a woman, or gay, or was abused as a child. I mind my own business, and I believe in you.”
An undocumented immigrant woman forced to work the street stood at the back and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I tell you, she went home closer to God than the other. For all who are full of themselves will be empty of anything else. But those who make room for God will shine with glory.
May our prayers this week make room for God, that God’s love and grace and mercy may shine through the broken places in our lives, that we may live with hearts open to those who we think we’re better than, that we may know that each of us is loved wholly and fully by God. Amen.
How many of you have a favorite song or two that you love to listen to when you are on a road trip? For whatever reason, my favorite road trip earworm right now is 500 miles by the Proclaimers. “But I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more just to be the man who walked one thousand miles to fall down at your door…”
Well, our scripture passage this morning comes form a portion of the book of Psalms known as the Songs of Ascents. This collection of 15 psalms - Psalm 120 through Psalm 134 are like the equivalent of our road trip music. They are hiking songs. These were, in many ways, an observant Jew’s “The ants go marching one by one”, which they would sing as they went to celebrate certain feasts in the temple in Jerusalem.
It was good to have songs to sing along the way. The journey to Jerusalem was a common one, but it could also be dangerous: sickness, heat, bandits, hunger, were the pilgrim’s constant fears. (And aren’t we glad that when we’re out on the road, the most we usually have to worry about now is if we left the lights on at home?)
So as we hear these words from Psalm 121, I invite you to imagine yourself as an Israelite, setting out for your first pilgrimage to Jerusalem - a city you have always dreamed of visiting - to celebrate the Passover feast with thousands of other people. You are on the road, hearing the words of the Psalms sung aloud to pass the time, sung as a prayer asking God’s protection along the way. And you hear these words...
Scripture - Psalm 121
A Song of Ascents.1 I lift up my eyes to the hills--
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
While most of us might not regularly hike hundreds of miles for a religious observance, the idea of pilgrimage, or traveling for a greater purpose, is common to most of us. What are some of the pilgrimages that we take on a regular basis?
Sometimes, our travels are of the serious type: maybe to see the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone for the first time, to visit our hometown for a reunion after a long absence, or to tend to the grave of a long-passed loved one.
Sometimes, our pilgrimages are of the less serious nature: that show we’ve been dying to see on Broadway, the show featuring those aging rockers who still make us squeal like we were twelve, the first time we discovered a KRISPY KREME had opened IN MAINE.
We live in a place that people make pilgrimages to, especially on a weekend like this, when the boat is packed with people who are just thrumming with excitement to be here.
Those who follow Jesus have always understood their faith to be a form of travel as well. Often, when we ask people about their “faith journey” or their “walk with God”, we mean it purely metaphorically. But there are still some Jesus-followers who combine the physical and the metaphorical in their pilgrimage, especially on the Camino De Santiago…
El Camino de Santiago is a 500 mile hike through northern Spain, starting in the Pyrenees mountains near the border of France and ending in Santiago de Compostela where the bones of the first martyr, Saint James, are said to be buried. It’s a pilgrimage that Christians have taken for centuries in Europe - in some cases, literally walking from their doorstep to the Camino trail onward to their destination. Over 200,000 people each year take this journey annually.
As it turns out, I have a lot of friends who have taken this trip in the last year. Personally, I’ve wanted to go for many years now, ever since I first heard about the journey from a professor of mine while in college. I invited a few of my friends to share a brief reflection about the theme of pilgrimage from their experience on El Camino. I asked for 200 words, and got many times more, so invite you to listen to some excerpts from their reflections; I’ll be posting full reflections on the church’s facebook page this week.
My friend Keith, a United Methodist lay person, shared a bit about the daily rhythm:
Awake at 430, prepare your mind; rise by 5, prepare your feet; begin your walk in the silent darkness by 545, pray, gaze in awe at a painted sunrise, recite the number of days you’ve been walking and how many are left, continue two miles, remove your boots, rest. Walk 14 miles more, talk more, sing, meditate, observe, sweat, climb, descend, listen, question your ability, worry, argue, delight, wonder and awe, laugh, cry, reveal your secrets, relive your childhood, review relationships, recite the lords prayer, plan for the future, think of death, question decisions made and opportunities missed, make friends, leave friends behind, bond with a small few, feel young, feel very old, march to motivating music. Arrive at hostel, know REAL joy! Eat lunch, siesta time, happy hour, pilgrims menu dinner, vino tinto. Rustling bags, backpack zippers, whispers, creaky dorm beds, heat, suffering sweat, wet pillow, still air, snoring, slip away into silence. Understand the meaning of rhythm, repeat 32 times.
I found it interesting in Keith’s words that there wasn’t actually anything about arriving at the destination. You would think that after over a month of walking, you would be relieved or excited to get to the end of your journey. And yet, as Keith shares it, it’s as if the point of this journey was not actually the final destination - it was something else instead. It was as if the walking and the journey itself were a means for something greater. The daily rhythm opened up space for transformation. Those, like my friends, who walked this path with deep intention, discovered something that made the final destination almost secondary.
Scott, an Episcopal priest and summer resident of the island, shared that after walking the Camino, “Arriving in Santiago was anticlimactic.” He writes, “It's a great city to visit, anchored by a grand cathedral housing the alleged bones of St. James ("Santiago") the Apostle. But I wanted to just keep walking. It's deep in my bones now. And for me, it was never about the destination; it was always about the journey. Some say that the Camino really begins when you return home with what you bring back. For each of us, the journey is a lifetime of walking, waiting, wanting, wishing and wonder along whatever path we find ourselves on.”
Jane, also an Episcopal priest, made a different kind of discovery along her Camino walk. She writes,
“I think one of the hardest things about the Camino is the isolation. There is a physical challenge for sure and I don’t want to minimize that. All I have to do is try to bend over and my back reminds me in no uncertain terms that I am under a physical strain. And there is a spiritual challenge. I am fond of talking about the hole in mine and our hearts that yearns for love and acceptance, but which only God can fill. Walking the Camino provides opportunities for such encounters with God almost at every turn. Back in France it was the foggy majesty of the Pyrenees. In Pamplona/Los Arcos it was the joy of fiesta with the community. In Burgos it was the timelessness of the ornate symbols of our faith and the dedication of the people who have held the course for over 2000 years. Here in the Meseta it is the immensity of the crystal blue sky, the regularity and the dependability of the fields of wheat, and the constancy of the wind blowing in my face. Each in its own way is an entry point for an encounter with the Holy.
But there is also an emotional challenge and that has a lot to do with feelings of isolation from community – both family and friends. One does not have to be alone to feel isolated. In Logrono I was eating lunch in a beautiful setting with hundreds of people within shouting distance and yet I felt terribly isolated and yes lonely. Such emotions are usually fleeting and we all have them once in a while, whether or not we are in a foreign country. But the isolation that I am feeling today is the result of my inability to communicate with my hosts, to express in a way that they can understand what my needs are and in turn to understand what they are trying to tell me. I wonder if that same sense of isolation is not at play in the struggle we have with racism in our culture. I said once before how my appreciation for the difficulties faced by non-English speakers in the US has risen a hundred fold. Now I am moving to what I can do when I return home to make those non-English speakers feel less isolated and alone. And in truth isn’t that what pilgrimage is all about? We experience something we have never experienced before, we struggle with the impact the experience has on our souls, and we move forward using that experience to shape our lives.”
In each of these reflections - what was the destination? Was it really the city of Santiago, or was the destination something else entirely?
The destination was healing. Renewal. Clarity. Fresh vision. Understanding of those who are different. New questions to ponder. Evaluating your life and its priorities. God’s presence in all our goings out and comings in.
We see this in our Psalm from this morning as well - God’s presence with us along the way. Those ancient Israelites understood that the journey - their pilgrimage - wouldn’t have happened but for God’s protection and presence surrounding them - watching over them in their travels, keeping them safe, holding their very lives as they wound their way up to Jerusalem. It was in this place of journey - just as much as in their festival celebrations - that God met their needs. After all, their faith was one built upon God meeting them along the road as they were a people who traveled for 40 years to get to the Promised Land. And even in that time of wilderness wandering, God’s presence surrounded them on their journey, provided water to drink and manna to eat.
We are all on a journey right now. Granted, it may not be one that physically takes us somewhere else, but as people who follow Jesus -- we are on the road with him somewhere. What journey are you on? And where are you on it? Are you walking along, taking in the sights, enjoying the trip -- or are you going so fast to get to your destination you can’t even see what’s right next to you? Or are you camped out on the side of the road - digging in your heels because you don’t want to go where God might be leading you because it’s different and unfamiliar?
We’re on a journey together as a church as well. Over these next several months we’re traveling together through Growing with Hope to discover who God wants for us to be as a faith community -- asking difficult questions about the values that are important to us and the places on the island where God may want us to be more present. Some of us are taking pilgrimages over to Portland to learn with other churches about how to ask these questions. And we may even take a few pilgrimages around the island ourselves as we invite God to give us eyes to see Chebeague the way God sees it.
We are all pilgrims on a journey -- God is calling us forward, to places of healing and wholeness and new life.
I want to share one final reflection from my friend Beth, a United Methodist church planter who lives on the West Coast. She writes,
“Then like manna from heaven I came across a sign posted along the path that said, “Soy El Camino, La Verdad y La Vida.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Yes, El Camino, this camino, this way. This pilgrim journey is a metaphor for life. Everyone walks it in their own way and it is all good. Our call is simply to take that next faithful step, find our rhythm in unhurried calm, acknowledge our pain and in so doing find our common humanity -- our deep connection to the fullness of life that we thankfully have no control over. This is the deep truth of life – that it is sheer unmerited grace, love incarnate.”
May we find the courage this next week to take our next faithful step, sure in the knowledge of God’s presence and protection, trusting in the journey that God has for each of us, trusting in the love and grace of God who watches over us, every step of the way. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.