Sermon for July 30, 2017: Teach us to pray (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
One day my husband came home really irritated. He rides his bike to work and on his way home a teenager threw a full cup of soda out a car window at him. “I was,” he said, “tempted to ride up to them at the next red light, take a picture of their license plate and turn them in to the cops – but then I thought I should be able to ignore it. And then I thought if I didn’t report them that then they’d get away with it and do it again. And then I thought I should be able to forgive them. But then they turned the corner so I couldn’t catch them anyway. Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done.”
I don’t know what I would have done either – because while I can tell you that theoretically ignoring the slights of others, praying for your enemies – doing what Christians call “turning the other cheek” – is the right thing– the truth is, it’s really hard sometimes. Maybe ours are small annoyances, but these little frustrations add up and, if you’re like me, you have days when it seems like it would be easier to remove the calories from chocolate than to let go of your irritation.
So, how do we do it? First of all, we have to ask for help. In today’s first lesson, God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him what he’d like as a gift when he becomes king. Somewhat famously, Solomon asks for wisdom instead of riches or beauty, but that’s not the whole story. First of all, if you look carefully at the narrative, you will notice that Solomon does not ask for intelligence; he asks for discernment – or, in Hebrew, a “listening heart.” I talk a lot about my belief that many spiritual seekers won’t go to church because of preconceptions about “religion,” even while what they are looking for is right here. Solomon’s story gives us an example of how a popular modern construct can show up in an ancient religious text. When Solomon responds to God in his vision, his answer is very similar to what we think of as the Serenity Prayer: “God,” says Solomon, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” – with the emphasis on wisdom to know the difference.
Solomon knew what he needed. Despite calling himself one, Solomon was not a child when he became king; he was an adult – a very sinful adult who had, among other things, murdered his brother in order to ascend to the throne. By admitting to his ignorance and immorality, Solomon demonstrated humility and, because he asked for the right thing, God gave it to him.
So, how do we know what we should ask for when we pray? Because as far as I’m concerned, knowing the difference between what we want and what we need – knowing what to pray for -seems pretty hard. Luckily, we have help. We have been given a lens – a rule of thumb, if you will, to help us make these choices. Jesus tells us that sin is “separation,” separation from God and one another – so we know that things that cause separation – that cause sin– are probably not things we should be praying for. So, in Gary’s case, it meant not praying that the kid who threw soda at him would slip on his own ice and crash into a tree.
Praying for things that unify rather than separate is exactly what St. Paul told the Romans to do almost two thousand years ago. According to Paul, like us they did not know how to pray as they ought. The way they ought to pray, he said, was with the understanding that all right prayers are already answered. Then, after detailing some of the earthly powers that cause separation- hardship, distress, persecution, reckless leadership, famine, nakedness, peril, war, death, everyday life, dwelling on the past, and worrying about the future,– he told them that none of these things could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Unless we let them. Unless we willingly separate ourselves from God and our neighbors by ignoring or subverting the ethics of God. For the psalmist, those rules were determined by Torah – “instruction”- from their ancestors. For Christians, our template is the wisdom, teachings and behavioral example of Jesus the Christ. We believe that it is through Jesus that we are saved from sin – from separation. Given that understanding, all we have to do is to look to Jesus to figure out what– and what not – to pray for.
In order to do this, it’s helpful to remember that Jesus’s instruction always comes through two lenses – tradition and context. As a devout Jew, Jesus bound himself to the laws of his tradition – to Torah- but he also tied these ancient ethics to the realities of life. He talked to people with examples and images they could understand –farming, cooking, buying and selling –things his disciples did every day. The question for them – and for us – is what these things have to say about the nature of Christian discipleship and the kingdom of God.
In today’s gospel, Jesus uses mustard seeds, yeast, and hidden treasure to describe what the kingdom of God is like, so let’s look at these things. Mustard is a weed that most farmers of Jesus’s day would have pulled out of the ground so it wouldn’t create chaos and take over their fields of more orderly crops. Yeast was an unpleasant compound considered to be impure and potentially toxic. As to the buried treasure dug up by the searching merchant, lest we forget: It wasn’t his field! So the kingdom of heaven, then, is like a pushy only minimally useful weed; a polluted, potentially lethal bit of rotten food, and stolen merchandise. The kingdom of heaven, in other words, is not what you might expect.
For Jesus’s followers, that was good news – that God’s kingdom was not like the one they lived in – the Roman Empire. The question that we need to ask ourselves is whether our church, our denomination, and even our country are consistent with Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God. “What,” we might wonder, “if a society resembles the empire of Rome more closely than it does the empire of heaven, expressing in policies and budget the values of social inequality and redemptive violence”?
If that’s true, then we need to change it- and one of the most significant things we can do to bring our world closer to that of Jesus is to pray. We need, like Solomon, to pray for the power to discern – to listen with an open heart. We need, like Paul, to pray to understand how we are called to work together for good. We need, like Jesus, to pray for a world in which “the marginalized, the unclean, and the left out” are as important as the accepted, the beautiful, and the wealthy. We need to pray for the understanding and moral conviction that is true wisdom. And we need to pray fervently for the arrival of the kingdom of heaven here and now. Because when we are one with him and with one another the kingdom of heaven is in us -and it is the place where we do not need to worry about how we pray, because our prayers are already answered. It is the place where our desires and those of God become one. It is the place where our prayers and those of all people demonstrate humility in the face of God’s goodness. The kingdom of heaven is the place where we are able not only to forgive – not only to live with –but to actually love those with whom we struggle- and in God’s kingdom, that will not be hard at all. AMEN.