We are bold to say: A sermon for Proper 12C, 2022

We are bold to say

Proper 12C

July 24, 2022

Lord, teach us to pray.

There’s something powerful, something even sad, about the plea we hear in today’s gospel reading. Powerful, because the request of one of Jesus’ disciples is something most of us could imagine asking. How many of us really think we get the whole prayer thing?

But sad, too, because we would like to think that Jesus’ disciples, his closest friends and companions, would have this prayer thing figured out. Or at least, that Jesus would have taught them to pray earlier in their time together. I mean, what were they all doing all those weeks and months together?

Lord, teach us to pray. As Anglicans, Episcopalians we have a treasured resource in the Book of Common Prayer—prayers written by faithful Christians over the centuries, many of them whose roots go back more than a 1000 years. Even I, someone who has been using the BCP for upwards of thirty years, even I am occasionally surprised by the power of a collect I may have prayed 100 or 1000 times. There are some that I find difficult to pray aloud without my voice catching.

But such prayers can also become rote, so familiar that we barely notice the words as we say them, we never think twice about them, never consider their meaning. 

It’s also true that the Book of Common Prayer can become a crutch> It can help us by offering words and images that ring true when we can’t speak for ourselves. But it can also prevent us from developing the habits and becoming comfortable with speaking to God with words from our hearts, expressing our authentic selves to the one who created and redeemed us.

In the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus praying often. He prays as he comes from his baptism. He prays at other significant moments, perhaps most famously, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he faces his coming crucifixion and death. Sometimes, he goes off by himself to pray as he does in today’s gospel reading. 

The disciples had seen all this, and they also knew that John the Baptizer had given his disciples instructions in prayer, so one of them asked Jesus to teach them as well. Perhaps the disciple asking had also noticed the intimate relationship Jesus had with his Father and sought a deeper, more intimate relationship with God as well. 

“We are bold to say… Those are the words that introduce the Lord’s Prayer in our worship. Have you ever thought about them? Is it bold, courageous to pray in the words Jesus taught us? Or is it bold to say, “Our Father”?

, “Our Father.” For many of us in the 21st century, to address God as Father is deeply problematic as it plays into gender hierarchies and the patriarchy, and for those of us with complicated relationships with our fathers, to refer to God as Father may be more stumbling block than life-giving. Still, it’s important to underscore the positive meaning of this address. To call God “Father” is to emphasize the relationship between us and God; at best, as we see in Jesus’ later reference to how a father should behave in response to a child’s request, such relationships are grounded in love, and yes, dependency.

To call God Father was not a revolutionary act by Jesus, there are places in Jewish scripture where God is so addressed, and we know it also from extra-biblical sources. Still, there seems to have been an intense intimacy in Jesus’ address and experience of God as Father; perhaps best expressed in the Aramaic word we know Jesus used, “Abba” was a word that was remembered and used by early Christians who spoke no Aramaic. Paul tells us, for example, that early Christians in the Gentile, Greek-speaking comunities to which he wrote letters, prayed to “Abba,” Father.

I doubt very much whether many of us, when we begin saying the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father”—think or experience such intimacy, but it may be that the cultivation of a deeper and richer prayer life begins by opening ourselves and our hearts to deeper intimacy with God. 

There’s something more here. Jesus begins, “Our Father” not “My Father”—Prayer, the Lord’s prayer is predicated on intimacy and relationship, not just with God, but with a community at prayer. We pray together; not only when we gather for the Eucharist and say the words of the Lord’s prayer together but even if we pray these words alone, we are praying them with all those Christians throughout the world and throughout history who have prayed and are praying them. 

Prayer is about relationship—with God and with others. We see that in Jesus’ follow-up to the Lord’s Prayer. The brief parable about the one who asks for bread, and the familiar sayings, “Ask, seek, knock” are often interpreted as how-to’s or as encouragement to persistence. If you pray long enough and hard enough, eventually, your prayer will be answered.

But I don’t think that’s what’s intended here. Think again about the first story. You go to a neighbor to ask for bread late at night because an unexpected visitor has arrived. He’s in bed, he doesn’t want to bothered but nonetheless he relents. The word translated here as persistence might better be translated as shameless. In other words, you go to your neighbor for help, openly, humbly, admitting your need, relying on that friendship. 

At our 10:00 service, we will be baptizing Magdalen, Mage. Like all babies, she is utterly dependent on her parents, on their love and care for her. Today, we are also widening that web of relationships in which she is nurtured, bringing her into the body of Christ, naming her as Christ’s own forever. We hope that as she grows and matures, she will also experience deep relationship with God. 

We may sometimes feel like babies when we think about our relationship with God. We may feel inadequate to express ourselves to God, unable to find the words, unable even to say “Our Father.” There may be times that intimate relationship with God seems impossible. Our needs so great, our faith faltering, that words simply do not come.

But even then, in those dark moments, when God may seem distant when words fail, prayer may become the silent cry of anguish. It’s worth remembering that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane; that he even prayed on the cross.

There’s a lovely progression in this passage. Beginning with deep intimacy, “Our Father” the Lord’s prayer quickly moves to a reminder of God’s wholly otherness—your name be holy or hallowed. In Judaism, of course, God’s name cannot be spoken, cannot even be written. 

And then we are given images of child asking his parent for bread; From transcendence to immediacy; from distance to intimacy. We are free to approach God as a child approaches her parent, spontaneously, intimately, expressing our needs and our dependence, confident of God’s love. 

Whether we pray with words or wordlessly, whether the Lord’s Prayer speaks for us or not, may we find ways in prayer to deepen our intimacy with God, and may we be bold to express our needs to God, approaching God as a child approaches her loving parent.

A brief recap of General Convention

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church met this past week. General Convention is the Episcopal Church’s governing body. It decides our worship (the Book of Common Prayer), our constitution and canons, and the church’s budget. It consists of two houses: the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. Each diocese elects four clergy and four laypeople as deputies. Resolutions need to be passed by both houses to take effect. 

Delayed a year by COVID, its usual 8-day gathering was reduced to four days with many meetings and hearings occurring virtually before the in-person meeting. I’ve probably been paying attention in some fashion to General Convention since 2000 and followed it closely from 2003-2018, first via various usenet groups and then with the advent of social media, Twitter. Over those fifteen years, a total of six conventions, the dominant issue was the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, beginning with the confirmation of the election of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in a committed relationship. That unleashed more than a decade of conflict internally and with the larger Anglican Communion; giving rise to the splinter denomination the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and court disputes that are still being resolved in 2022. 

In contrast to the Sturm and Drang of past General Conventions, the lead up to this year’s was filled with anxiety about COVID and discussions about liturgical revision. The issue that received the most ink and social media attention in the weeks preceding the in-person gathering was a resolution to permit “Communion without Baptism.” In spite of the widespread conversation, the resolution didn’t make it out of committee, so it wasn’t voted on by the House of Deputies.

Perhaps the issue with the greatest significance for local congregations addressed at General Convention was that of Prayer Book revision or liturgical change. The Book of Common Prayer was last revised in 1979. Since then, a number of alternative forms of worship have been approved for trial use. In 2018, the Marriage Rite was significantly altered to adapt to the blessing of same sex marriage and expansive language versions of the Eucharistic Prayers A, B, and D of Rite II were authorized for trial use. But this piecemeal approach to liturgical revision came under attack from those who advocated for a full-scale revision of the Book of Common Prayer. 

This past week, after much discussion and debate, resolution A059 was passed that lays out a process for revision of the prayer book. Because the process will require constitutional changes (that need to be passed by two successive Conventions), the process foreseen is a lengthy one. After the constitutional changes are passed and the necessary canonical changes made in 2024, trial liturgies will be prepared that will be approved in 2027 for use in local congregations for the next three years. Only then would a new Book of Common Prayer be approved for general use. It’s a complicated process. If you want to learn more, there’s a helpful article at Earth and Altar.

On a side note, new versions of Eucharistic Prayer C were also approved for trial use. As soon as they are made available, we will begin using one of the new versions at our 10:00 service to replace the Book of Common Prayer version.

On the last day of convention, the House of Bishops published a “Mind of the House” statement on “Climate and our Vocation in Christ.” It’s well worth a read and should spur us to action on behalf of the planet and future generations of all living things.  p

Neighbors and Ditches: A Sermon for Proper 10C, 2022

One of the few positive developments in our lives over the last two plus years is that Corrie and I have gotten to know some of our neighbors much better. It began with little things as a couple of our neighbors would reach out to us when they were going to the grocery store. Over time, we began mail-ordering certain exotic gourmet products together and have impromptu gatherings on the sidewalk. We have a chat group that discusses food, wine, restaurant recommendations, and waxes nostalgic over Boston in the 80s. We’ve gathered for drinks and helped out during illness.

Of course, it’s fairly easy for us. We live in a neighborhood where everyone pretty much looks like us—a few African-American families and singles live nearby but the overwhelming majority are white and well-off and were not terribly inconvenienced by lock-downs or unemployment. And the relationships we’ve forged over the last few years cannot mask the reality of the deep divisions in our city, state, and nation

Grace’s anti-racism group, Creating More Just Community, will be discussing articles this coming week that point out cities like Madison, with large universities, have deeper racial inequities than other cities of the same size. That group started in response to learning about the deep inequities in Madison and Dane County, now almost a decade ago, and in that time, in spite of the work and advocacy of many in our community, little has changed.

On Thursday as I was walking around the square, I encountered an old friend for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Joe is my shoe-shine guy. He’s an African-American who sets up on the square when he can, shining shoes out of a little box he carries around. Over the years, I’ll arrange with him a time when he can come by the church and shine all of my shoes. We’ve gotten to know each other a bit. I’ve helped him out from time to time, especially buying bus tickets so he can go to Chicago and visit family or attend family reunions.

I’d been wondering about him and was delighted to see him again and to catch up and yes, I promised to buy him a bus ticket so he could go down for his first family reunion since the pandemic. He’s a neighbor in more ways than one—he lives in the Allied Drive neighborhood, which I often bike through on my way out the Badger State or Military Ridge trails.

Who is my neighbor? This week I’ve also been working on land acknowledgement for both the diocese and for Grace Church. Our neighbors are also our displaced or invisible neighbors; those whose land was seized and who were forced to relocate as white settlers advanced. They are among us, but often invisible, or noticeable only for the traces left behind—here the effigy mounds, for example. Their erasure, from our history, from our consciousness helps us claim innocence of the great evils perpetrated on them in the past and present, and the generational trauma that they continue to suffer.

Who is my neighbor? This is the question the young lawyer asks of Jesus in the course of their conversation. 

Jesus tells the parable in the context of a conversation, a debate really with a lawyer who approaches him to ask “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now Luke tells us that he asked this to “test” Jesus, but we should be a bit skeptical about thinking that he is trying to trap or outdo Jesus. He addresses him respectfully, calling him “Teacher,” Rabbi, which offers a clue that this is the sort of conversation that could take place among devout Jews throughout the first-century world. It was conversations like this, over interpretation of Torah, that would be later compiled beginning in the second century, into the Talmud. And of the they were conversations very much like this one about the meaning and application law, the Torah.

While many commentators begin their criticism of the lawyer with the question he asked, it seems not to have bothered Jesus. His response was, “What does Torah say?” The lawyer responds “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus praises his answer, “Do this and you will live.” It’s one of the few times in any of the gospels where Jesus praises the words of a member of the religious establishment. 

But let’s be honest, there’s at least one ambiguous term here, neighbor, and the lawyer, being a lawyer, probes for clarification, “And who is my neighbor?”

That’s the question, isn’t it?  We have an inkling what it might mean to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, even if we know we cannot, in this life, ever really do it. And loving our neighbor as ourself. To love others as much as we love ourselves? Well, our family members perhaps, but our next door neighbors? Does that extend to the guys across the street or the ones over in the next block who are inclined to sit outside well into the night and play loud music? Let’s be frank, in my neighborhood, we pretty much all look the same, all come from the same socio-economic background, I hope I can at least tolerate them, but love them? And it only takes something like the controversy over the Edgewood stadium to show how fragile our community and sense of neighborliness are.

So the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Only now does Jesus tell the story, and if you think carefully about it, it doesn’t really answer the lawyer’s question. Even Jesus’ question to the lawyer at the end, seems somewhat off-topic, “Which of these three was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Off-topic, because it requires an imaginative leap. The lawyer was hoping that Jesus would define the limits of the category “neighbor.” Instead, Jesus’ story exploded those limits and the category.

You know that Samaritans were reviled by first-century Jews and that the feeling was at least somewhat reciprocated. There was a set of complicated reasons for this, partly religious, partly ethnic. Samaritans regarded only Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as authoritative, the Word of God. They had a built a temple on Mt. Gerazim, outside of Jerusalem, in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem. They were suspected to be the result of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jewish populations. Jews regarded them as impure and unclean, as heretics. Interaction with them made Jews ritually impure. 

But the story is not about a Samaritan falling into a ditch and being helped by a good Jew. The story is about a man (whose religious and ethnic identity is not specified) who is robbed, beaten, and thrown in a ditch. He lies there suffering while two representatives of the Jewish religious establishment pass by. He lies there suffering. Does he even hear them as they walk by? Has he abandoned hope? Can he cry for help, even moan in pain? He lies there and a Samaritan comes to his aid, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. We can be certain that he welcomed the Samaritan’s actions; we can’t be certain how he would have perceived the Samaritan had they encountered each other in different circumstances. 

The lawyer, too, gets the point of the story. Who was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves? The one who showed mercy. The priest and levite walked by. They saw the man and did nothing. The Samaritan came by and he sees, too. But he also takes action. He is moved with pity, a phrase that’s used only two other times in the Gospel of Luke, once of Jesus when he meets the woman grieving the death of her son, and once in the parable of the Prodigal Son, to describe the father’s response on seeing his son return. 

Where do we locate ourselves in this parable? We want to be the Good Samaritan, moved with pity, who shows mercy. Too often, of course, we are the priest or levite, to busy going about our business to take notice of someone in need. Perhaps even more, especially now, in the face of all the injustice, hate, and evil that unfolds before us, we feel impotent or perhaps have grown callous, averting our eyes to the suffering and dehumanization of others. 

But what if, sometimes, we are the one in the ditch, stripped, robbed, and left for dead? And what if, at that moment, Jesus comes to us in the guise of someone we hate because of  the color of their skin, their sexuality, their ethnic or national background, immigration status? 

Jesus, the victim, lies in the ditch. He lies alongside homeless people, refugees, victims of gun violence.  Jesus is also walking down the road to Jericho. Jesus the physician is moved with pity and offers mercy. Jesus reaches out his hand and breaks down every barrier that divides us—barriers of ethnicity and nationality, barriers of gender and sexuality, and yes, even political difference. He breaks down those barriers, reaches his arms across those walls, and brings us together into one fellowship. May we have the strength and courage to join him, in the ditch, alongside the victims, and on the road, moved with pity, and offering mercy.