Sunday, October 17, 2010

Persistence in Prayer

21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 24) – Year C (RCL)
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Sunday, October 17, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

Unlike some of Jesus’ parables, where we are left trying to figure out what he means, today’s Gospel lesson tells us up from that it is about the “need to pray always and not lose heart.” But the imagery used to illustrate the point is a little puzzling. We have a widow who is persistent and continually nags a judge to grant her justice. While the persistence of the widow makes sense in the context of prayer, the unjust judge is the puzzling part. He is obviously a bad judge. Judges were, after all, charged with executing justice on behalf of God. The fact that he has no fear of God and no respect for those petitioning him indicates that he is not doing the job he is charged with, but is likely in it for his own gain. And the only reason he finally gives in and grants the widow justice is that if she keeps bringing up the issue, people will start to see that he is not doing his job. He will be exposed for the charlatan he is and possibly lose his job and the accompanying place of status.

If the widow and her actions are intended to represent the need for persistence in our prayer life, does that mean the judge is intended to represent God? No, of course not. We know that God is concerned with justice and mercy. Our God would not behave the way the judge does in the parable. I think the unjust judge is merely a device, a barrier the widow comes up against, something requiring patience and persistence to overcome. The real point of the parable is just what the intro says: we “need to pray always and not lose heart.” The whole scene illustrates the benefits of the widow being persistent and not losing heart that she would prevail. That is how we need to approach our prayer life.

Prayer is nothing more than communicating with God. And what this parable tells us is that like in any relationship, communications is essential and ongoing. If you only communicated with your spouse or partner when it was absolutely necessary or only when you wanted something, chances are your relationship wouldn’t last very long. It probably wouldn’t have started in the first place. Now that doesn’t mean that if we don’t communicate with God, if we don’t pray regularly, God will abandon us. God is patient. He will wait for us as long as it takes. And when we do finally get around to praying, God will just be happy that we remember him and want to talk. But communications goes so much smoother, and is so much easier, when we practice, when we do it regularly with those we care about. Think back to when you first met someone, maybe a first date. Remember how awkward it can be to communicate with someone you don’t really know. But over time, as you get to know someone, as you communicate with them more and more, it becomes easier. It is no longer a chore, but a delight.

I’m always somewhat amused in movies or TV shows where the protagonist, when faced with a crisis situation and when all other options are exhausted, decides now is the time to pray. It always goes the same way: Okay God, I’m not very good at this. I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can, I could really use your help right now . . . Well if you had been praying all along, you’d probably be good at it, or at least somewhat comfortable. God is not a crisis help line. God is someone who wants to be in relationship with us, wants us to be in relationship with him. And a key part of that is communications. By developing good prayer practices now, we become comfortable with prayer. Then when the time comes when we really feel a need for fervent prayer, we are not stumbling around trying to figure out what to do, but can approach God with confidence, laying out what is in our heart and on our mind. That’s why the persistence is important. Persistence in prayer is about regular, faithful time with the One who delights in being with us.

Regular, faithful, persistent prayer is also about something else. By being persistent, we demonstrate that we have not abandoned God. We are opening ourselves to participate in the coming kingdom, living in hope, to working however we can for what is most important to God: justice, mercy, and peace. When we do pray, a lot of our activity is spent in talking at God, rattling off a list of prayer concerns, going through a laundry list of things we want or think we need, offering advice to God on how to run the universe. And it’s important to convey our own needs and concerns to God. But it’s not solely about expressing our own stuff. Part of prayer is also opening ourselves up to listen for God, opening ourselves up to discern what he is calling us to do by way of ministry in our parishes and our communities, to discern how he is calling us to participate in the coming kingdom.

Again, prayer is communications and effective communications is a two-way street. If we are in relationship with someone, we can’t do all the talking and expect them to only listen. We need to pause occasionally and allow the other person to communicate as well. So it is with God. We need to incorporate some times of silence into our prayer life to allow God the opportunity to communicate with us. And here again, that is where persistence comes in. We need to be persistent in prayer, including times of silence to allow for God’s voice, so that we can become more comfortable with being in silence before God. We need to be persistent so that we become more comfortable and skilled at discerning how God is communicating with us. Such skills require time to develop and cannot be honed with an occasional dumping of a prayer list onto God’s lap and then walking away.

As to content of our prayers, that can get a little dicey for some of us. Many of us have prayed in earnest, or had friends or family who have prayed in earnest for a particular thing or outcome, only to have the prayers go unanswered; or rather, not answered in the way we wanted. And I’m not talking about prayers to win the lottery. Usually such experiences of unanswered prayers tend to involve issues of health and wholeness, of life and death. When this happens, we can begin to question our faith. Do I not have enough faith? Did I not do something right? Particularly when we have lessons from scripture like today’s Gospel lesson which imply that if we are just persistent enough, we will get what we want; our prayers will be answered. Well, that’s not really what today’s Gospel lesson is saying. Yes, in the story, the widow did prevail. But the story is not about getting what we pray for as much as it is about persistence and not losing heart when prayers do not seem to be answered.

Years ago, when I was a lay person at St. Francis, San Bernardino, I had a dilemma regarding prayers for healing. We had a parishioner who was very ill and was obviously not going to get better. This person was on the parish prayer list for healing and I dutifully prayed for healing. But I did not feel right about praying for the healing of someone who was going to die at any time. I finally went to Fr. David and explained my problem. He told me that even in the case of terminally ill people it’s okay to pray for healing because healing takes many forms. The person may not be healed physically, but there can be emotional or spiritual healing. Relationships can be healed. And ultimately, death is a form of healing, whereby we are made new and whole. It’s up to God to decide what form healing may take. Just as it’s up to God to determine how any prayer is answered.

When it comes to answering prayers, we don’t know why some get answered and others don’t. We do know that God gives us not what we most want or what we think we need, but what we most need. And sometimes the needs of a number of people have to be balanced. To see how prayers are answered, why they are answered the way they are, sometimes we need to dig and try to figure out what that is in amongst the situations we find ourselves in. Sometimes it may not be apparent for some time, if ever. Just like a parent who hears our pleas for a cookie before dinner or a pony for Christmas, God hears with loving patience, but knows ultimately what is best for us. Or, as The Rev. James Dillet Freeman, a twentieth century minster and poet notes, “Sometimes the answer to prayer is not that it changes life, but that it changes you” (James Dillet Freeman Quotes).

That’s what today’s Gospel lesson is ultimately about. If we are persistent in prayer, if we are faithful in our ongoing communication with the God who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, our life will be greatly enriched. Just as in all the other areas of our lives, our prayers may not always be answered the way we would have them. But we can rest assured that God does hear our prayers. He always answers our prayers. And if we let them, the answers just might change our lives.

“James Dillet Freeman Quotes.”
httt:// (12 October 2010).

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Returning, Offering Thanks and Praise

20th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 23) – Year C (RCL)
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Sunday, October 10, 2010 (8:00 service only) –
Trinity, Redlands

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18)

Both our Old Testament and Gospel lessons document healings of lepers who are also foreigners. In 2 King, the prophet Elisha facilitates the healing of Naaman, an Aramean soldier. In Luke, Jesus heals ten lepers, with the focus being on one who is a Samaritan. In both cases, healing is provided to double outcasts. Both Naaman and the Samaritan leper are foreigners with different religious practices from the Jews. And both men initially suffered from leprosy, effectively ostracizing them from their own communities, as well as any other. But what could the healing of a couple of foreign lepers have to do with us? More than you might think.

If we look carefully at both stories, we find that the focus isn’t really on the acts of healing. In 2 Kings, the prophet Elisha merely tells Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. No pomp. No extended ritual. Just take a long bath. Similarly, in Luke, the healing act is downplayed. Usually, there is narrative about what Jesus does to heal people – touching them, putting mud on their eyes, or at least telling them their sins are forgiven or that they are healed. But in this pericope, all Jesus says is “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Nothing more. No, the healing acts in and of themselves are not that important. What is more important in both readings is what happens after the healing events. What is more important is Naaman’s and the Samaritan leper’s response to being healed.

Upon being healed, Naaman returned to Elisha and said “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” He was offering not only his thanks to Elisha, but also his praise to the God who had made his healing possible. And the Samaritan leper, unlike the other nine who were similarly healed, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” He then “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” In both cases, these men returned and offered thanks and praise to God, the source of the healing.

When we talk about praying for healing, we often get caught in a thorny predicament. If we pray for healing and we or a loved one isn’t healed, does that mean we don’t have enough faith? Did we not do something right? This implies that having faith is about cause and effect, that it’s about having a sufficient quantity to get the job done, to achieve the desired result. But that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s not about having faith but about living it. Truly having faith means expressing it. Truly having faith means living in gratitude. And living in gratitude strengthens faith. In both our stories, the men’s gratitude is expressed through faith in the God who healed them. They live this new found faith in gratitude, through their expressions of thanks and praise. This is a cyclic phenomenon. Faith results in gratitude results in more faith results in more gratitude, and so on.

The healing of a couple of foreign outcasts resulted in each returning and offering gratitude, in “converting,” believing in and worshiping God who made this possible for them. How much more, then, should those of us who already believe in and worship God trust in his presence and healing power in our own lives? How much more should we return and offer gratitude, offer our thanks and praise for the blessings God has provided us?

That is what all of this is about. That is why we come to church. We don’t come because we have to. We come in response, out of gratitude. Offering thanks and praise is central to what we do in this place. For what is the central act of our worship but Eucharist? Eucharist, from the Greek eucharisto, meaning “gratitude, giving of thanks.” The Eucharistic prayer is also known as the Great Thanksgiving. And at the very beginning of the Great Thanksgiving, the priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” to which the people respond and affirm the central purpose of our worship, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” Every Sunday, we join with Naaman and with the Samaritan leper. We return to this place to express thanks and praise as we gather around this table.

And there’s something else about Naaman and the Samaritan leper that apply to us and to what we do here. In their healings, both Naaman and the Samaritan leper, by virtue of being cleansed, were able to return to their respective communities. Where they had been previously ostracized because of disease, they were now cleansed and could be welcomed home. Here again, this is what we do every Sunday. When we come to church, when we participate in Eucharist, we are joining Naaman and the Samaritan leper in being reunited with our community. Whatever we feel might keep us away from this place has been washed away by the grace of God’s incredible love for us. We enter this place anew each Sunday. We are given a fresh start. In this place, we are not ostracized but welcomed. We are not outcasts but community. And that community does not just exist within these walls. We are part of a community that is much larger, one that welcomes us just as readily.

At our 10:15 service, we will welcome the Right Reverend Diane Jardine Bruce, Bishop Suffragan of this diocese. As a bishop of the church, she represents the broader communities of which we are a part – the Diocese of Los Angeles, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion. And at that service, six members of our parish will be confirmed and two will be received – reaffirming their Baptismal Vows, affirming their commitment to Christ and his Church and a deepening of their journey into living the faith, into living lives of gratitude. Bishop Bruce will lay hands on these members on behalf of the broader church community, confirming and receiving them as members of the Church, affirming that they are part of a vast community of brothers and sisters in the faith.

In scripture, we have the examples of the likes of Naaman and the Samaritan leper, outsiders, who have chosen to live the faith out of gratitude. Throughout our long history as a religion, we have many more examples of those dedicated to offering thanks and praise to our God. And in our own community, we are blessed to have the newest witnesses to the faith, as Allysan, Amanda, Heather, Hopi, Kenneth, Laura, Susan, and Zach make that conscious decision and public affirmation to follow the one who heals and cleanses, who nurtures and sustains us all. Let them be reminders of our own commitment to the Church, and living examples to all of us of what it means to live a life of faith – continually made new, continually returning, continually offering thanks and praise, and continually welcomed by this community of faith.

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