Sunday, October 16, 2016

Lessons in Prayer and Trust

22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 18.1-8
St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

In times of transition, it is natural to look back over life’s journey and review the lessons learned to date. In the course of my journey, particularly the journey of faith that led me into the priesthood and through my first ten years as a priest, I have learned many things. Many of them have to do with what it means to be a servant of God in this particular calling of being a priest. Ways of being a priest and ways of carrying out that role in day-to-day parish life. And there have been some things I have learned about what not to do. While all of these are important and have been formative of who I am as a priest, perhaps the most significant are those things that are of a more foundational nature. Those things that go to the root of who I am, not just as a priest, but as a child of God.

Since I began the formal process that led to ordination, there are two key things that I have learned. The first is to trust God. It may sound strange for a priest to confess this – or any Christian, for that matter – but I had to learn firsthand to trust God. To have absolute trust. When I finally agreed to accept God’s call to ordained ministry, I told God, “okay, I’ll do this, but I need your help to make it happen.” During what we call “the process” and during seminary, God did indeed help me. Maybe not in ways that I would have chosen. But he did provide me with what I needed at the right time to make his plans for me to become a priest materialize. And since ordination, this trust in God and God’s faithfulness has been borne out time and again. When I needed a new position as my time at St. Alban’s was ending, I was led to Trinity. When my time at Trinity was coming to a close and I didn’t know what I would do, I was led to you. And when my time here was coming to an end, God led me to St. Gregory’s. Whenever things seem uncertain, when I am unable to see a way forward, I remind myself that God has called me into ministry and has always been there to support me in it. Surely he will provide what I need to continue along the path he has set for me. This unwavering trust in God, learned by experience, is what keeps me going.

The second thing that I have learned, partly through this journey in learning to trust God, but mainly through my time with you, is the incredible power of prayer. I have said to you on various occasions, and I have commented to clergy colleagues, that I have never known a congregation that believes so fervently in the power of prayer. The way you pray for one another. The way you feel free, because of your lived experiences together, to ask one another to lift you or your loved ones up in prayer. And the way you not only ask for prayers, but also rejoice and celebrate in prayers being answered. You have been living proof and a lesson for me in the power of prayer in a way I have never experienced before.

The Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge in today’s Gospel reading address these two lessons – unwavering trust in God and the incredible power of prayer. The parable certainly addresses trust in God and that what he promises us – in this case, justice – will ultimately come to pass. And while the woman does not pray in the parable, her persistent appeals to the unjust judge are symbolic of prayers made to a far more just authority – to God. Indeed, Luke’s introduction to the parable specifically states its purpose and its meaning – “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Lk 18.1).

The primary point of the parable is certainly the persistence of the widow. When her concerns for justice and deliverance are not heard, she keeps at it. And keeps at it. And keeps at it. Until the corrupt judge, who is not interested in justice and who certainly is not concerned with the likes of her or her bothersome issues, finally gives in. “Alright already! I’ll take care of it. Just leave me alone!”

Jesus has just talked about how the kingdom is coming, but just not yet. The parable itself is set in the context of justice and deliverance, as well as judgement and faith in light of the eventual second coming of Christ. He uses the parable of the widow and the judge to demonstrate how we are to await Christ’s delayed return. It is about the assurance that what God promises will be delivered. It is as much about God as it is about the believer. That God is faithful to us – God’s persistent, everlasting love for us. We can be sure that God hears our prayers. God has not forgotten us. And Jesus makes it a point of telling us God will not delay long in helping us.

So this parable is about God’s faithfulness to us and about how we demonstrate our trust in God in response to his faithfulness. That we do this by maintaining constant communications. That we are persistent in our prayers. For prayer means hopeful trust in God and his promises, not in ourselves. In praying continually and persistently, we show that we are not giving up hope. We are living in the certainty that God is with us and for us. In this parable, Jesus is very clear that our faith means actively hoping and eagerly anticipating the coming of God’s kingdom and living in the hope of that promise until it comes to pass. And we do that by never ceasing to pray for others, for the world, and even for ourselves. In this, prayer is not just the words we say, but a true expression of our faith. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.”

Now, we know that prayers are not always answered – if by answered we mean the fulfillment of our specific requests to God. No matter how much we beg, plead, or badger God. But prayers are always answered. Of course, we need to keep in mind that what God knows we need and what we think we need or want are not always the same thing. We must remember that we receive not always what we most want but what we most need. Regardless of how our prayers are answered, we do indeed receive what we most need in that moment – a sense of God’s loving presence, and the strength and resilience we need to continue on, to survive.

This is perhaps hardest when it comes to those prayers that arise in the midst of uncertainty. Where is God in times of change and transition – with our hopes and fears, our struggles and doubts? Even in such times, God is there, listening to our hopes and fears, strengthening us to continue on to the other side. Just as Jacob in our Old Testament reading, we are free to wrestle with God as we try to figure out what the struggles and uncertainties mean – taking our hardest questions, our greatest fears, and our most fervent desires to God in prayer.

I have been living with this sense of prayer in the midst of uncertainty for a number of months. The uncertainty of what would happen with St. Paul’s Emmanuel as money became tighter and tighter. Uncertainty of what would happen with me. The realization that I needed to get out of the way to make room for something new, for a transition to the part-time clergy leadership that the Vestry Council and I had discerned to be the best course for this parish. And those prayers began to look like they might be answered with a call to St. Gregory’s. But it meant waiting. And waiting. And more waiting. And praying. And praying. And more praying. I never prayed for anything so hard or so much in all my life. But I trusted God. And I believed in the power of prayer. In August, about two weeks before I finally found out I was being called to St. Gregory’s, I told my spiritual director that I was beginning to feel like the widow in today’s parable. Badgering God. I wanted this so badly. It would be the best thing in so many ways, I had to make God see that. And the only thing I could do was the keep praying. To be persistent in prayer. In the uncertainty, in the waiting.

And those prayers were answered. As mixes as our feeling may be about it, they were answered in the way they needed to be. For me. And for you.

This being my last Sunday with you, I am painfully aware of separation, yet joyous of that which binds us together. I have chosen not to make my final sermon a long, drawn out good-bye speech, but rather to have it be representative of what my ministry with you and our ministry together have been about – proclaiming the Gospel – proclaiming that which binds us together as children of God. That being said, I would like to share an image that speaks to me about our life together.

Peggy Tabor Millin, in the autobiography of her spiritual journey entitled Mary's Way, casts an image that really speaks to be. She writes:

I was on a train on a rainy day. The train was slowing down to pull into a station. For some reason I became intent on watching the raindrops on the window. Two separate drops, pushed by the wind, merged into one for a moment and then divided again—each carrying with it a part of the other. Simply by that momentary touching, neither was what it had been before. And as each one went on to touch other raindrops, it shared not only itself, but what it had gleaned from the other . . . I realized then that we never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.

Three years ago, the raindrop that is me splashed into the puddle that is St. Paul’s Emmanuel Parish. During the last three years, a few raindrops have blown into our little puddle – joys of new members, of baptisms, of old members returning. Each drop adding to the richness of what was already here. Sadly, other drops have blown away. People moving away, others dying. But even in these departures, each left something of themselves in this place.

When I came to this place, I brought something of those other places I have served: St. Francis in San Bernardino, St. Paul and the Redeemer in Chicago, St. Alban’s in Westwood, and Trinity in Redlands. The experiences I had at those other places informed how I did ministry in this place. And through me, something of those places became part of this place.

In the last three years, we have done some great ministry together. This parish is not the same as when I first came here. Together, we have shaped and refined the identity of this unique place. We have worked together to discern how this parish might live into who God is calling you to be as a parish and to prepare for the next phase of your journey. In our life together, we have worked together and we have had fun together. We have collaborated with each other and we have argued with each other. We have laughed together and we have cried together. Through all of this, you have been loving and supportive of me and my ministry. Hopefully, I have loved and supported you, as well.

Over the last three years, the winds of parish life, sometimes turbulent, sometimes soft and gentle – the winds of the Holy Spirit – have blown this mass of raindrops around, with each of the drops, yours and mine, touching and colliding and mixing. And now, the time has come when the wind of the Holy Spirit once again separates the raindrop that is me from this place. But the raindrop that blew into your midst three years ago is not the same as when it first fell. Because of being touched by and mingling with the many other raindrops in this place, I blow off in a new direction, forever changed, carrying with me, a part of you, and leaving behind, a part of me.

As I leave this place to begin my ministry as rector of St. Gregory’s Church in Long Beach, know that you have prepared me well to take this next step. When I engage in ministry in the future, the way that I enter into it, the way that I engage it, will be informed by my time here as your priest and pastor. A part of you will accompany me. A part of you has become a permanent part of who I am, as a priest, but also as a person, as a child of God. For this, I am eternally thankful. Because of how you have become a part of me, I will be able to share a part of you with those with whom I do ministry in the future. And as you continue on your own path, as a parish, and as individual members of the Body of Christ, know that a part of me will continue to be with you, supporting you, encouraging you, loving you. For in this way, while we may be physically separated, we will continue to be a part of each other’s life and ministry.

No comments: