Devoting Oneself to Prayer, Sermon 03.13.11

Devoting Oneself to Prayer, Sermon 03.13.11

Acts 1:12-14 and 2:42-47.

So much has changed since the days of the early church. Our world and our lives are so different from biblical times. One might wonder, considering our divergent contexts, if we have the same needs as people back then? Or if the same prescriptions– social or spiritual– still work today?

Back then, women were considered property, and men and women who were neither married nor related, couldn’t be alone together or have anything to do with one another.

Today, we have friendships without too much regard for gender, and women work-wise do everything men do, and earn almost the same money for it…

Back then, only 1% of the population was literate; theirs was an oral culture and in some towns, there was only one male who could read the Torah portion in the synagogue.

Today, 97% of the U.S. population people can read. (It’s startling to realize that 3% of us can’t!) And we live bombarded– with this apparently endless stream of words and ideas coming to us from all over the world on-line.

Back then, people’s life expectancy was much curtailed. It’s hard to know exactly (because much wasn’t written down!). Certainly, the rare individual lived into his or, more likely, her 60s and 70s, or even 80s. But overall the vast majority of the population died much, much earlier. I’ve seen estimates as young as 25-30, and it certainly couldn’t have been past the 40s. (That puts Jesus’ age at his death in a different light, doesn’t it?)

Today? With modern technology, medical conditions that were debilitating or fatal just a generation or two ago can be treated and lived with, or have even been eradicated. The AVERAGE North American now lives to be almost 78 years old.

Back then, traveling was a very slow, artduous process involving much hardship. Mary and Joseph’s trip from Nazareth by donkey and foot would have taken 5 to 7 days. Today, in the comfort of one’s car, and with highway all the way, it would take a little over an hour.

Likewise, most people in biblical times never left the town of their birth, except to go up to Jerusalem to the Temple. Today, people travel half way around the world for a 4 day business meeting. I have one friend who’s whole work life seems to be waiting in airports for the next flight.

Back then, Israel was a backwater colony of the Roman Empire. In its whole history, actually, it has been mostly a vulnerable nation, surrounded, in the middle of stronger, often hostile neighbors who marched back and forth across it or used it as they wished.

Today, in the U.S., we are more like Imperial Rome than oppressed, impoverished, outlying Israel.

These are just some examples of differences between an ancient, pre-industrial Hebrew civilization and our post-modern technological world.

With these distances between their lives and ours, we might be a bit more understanding when secular neighbors question if church is relevant anymore?
We might not be so surprised with questions, even are own!, about whether the Bible, even as sacred ancient Scripture, has anything to say, to offer to our day?”

Are even WE sure that the life style suggestions the bible or our faith recommend make sense any more?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. It’s apropos, central to covenant ministry and our revitalization efforts. What do we have to offer or add to the lives of contemporary men and women?

I’ve also been thinking about this question more specifically in the last few weeks as I’ve been looking forward to this lenten sermon series on prayer.

Prayer along with almsgiving (voluntary contributions to aid the poor) and abstinence (giving up something) are the traditional disciplines of the Lenten season. They, we are taught, prepare us spiritually for Easter.

What then is prayer?

We might answer such a question by naming its outward appearances. The positions we assume, or a manner we adopt: hands held together, or kneeling, or bowed heads. My favorite, when I used to ride the subway everyday was silence with moving lips, followed sometimes by a soft “amen.”

Visitors without much church experience notice these more and in greater detail than those of us so accustomed to our ritual habits that we take them for granted, or at face value.

There’s this mean trick about first time visits to church: even if you sit down right between two people who are also here for the first time, it feels like everyone but you, uniformly, has been there their whole lifetimes, understands every nuance, and has a faith as deep as Jesus’. The poor newcomers to church, especially ones who didn’t grow up with prayer at the dinner table, they often ask me, “What’s really happening when you say, ‘Let us pray?’”

It seems they imagine everyone else in the sanctuary is suddenly transported to heaven by some incredible experience, a miracle of biblical proportions, some extra-sensory, out of body spirituality that they as the newcomer, an outsider can’t quite fathom, much less access.

Maybe some of us are! But not everyone all the time.

Beloved, whether you are here every Sunday, or you are here for the very first time (still trying to figure out the ins and outs of what worship is all about), there’s no reason to feel left out. Or out of place. Somehow unincluded or uninitiated. Sometimes, I wish I could ask the regulars who on any one Sunday are experiencing less than spiritual ecstasy… or maybe are feeling a bit left out yourselves, I wish I could ask you all to raise their hands to reassure our visitors.

Instead, I answer their question “what’s really happening when we pray” by reassuring them of our diversity, even when it comes to our prayer lives or our experience of them over time:

“All kinds of things are happening,” I say. “More than we can see or imagine. But not all that you fear.

Some people are just looking down and waiting for the prayer time to be over.
Others are composing a to-do list, or a shopping list for the grocery after church.
Some are enjoying a pause and the peace of some silence.
Others might be worrying, like you newcomers, that everyone else has something deep going on, that somehow they’re missing out.
Others are wondering how anyone really believes prayer makes a difference. Or how it could?
Others are practicing in that short time their transcendental or buddhist or their own variation of meditation.
Some people are wishing they believed more, or wishing they could pray.
Some people are praying at a clip, or at least talking in their minds, filling up every second with all they have to tell God– sometimes so God can do a better job here on out, and get it right.
Some people are slowly stumbling, silently hesitating if you will, trying to form and share a word with God.
Others, like the tax collector, can say a heartfelt, or maybe heart-sick, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner.’
Others are waiting, patiently or not, maybe even learning forward or straining on a word from God, or on occasion hearing it.

In short, there’s no one thing happening, no one right thing to happen when we pray.”

But I begin this sermon series by suggesting our diversity of attitudes, styles, forms, and experience of prayer doesn’t undercut the scriptural picture of a life devoted to prayer. Don’t fool yourself for a moment that prayer isn’t a relevant, helpful or practical way to live your life.

In the first passage, notice; Jesus has ascended; Judas is being replaced by Mattias, and in midst of all this warp and woof, the disciples are, nonetheless, joined together constantly in prayer.

In the second reading: the early Christians are defined by their devotion to what they did together. Some of what is defining are specific activities — at Old First, we’d call it “community life — occasional things one needs to set time aside for. Gathering at church for worship this morning, doing good works, like the Saturday cupboard yesterday, meeting in each others’ homes as the Northwest Neighborhood Group will this evening, sharing meals as we will next Wednesday before the lenten devotion. Studying the apostle’s teaching. Breaking bread and sharing the cup.

But beyond these specific activities we are to add to our already busy schedules, there are also the overarching constancies we’re called to. Or at least the standards the early Christians aimed to live by. Not so much separate, individual items you might tick off your to-do list. More the generalities that undergird a Christian way of life, an approach that embraces and informs, transforms everything else.

Included in this bigger, less distinct class are “living out the Gospel,” “witnessing to your faith,” “holding all things in common,” “sharing resources according to others’ needs,”and praying constantly. Not so much definable activities as commitments to which and by which and through which the early Christians practiced their devotion.

Devoting oneself to prayer, a life lived out in prayer — no matter where you stand on the form or practice, rationality, and efficacy of prayer — is basic to our faith.

It’s not insisting you have to pray one way or another. Or that you have to hold a certain understanding or belief in prayer. It’s no demand that you keep a prayer list. Or set aside 20 minutes each day. Or clean out a prayer closet. It’s not one more thing to do.

And it’s not some 24/7 occupation either, like leaving your whole life behind, taking on Benedictine or Trappist orders and becoming Thomas Merton.

It’s not “oh, yeah, almost forgot, it’s Lent, I can’t watch Lettermen, because the pastor said I should pray instead.”

All those specifics can be helpful, because in our flesh and bone, hours and minutes world, without specificity, we often aren’t about anything that makes a difference.

But, on this one, faith is not telling you how you have to do it. Rather, faith suggests you want to pray. Make a commitment. Devoting oneself to prayer. Do all that you do with God. Devoting oneself to prayer is still doing all that you do, but in a different way. It’s much more radical. To do it all, but never alone. Never disconnected. Instead, remembering that God is with you all along, closer than your next breath.

Devoting yourself to prayer is a way to watch Lettermen with God.
And a way to sleep through the night knowing God’s with you. And a way to get up in the morning and get ready for work. a way to brush your teeth keeping God and the things of God ever before you, in heart and mind, spirit and body.

Devoting oneself to prayer is the way to get through that touchy conversation you have to have without getting cut off. It’s how to pass your lunch hour whether you are at a big raucous table or seeming to be alone. Devoting oneself to prayer is a way to stop off at the store and pick up a few groceries after work in a world where some people are starving. A way to make dinner when you can’t feed everyone. It’s the context for your call to check on your sick friend. Or even the way you go about doing laundry so you are sure you have something to wear tomorrow.

Devoting oneself to prayer is no separate, definably different activity. Instead, it is remembering, living out your spiritual commitment– that in all that you do, you are going to stay in communication, in touch with God. It’s offering up, sharing your activities and your motivations and your mediations and your reactivities to God constantly, all along life’s way, at every twist and turn. No more secrets. Staying in touch, in conversation. Not a monologue in your head, but living in dialogue with God.

Devotion is dedicating yourself, giving yourself wholeheartedly to living a life in partnership, walking, breathing, living with God. Devoting is –this is really bad etymology, but works audibly– it’s voting with your whole life that you mean to go with God, vaya con Dios.

Let me end with a very personal, honest, even stark example of how this all works:

Last week I was having trouble with someone in my family. Someone who was getting on my nerves, with whom I’d had it about up to here. I was at the end of my rope. Disappointed. Frustrated in ways I had come to expect. How could this other person be like this? We’d been through it so many times before. It’s always the same interaction. The same difficulty.

It was so bad, I just wanted to write the person off. Dismiss him as hopeless. Throw my hands up, give up, walk away, let him go as unredeemable.

Not proud of it, that’s where I was. Until it occurred to me that I should pray about this.

I, like some of you, wonder, even doubt what or how prayer changes things. I guess my faith is stronger that it changes me– in prayer, whatever the situation, at the least, I’m recognizing I’m not alone, or in charge of everything. I’m asking for help.

So I took or offered this one with whom I was on the outs to God in prayer.

And a wonderful thing happened. Immediately, I suddenly wasn’t so sure or right anymore. Or able to judge and dismiss. Who was I to go of a brother, when I know God is like a father prodigal in his love, like a mother seeking her lost child, who goes on hoping, trying, loving.

Having to share with God a brother who I had been experiencing as impossibly difficult, I suddenly couldn’t so easily tell my side of the story as if it was God’s whole truth. My understanding didn’t have such assurance and self-sufficiency any longer. Maybe I’m not only a victim. Maybe I have some responsibility. Need to work on myself.

In conversation with God, my understanding was suddenly bigger, and a bit more compassionate. At the least, once I was in dialogue with God, I couldn’t ask God to treat this other like I would if I were God!

In the end, I prayed for help and for my patience, understanding and forgiveness for my bother… and for me.

A life in prayer makes a difference and can change situations and us. Amen.

Preached by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.