cjbanning: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension during our service of Morning Prayer, this twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2012.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In Joss Whedon’s 2005 science-fiction film Serenity, the disheveled spaceship captain and smuggler Malcolm Reynolds, who had lost his Christian faith in an interplanetary civil war, kneels down in front of a statue of the Buddha while disguised as a woman and mockingly says, “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a plastic rocket.” This comment is, I think, evocative of the discomfort both Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have with petitionary prayer. After all, isn’t Christianity a religion about selflessness and self-sacrifice and love of neighbor? How could we possibly make that fit with getting down on our knees and giving God our grocery list of needs and wants?

That sentiment might only be intensified over these last few weeks as so many so relatively close to us find themselves without their homes or livelihoods. When they have lost so much, we might be wary to bring our own petty wants before the LORD. I think this is what prompted one of my friends to post as their facebook status:
I don't care if your electricity is restored, please stop praying
- God
I should note this was almost immediately after the hurricane, before the utter seriousness of people going weeks without power made itself clear. But when I objected that I couldn’t imagine God ever saying “please stop praying,” no matter how superficial the subject of the prayers might be, I was told, “but it was still funny.” I’ve listened to friends complain about their mother-in-law’s habit of praying for finding good parking spaces, or their sibling’s prayers for the success of his business. Countless times I’ve encountered critics pointing to two groups of fans of rival sports teams, or rival political candidates, praying to the same God that their respective team will win, as if that was nothing more than an absurdity.

It would be wonderful if we were all perfect people whose only desires were high-minded, for world peace and an end to global poverty. But we’re not perfect people; we’re human beings, our very nature wounded by the reality of sin.

But that’s okay. Because that’s where Jesus Christ, who is a perfect person, the only perfect person, comes in. And because of this, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” This refers, of course, to our ultimate hope, that we will come to share in Christ’s resurrection. But it also applies to all of our little hopes, our petty desires, our secret wishes, our hopes for the future. We approach God as who we are, wanting what we want, and it is a good and rightful thing to put those needs and desires before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. We trust in Jesus to wash us clean.

For me the best example of this is found in Psalm 137, in which the psalmist prays that the heads of babies might be dashed upon the rocks. Clearly, this is not a righteous desire for a person to have. But given the historical context of the psalm, amidst the Babylonian captivity, it is arguably a very human one. And so Scripture provides us with this example set among many examples of how to pray of a person in their human brokenness reaching out to God from within that human brokenness.

The great Hindu activist Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The God who took on our human nature and was born of the Blessed Virgin Mother in order to suffer a painful death on a cross wants to be invited into our suffering, our longing, our weakness. Don’t get me wrong, God is present with us in our suffering whether we extend that invitation or not, whether we are aware of it or not. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t appreciate being given the invitation anyway.

These are the dynamics at work in our Hebrew scripture passage this morning.

By many standards, Hannah had a comfortable life, with a husband who loved and supported her. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her. She wanted a son--a daughter wasn’t good enough!--in order to keep her husband’s other wife from mocking her.

And so, as is good and right, she brought her desire before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. And “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the LORD.’”

No doubt Penninah too prayed to the LORD, asking God that she might earn the love and favor of her husband which had been given to Hannah instead. And yet, unlike Hannah, Penninah did not receive what she had asked for. Indeed, there is a story found in the Jewish midrash which provides a fate even worse for Penninah: “Hannah would give birth to one child, and Peninnah would bury two; Hannah bore four, and Peninnah buried eight. When Hannah was pregnant with her fifth child, Peninnah feared that now she would bury her last two children.”

God did not give Hannah what she asked for and deny Penninah because God loved Penninah any less than Hannah. Nor was it because Hannah knew some special way to pray in order to ensure the result she wanted, to force God’s hand. No, it’s just that, in this fallen world, it’s a simple fact that we don’t always get what we want, no matter how hard we pray, no matter who we are.

And no matter what the Rolling Stones might say, neither do we even always get what we need. Every fifteen seconds, a child dies from hunger-related causes somewhere on Planet Earth. That’s a problem worth praying over. But prayer alone isn’t going to the solve the problem.

Prayer is not a magic spell or a letter to Santa. God is not a genie in a bottle.

Hurricane Sandy did not hit the shores of our region because people didn’t pray hard enough. Nor was it to punish the godlessness of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. Barack Obama was not re-elected President because God likes Democrats better than Republicans. Nor was it to pave the way for the Antichrist, as Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffries suggested before the election.

Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us against this type of superstitious thinking in today’s Gospel passage. The earliest written of the four canonical gospels, St. Mark’s gospel was probably written in the immediate wake of the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple, the center of Jewish life and religion. Like a flood-displaced North Jerseyan or our Texan pastor, the Jewish community found their very world turned upside down and inside out. Part of the evangelist’s task, then, was to help them understand how to make sense of the significance of this sort of event of seeming apocalyptic proportions in terms of their Christian faith and practice. And Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Jesus warns us against those who come in the name of Christ and yet lead many astray, the pastors and pundits who would turn hurricanes into instruments of a wrathful God and elections into the first phase of the apocalypse, who would have us make a false choice between religion and science, who twist and pervert our faith so it stands in opposition to the God-given gift of human reason, who use our scriptures and traditions as weapons with which to bludgeon.

Hurricane Sandy hit our shores because a tropical storm came in contact with a cold front which intensified it and propelled it towards our region. Barack Obama was re-elected President, for better or worse, because he received more votes in the electoral college than did his opponent.

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Christian prayer is not--or at least should not be--an attempt to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want. Instead, it is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God. But equally important is the fact that we need to be open to being transformed ourselves when we pray. This is the very essence of prayer.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
As preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City, at their Morning Prayer service on the 8th of August, 2010. . . .

Proper 14 (Sunday Closest to August 10), Year C

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Many of my friends, including all of my housemates, are members of a nearby congregation operating under the Brethren in Christ, so most Sunday evenings I find myself worshipping with them at their weekly Public Meeting. Their style of worship there is fairly different than ours here; sometimes it seems that they think it is more important for sacred music to be loud than pretty. It’s really not at all my style of worship at all, really, and at times I find myself more alienated than uplifted.

Back during Lent, I was at the public meeting, and I’m surrounded by these energetic figures, fellow twenty-somethings who are just exploding with their love for Christ, and I’m left completely cold. And then I was blessed to look over to my right and I see a married couple I know, about my age, and on the husband’s lap is their then-eight-month-old daughter, gleefully smiling and clapping.

Holy Scripture talks about the hardening and softening of hearts. I think that’s the best way of describing what happened: the Spirit softened my heart. Seeing that baby girl take such innocent joy in worshipping the Lord helped me recenter my focus away from my own own nitpicks about the theology of the lyrics or the aesthetics of the melody, and back towards God.

When I got home, I got on my computer and posted a status update to my Facebook: “Cole Banning has been inspired by the faith of a child.”

It got me thinking about what that means, the faith of a child. The phrase is of course biblical: Jesus tells us in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that it is a necessary condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But what is it, exactly?

Often it seems we use it to mean a totally uncritical acceptance, belief without doubt, so-called “blind faith.” But that’s not what happened in the case of Baby Lydia. Her faith was far from blind. Instead, it was a response to what she saw and heard in front of her. Even as a baby, even prior to her acquisition of language, she was able to recognize the goodness of God’s creation and respond by giving praise to glory to God in the simple ways available to her, by participating in our worship, in what our Psalm today calls “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

I wonder sometimes where that notion of a child’s faith being blind or uncritical comes from. I’m not a parent, but one thing I know about children is that they’re constantly questioning. It’s an iconic image: the young child, incessantly asking “why?” Why this? Why that? And when given an answer, responding to that answer with the question “why?” and if one is willing to answer that too, once again meeting the answer with “why?” unto infinite regress. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” This is not an uncritical faith but rather a faith which seeks to learn, to grow, to challenge what it is told.

In our epistle reading, the author of Hebrews talks about the great faith of Abraham and Sarah and their family. I think that Abraham had the faith of a child. When we think about Abraham, we tend to think about his obedience, obedience which was important and a right and goodful thing. But I think we can appreciate the passage from Hebrews best if we remember that Abraham’s faith was larger than just obedience, a relationship with God that consisted of more than just Abraham following commands.

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures, there is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which the Torah tells us God destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone. The Torah also tells us that Abraham argued with God over the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah: he negotiated, bargained. “Will you save the cities if there are 50 righteous people to be found?” “Will you save the cities if there 45?” “What abouty forty?” Talk about the faith of a child! I’m reminded of a child at a cookie jar: “Can I have a cookie, Mommy? Can I have two cookies? Three? Three and a half?”

Abraham, while always remaining obedient to the will of God, was at the same time willing to challenge God, to question God, in his attempt to understand God’s will.

Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson whom Isaiah also mentions, wrestled with the angel of the LORD at Penuel. When God revealed Godself to Moses, the descendent of Abraham and Sarah and the great leader of Israel who only saw the promised kingdom from afar, Moses too argued. He said, “I don’t think I can do this, God.”

And God said, “Okay, I’ll send your sister and brother with you to help you.” That’s dialogue: a process which consists of both give and take for both persons involved.

Moses constantly negotiated with God on behalf of the people of Israel. Indeed, we think of Sinai as this place where God’s will was committed to human beings, but it’s instructive to remember that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Sinai before he brought down the Decalogue: they had a lot to talk about up there.

Isaiah writes: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.” The underlying metaphor in the Hebrew is that of a law court: Israel is standing trial for its sins. But it presents us with a call to enter into dialogue with God. The Inclusive Bible translates the line as “Let’s look at the choices before you,” while it is rendered in the New American Bible as “let us set things right”: this dialogic encounter with God opens an opportunity for a process of self-discovery that allows us to set order to the way in which we live our lives.

This then is, I think, the picture of authentic Biblical faith which Scripture provides us: a relationship with God which is primarily experiential, rooted in our encounter with the divine: in prayer, in service, and of course in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood -- back next week!

Thomas Merton reminds us that “faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ.”

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff makes a similar point when he writes that “[f]aith is not primarily adhesion to a teaching that gives access to revelation and the supernatural. Then faith would be tantamount to ideology, in the sense of an idea or belief inculcated in someone from the outside. This extrinsic character of so-called faith can give rise to various forms of fundamentalism and religious warfare. All groups tend to affirm their own truths to the exclusion of all others.

“Faith is meaningful and possesses truth only when it represents a response to an experience of God made personally and communally. Then faith is the expression of an encounter with God which embraces all existence and feeling -- the heart, the intellect, and the will.” “Close quote.”

I think this type of response, described by Boff, is the type of response which Jesus describes in our Gospel reading today, being “dressed for action” and having our “lamps lit,” making our treasure in heaven by our works of mercy and charity, through our voluntary poverty. So too in Isaiah when God tells Israel, and us, to cease evil and learn to do good; to seek justice and rescue the oppressed; to defend the orphan and plead for the widow.

This Wednesday is the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. Now, Clare is my favorite capital-S Saint because she’s the patron saint of television, which makes her in an indirect sort of way the patron saint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Clare, who ran away from her aristocratic family to join Saint Francis in his example of God-devoted poverty, also models for us the Gospel call we’ve heard read today.

But let’s be frank: the type of response we hear called for in today’s readings, that we see in the life of Clare, is not one that can come out of obedience alone, a response only to the mere commands of a perceived spiritual authority. All the threats in the world will do no more than compel us to do -- reluctantly -- the very least of what is called of us.

And that’s not good enough. Isaiah tells how the Israelites’ offering of sacrifices and their keeping of festivals brought no delight in God, for the people had turned away from God’s will in spirit.

The radical commitment we’ve heard described is only possible through being transformed by the Spirt so that we may abide in the love of Christ Jesus. This transformation is the legacy of our baptism, but it is not a free ride. Neither is it some massive mystical revelatory encounter where Jesus appears and sets all our doubts to rest. God knows I wouldn’t mind one of those, but it’s not necessary.

No, instead it takes active participation, both by us and by God, in an authentic encounter grounded in the activities of our everyday lives: coming to church on Sunday, listening to Father and meditating on his words--without necessarily always having to agree with them; praying and reading Scripture throughout the week; performing service for all our sisters and brothers and siblings here on planet Earth through our works of mercy and justice-seeking social action; engaging in conversation and discussion with other members of the Body of Christ--a process which should begin at coffee hour but not end there.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We must work to develop our faith lives, to question why we believe what we say we believe and why we do what we do. We cannot be afraid of the difficult questions, or be ashamed of those doubts which are a natural element of a mature faith.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We are called to challenge too-simple truths, to reject fallacious authority, to argue with our God. God does not need or want yes-men and yes-women and yes-persons: God is God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God wants and needs a family of sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ--a communion of saints.

My hope and prayer for us, therefore, is that we may be inspired by the incredible faith of those who have gone before us that we may be empowered to follow the examples of the matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, and saints: that of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, of Clare and Francis, and -- perhaps most of all -- of that annoying little child, incessantly asking . . . “Why?”

Amen.

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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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