Sermon for July 27, 2014: It’s Hard
Please be seated.
The other day my husband came home really irritated. He rides his bike to work and on his way home a teenager threw a full cup of soda out a car window at him. “I was,” he said, “tempted to ride up to them at the next red light, take a picture of their license plate and turn them in to the cops – but then I thought I should be able to ignore it. And then I thought that then they’d get away with it and do it again. And then I thought I should be able to forgive them. But then they turned the corner so I couldn’t catch them anyway. Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done.”
I don’t know what I would have done either – because while I can tell you that theoretically ignoring the slights of others, praying for your enemies – doing what Christians call “turning the other cheek” – is the right thing– the truth is, it’s really hard sometimes. Consider the person who bypasses a line of ten people and goes straight to the front without a backward glance. The person at work who habitually claims the credit for the ideas of others. And that frustrating person who causes you hours of anxiety simply by failing to return your phone call. Granted, these are all small annoyances, and many of us tell ourselves that we’re being petty if we stew over them, but these little frustrations add up and, if you’re like me, you have days when it seems like it would be easier to remove the calories from chocolate and establish world peace than to let go of your irritation. It’s just so hard sometimes.
So, how do we do it? First of all, we have to ask for help. Look at Solomon. In today’s first lesson, God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him what gift he wants God to give him. Somewhat famously, Solomon asks for wisdom rather than riches or the lives of his enemies. Now, I learned about Solomon in Sunday School, where he was held up as an example of how we should value brains over beauty and brawn; told how wise little Solomon was to ask to be smart instead of rich; and reassured that he didn’t actually cut a baby in half (but that’s another story). These are all good lessons I suppose – except it turns out that there is a little more to today’s story than our Arch Books suggested.
First of all, when this exchange between God and Solomon took place, Solomon was not really “a little child” – he was probably in his early 20s. By calling himself a little child, he was identifying his ability level – not his age. He was admitting to God that he was inexperienced and naïve and needed wisdom – not just in order to rule wisely in the future but because he had already committed some pretty serious sins. You see, in order to ascend to the throne Solomon took the lives of several of his enemies – including one of his older brothers. So, in asking God for wisdom, Solomon demonstrated humility. He was admitting that even though he hadn’t been king long, he’d already behaved pretty badly. By requesting the gift of wisdom, he demonstrated that he recognized what he did – and did not – need. Solomon’s kingdom was already blessed with riches, but he didn’t know how to use his blessings – so he asked for help. And God respected his humility and gave him what he asked for– but only because Solomon asked for just what he needed and because it served God’s purpose to give it to him.
So, how do we know what we should ask for when we pray? How do we know how to use our prayers in God’s service? Because as far as I’m concerned, knowing the difference between what we want and what we need, discerning between what we should and should not pray for, also seems pretty hard. Maybe it helps to know that this is not a new problem. St. Paul told the Romans almost two thousand years ago that they did not know how to pray as they ought. Maybe that’s because they had some of the same concerns that we do about what we need – and do not need – to pray for.
I know many devout and generous people who pray fervently for others, but do not feel comfortable praying for themselves or asking others to pray for them. I also know quite a few people who pray, as a friend of mine puts it, for the blue gumball instead of the red one. I think many of us find this second type of prayer selfish and trivial, but how do we know this? Why shouldn’t we pray for all of our needs and wants – and for those of others – without regard to our perception of their importance? Is it because we don’t believe that God will intervene directly on our behalf if our wishes are too shallow? Or that God is too busy dealing with wars and disease and famine to care about whether we get a job promotion? Or can it be because we believe, as St. Paul encourages us to, that our prayers have already been answered? And what if that’s true? What happens if we believe that our prayers are answered before we make them? Should we just stop praying?
I don’t think so – because I do not believe that the primary function of prayer is to ask God for things – even if, like Solomon, we as for them humbly and use them wisely. I believe that that kind of “asking” – or “intercessory” prayer – is extremely important – and I believe it works. I only have to think how many of us have benefited from the Healing Prayer Ministry right here at Christ Church to know that’s true. But I have also experienced times when my petitions have not been granted the way I had hoped. I think we all have. But I don’t believe that those disappointments were about God teaching me a lesson or making me stronger. And I don’t believe that my prayers weren’t answered because God wasn’t listening. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in the power of prayer. What I believe is that the strength of prayer is not in its product, but in its practice.
I have come to believe is that prayer is a channel through which I can access that place – or feeling – or sensation – whatever you choose to call it –where I feel the presence of God. And in that presence –only in that presence, do I fully recognize and embrace the gift of God’s ultimate salvation. Praying allows me to experience just an inkling of what it means to be immersed in God’s presence, and I can begin to see where my own humble prayers fit into the scope of that power. Because they do fit. I believe that our prayers are part of a beautiful babble of human voices that collectively cries out to God in fear, and lamentation, and desire – but also with gratitude – and joy – and it is with joy that God answers.
I believe that it is this prayerful connection to God that inspired St. Paul to declare to his followers that no matter what happened to them, no matter how painful life became, no matter what kind of grief or sorrow or discrimination they endured, they would be glorified. And we will be glorified with them. Regardless of who upsets or annoys us, regardless of our anxiety over our inability to “turn the other cheek,” regardless of our fear that we are not praying “the right way,” we must remember that Jesus is – as the 1928 Prayer Book says, “our…mediator and advocate.” Paul’s words comfort us in the knowledge that no matter what others have done to us, no matter what we have done to others, no matter what happens in our lives, at the end of this age we will take our places in God’s kingdom – even if we’re not quite sure what that means.
Over the course of the last few weeks our gospel readings have followed Jesus as he has tried to explain the nature of the kingdom of God to his disciples.
As today’s gospel suggests, they had difficulty grasping the construct. I can understand why – because based solely on this week’s news it’s much easier to identify what the kingdom of heaven is not like than what it is. The kingdom of heaven is not like what is happening in Gaza. The kingdom of heaven is not like the destruction of the Malaysian airlines jet. The kingdom of heaven is not about troops marching on children. And yet, as Paul tells us, these things do not separate us from the love of Christ – or from one another. These things do not allow us to judge other people. These things do not allow others to judge us. These things simply are – and in Paul’s mind it is not what our circumstances are, but the fact that God is able to triumph over them that matters. That doesn’t mean that Paul thinks that trial and tribulation are necessarily good for us – only that God’s will is victorious despite them.
“The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “is like a mustard seed.” “The kingdom of heaven,” he tells us, “is like yeast.” “The kingdom of heaven,” he proclaims, “is like buried treasure.” The kingdom of heaven, in other words, is not what you might expect. We may feel like the kingdom of heaven is hidden from us. The kingdom of heaven may seem too hard to reach. The kingdom of heaven may seem too long to wait. But Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is not there and then. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven can be here and now. Jesus says that when we are one with him and with one another the kingdom of heaven is in us and it is great and full and joyful. The kingdom of heaven is not the place where we are able to achieve justice against those who harm us. The kingdom of heaven is not the place where the “right” side wins. The kingdom of heaven is not the place where our petitions are fulfilled as we see fit. It is the place where we do not need to worry about how we pray, because our prayers are already answered. It is the place where our desires and God’s will become one. It is the place where our prayers are part of the great shout of humanity that demonstrates our humility in the face of God’s goodness. The kingdom of heaven is the place where we are able not only to forgive – not only to live with – not only to treat as we would like to be treated – but to love those with whom we struggle- and in God’s kingdom, that will not be hard at all. AME N.
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