Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say July 28? 7th after Pentecost


    Hosea 1:2-10 has provoked much conflicting commentary. Did God really tell Hosea to marry a prostitute? Or did he marry in good hope, but then her later infidelity, in retrospect, led him to see God using his experience to reveal how God feels about Israel? What sort of woman was she anyhow? I do wonder, with such texts, if they speak to the preacher about the carnage in personal life that can impact your ministry. And then Psalm 85 takes us from inappropriate, tragic intimacy to the loveliest, most picturesque kind of affection – when “righteousness and peace kiss each other.” I’ve tried preaching on this – but the vivid beauty of the line is so much greater than my paltry words.

     Colossians 2:6-19 continues this eloquent epistle’s soaring Christological assessment of Jesus and his implications for us. We “continue to live in him” – and the verb literally means “walk.” As we walk around, we are in him, he is in us – or I think of Pasolini’s wonderful film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” where Jesus is always walking somewhere, striding purposefully and urgently, the disciples struggling to keep up, as he teaches, looking back over his shoulder.

   This text reminds us that there are two parallel stories, two plots unfolding all the time: the obvious story of the world you see in the news and as you look around, but the other a hidden, elusive but certain narrative that unfolds unseen, entirely at odds with the other story, leading to God and goodness and redemption. The secret is not being deluded or diverted by the first story. William Temple famously said the world is like a shop window into which some devious person has sneaked at night and switched all the pricetags around. The lunacy of life is that we spend ourselves then on what has little value, missing the precious stuff.

    The paradox of the God story reaches its climax in the cross. The powers seem to have done him in and showed who’s boss. But from Colossians’s perspective, Jesus was dis-arming the powers, making a public spectacle of them. Like “That’s all you’ve got?” Or “This is where evil and the world wind up.” The striking image of nailing the law and its demands to the cross bears much reflection. I love Austin Farrer’s wisdom: “What, then, was done to this body? It was stripped, scourged, and nailed to a cross: stripped of all dignity and all possession, scourged with the stroke of penal justice, and nailed up like a dead thing while it was still alive. The body you receive in this sacrament accomplished its purpose by nailing to a tree. You are to become this body, you are to be nailed: nailed to Christ's sacrificial will. The nails that hold you are God's commandments, your rules of life, prayers, confessions, communions regularly observed. Let us honour the nails for Christ's sake, and pray that by the virtue of his passion they may hold fast.”

    Luke 11:1-13 captures the disciples’ best request of Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” They had overheard and observed Jesus’ intimacy with God, Abba, and wanted in on it. I suspect our people want and need, above all else, to learn to pray, how to talk to God; like Paul, they are dimly aware that “We do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). We know prayer gets winnowed down into 911 panicked calls for health assistance.  

     Bonhoeffer’s wisdom here is unforgettable: “The phrase ‘learning to pray’ sounds strange to us.  If the heart does not overflow and begin to pray by itself, we say, it will never ‘learn’ to pray.  But it is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself. For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicings – all of which the heart can do by itself – with prayer… Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty.”

     Bonhoeffer used a helpful analogy. Children do not just know how to talk. Rather, “The child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns the speech of his father.” So it is as we learn to pray. And the child must be shaped and molded in ways that may not suit the child’s immediate desires. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” Or as C.S. Lewis put in, “In prayer we lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” 

     Luke 11 begins with The Lord’s Prayer, well worth much explication, or a series of classes. Here is a little email series on it I sent out a few years back. Use it if you’d like. How different is this prayer from our usual praying! It’s about God more than me and my wishes – which get undermined, if Huxley was right in saying “Thy kingdom come means My kingdom go.” “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven” will leave us plenty to do, making heavenly realities happen here and now. The reflexive forgiveness requirement is haunting, and bears repeating every few minutes in our rancorous culture.

    Having supplied this prayer as a good sample, Jesus continued with a story of a man banging on his friend’s door at midnight, demanding bread. George Buttrick once described prayer as “beating on Heaven’s door with bruised knuckles in the dark.” Persistence in prayer will be hard for us in our “quick” culture, where speed and efficiency are everything, where we press a button and stuff gets delivered to your door. Prayer is not quick. Pray is not efficient. Communion with God isn’t won in fifteen seconds.

     The preachers should acknowledge that “Ask and it will be given you” is more discouraging than hopeful – as it fosters the illusion that “prayer works.” If it works, it doesn’t work very well – and people are grateful when pastor acknowledges what every Christian knows all too well. C.S. Lewis can help us: “The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. ‘Work’: as if it were magic, or a machine – something that functions automatically. Prayer is either a sheer illusion, or else it is a personal contact between incomplete persons (ourselves) and the one utterly concrete Person (God). Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it. Confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us.”


   Same as in human relationships. My wife’s value isn’t in whether my requests to her “work.” A healthy marriage, like prayer, hinges on spending time together, listening, going places, discerning what she might want, loving each other, loving others. You have to love Jesus’ clever wording: fathers know how to give good gifts to their children – and so our heavenly father knows how to give… what? Good gifts? No: the Holy Spirit! God’s presence: that’s the answer to prayer, the point of prayer, the dream of all who pray. It’s all love – as Madeleine L’Engle explained so movingly. Over a long weekend, she and her husband Paul were waiting on his biopsy result. She kept praying, “Please, dear God, don’t let it be cancer.” Someone suggested that her prayer was invalid: it already either was or wasn’t malignant. But she said, “I can’t live with that. I think the heart overrides the intellect and insists on praying. If we don’t pray according to the needs of the heart, we repress our deepest longings. And so I pray as my heart needs to pray.” Later, after the cancer was pronounced terminal, she wondered if her prayers had been wasted.  But she concluded, rightly: “Prayer is love, and love is never wasted. Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to these prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hands outstretched to receive them, like precious pearls.”

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