This sermon is set up as a dialogue between the preacher and the congregation who respond with song and observations. Some technical difficulties – so the video does not begin until Part III – a rough transcript is provided of the missing video sections. I am indebted to the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong, especially his new book “Unbelievable”
Part 1 We worship as we live
in the midst of the MYSTERY we call God,
a MYSTERY that IS LOVE.
May the Spirit of LOVE
breathe wisdom and passion
into this gathering.
On this the fifth Sunday in Lent, let us continue to repent: repent from the Greek metanoia – think new thoughts. Let us think new thoughts about prayer. Let our repentance begin with a story from the anonymous gospel-story-teller we know as Luke:
“One day Jesus was praying, and when he had finished, one of the disciples asked, “Rabbi, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say, ‘Abba God, hallowed be your Name! May your reign come. Give us today tomorrow’s bread. Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who sins against us; and don’t let us be subjected to the test.’”
Not much of a prayer. No flowery words. Not much passion. Very plain. Very simple. There’s a part of me that wants to say to Jesus, “Is that all there is?” “Is that the best you can come up with?” What kind of teacher are you? What kind of prayer is this? Come on Jesus put a little ump in your work! Show us some razzle-dazzle!
Of all the questions I am asked as a pastor, questions about prayer are the most common. People what to know how it is done. As unsatisfactory as I have always found Jesus’ teaching about prayer, I’m pretty sure that the answers I have offered have been even more unsatisfactory. I remember once, a wise teacher asked a room full of eager prospective pastors to try to imagine this story about Jesus in a new way. Imagine Jesus, John the Baptist’s younger and cousin, always competing with his older cousin for followers. John was pretty good as fire and brimstone preachers go. People would flock out to the desert to hear John call people to “Repent!” to think new thoughts! Imagine how miffed you would be if some potential parishioners showed up on a Sunday morning touting the preaching of your colleague down the street. Pastor so and so, she sure can preach up a storm and her prayers, wow, if only you could teach us to pray like she prays. Come on, Pastor, teach us to pray.
Our wise professor asked us to consider the possibility that Jesus reluctantly taught his disciples how to pray. Like any good teacher, Jesus would have known that if you teach your students something you run the risk of them believing that they always have to do that something just the way you taught them. There is always the risk that people will mistake an example for a template. Our wise teacher cautioned us not to read just the words that were on the page but to imagine the story behind and between the words on the page. “Rabbi, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” “All right!” Jesus said, “All right if you insist.” Try this, Abba God, hallowed be your name! May your reign come. Give us today Tomorrow’s bread. Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who sins against us; and don’t let us be subjected to the Test.”
It was just an example. Sadly, the example became a template. Then one follower, told another follower, who told another, who wrote it down. Trouble was it wasn’t much, so the church types, they added some fancy words to the end, “for thine is the kingdom, The power, and the glory, For ever and ever. Amen.” and suddenly, it is a template for all time. Repent! Metanoia – think new thoughts! Teach us to pray!
Repent – Metanoia – “to think new thoughts.” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts. Let our repentance, our new thoughts flow from a story told decades after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; a story written down sometime around the turn of the first century by an anonymous gospel-story-teller that we know as John. This John is quite the storyteller and paints quite the picture of Jesus as the kind of teacher who can draw a crowd and annoy the authorities. This John, wrote it this way:
“Jesus spoke these words while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Many of his disciples remarked, “We can’t put up with this kind of talk! How can anyone take it seriously?” Jesus was fully aware that the disciples were murmuring in protest at what he had said. “Is this a stumbling block for you?” Jesus asked them. “What, the, if you were to see the Chosen One ascend to where the Chosen One came from? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh in itself is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. Yet among you there are some who don’t believe.” Jesus knew from the start, of course, those who would refuse to believe and the one who would betray him. Jesus went on to say: “this is why I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by Abba God.”
From this time on, many of the disciples broke away and wouldn’t remain in the company of Jesus. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Are you going to leave me, too?” Simon Peter answered, “Rabbi, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe; we’re convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
“To whom shall we go?” During this season of Lent we have been engaged in the practice of “Giving up God for Lent.” We have tried to give up all the images of God that we once treasured so much that we can to worship those images as idols. We have embraced the truth about the ways in which our evolving knowledge of the cosmos together with our evolving understanding of what it means to be human…all this evolving knowledge and understanding have shown the idols that we had become so comfortable worshipping as but pale imitations of the ultimate MYSTERY that lies at the very core of reality.
We have tried to unpack some of the ways in which the god we created is too small, too limited, and far too capricious to ever fully encompass the MYSTERY that we call God. We have tried attempted to peer beyond our personifications of the Divine so that we can begin to give up our desire to mold and shape the MYSTERY into our own image. To those of us who have peered beyond the beyond, for hints of the MYSTERY there comes more than a little grief. Like the disciples in the gospel-story-teller’s story, “We can’t put up with this kind of talk!” Bereft of the personified, far away, sky-god we’d come to know, to love, and to worship, is it any wonder that we now cry out, “To whom shall we go?”
The reality that once you give up the notion that God is some far-away sky-god, willing to respond to our prayers, to do our bidding, or not to do our bidding as this sky-god wills, then, “to whom shall we go?” You can talk and teach all you want about progressive Christianity, but, “to who shall we go?” “Now, how are we supposed to pray?” “Now, to whom shall we pray?” “What is prayer anyway?” “To whom shall we go?” “Now, teach us to pray!” Repent. Metanoia. Think new thoughts!
Repent:Metanoia: “to think new thoughts” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts. Giving Up God for Lent, we began our Lenten repentance way back on the First Sunday of Lent, by turning our attention to the first religious response. The response of awe and wonder at the nature of reality. That awe humbles us, opens us to the truth that we are part of something so much bigger than we can even begin to imagine. So, to bring us back to the first religious response, I offer you all of these lovelies. I can’t tell you the names of all these lovelies, so let me just begin by drawing your attention to the astonishing array of yellow. There is an old Hebrew expression: deanu which translates as “enough”. It would have been enough just to have a daffodil. Daffodils in and of themselves are quite simply, awesome!
Sacred Conversation on the beauty of Nature
Now, we could offer up…and I do mean up…we could resort to the old ways…and offer up a prayer of thanksgiving for the awesome beauty before us…or we could take a deep breath and repent…metanoia…think new thoughts and realize that this conversation in and of itself is prayer. It is in this conversation that the meaning of God was shared between us; it was in this conversation that the boundaries we humans erect to keep ourselves safe from the threat of another were transgressed and we shared our common humanity. It is in the sacred conversations where we are able to cross the boundaries and be vulnerable to one another that prayer emerges in our midst.
I chose these lovelies as an example, because nature provides us with a non-threatening example of our common humanity; for who among us is not awestruck by such loveliness. But I could have chosen any aspect of our common humanity – a pain we all share, a fear that haunts us, a joy that inspires us, a passion that delights us, or a longing that drives us. It is in the sacred conversation in which we share our experiences of our common humanity that prayer emerges; the conversation is holy, for in our common humanity our shared divinity is revealed.
Our friend Jack Spong insists that, “To be able to live the meaning of prayer, rather than just to “pray”’ ought to be our goal. Jack writes that, “Prayer is the sharing of being, the sharing of life and the sharing of love.” For, prayer is, “far more about “being” than it is about “doing.” Repent….metanoia…think new thoughts.
Repent – Metanoia – “to think new thoughts” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts. In the decades that followed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, somewhere around the year 52, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the community of people known as followers of the Way that gathered in Thessaloniki. Our gospel today is found in the first letter of Thessalonians, St. Paul writes: “ We ask you, sisters and brothers, to respect hose who labour among you, who have charge over you in Christ as your teachers. Esteem them highly, with a special love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. We urge you, sisters and brothers, to warn the idlers, cheer up the fainthearted, support the weak, and be patient with everyone. Make sure that no one repays one evil with another. Always, seek what is good for each other—and for all people. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks for everything—for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not stifle the Spirit; do not despise the prophetic gift.
But test everything and accept only what is good. Avoid any semblance of evil. May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness. May you be preserved whole and complete—spirit, soul, and body—irreproachable at the coming of our Saviour Jesus the Christ. The One who calls us is trustworthy: God will make sure it comes to pass. Sisters and brothers, pray for us.
Greet all the sisters and brothers with a holy kiss. My orders, in the name of Christ, are that this letter is to be read to all the sisters and brothers. The grace of our Saviour Jesus Christ be with you.” The Gospel of Christ…
Repent – Metanoia – “to think new thoughts” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts. We have heard the words of the Apostle Paul. Now, let us hear the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong. Our friend Jack writes: “Before prayer can be made real, our understanding of God, coupled with our understanding of how the world works, must be newly defined. Before prayer can have meaning, it must be built on an honest sharing of life. Before prayer can be discussed in the age in which we live, it must be drained of its presumed manipulative magic. It must find expression in the reality of who we are, not in the details of what we do… Prayer is not and cannot be a petition from the weak to the all-powerful One to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Prayer does not bend God’s will to a new conclusion. Prayer does not bring a cure where there is no possibility of a cure. Prayer does not create miracles to which we can testify publicly.”
I hear you Jack, but I cannot help but respond, “To whom shall we go?” I miss the far-away-sky-god! I want my comforter. Like every other human who has come before me, I long to reach out and connect in some way with the MYSTERY, that something that is so much bigger than I can begin to imagine, that something bigger that we are part of. How do I experience that? How do I share in the MYSTERY?
Our friend Jack writes: “Is prayer, as we have traditionally defined it, a holy activity, or is prayer the preparation for a time of engaging in a holy activity? “Increasingly,” writes Jack, “I am moving to the latter conclusion.” Prayer is the preparation for a time of engaging in holy activity. “It is life that is holy. It is love that is life-giving. Having the courage to be all that I can be is the place where God and life come together for me. If that is so, are not living, loving, and being the essence of prayer and the meaning of worship? When Paul enjoined us to “pray without ceasing”, did he mean to engage in the activity of praying unceasingly? Or did he mean that we are to see all of life as a prayer, calling the world to enter that place where life, love and being reveal the meaning of God? Is Christianity not coming to the place where my “I” meets another’s “Thou,” and in that moment God is present?”
Jack’s questions, our questions, move us beyond our child-like notions of prayer to a deeper, more mature awareness of the reality that the MYSTERY is revealed in the prayers that emerge when we move beyond the boundaries of decorum, to traverse the landscape of our common humanity. When we share the wonders of life and love with another, we are engaged in prayer so sacred that the MYSTERY is revealed. For it is in our shared humanity that our own Divinity is revealed and the LOVE that is God emerges and takes on flesh and dwells among us. I no longer pray expecting miracles to occur, or lives to be changed, or for reality to bend to my will. I do pray expecting that I will be changed, made a little more whole perhaps, set free to share my life more deeply with others, empowered to love beyond the boundaries erected by my fears. I pray trusting that in the sharing of our humanity our divinity is revealed as the MYSTERY that we call God emerges and takes on flesh and dwells among us.
As our friend Jack puts it, “Prayer to me is the practice of the presence of God, the act of embracing transcendence and the discipline of sharing with another the gifts of living, loving, and being.”