Sermon by Dayna Olson-Getty, on Matthew 6:1-18.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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When asked to describe his practices of prayer, the South African Archbishop and anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, said this:
One image that I have of the spiritual life is of sitting in front of a fire on a cold day. We don't have to do anything. We just have to sit in front of the fire and then gradually the qualities of the fire are transferred to us. We begin to feel the warmth. We become the attributes of the fire. It's like that with us and God. As we take time to be still and to be in God's presence, the qualities of God are transferred to us.
This morning we heard from the Sermon on the Mount about the practices of prayer that Jesus commends to those who follow him.
Jesus begins the sermon with his startlingly up-side-down beatitudes, and then continues by naming some of the ways that our human inclinations lead us into cycles of violence, lust, broken relationships, and retaliation. For each of these destructive human cycles, Jesus offers a practical path for a different way of living that creates an opportunity for peace and reconciliation between people. “Seek out your accuser and be reconciled,” Jesus says. “Go the second mile.” “Love your enemies.” In each of these, Jesus gives us practical instructions for relationships with our fellow human beings that allow us to walk toward deliverance, even in the most difficult of relationships.
In the section of the sermon we read together this morning, Jesus shifts to our spiritual practices in relationship to God. Judaism in Jesus’ time taught three major practices for cultivating a spiritual life – prayer, giving alms to the poor, and fasting. These spiritual practices were meant to create space for a deepening relationship with God, and to be tangible ways of remembering and living the reality that God is the creator and sustainer of all of people.
But Jesus warns that even these practices of devotion to God can be used for self-serving and destructive ends. Prayer and fasting and giving to the poor can become ways to meet our need to be recognized and seen as significant by others. And when they do, we lose out on the real rewards of our spiritual practices – a deepening relationship with and communion with God. The danger in performing our spiritual practices publically, Jesus is warning, is that we can end up impressing our neighbors, but missing out on knowing and being transformed by God.
But Jesus has a very concrete, practical way to help us avoid this trap. Don’t do your praying in public, Jesus says. Go into your bedroom – the most intimate and private space in your home, where you spend time to the people closest to you – and close the door. Pray there, where no one else will you see, and you won’t have to worry about your motives. Similarly, when you give to the poor, do it as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, and when you fast, don’t let it be apparent from your appearance.
Jesus seems to take it for granted in his teaching that those who are seeking to live in relationship with God will practice prayer, giving to those in need, and fasting. But I think many of us face a danger that is not directly named here – one that is as much of a problem as practicing piety for social gain. Many of us – myself included – are tempted to skip these practices of inner spiritual life. Maybe because we’ve seen them done for the wrong reasons, or in ways that seem completely disconnected with real life, or maybe because they require serious effort and commitment, or maybe because we just don’t know how to start – many of us are tempted to attempt Jesus’ path of delivering love in our relationships with other people without also practicing a deepening life of devotion to and communion with God.
But Jesus teaches that these practices of deepening relationship with God are at the heart of a life lived in his way. Without them, we will struggle to have the strength and courage and love to live like Jesus. Without them, we face the danger of living entirely out of our own understandings of who we are and what is needed in a given situation. Without them, we risk slipping into thinking that we are responsible to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is heaven. Without them, we risk burning out, becoming cynical, or giving in to despair.
This is a time in our country’s life when many people are focusing on practices of outward resistance to evil and of transformation of relationships. Some of us have marched in the streets, or posted welcome neighbor signs in our yard, or attended community meetings. Many of us are thinking with new intensity about how to practice acts of hospitality and peacemaking and advocacy for the vulnerable in our everyday lives.
Those who have been at this work of seeking to live the way of Jesus in difficult and challenging circumstances for years tell us that a life of prayer is indispensable to a life of action for justice and peace in the way of Jesus.
The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, reflecting on the lives of the prophets, suggests that one of the reasons Jesus encourages us to pray in secret is that we have things we need to discuss with God that are too raw and personal to discuss in polite company. Having it out with God, he suggests, it what will give us what we need to be who we are called to be in our public actions and witness. He writes, “…it is secret prayer that permits energy, freedom, and courage for public ministry. The servants who faithfully show God to the world are those who live in a deep, disputatious conversation with God.”
In other words, if you want to be live a life in the way of Jesus, a life that gives witness to God’s coming kingdom, then spending time in prayer is indispensable. And the kind of conversation you need to have with God in the face of struggle or suffering or injustice is often best prayed without an audience.
The prayer that Jesus is inviting us to practice in not an otherworld piety divorced from real life. The prayer he invites us into is a passionate and honest conversation where we can give voice to our deepest, most urgent, most honest needs, to our longings, rage, disappointment, to our fears, grief, joy, delight. And it’s a conversation where we can become still and hear God’s voice of love, reminding us that we not be afraid, that we are beloved, and that God is already at work in our world, redeeming even the most unredeemable of circumstances. It’s the quiet place where we can find our own perceptions realigned in light of God’s upside down blessings, where we can hear God calling us to counter-intuitive actions of delivering love for our enemies as well as our neighbors. It’s a conversation where we can receive bread for the journey.
So where do we begin, or where do we begin again?
One place to begin is with rest – with soaking up God’s loving presence the way we’d soak up the warmth and beauty of a fire on a cold winter day. We need to hear God’s words of affirmation and love spoken to us as God spoke them to Jesus – “you are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” If you want to start here, find some time to sit in silence and let the noise in your head quiet down. Pray the psalms, or spend time imagining yourself in one of the gospel stories. Pray your gratitude and delight for the gifts and joys of life. Or just listen in silence to God’s companionable presence.
Some of us need to begin with arguing. If that’s you, go ahead and pick a fight with God. Bring your hurt or outrage or fear or despair into conversation with God. Bring an unsolvable problem or an unbearable stress in your life or in the life of the world to God. Ask your hardest questions. Demand an answer. Insist that God be who God has claimed to be. And then listen.
Some of us need to move our bodies in order to have a good conversation. If that’s true of you, you might want to try praying while you walk or run or bike. Or walk a labyrinth or develop a prayerful yoga practice to begin or end your day.
Some of us communicate best when we have the freedom to engage our senses and be creative. If that’s true of you, you might want create a prayer space in your home with objects or pieces of art that help you experience God’s loving presence. Maybe you would pray best by writing your prayers in a journal or by writing and singing your own psalms of lament and hope. A college friend of mine – a visual artist – made a photo book of people and situations she wanted to pray for regularly and used that as her guide. Maybe you need to dance, sing or draw your prayers.
Many of us find we pray best with when we are praying with other followers of Jesus. You may want to use a guide book, such as Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, or Take Our Moments and Our Days –an Anabaptist daily prayer guide. I really like the online audio prayer guides Pray As You Go and Mission St. Clare because they allow me to pray with a guide book while walking or running. Maybe you need a standing weekly appointment to meet a friend for prayer or a regular check-in with your small group about how it’s going with your practicing of prayer.
And if you feel outraged and angry about events in our world, try praying for your enemies. The scholar and activist Christena Cleveland describes gathering some of her seminary students to lament recent injustices in our country. After bringing their grief and anger to God, this group made a list of all they hope for themselves – strong relationships, healthy bodies, satisfying work, loving families – and they prayed these things for the leaders who have implemented the unjust policies and practices they had just lamented.
However you begin, or begin again, know this – God is waiting eagerly, with the table set and fresh, warm bread prepared. This daily feast is meant for you. And this daily bread of God’s loving presence can strengthen, transform, and sustain you, as it did Jesus, as it does Bishop Tutu, as it can do for all of us.
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