Monday, April 13, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Words Wrought as Iron"

Matthew 6:5-15

“When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 6 But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. 7 “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. 

9 Pray like this: Our Father who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name. 10 Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. 11 Give us the bread we need for today. 12 Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us. 13 And don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. 14 “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.  (Common English Bible)

“The Son of Man: When Poetry Testifies to Christ,” Week One

Back in December of last year, just a few days before Christmas, I told a most remarkable story, a story many of you may remember.  It was a story about a young woman of only 19 years of age who, though being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, had managed to still play basketball for at least a few games for the college she had committed to, Mount Saint Mary’s in Ohio.  Mount Saint Mary’s even received a special dispensation from the NCAA to move up their season opener in order to give her more opportunities to get into a game before the tumor became too debilitating (the opener, by the by, was against the Disciples affiliated school Hiram College, who enthusiastically agreed in order to give her a chance to play).  She even relearned how to shoot the basketball with her left hand because of the tumor’s effect on her control of her previously dominant right hand.

And in so doing, young Lauren Hill became a powerful inspiration for many, many people.  LeBron James raved about her on Twitter.  Athletes and journalists across the country wrote to her.  And she managed to raise literally hundreds of thousands of dollars for brain cancer research.

And then, just two days ago, early on the morning of Friday, the 10th of April, five months and a week after that monumental season opener against Hiram College, Lauren Hill died.

But I, at least, cannot forget her.  Nor, I reckon, could or will a great many other people.  And that is a testament to the profound power that comes from the unadulterated force of personality and will, something that we have found so utterly compelling in others for, really, as long as we have existed.  And that sheer force of personality, even in one long gone, is so compelling to us that their words and deeds remain in the most potent data storage unit ever made: our memories.

And out of that memory comes, in one man from Lebanon’s life, a vast store of poetry testifying to the teaching, healing, dying, and rising Christ.

This is a new sermon series for us, to begin a not too terribly new is a week old, at least: Easter.  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

As a part of my own work and ministry in proclaiming to the world a risen Savior, this sermon series will take a new tack for me: talking with all of you about Jesus as He is revealed in poetry, of all things.  If you’ll recall my sermon series from a couple of years ago that I centered around several of the writings of C.S. Lewis, well, this series will be structured fairly similarly, except instead of C.S. Lewis’s books, it will be around Khalil Gibran’s poetry about Jesus Christ, of which there is a great amount, in the volume Jesus: Son of Man, from which this series derives its name.  Gibran was a Lebanese poet during the early 20th century who was raised Christian but was also influenced by Sufi mysticism, and that mysticism, much like that of many Christian mystics throughout history, comes through in his poetry about Jesus.  Jesus: Son of Man tells the stories of the gospels, but in Gibran’s often soaring word choice, through the eyes of various supporting characters: the individual disciples, the female followers of Jesus, even some of Jesus’s opponents (although Gibran reserves his best poetry entirely for Jesus’s adherents).

We begin this series, then, with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray:

Thus spake Jesus, and it was in my desire to kneel down and worship Him, yet in my shyness, I could not move nor speak a word.

But at last I spoke, and I said, “I would pray this moment, yet my tongue is heavy.  Teach me to pray.”

And Jesus said, “When you would pray, let your longing pronounce the words.  It is in my longing now to pray thus:

Our Father, in earth and heaven, sacred is Thy name.  Thy will be done with us, even as in space. Give us of Thy bread sufficient for the day.  In Thy compassion forgive us and enlarge us to forgive one another.  Guide us towards Thee and stretch down Thy hand to us in darkness.  For Thine is the kingdom, and in Thee is our power and our fulfillment.

It is the Lord’s Prayer, as rewritten and remembered by a poet.  One of the greatest contributions by one of the most powerful and compelling personalities ever to grace this globe, put into words that are not merely the ones we can recite, rote, from memory, about guiding us from temptation, as though we were filling out the prayer on a triplicate form for God’s heavenly bureaucracy; no, there is an added dimension to this.

And that is maybe a bit weird for me to say…after all, this isn’t the first time I have preached on the Lord’s Prayer with you, so it makes it feel like I have maybe left something out the first time around.

But the truth is, that is really just a part of preaching and teaching.  I can’t cram everything I feel and believe and know about God into one 20-minute sermon, I have to, as Russ, my senior pastor in California always strove to emphasize to me, break this Bible thing up into bite-sized pieces.

Which is what the Lord’s Prayer does.  It breaks all our many needs up into bite-sized pieces that we can understand, so that we can pray for them properly.  We recognize God’s wonder and power, we recognize our own need for even the most fundamental of necessities, and we recognize our own inherent limitations and weaknesses in the twin faces of temptation and evil.

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer, but it also interprets the practice of prayer itself.  Jesus says not to be showy about our prayer, to come up with all manner of empty, fluffer-nutter sayings the way He says the hypocrites do.

And of course He is right to admonish us to not do that.  But it similarly is as easy and tempting for us to bolt for the other end of the spectrum, where our prayers contain no passion or profoundness at all, but instead carry a rote style akin to reading out of the telephone books that none of us even use anymore.  Kevin Roose, a writer who, during his time in college at Brown University spent a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and wrote a book about it, recalls in it his memory of his grandfather saying grace around the dinner table, which “he rattled off so quickly that it sounded like one long word:  BlessolordthisfoodtoouruseandustothyserviceinJesusnameamen.”

God doesn’t ask for long and flowery phrases, but God does ask for meaning in our prayers.

Because a prayer that is short and said without emotion is as empty as a long and flowery prayer.

Emptiness isn’t what our faith is supposed to be about, and I know you all know this.  But if our faith is meant to endure, and our practices of prayer are meant to be remembered, well, our memories are pretty self-selecting in that way.  We don’t waste our limited hard drive space between our ears on any ordinary thing.

So let’s approach our praying to God with similar care and selection—which isn’t to say we should be selective about praying in general, but selective in ourselves about how we pray.  We should hold our praying to higher standards than we used to, because in truth we know better.  We—and that includes me—have all uttered up the silly sort of prayers on occasion for Russell Wilson to not throw a goal-line interception, or for whichever mediocre Mariner to get a base hit and score a run, because, God, if they win that game, we won’t ask you for anything ever again!  We’ve all done that.

The kicker in all of this is that this is really for our benefit—yours and mine—and not for God’s or for Jesus’s.  Jesus says as much in this passage: God knows what you need before you even ask for it.  But I also quote Soren Kierkegaard on this: “Prayer does not change God, it changes the person praying.”  I mean, if we could change God via prayer…well, God would be quite schizophrenic, especially during every Super Bowl, World Series, and NCAA tournament!

No, prayer is meant to change us, and change us it shall.  Not because we want it to, but because we desperately need it to.  And this, ultimately, is how it can change us: it changes us in the way that Gibran writes as he closes out this poem from Matthew’s vantage point, as the famed Sermon on the Mount is now over, and he is stuck trying to put Jesus’s command to pray into practice.  And Gibran’s Matthew does so, and in the process realizes this:

…and all of us followed Him.  And as I followed I was repeating His prayer, and remembering all that He had said; for I knew that the words that had fallen like flakes that day must set and grow firm like crystals, and that the wings that had fluttered above our heads were to beat the earth like iron hoofs.

Jesus’s words can flutter over our heads and beat the earth like iron, because like wings they make us soar, and like iron, they can endure forever so long as we allow them to.

Which, in the end, is likely precisely as it should be.  We end up remembering those words, and how they changed everything.

Do we remember a young woman and how she died of brain cancer?  Sure.  But do we also remember how she set the world on fire for her cause?  Absolutely.

And do we remember how the homeless carpenter from Galilee was crucified and died?  Yes.

But do we also remember how His words and deeds changed the world forever?  Without a doubt.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 12, 2015

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