For all the mysteriousness of prayer, Jesus, by word and example, teaches us simply to keep at it. I’m sure his disciples couldn’t help but notice the way he would slip away to pray, often. Occasionally he brought a few of them with him on these extended prayer times. His prayer must of have been of such a quality that it inspired the request to “Teach us to pray” that opened this dialogue. Aside from the Lord’s Prayer, there is precious little about the form and substance of these prayers aside from Jesus’ own persistence at it.
He goes on to assure them that they will receive, they will find, and doors will be opened to them. It seems evident that they need reassuring, anyone who has attempted to pray for something will quickly run into the uncomfortable truth that it’s not as simple as putting in your quarters and selecting which soda you want. Nor is it even like filing the correct paperwork for a zoning variance and navigating layers of bureaucracy until getting approval.
God is not a vending machine. God is not a bureaucrat. God is not a trickster. Jesus tells us he is our heavenly Father, capable of giving good gifts like we would give our own children. God is our good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. God is the great physician in the business of healing the sick.
“Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.”[i] Why? Why did Jesus pray through the night? It seems that in the morning Jesus had the clarity whom to call to be his 12 apostles. But why didn’t he just know that without praying? Why so many times in the Gospels do we read of Jesus’ setting off to pray to God whom he called “Father”?
In the Gospels, we read Jesus prays:
- at his baptism[ii];
- when he withdraws from the crowds[iii];
- after healing people[iv];
- when he is transfigured with God’s light while on the mountaintop[v];
- before walking on water[vi];
- after he learns of John the Baptist’s death[vii];
- before he brings his dead friend, Lazarus, back to life[viii];
- for his apostle, Peter, in the early days and at the end[ix].
We are told Jesus prays about food:
- at meals[x];
- before the miraculous feedings of the multitudes[xi];
- before and after his “last supper” when he meets with his disciples[xii];
At the end of Jesus’ life, he prays:
- three times in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion[xiii];
- from the cross his agony and then his surrender[xiv];
- after his resurrection when he breaks bread for his friends at Emmaus[xv].
Tonight’s first lesson is the rescue at the Red Sea. Remember the story. Through Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery, God saved our family from famine by bringing them to Egypt. Later expanding in number, they were made slaves and remained so for 400 years. Freedom seemed impossible.
Through a burning bush, God sent a shepherd, Moses, to say: “Let my people go.” When Pharaoh refused, God turned the river to blood, sent frogs, gnats, flies, and more. God’s people packed their bags and ate a meal of lamb with its blood above their doors so that “death’s dark angel [would] sheathe his sword” and pass over them. Finally, fed up, Pharaoh said: Go. Our people fled into freedom!
Soon they found themselves on a dead end at Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army approaching. Trapped between water and the enemy, our people panicked: Why did we leave if only to be slaughtered out here?
Moses said: “Do not be afraid; stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today … . The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”[i]
A pillar of cloud blocked the Egyptian army’s view. Moses raised his staff, stretched out his hand, and as we heard read today, God drove back the sea, turned it into dry land, and the people walked right across. The Egyptians pursued them, also coming into the sea on the dry ground. God clogged their chariot wheels, let the waters return, tossing them into the sea. God saved our people and destroyed the enemy.
The Exodus is the story of epic escape, freedom from slavery. The Lord—and only the Lord—saves. Humanity cannot save itself. Deliverance is definitively divine. While wonderfully good, this is hard news. Like our ancestors, we desperately try to save ourselves. We want to work our way out. We resist asking for and receiving help. We complain, deny and don’t trust. The Exodus reminds us of this somber truth: we cannot save ourselves. We are like slaves in Egypt and dead-end at the Red Sea. We need a savior.
Listen again to Moses: “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Like Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God.”[ii] We often shoot off panicked prayers, frenzied, striving and scared. How can we be still?
Stop. For a minute or for a few. Stop what you’re doing. Stop the noise. Disconnect from devices. Take deep breaths. Go outside to breathe fresh air. Shake out the panic, or walk or run. Gently sway, rocking, calming yourself. Gaze at something beautiful: light and shadow, tree, bird, or you own hand. Pray your desire: “Let me be still, and know that you are God.”
While we run, fight, and hide, we were also created for stillness. Nightly we surrender to sleep. Whether bird, dog, or human, we can calm ourselves and one another. Imagine a bird gathering her young under the shadow of her wings. Imagine an adult picking up a child and rocking until the child relaxes in loving arms.
Dear children of God, we have a savior who knows our necessities and our weaknesses.[iii] When there is no way out or it appears we are at a dead end, our God continues coming to save. “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” God invites our still surrender, and when we cannot, we may find ourselves being picked up, held and rocked in safe, loving arms.
[i] Exodus 14:13-14
[ii] Psalm 46:10
[iii] Collect for the Sunday closest to July 20: “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” Book of Common Prayer
How many times have I heard this passage from the gospel, sighed and thought, you’re right, Jesus. I just need a nap. I just need to recharge my batteries and I’ll be set. But that recharge inevitably diminishes and I’m back to weary. What’s really needed is a power adaptor, a way to plug into the source of power directly.
A friend of mine keeps string cheese and granola bars in her purse at all times because she gets hangry. She knows that if she gets to a certain point, her energy will fail and that combination of hunger and anger will drop her into worse than a catatonic state. It can become a frantic cry for relief like a young child having a meltdown at the park.
Jesus’ invitation is not simply to cease activity but he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” In part, Jesus is sharing our burden, yoked together with us. And he is teaching us how to bear the load because there is the work of love to be done.
In Jesus’ day, demons were thought present most everywhere, especially in the desert, in places without cleansing water, in woods and gardens, to those with sickness, around tombs, accosting lone travelers, to the newly-married, to a woman in childbirth, to someone who sneezes.[i] Demons were especially unruly at sunrise and sunset, and in the heat of midday. Demons were troublesome when one was eating, so the mealtime prayer was not just for thanksgiving but also for protection.
Saint Paul presumed a battle being waged in this world between good and evil, and it is we who are being fought over. He writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against… the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[ii] Meanwhile, Saint Paul adds the assurance that “we are more than conquerors” to every spiritual distress.[iii]
Whatever kind of spiritual armor or spiritual vaccination you need for your own protection, pray for that. It is a good way to begin the day. Pray it for yourself, and for those who have a place in your heart. And at the end of the day, pray for a kind of inner cleansing of any distress which could otherwise infect the soul. This is a way of co-operating with God’s provision, and protection, and power to face the challenges of life – the physical, mental, spiritual challenges – with confidence and freedom.[iv]
[i] In addition to Matthew 8:28-34, similar accounts of Jesus’ power over demons may be found in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39.
[ii] Ephesians 6:12.
[iii] Saint Paul writes, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
[iv] The English word “confidence” comes from the Latin, confidere: “to have full trust or reliance,” that is, confidence in God’s presence, and power, and protection.
Role models are very important, starting with our first role models, our parents. At some point that tiny circle starts widening to the rest of the family, and, much to the dismay and frustration of parents, by the time children become teenagers they begin taking their role models from their peer groups. In some cases, especially when relationships at home are impoverished, a young person’s peer group, with whom they share values, concerns, and a sense of identity, becomes for them like a new family.
Now if, like Jesus, our primary concern is doing the will of God, then it makes sense that our most important role models, those we might consider our larger family in the world, would be those with the same priority. And when we find those who gladly surrender to God’s will, we naturally relate to them as good role models in Christ.
Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13
Have you ever had one of those dreams when you’re trying to scream but you can’t? Or you try to run but your legs won’t move? It’s a real feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. I’m always glad to snap out of those dreams into the world where my voice and my body do the things that I want them to do.
When I read this passage about a mute demoniac, I sympathize. When I hear about people helpless and harassed my compassion is stirred. When Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few I want to raise my hand. “Here I am, Lord! Send me!”
That’s why this is such a well worn passage for ordinations and calls to evangelism. It reaches into the natural sympathy we have for those who suffer. And immediately after this passage Jesus calls his twelve apostles and gives them power over all these demons and diseases. It’s a stirring recruitment call.
Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30
Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ [i]
There are some who listen and follow, who find her dwelling and hold her fast. But there are many in the broad places of the world who ignore her. The marketplace is for many things, but not for wisdom. They don’t bother to look up from their tiny screens. Nimble fingers text and tweet faster than hearts can pause and feel.
‘We played the flute for them, but they didn’t dance. We mourned, but they didn’t wail.’ [ii]
With each comment thread, the bitter bickering shrinks the circle. Wisdom has not played by the rules.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.[iii]
Jerusalem, Jerusalem! he cries, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing.’ [iv]
When the words of Wisdom finally find their target, the reaction is visceral. As one body united for the first time and the last, they cry: ‘CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!’[v]
Yet – Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.[vi]
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Or, in Luke’s version, Wisdom is vindicated by her children.[vii] In books such as Proverbs and Job, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, we encounter God’s Wisdom personified as a Woman of great gentleness and strength, offering food and drink, shelter and instruction, scorned by the masses but taking her stand nonetheless. In the book Sirach, the wise elder instructs a disciple: “Listen, my child, and take my advice, do not reject my counsel: put your feet into [Wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck into her collar; offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her bonds… For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”[viii] In the gospels of Matthew and John, we bear witness to a Spirit-led conversation between this multifaceted tradition of personified Wisdom and the early Christian experience of Jesus Christ. For us as for them, Wisdom is Jesus, the embodiment of all good things in Wisdom’s treasury and the incarnation of God, the source and ground of Wisdom. This Jesus is without doubt a Savior to be worshipped and an exemplar of how we are to act in the world. But he is also a Teacher of the heart, what today we are calling “inner work.”
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
To my mind, the final line of this morning’s gospel is at once an indescribable consolation and a never-ending source of perplexity. Perhaps even frustration. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. How many of us have been caught off guard or even startled by this phrase? Did he really just say what I think he said?
During the so-called “Farewell Discourses” of John’s gospel (chapters 14—17), we greet a host of similarly enigmatic phrases such as:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” “I do not give to you as the world gives.” “As the Father has loved me so have I loved you; abide in my love.”
These dense discourses clearly deserve much more than a superficial listening. There is an infinity in these words, fertile and receptive to the whole texture of human experience. John’s Jesus therefore speaks to each of us in the voice of that wind as he says If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it. There is an infinity in his words.
Yet this infinity is lost to us if we simply hear what we would like to hear. Because of this, I believe there is wisdom in praying with a sensitivity to what a text is decidedly not saying. Yes, he really did just say something remarkable, but whereas I would like to hear Jesus say to me, “if you ask me for anything, I will do it,” this is not what Jesus says. We have to reckon with those three little words: in my name.
St. Margaret of Scotland – the Pearl of Great Price
Pearls are very beautiful. Their beauty has something to do with their unique luster. Light reflects and refracts from the translucent layers – layer upon layer of mother of pearl. The luster becomes finer as the layers become thinner and more numerous. Some people spend their lives collecting and marveling at pearls.
Today we celebrate Margaret, a 12th century queen of Scotland, who was acknowledged by the whole country as a good and deeply holy woman. She was a woman of profound prayer, who also worked tirelessly for the welfare of the poor. Many people wrote about her, and made much of the appropriateness of her name, for in both Greek and Latin, the name Margaret – Margarata – means pearl. There’s the lovely passage written at her death by Turgot, the 12th century bishop of St. Andrews: “In this virtuous woman, the fairness indicated by her name was surpassed by the exceeding beauty of her soul. She was called Margaret, that is a “pearl,” and in the sight of God she was esteemed a lovely pearl by reason of her faith and good works. She was a pearl to her husband and children, to me, to all of us, even to Christ. And because she was Christ’s she is all the more ours, now that she has left us, and is taken to the Lord.”