Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Saint John’s Church/Newtonville
July 24, 2016
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 12C
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
During my first of many trips to the Land of the Holy One, our guides gave us pilgrims a very welcome orientation to the unique customs and practices of the Middle East. To alleviate our fears and to reduce our “culture shock,” they introduced us to the practices and protocols of the bazaar known as the suq in the Old City of Jerusalem. And it was only then that I really grasped—for the first time—something of the meaning of this morning’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, together with a much deeper understanding of the whole life of prayer.
Our guides informed us that negotiation and bargaining are an integral part of doing business in the Middle East. Shopkeepers and merchants of the bazaar expect you to bargain with them for a price lower than the one first quoted; in fact, they are deeply insulted if you don’t negotiate with them for that better price. The price, we were told, is never the real issue. In the Middle East, still a deeply traditional culture, bargaining establishes a personal relationship between the buyer and the seller in a society where relationships are everything.
A few days later, I was not surprised to have this wise piece of advice confirmed during my first solo visit to Jerusalem’s suq. As I negotiated with a shopkeeper for a painted tile, I experienced for myself that, over the centuries, bargaining has indeed become a way of life there: it’s a way to establish connection and intimacy between buyer and seller, and a way to demonstrate mutual dignity and respect. In the bazaar, I discovered that business is much more than a mere exchange of goods and services. It is a way to make community and to forge bonds, no matter how fleeting or momentary. I even began to wonder if the suq, and not the politicians and armies, is not the real cement still holding together the always fragile and endangered peace of that fraught region.
And so, it will come as no surprise that, through this rich and wonderful experience of the Jerusalem bazaar, with its strange norms of bargaining and negotiation, I came to today’s story about God and Abraham with new eyes and a new heart. I no longer viewed the story as the obsequious whining and wheedling of an inferior who is “but dust and ashes” with an aloof, superior, and capricious God cast in the image of an oriental potentate. Instead, I heard it as an opportunity for intimacy and communion through which both beings are enlarged and changed: Abraham’s concern for the innocent of crime and his quest for divine justice are satisfied; God’s unfailing and eternal disposition toward covenantal, steadfast love and compassion is expressed once more. And both God and Abraham have the opportunity to express the very best of their very different natures. They establish intimacy and communion in this arena of mutual love and concern. When the writer of Genesis tells us that “the LORD went on his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place,” we sense that they leave the encounter satisfied, and that the circle of love, intimacy, and communion has been closed and strengthened once again by the willingness of Abraham to raise his heart and mind to the LORD honestly and persistently, and by God’s disposition to show justice, mercy, love, and faithfulness always and everywhere. And so it is with all prayer, regardless of its particular form or expression. Real prayer is fundamentally the forging and renewal of an intimate bond through what the great Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber calls an “I-Thou” relationship.
Jesus gives us perhaps the greatest and fullest example of prayer as relationship—as an occasion for deepening our love and communion with God—in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. When Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them a prayer that will mark them as his followers—a common request from a rabbi’s circle of disciples at that time—Jesus responds with a prayer startling for its familiar tone, its informality, and its direct, even paradoxical, petitions. Jesus begins by telling them to call God not “Father,” as our stilted translations have it, but “Abba,” an Aramaic term of endearment roughly translated as “Papa” or “Daddy.” This sort of intimacy or familiarity with God was a startling departure from ordinary Jewish piety at the time, in which God was addressed as “Avinu, Malkenu,” “our Father, our King”! In fact, the personal name of God is still regarded as so holy that Jewish tradition prohibits its utterance to this very day, substituting instead “Adonai,” “LORD.” Yet now, as an expression of his own unique knowledge, intimacy, and communion with God, Jesus authorizes his disciples to address God directly and to sanctify God’s name as “Abba,” “Daddy,” or “Papa.” And in this amazing prayer known as the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father,” Jesus, the beloved Son, has given us an astonishing and unusual way to raise our hearts and minds to God in prayer: as daughters and sons of God. It may be more than you or I ever dared to hope for—and it just may prompt us to examine our real intentions and motivations before we next pray it—but, there it is nonetheless!
There is a disposition in our world these days—even among believers—to question the value and importance of prayer, especially petitionary and intercessory prayer. Why, many rightly ask, do we need to pray for others and ourselves when God already knows our desires and needs before we articulate them? If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then surely God doesn’t need our prayers.
Now, this is all quite true. And, as I am often fond of telling those who come to me for spiritual direction, God is neither informed nor enlarged by our prayers. Yet, our readings this morning show us that this is not the real issue with prayer. Once we understand prayer as fundamentally relationship and communion, it becomes an opportunity, through divine condescension, for us to become more deeply connected to God, that Horizon of gracious and loving Mystery. God may not need our prayers, but God surely wants them because we need them so much. Any opportunity for conscious, intimate relationship with God and with others in God, makes our actual words of prayer far less significant than our desire to be related to God and to our sisters and brothers in Christ. In the life of prayer, motivation and intention—what Judaism calls “kavvanah”—are everything. As Saint Theresa of Avila, that great sixteenth-century doctor of prayer has written, “Prayer is never destroyed by the lack of attention, but only by the withdrawal of intention.” So, while God may not need our prayers, God surely wants them, and we need to pray them because they are a priceless opportunity to grow in love, intimacy, and communion with God and with our neighbor. And this, God wants very much—and not for God’s sake, but for ours.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, God knows that we have no power in ourselves to become human persons fully considered unless and until we are consciously and intimately related to God as the Ground of our being, the Hidden Ground of Love. Each and every time we raise our minds and hearts to God in prayer for ourselves or for others, we take another decisive step toward becoming who we truly are, and everything that God intends us to be, by deepening our knowledge and mutual relationship of love and trust with God and with each other. And it doesn’t matter whether we pray with words or without them in the silent, wordless “prayer of loving intention” or the “prayer of the heart,” otherwise known as “contemplative prayer.” It only matters that, in the words of Saint Paul, we “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in every circumstance.” And, once again, we are assisted in this undertaking by the good advice of Saint Theresa of Avila when she admonishes us never to worry over the trial of distractions in prayer. She wisely tells her spiritual children: “Just let your mill clack on as you grind our wheat.”
We need prayer most of all during crisis, confusion, doubt, and in those all-too-frequent dry seasons when it seems that God is absent, silent, or not listening at all. In fact, those are the most important times to persevere in prayer because, as Jesus reminds us today, our heavenly Father always gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask. This life-creating “Ruach” or “Breath” of love and truth, the Comforter, Teacher, Counselor, and “Paraklete”—the “one who walks beside us”—unfailingly gives us the good that we need, even when we don’t know what that good is or, more likely, when we think that we do. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I, for one, give thanks to God every day for the many requests that God, in God’s infinite, loving providence and wisdom, God did not grant me, along with the many false choices and apparent goods from which God mercifully spared me. For very often, God is merely waiting for our readiness to listen and to hear and to receive our real good before God responds. Once again, St. Theresa of Avila, our wise mentor of prayer writes, “It is not our unanswered prayers over which we should worry; rather, it’s our answered ones!” And, what seems like God’s silence or delay is really God’s patient, persistent, dogged pursuit and cultivation of our alert receptivity, what the Anglican poet T.S. Eliot called “the purification of our motives in the ground of our own beseeching.” When we have the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, we have everything that we could possibly want or need, because the “gifts of the Spirit” are “wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and due reverence for God.” And, according to Saint Paul, the “fruits of the Spirit”—which are the fruits of all our praying—are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, endurance, and faithfulness.” Can we conceive of desiring anything more than these gifts and fruits of the Spirit from the whole life of prayer?
My friends, God has an eternity to make us disciples and to give us the good that we need. And sometimes, we must be content to wait for the “life of the world to come” for our complete satisfaction and fulfillment. Father Richard M. Benson, the founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, has given eloquent expression to this truth. He writes:
“We are not to think that God cannot, or will not answer any prayer because he seems to let it go by. Remember that every prayer, prayed in union with our Lord, has stirred the depths of the Divine heart, and is treasured there for an eternal response. Wait, and you will find the answer, if not in this present time, then on the eternal shores of paradise—the answer of peace! Our prayers go ringing on in the ear of God until they are accomplished in the gifts of eternity.”
So, we must never despair when, in our doubt or anger or confusion, we have no words, or cannot find the right words, to approach God in prayer. A wise monk once told me that, often, the best prayer of all is just the three simple words: “God help me.” I can’t even begin to count the times that I have simply cried out to God in my frustration, rage, or confusion with only these three little words: “God help me.”
God is always yearning and searching for us, more consistently and ardently than we search and yearn for God. As Jesus reminds us through his parables in today’s Gospel, God wants to fill us with every true good, but we must be willing to persevere in the life of prayer and to open our hands to God in faithful prayer. We must desire to step into the circle of the covenantal, mutual love, intimacy, and communion that is the very inner life of God, a life that Christians haltingly call the “Holy Trinity.” And when “we dare not, or in our blindness cannot (BCP)” find words to ask God for God’s will for us, we must remember that the Holy Spirit is groaning and praying within us “with sighs too deep for words,” as Saint Paul expresses it. Prayer is relationship, and it is only necessary that we be willing to show up with what the Cloud of the Unknowing calls “the naked intention for God,” mindful that, as the great German mystic Meister Eckhart has written, “God is always at home. It is we who have sometimes gone out for a walk!”
Let us pray, then, this morning for the true and abiding gift of prayer, remembering God’s pledge of the Holy Spirit to help us, and Jesus’ promise that “everyone who asks, receives, and everyone who searches, finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”