Sermon: Humbling Prayer (Lk. 18:9-14) 10/23/16

When was the last time you prayed–not here at church, but by yourself?  I know.  It’s a nosy question…you don’t have to answer out loud. 🙂  When you last prayed, for what did you pray?  How did you pray?  What happened as the result of the prayer?

I doubt any of our prayers are as obnoxious as the Pharisees’ in the parable (at least I hope not J).  In truth, I doubt any 1st century Jews prayed that obnoxiously.  Hyperbole—exaggeration–is part and parcel of parables.  The over-the-top-ness brings home the point quickly and with humor.

So, what point do the exaggerations in this parable bring home?  What truth do they uncover?  There’s one person bragging to God about his righteousness, reminding God of just how much better than the other guy he is, while the other guy is over there beating his breast asking for mercy.  What truth was Jesus trying to communicate through this story?

It’s clear from the way Luke sets it up that Jesus directs this parable to the Pharisees.  So, tell you what let’s do.  Let’s imagine we are Pharisees, “trusting in our own righteousness and regarding others with contempt.”  I know that’s something we usually try NOT to do; it’ll take some imagination.  But stepping into a Pharisee’s shoes and receiving this parable might give us some insight into what Jesus was trying to communicate in this parable, so let’s try it.

Are you ready?  Feeling appropriately righteous and regarding others with contempt?

So, you’re a Pharisee, feeling righteous, regarding others with contempt, when you hear  this itinerant teacher tell a story about a Pharisee—who, it just so happens, feels righteous and regards others with contempt– and a tax collector (hated by just about everyone in that society), who bows his head and asks for mercy.

What’s it like for you as a Pharisee to hear this parable?  How do you respond to it?  Do you confront the teacher?  Do you storm off?  Do you lodge a complaint with the synagogue leaders?  Do you start discounting everything the teacher says, because—obviously—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

Or do you take the story in, ponder it, and allow yourself to think about it in the context of your own prayer life and, maybe, allow it to change you?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is hard on the Pharisees.  I wonder, though, if what sounds like criticism is actually an invitation—an invitation to authenticity…because that’s the main difference in the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the parable, isn’t it?  The tax collector is as honest with God as he knows how to be.  The Pharisee instead hides his true self behind boasting and condescension.

How honest are you when you pray (you as you, not you as a Pharisee)?  When you pray, do you say things to God you think you’re supposed to say?  Do you hold back some of your true feelings–anger, depression, grief?  Do you not pray at all because you aren’t sure you believe in God, so what’s the point?  How much of your true self shows up when you pray?

If you don’t bring all of your true self to prayer, why don’t you?  Does prayer feel fake to you?  Have other prayers gone unanswered and you just can’t risk any more vulnerability with God?  Are you afraid if you get real with God, you might have to change something?

If you haven’t brought your true self–warts and all–to prayer, what might happen if you did?  If you held nothing back from God, not anger or outrage or depression or grief or impatience or pain or cynicism or unbelief?  What might happen if you brought your entire self to your conversations with God?  Theologian Marjorie Suchocki has written:  “If God knows me better than I know myself, what point is there in pretending I am other than I am before God?  Prayer is not the place for pretended piety; prayer is the place for getting down to brass tacks… God receives us as we are, and how we are is no surprise to God.  God, being continuously present to us, has no doubt noticed how we are before we take notice of it ourselves.  Thus we might as well acknowledge our true state when we pray.  We pray to God from where we are, not from where we consider we should be.”  (37-38)

Sr. Joan Chittister tells the story of her friend, Theresie, who prays to God from exactly where she is.  For years, Theresie taught first grade.  After she retired, former students continued to visit her long after they’d grown up, the impact she’d had on their lives was that great.

Theresie also suffered with bipolar disorder.  Medications helped keep the chemicals in her brain in balance, but maintaining that balance became increasingly difficult as she grew older.  When things got bad, Theresie would be hospitalized, taken off one medication, and slowly put back on a different one.  It was a grueling process.  Once balance had been restored, she’d be released and would be okay until the next episode.

In a particularly deep depressive episode, Sr. Joan found Theresie writhing on the floor in her bedroom.  “Her elbows were tight against her ribs” Sr. Joan writes, “her fists were clenched, she was rolling back and forth, from side to side, and moaning.”  Sr. Joan told Theresie it was time to go to the hospital again.

Theresie resisted.  “No!” she cried.  ‘Don’t make me do that.  I can’t do that.  I hate that.’  Sr. Joan held her and rocked her.  She told her the doctor was worried about her and wanted her in the hospital.  Theresie stiffened.  ‘I know he’s worried,’ she sobbed.  ‘He won’t believe me.  He thinks I want to commit suicide!  I’ve tried to explain to him but he won’t listen. Joan, tell him.  Tell him!  I would never do that.  I have too much faith in God to do that!’

When she said that, Sr. Joan knew she was telling the truth.  She really did have too much faith in God to take her own life.  Theresie “knew she was not being punished, not being abandoned, not being tested, not being scourged.  She knew she was sick and she knew that God was with her in the midst of the darkness of it.”  (Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope.)

Sometimes, the truest prayer we can offer is the one where we simply acknowledge in God’s presence who and how we are.  No requests.  No praise.  Just, “here I am.”  Part of the power of Theresie’s story is the fact that nothing was going to change.  There is no cure for bipolar disorder.  The possibility of depressive episodes would never leave her.  Theresie knew that.  Because she knew that, she didn’t ask God to cure her; neither did she try to hide who she was from God.  In her darkest moment, she simply came as honestly as she knew how and, even in the midst of excruciating pain, knew that God was with her.

Two more prayer stories.  Both come from one of the people I visit regularly, Gary Dorsey.  Gary and his wife, Jan Winburn, and their daughter Ella Dorsey (who is a meteorologist at Channel 46!) moved to Atlanta several years ago.  Both Gary and Jan had taken writing and editing jobs at the AJC.  Six weeks after moving down, Gary had a massive stroke in his brain stem.  Few people survive the kind of stroke Gary had, but Gary did.  Physically, he’s fine.  The stroke did, though, significantly affect his cognitive functioning.

As a religion writer, Gary won several awards for his work.  He also wrote a book called “Congregation,” that tells the story of what happened in a Congregational church in Connecticut over the course of a year and a half.

As he tells the story of the church, Gary also tells some of his story…part of which involves dealing with his and Jan’s infertility.  As his frustration over the infertility deepens, Gary finds his prayers changing.  “BLEEP you!  I would pray,” he writes.  “Over and over, the same message.  Could the all-powerful, all-loving God absorb that kind of anger?  Was there a language God could understand?  BLEEP! I’d pray.  “Stupid BLEEP!  Come here you lousy BLEEP!  Answer me now or leave me alone!”

Have you ever prayed that honestly?  Have you ever really told God how you feel?  Gary eventually discovered that God could absorb that kind of anger.  Toward the end of the book, he writes about adopting Ella.  After working in Baltimore for a while, the family moves to Atlanta and he has the stroke and loses a lot of his cognitive ability.

When I started visiting Gary, I asked Jan what I should do during our visits.  She suggested simply reading a verse of Scripture then sitting in silence.  She and Gary were Quakers and that was a practice Gary still appreciated.

Gary can talk and he seems to appreciate the visits.  He doesn’t initiate topics of conversation, but he does respond to questions I ask.  And he listens.  A few months ago, I took my guitar.  Singing some of the old hymns—He especially likes “I’ll Fly Away” and “Give Me that Old Time Religion”—Gary has come out of his shell a little more.  He sings and laughs and we have a good time.

And always, like this past week, we end our time by sitting in silence for 20 minutes or so.  We don’t pray for healing.  We don’t even pray for others.  We simply sit in God’s presence just as we are….which feels like the deepest kind of prayer.

We’ve spent a lot of time in recent months here at Pilgrimage focusing on what we can do out in the world.  Working with God in the world to act it into wellbeing is important work.  Equally important, though, is nurturing our own spirits through prayer.  If we come to God just as we are, with all of who we are, as honestly as we know how, we might find—through prayer—we are able to act ourselves into wellbeing, too.

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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