Sunday, March 13, 2011

What if prayer is the most important thing you do?

This is the First Sunday of Lent, and my sermon is based on the readings for today: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7Romans 5:12-19 and Matthew 4:1-11. May you have a blessed Lent.

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Lord, in your mercy, come show us the way. Amen.

I’d like us to take a few moments of silence and prayer to remember those who have died, or who are injured, or homeless from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and those who are struggling today to contain this calamity as it still unfolds. I also know many of you have friends in Japan, and so let us hold them also in our prayers.

Lord, in your mercy, come show us the way.

This morning, on this, the first Sunday of Lent, we get a dense series of biblical readings that are the basis of the Christian doctrine of “original sin.” The authors of the lectionary had in mind that you and I should be taught once a year about this knotty doctrine, and today would be the day. 
Well, maybe. 
I must confess, and this is the time of confession, that at the outset that in the face of the horror of our world – wars in Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere – and the horror that is still unfolding in Japan, I find that the doctrines of the church sometimes seem, well, too small, too puny, too inadequate. 
So I’d rather start somewhere else. I’d like us to stand on high ground for a time this morning, and I’d like to start with a question: 
What would it look like if the most important thing we do as a congregation is to pray?
Now, I know that sounds like a silly question. I mean, we are a church, that’s what we are supposed to do, right? 
I know the most important thing you and I are doing this morning is praying; it is why we are here. And even if you are having trouble finding the prayers, someone else is praying those prayers for you. 
As Pastor Ann mentioned in her Ash Wednesday homily, these walls are awash in the prayers of the many who have come before us. Like them, we gather together to pray in many ways: with words and music, in silence, and with symbols for the eyes, and the bread and wine of our Holy Communion. 
We have a feast of prayer this morning for all of our senses. We bring the fullness of ourselves into prayer, and God made that good. 
So let me ask this in a more personal way: 
What would it look like if the most important thing you do is pray? What would that look like for you? 
What if your prayer didn’t stop when you left here this morning? What if prayer was the more important thing you do for the rest of the week? What would your week look like?
I am talking about praying when you take a walk, or wash the dishes, or fold the laundry, or in the quiet of the morning, or late at night before you sleep. 
If you truly made prayer the most important thing you do, what would look different in your life? 
Yes, there are many other important things you and I do in our lives. It is important to put food on the table and keep a roof over your head and to wash the dishes. 
It is important to pay your bills, and to rear children and take care of your health. 
It is important to go to school and learn. 
It is important to have fun and share a meal with friends and family. 
All of that is important. But what would those things look like if prayer came first? 
And what might fall away as not so important? 
Or, let me put this another way: How would you make decisions in your life if you truly brought your decisions into a conversation with God on a regular basis? 
Prayer can be tricky business. It is tempting to pray for things – for stuff – for bread after a forty-day fast, or to be saved from falling off a rooftop, or amassing political power, or at least a promotion at work.
It is tempting to give advice to God – most of us are actually pretty good at that.
The kind of prayer I speak of is simpler, yet scarier. 
This kind of prayer is to be found in the Lord’s Prayer: “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 
What if we meant it when we said “thy will be done”? 
It might require setting aside selfish agendas and opening ourselves to hearing “thy will be done.” 
This is not a prayer of despair, or a plea for power and wealth. 
“Thy will be done” is a prayer for healing, hope, and seeing the presence of God right here among us, and hearing what God would have us do on this earth. 
That kind of prayer requires us to see our connection to each other, and to the people of Japan and Libya and Afghanistan, and the people across the street and next door. 
How do we do we pray like that? It may not be as hard as you think. 
Start by with noticing the Holy that is right in front of you. Author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls it “The practice of waking up to God.” 
“Reverence,” she writes, “stands in awe of something – something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits – so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.” [An Altar in the World, p. 21] 
This Lent, I am suggesting that we as a congregation look for the Holy all around us, starting in the simple moments. Let’s see where it takes us; I don’t know where that will be, that’s the beauty of it. We won’t know until we try. 
Start by setting aside time each day for prayer, for reflecting on the holiness you see in your life. Hear God in the laugh of a child; look for God in the early spring buds on the trees; feel God in the gentle touch of someone close to you; hear God in the music or in the silence.
Listen for the small still voice of God in all you experience. Trust that something will happen when you stop to notice and to pray. 
Find the time to pray and reflect about what you see and experience. Get up 15 minutes earlier in the day if you have to, or carve out 15 minutes on your lunch hour, or 15 minutes for a walk before dinner. Maybe get off the Internet 15 minutes earlier than you usually do, or turn off the TV. 
Want to give up something for Lent? Give up distractions, 15 minutes at a time. Give up the gods of endless busy-ness, over-scheduling, control. 
Slow it down, and notice the true God one prayer at a time. 
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, An Altar in the World, puts it this way [p. 24]: 
“We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable…If anything, these devices sustain the illusion that we might yet be gods—if only we could find some way to do more faster.”
The illusion of being God is the “original sin” and humans have been tricking themselves into thinking that since there were humans. The doctrine of original sin is no more complicated than that. 
Look at your illusions, bring those to your daily prayer. 
Look at what hurts you. What holes have you fallen into by your own making, or through no fault of your own? God is in there too – especially there in those lonely places. 
Listen for the voice leading you out. Turn around and look for the ladder up. 
Lord, in your mercy, come show us the way. 
Do you have a heavy stone on your heart needing to be lifted? Come make a private confession with a priest, with one of us – yes, we do that. Come claim the forgiveness that is yours. 
Lord, in your mercy, come show us the way. 
Prayer is not always sweetness and light. It can be hard work like life itself. Prayer may not take us on the safe route. Prayer will test us and mold us as it did Jesus in the wilderness. 
So make this your Holiest of Lents, and don’t do this alone. Make it your practice to gather here every Sunday, not out of obligation, but because it is important for you to be here. Our prayers are richer when you are here, and our prayers are much the poorer when you are not.
Come experience the prayers here as rich food for your body, mind and soul.Make prayer the most important thing you do, this Holy Lent, and for the rest of your life. 
Lord, in your mercy, come show us the way. Come. AMEN.
Art by Chiura Obata (1885-1975).

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