(Proper 12C2) Ps. 138; Galatians 2: 6-19; Luke 11: 1-13
Grace and peace this morning. I know I’m very thankful for my friends Dan Hall and Phil Wainwright, two priests for whom I have just the highest degree of affection and respect, and I hope your Sundays with them to preach and preside at these services were all good. Sometimes people on my first Sunday after vacation will say, “Oh, you’re back already?” And perhaps with a little twinge of disappointment—just to let me know that the supply clergy have been doing a great job in the interval!
Prayer at the center of our appointed readings this morning.
The fourth verse of the psalm, Psalm 138, speaks with a kind of assurance that is I think not always my experience, anyway, and least in the present tense. “When I called, you answered me.” More often I find myself saying, “Here I am calling, Lord. Where is your answer?” Not very often anyway does it come as an instant messenger reply, immediately and in real time. Perhaps sometimes a sudden bolt of insight and sense of God’s clear direction. But mostly if I can pray along with the psalmist at all here it is only in one of those long time frames of reflection. How I can look back perhaps over days, months, years, decades, to see how God’s answer is given. Sometimes because the answer itself was long in coming. Sometimes perhaps because whatever answer there is has been given in a vocabulary that I was not in the moment able to interpret and understand. So often even when I think I know how the prayer is answered, I can see in the perspective of years that my first take was off base, or at least far too limited. In this way perhaps an echo of the familiar illustration of the footprints in the sand. “Where were you Lord, when I needed you? I look behind me on this lonesome journey and see only one set of footprints on the sand.” And the reply, “I’ve been carrying you the whole way.”
What Jesus talks about here in this passage from Luke not about some magical formula or incantation, but about an attitude that is persistent in relationship. About prayer that is not a spell or charm, not a Christmas Wish List, but instead an act of mind, body, emotion, spirit, will, of holding on. Trusting.
I’ve mentioned a number of times a book about Christian life and ministry that was very influential for me. A priest named Barry Miller, at that time the Rector of the Episcopal Church in Nevada City, California, more than 30 years ago gave it to me as a gift. Eugene Peterson’s “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” Peterson a Presbyterian pastor and scholar, so perhaps nice to think of him as we worship in this Chapel. The book a series of mediations on what are sometimes called the Psalms of Ascent—psalms associated with the journey that people would take as they were on their way up into the hill country to Jerusalem for the celebration of festivals. Pilgrim psalms.
Not to get too far into the book this morning, but to say that I think what touched me so much on reading it is similar to an aspect of monastic culture and life when I spent my sabbatical ten years ago reflecting on what St. Benedict continues to have to say in the life of the Christian family.
I like to conjure up the image of the typical young Benedictine novice beginning his exploration of religious life. How after the taking of his first vows he would be taken by the novice master and shown around. “From now on this place in the refectory will be where you eat your meals. From now on this desk in the choir is where you will pray your psalms and sing the office. Brother John on your left, Brother Thomas on your right. From now on this bed in the dormitory will be where you sleep. And over here, in this plot of the cemetery, is where you will be buried.”
You will have great adventures—of the mind, the heart, the imagination. Insights and moments of great creativity. Spiritual depth and struggle, joy and sorrow. The journey of a lifetime in all its richness. Within the enclosure of these walls, and with these imperfect companions.
It is kind of countercultural, whether here in the 21st century or in the 11th century or in the first century. Commitments make us nervous. Distant pastures look greener, somehow. Always thinking that the next thing will be better than the last thing. We all of us I think suffer from a kind of Attention Deficit Disorder. As the saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.” Variety: the spice of life.
You know the image of Susy’s favorite movie, the Harold Ramis film “Groundhog Day.” The Bill Murray character stranded for an eternity in Punxatawney, lost, restless, yearning to be somewhere else, anywhere else. An endless circle of untethered despair. Until in the end his heart is opened by love, and he is able to take wonderful Andie McDowell by the hand and to look out at the snow-covered streets of Punxatawney, and to say, “Let’s live here.”
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Thinking about that this morning in the reading from the second chapter of Colossians. Paul writing to his young Christian community with the urgent prayer that they not get swept away by the Next Big Thing. (Note capital letters: N ext B ig T hing.) That they not let the most recent philosophical or religious fad or trend or pop-star guru or evangelist push them off their moorings. Running off one way or another in search of the next mountaintop experience. Lost among the dazzling titles in the Barnes and Noble Christianity shelf. That they show some real and well-grounded maturity of purpose as they hear what might at first sound like seductive invitations to add to the pure gospel message that he has shared with them, and that had been the foundation of their new life in Christ. He’s not telling them not to be informed, not to engage. Not to read, not to think. Not telling them to bury their heads in the sand. But what he is telling them, in the security of the gospel, the Cross, the Resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, life everlasting: Let’s live here. Hold on to Christ and Christ alone—“for in him, Paul says, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness . . . .” You don’t need anybody else. You won’t need anybody else. Ever.