Today we are continuing in our new sermon series, it’s called “How to Pray.” This series certainly offers us some mechanics of ‘how to pray’ specific prayer practices, like the Examen that Steve offered us last week, and a whole lot of “how-to’s” if you pop into one of the “prayer workshops” right after service. But today I want to ask us to consider “how to” regard prayer as a way to not give up on the kin-dom of God.
How can prayer aid us in imagining and creating the world now, and as we dream it can be?
Prayer can help us step deeper into our lives with God. Prayer helps us intertwine the love of God – with the motion of our days, our schedules, the realness – the hardness …So that we notice it, recognize it, and we PRACTICE it wherever we go.
Spiritual practices invite us into living our life more fully and wholly as possible.
Spiritual practices – help us put our spirituality into practice, in the real world around us.
A spirituality that pleads with us to not give up on the kin-dom of God. To not give up on the deep love of Jesus that moves us and undoes us. And to see that our actions, our voices, our footsteps carry and communicate that love – that kin-dom of God here and now.
It’s how we grow our capacity to love.
It’s how we grow stronger to love.
It’s how we grow more tender to love.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his book Strength to Love said,
“God has two outstretched arms, one is strong enough to surround us with justice and [and move us toward justice], and one is gentle enough to embrace us with [tenderness] and grace.” (8)
This is the beauty and the expanse of prayer. And why practice is necessary. Like life and like love it always encompasses “both/and” never “either/or.”
Prayer helps us be strong and tender.
Prayer is listening and being listened to.
Prayer is asking and prayer is sitting.
Prayer helps us endure and prayer is rest.
Prayer is change and steadiness.
Prayer brings us to our knees and girds us against collapse.
Prayer is weeping and prayer is laughing. (Cussing & silence.)
Prayer is beyond us and prayer IS us.
Prayer flourishes with faith and with doubt. (PO’T)
Prayer is a truth-teller and a lie-exposurer.
Prayer encompasses multitudes.. . . and so do we.
Prayer, whatever form, for whatever reason, in whatever circumstances – promises to rearrange us- unto love. And in times of despair and nightmare – it promises to bring us back to the faith already inscribed in our bodies by the practices we keep.
We practice prayer because it helps us not give up – on ourselves or each other.
Not give up on the kin-dom of God.
Not give up on the kin-dom of God to come.
Not give up on the kin-dom of God here and now.
Today – I want to look at a familiar story in the gospel of Luke, the characters in the story. And wonder together in imaginative and informed ways, what we notice about prayer.
Let me pray for us.
“Oh God, Divine parent of us all – *in whom is heaven*.
Holy, Loving, Merciful one is what we call you.
May your love be enacted in this world, and be our guide to dream, to hope, and create the world now and as we imagine it to be. Give us the morsels of your filling love that we need, in this wilderness. Feed and fuel us for the work of our days. To love ourselves and neighbors well. May we showcase your love, in mercy and kindness and humbleness, as you have shown it to us.
And lead us into your big heart – that expands our own, for the greater good, the common good, and the stranger. Lead us not into self-isolation, scarcity, and new lines of division.
Lead us into your presence, apparent in every part of our days,
where the glory of the power that is love, restores us all – now and forever. AMEN. ( Adapted from the Lord’s Prayer)
My Prayer Life
That was a little riff on the Lord’s Prayer, if you heard some familiarity there… Ending with “amen, amen, amen.”
This word, “Amen” was the favorite part of prayer for me as a kid. Because it meant that the long, recap-style-prayer of whatever service, sermon, or meeting, or event I was at – was finally over.
These days “Amen” is often still my favorite part of prayer – because it signals the beginning of where I get to pick up the end of the spoken prayer – where I get to find my place in living prayer.
The trick is that sometimes the situation I’m praying for, or walking into looks bereft of ‘life’- like the story has already played out, the ending is clear. And yet – this is precisely where the practice of prayer should show up, right? It’s not only for the ‘feel-good’ times, it’s so that the practice will keep working on us in times of despair — in bad times — when we don’t know what to do.
And that’s why I want to look at this scripture this morning – and see how a similar dynamic plays out at the scene after the crucifixion, how the character Joseph, the women of Galilee, and the crowds all engage in prayer.
Luke 23: 48 – 56
48 And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow.
49 But Jesus’ friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching.
50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph. He was a member of the Jewish high council,
51 but he had not agreed with the decision and actions of the other religious leaders. He was from the town of Arimathea in Judea, and he was waiting for the Kingdom of God to come.
52 He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.
53 Then he took the body down from the cross and wrapped it in a long sheet of linen cloth and laid it in a new tomb that had been carved out of rock.
54 This was done late on Friday afternoon, the day of preparation, as the Sabbath was about to begin.
55 As his body was taken away, the women from Galilee followed and saw the tomb where his body was placed.
56 Then they went home and prepared spices and ointments to anoint his body. But by the time they were finished the Sabbath had begun, so they rested as required by the law.
**This is an intense scripture and one that is a lot to delve into a few weeks after Christmas. But even his birth was shrouded in violence and fear at the hands and killing of many innocents of King Herod.
And here in this scene wailing, and mourning, and silence fill the landscape. Maybe you could imagine voices echoing in disbelief asking,
“Is Jesus really gone? Or Jesus are you here? Jesus!?” Show up! Come back – the way we once knew you. Where are you?”
It wouldn’t be surprising, right? It is in fact Jesus’s own cry on the cross,
“God have you left me?”
Horror and violence appear to have had the last word.
And Absence fills the space of where their friend, their hope, their Jesus just was.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that;
Death has won. The empire has won. The oppressor has won.
And it is a battle. To not give up on the kin-dom.
It is a battle to believe that Jesus is still here…. In our fragmented broken landscapes.
When so much blocks and challenges our view of Jesus.
When so much appears void of goodness & love.
This resonates as true. In just my small sphere this week I’ve heard of a new cancer diagnosis, multiple people suffering in unbearable/untreatable physical pain, abandonment, addiction, kids in inpatient programs, legal battles, heart-breaking divorce, a sense of ‘nothing-ness’…200 immigrants seeking at least one day a week, where they can find shelter, warmth, a meal – their human rights.
It is hard to not give up. To not say, “the story is already written and it seems pretty depressing, pretty bleak.”
But prayer rearranges us – helps us sift the lies, sift the loud voices, so that love reappears – surfaces in our hearts.
Joseph of Arimathea
If we look at this character Joseph of Arimathea.
I don’t know what Joseph’s prayer practice had been – if he had one even. But my guess is that it had something to do with, “disagreeing with religious leaders that sentenced Jesus to death – AND it had something to do with “waiting for the Kin-dom of God to come.” Both/And. Action and contemplation.
Maybe all along Joseph was the squeaky wheel in the room – saying,
“no that’s not true of Jesus.” No he’s not guilty. No, you can’t legally sentence him.”
Maybe all along Joseph didn’t know what to do to save Jesus. To fix the situation. Or the systems at play… But he showed up. He was present.
Maybe his deep belief that there was a kin-dom of God to come – that there was a better way for everyone – a beloved community on the horizon — helped him not give up.
We don’t know for sure.
But we do know that he utilized his position, his wealth, his access to power in this moment to —- care, uphold the dignity of Jesus, and love Jesus —to put love on the surface. Going to Pilate and asking for Jesus’ body was a courageous move. Pilate does not like the group that Joseph belonged to… and under Roman law someone condemned to death had no right to burial.
But Joseph is saying to Pilate,
“I would like to bury him anyway – lay him to rest.”
And in doing so – as Joseph takes the body – he is openly identifying with Jesus – no longer a secret disciple.
Even when it looks like there’s nothing left. Joseph is imbued with a deep love, boldness, a greater knowing of Jesus.
Maybe prayer helps us see that justice is holding with reverence those that are cast aside.
The Women of Galilee
If we look at these women of Galilee – who we know have been alongside Jesus throughout much of his ministry – Mary his mother, the first to welcome him into the world – and the last to leave his body at death . . are all present.
They have watched and waited, moved and acted, and watched and waited again.
This time of course their following Jesus and their waiting and watching unfolds as a nightmare against the backdrop of their dreams for this long awaited kin-dom.
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the iconic words of his “I Have A Dream” speech from 1963 will fill our feeds. But may we also remember that a few years later in a Christmas sermon at Ebenezer Church, 1967 – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr says these words:
“This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race.
We have neither peace within nor peace without.
Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night.
Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities.
In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C., and talked to the nation about many things.
Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had,
and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. “
—- and he goes on to detail for multiple points the ways in which his dream has turned into nightmares, and I’m not going to read them because we are living them still… but MLK goes on to say —-
“Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes.”
And his life would end with his murder – just four months later.
Sometimes we can walk around feeling like ghosts-of-ourselves. When the breath of life is swept out of our belief, our faith, our dreams. When we ask,
“God are you here?”
and don’t hear anything back. I wonder if this is how the women – the friends of Jesus felt? I wonder if this is how so so many people who believed for the dream that MLK put voice to felt when he died.
There have been times when I’ve prayed so hard, so long, in so many ways – for something to not “overtake.” For myself, the ones I love, the world…
“Please, God just please don’t let this play out like it looks like it’s going to – please don’t let this overtake.”
And then the cancer does
The division wins
The unjust laws passed in Congress
The heartbreak continues to come one after another – in ceaseless fashion.
Despair can seep deep and quick, turning us into shells of ourselves. Oooof, it knows how to set up just in the most tender spots of our heart – parts of our heart that were so open/vulnerable – that had to be because that’s part of ‘believing.”
But prayer in all of its numerous expressions can help. Here we see the women pray. What do they do?
Given the danger they faced from the Jewish authorities and/or the Romans, these women could have prepared to quickly leave town.
Instead, they linger at the site of their pain – they honor what their bodies are feeling (a prayer in and of itself), and they honor and prepare spices for Jesus’ body.
A seemingly inconsequential, normal act. To dignify the body, to anoint the body in death it was part of the custom. Yet if we regard this movement as prayer – we can see that
“to prepare spices is a metaphor for every small act that refuses to succumb to despair.” (thank you Dante Stewart for this).
And most days, this is what we can do. A small every day act, and regard it as prayer. “Pack the lunch for your kids, go for the walk, call or text your friend, offer a ride, do a soup-swap, listen, light a candle, show up where you can.” The faith of these women teaches us this: offering to one another the basic stuff of human dignity is prayer.
These women can not in the moment dismantle the unjust systems that impact their lives. But these acts, these prayers – rearrange their hearts – and in that process dismantle the authority and the space that despair tries to take up. That is what gets dismantled. Prayer dismantles despair, shame, lies, the voice of the oppressor and puts it in a more right-sized spot.
Preacher Dante Stewart says,
“The oppressor wants to rob our spirits of peace. The oppressor wants us to work tirelessly and be unkind to ourselves. The oppressor wants to distract us. The oppressor is a liar.”
Prayer is a truth-teller and a lie-exposer.
These women want to love more than death can harm. They embalm, they anoint, and they stay close.
Maybe prayer helps us to rub every ordinary act of our days, with the oil of holiness and dignity.
Lastly, let’s not overlook the prayer of the crowds. That first verse in this passage says,
“and the crowds, they went home in deep sorrow”
– in other translations it says they
“went home beating their breasts.”
I see myself in the crowd. The visceral physical nature of expressing such pain, and grief feels like the truest thing. And the truest thing is often prayer. I imagine myself in the crowd, going home, saying “amen.” That’s it. And so it is. Jesus is dead. The end.
But I wonder if for some in that crowd that wasn’t the end – it was also the beginning? Perhaps they went home and talked of their grief – the reasons why they were grieved.. Perhaps they asked questions of one another, asked about
“the fails of their government, the fails of their religious structures, the loss of their friend, the shattering of their hope, the uncertainty of what’s to come.
Perhaps they show us that prayer is also to come alongside one another and to ask questions that
penetrate the times and pierce the soul, questions of social conscience and moral discernment.” (Michael Connor, sojo.net)
A way to sit in the terror of a world undone, and to still trust that the things the human spirit is moved to do in defiance of despair is prayer. Perhaps it too breaks open a way to imagine a different way forward – all the while engaged in prayer – honor, dignity, anointing, asking questions, weeping – creating and growing beloved community, as well as our resilience to not give up on the kin-dom of God.
The crowds, the women of Galilee, and Joseph all play their part. They all do what is truest to them in the spheres of their life. With the love of God anchoring them – and disrupting them unto greater vision, unto a greater world they can not yet see – and they pray, they pray, they pray their way into seeing a living, real, good, and loving Jesus in their midst again and enlivening this faith.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr ends his famous Christmas sermon where he talks more about nightmares than dreams by saying these words that I’ll close with as prayer,
“I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the children of God will shout for joy.”