Proper 12C: Pray Like This

Lord's Prayer (Aramaic)FIRST LESSON:  Hosea 1: 2-10

Read the Old Testament passage

Hosea, another “minor prophet”, prophesied in northern Israel about 750-740 BCE (after Amos), which was a tumultuous period with many political power struggles and violence.  During this time, Israel had enjoyed continuing prosperity and successful trade with surrounding nations.  Their prosperity, though, had made them lax in their relationship with God and, in Hosea’s view, society was on a downward spiral of injustice and immorality.  The society was full of religious syncretism, in which competing beliefs and competing deities were fused with belief in YHWH (sort of a “watered down” version of the Torah, in essence).  For Hosea, the society was involved both politically and religiously in “affairs” in which Israel exhibited infidelity.

God tells Hosea to take “a wife of whoredom” and bear children.  The broken marriage reflects what Hosea saw as Israel’s broken relationship with God.  He really saw little difference between the political infidelity and the religious.  He saw them as interwoven and both in need of judgment.

In accordance with the divine command, Hosea chooses Gomer, who some scholars claim may possibly have been a temple prostitute, hanging around the temple waiting to be picked up by anyone who happened by, and they have three children whose names embody the judgment of God. It is possible, too, that the children, especially the second and third, are not Hosea’s, but rather the fruits of attachments that Gomer had with other men. The first child is Jezreel, whose name means, ‘God sows,’ to embody the punishment the people are soon to reap. The city of Jezreel had been the scene of much violence and had become a byword for violence and torture, hardly a happy name to give a first-born son. The second child is named Lo-ruhamah, ‘not pitied,’ to signify an end to the Lord’s pity and forgiveness of God’s people Israel. It is as though God has had enough of the people’s straying; God’s compassion has worn thin.

The third child’s name, Lo-ammi, is especially disturbing, as it means, ‘not my people.’ God’s continual way of saying to Israel ‘You are my people’ and Israel’s response ‘You are our God’ compose the covenant between God and Israel. But this third child’s name indicates God’s covenant with his people is now at an end. Their apostasy means a breaking of the covenant from their side, so that they can no longer be seen as God’s people.

But then the mood of the passage shifts abruptly, promising that at the very place where it was said the people were no longer God’s, they would once again be called ‘children of the living God.’ The change begins with “Yet”—even with all this stuff that has happened, God is still there.  It is as though the end of the covenant is too terrible to contemplate. Perhaps there is also a sense that the overarching love of God cannot be shut out even when the people fall away from their part of the covenant.  Hosea as a prophet is a striking figure. He takes upon himself something of the people’s sin, something of their pain. Through his marriage to Gomer and the birth of the children, he enacts the long-suffering love of God, who bears with his erring people far beyond their deserving. And who in the end opts for compassion and forgiveness as the way to life.

Now, I guess you could ask why in the world God thought it necessary to make Hosea live a life full of infidelity in order to deliver the message.  But, remember, even Moses had to get in there and wander in the wilderness.  The thing is, life with God does not mean that it is somehow sanitized and without difficulty or transgressions.  After all, maybe we’re supposed to squirm a little bit at our own unfaithfulness to God.  Life is life and sometimes it’s how we see God at work in our life.  The passage, uncomfortable as it may be, carries both the pain of unfaithfulness and the compassion of a God who still redeems—over and over and over again. And maybe within that redemption is a reminder that not everyone CHOOSES their life.  It is probably more likely that Gomer was a prostitute not for sex but for money.  Maybe this was her way out.  Maybe it’s a reminder that the world is not sanitized for our enjoyment and God knows that, that God knows how to get in there in the dirt of it all and redeem even the worst injustices that the world holds.  It is a reminder that God is God over all of Creation and promises to redeem the worst that might come along.  And THAT IS good news!

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What, for you, does the possibility of being truly “God-forsaken” mean to you?

3)      What message could this hold for our own society?

4)      What message of hope does this passage hold?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19)

Read the Epistle passage

This is sort of a densely-packed lesson but in it, the writer (more than likely not Paul) comes to the heart of the gospel—God’s gracious deliverance of humanity through the death and resurrection of Christ, and our sharing in that deliverance through union with Christ at baptism.  Because Christ shares fully the human condition, we share Christ’s destiny.

The letter begins with words of encouragement and a reminder of what it means to “receive” Christ, to “receive” the gospel.  The word that is translated here as “live” is actually closer to “walk”, which was a common way of talking about a way of life.  So this was directed at converts who are hearing from others that their spiritual “walk” is lacking in some way.

If we take our passage as a whole and include the verses in brackets we can see that these people are concerned about observances in relation to food, drink, festivals, new moons, and the Sabbath. They are also concerned with heavenly powers and authorities, including some kind of veneration of angels and mystical connection with them. There is also the recurrence of the common argument over circumcision as “proof” of one’s righteousness and belief. This may have been a sort of radical form of Jewish Christianity which still upholds the Law and insists that Gentiles observe it.

So the writer again issues a warning against others who threaten their faith.  He specifically warns against those touting “philosophy”, which for the writer implied those things based on human tradition and not on Christ.  “Tradition” here refers to those things that are human constructs that lack divine authority in his understanding.

Colossians grounds its readers in Christ, from being rooted in Christ and then ending it with the image of a body nourished by the head and growing through God.  The letter is a pretty broad canvas.  The crux of it, though, is unity and peace and how those things are at stake.  For the writer, God’s compassion spills into the whole universe and brings it together.  The image of Christ as universal and the church as the universal body of Christ is paramount here.  So these divisions and attempts to break apart what is sealed by Christ should be ignored.  The meaning of life has to do with the love found in Christ, not rules and regulations.  It has to do with this God who redeems our best and our worst.

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      How is this message still pertinent today?

3)      What does it mean for you to “receive” Christ?

4)      What does it mean for you that God redeems our best and our worst?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 11:1-13

Read the Gospel passage

The opening to our Gospel passage is a request that each of us deeply understands:  “Lord, teach us to pray.”  We want to know how to pray.  We want to have a deep and abiding prayer life that connects us with God and makes our lives richer and fuller.  How do you pray?  Who taught you to pray?  Why do you pray?  We want to find a way to make our prayers more meaningful and more worthy of what God really wants to hear.  Maybe that’s our problem.  We’re trying so hard to bring meaning to our prayer life that we’re not allowing our prayers to bring meaning to our life.  We’re trying so hard to find God that we don’t expect to experience a God who is already there.  God does not need our prayers; we do.  God does not have to be invited into our lives; we just have to open our eyes to God’s Presence.

The truth is, Jesus knew that.  He knew that people struggled to experience the real Presence of God and because of that, they also struggled with how to acknowledge and live with that Presence in their lives.  He knew that we struggled continuously with doubts about God and about what God wanted from us.  He knew that we struggle with what prayer should be.  So he begins where we are—in the midst of that silence that is God.  He began by showing the disciples what was at the very core of his own life—his relationship with God.  Because remember that Jesus had made prayer an integral part of his life.  How many times do we read of him “withdrawing to a deserted place to pray” or “going to the mountain to pray” or “spending the night in prayer with God?”  He prayed before he chose the disciples, when he fed the five thousand, and on the night before he was led to his death.  He even prayed on the cross, a prayer of centering and forgiveness.

What Jesus provided in answer to the disciple’s request is more than just a formula for prayer.  Jesus provided words to address God, words to praise God, and, finally, words to petition God.  The prayer begins by imploring God (and perhaps reminding us that this is God’s place) to take charge of our life and our world, to bring about justice and peace as only God can do.

The remaining petitions have to do with basic human needs, those things that are the very sustenance of our life—food, relationships with others, relationship with God.  They have to do with life.  The prayer does not include petitions for stuff, or comforts, or for things to get easier for us.  It doesn’t even ask God to make things clearer or more sensible to us.  It is a prayer that brings us into life with God.  It is a petition for those things that only God can provide and that we cannot live without.  It is an opening to the awareness that God made us, that we are God’s, and that God’s desire is not for us to be right, or to be good, or to be pleasing, but to be who we were meant to be.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said that “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience.  We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

The prayer that Jesus taught us to pray has nothing to do with knowing the right words.  It really is more about persistence.  Jesus continues in this passage by reminding us to keep asking, keep seeking, and keep knocking.  Far from characterizing God as some sort of celestial Santa Claus who always brings good little boys and girls the things for which they ask, Jesus seemed to assume that God is already in motion, that God has already answered every prayer, and that God has already opened every door that needs to be opened and is standing at the threshold inviting us to enter.  So praying opens our lives to the presence of the God who is always and already there and gives us the realization that God provides life’s minimum daily requirements so that all we need to do is open ourselves to being with God.

In her book,   The Breath of the Soul, Joan Chittister tells of another disciple who expressed the desire that his master teach him how to pray.  “Then here is how,” the Holy One said as he plunged the head of the disciple into a bucket of water and held it there while the disciple struggled to be free. “Why did you do a thing like that?” the disciple demanded to know as he came up out of the water gasping for breath.  “In order to teach you,” the Holy One said, “that when you get to the point where you know you need God as much as you need air, you will have learned how to pray.” ( Joan Chittister, The Breath of the Soul:  Reflections on Prayer (New London, CT:  Twenty-third Publications, 2009), 36.)

Well, that was a little more dramatic than what Jesus did, but I actually think that they were trying to get the same point across.  We are not merely called to pray; we are called to a life of prayerfulness, a life in which every breath we take and every move we make is attuned to the breath and movement of God that is already a part of us.  And in that way, prayer comes with responsibility.  As we enter that realm of God, we, too, are called to be a part of creating a world of justice and peace, of forgiveness, of providing bread for the hungry, and a shunning of those things that temptingly pull us away from where we’re called to be.  Prayer, then, opens us to love and that, too, becomes a way of sustaining our life.

There is a New York Times bestseller that was written by Elizabeth Gilbert that carries the title, Eat, Pray, Love.  The book was ultimately made into a movie.  This book  is essentially the account of a women’s search for meaning in her life.  Assuming that she could not find it where she was, she took off on a whirlwind adventure through Italy, India, and Indonesia, on a quest for enjoyment, devotion, and transcendence.  She finds it but she has to get out of herself and away from the chaos that she has created in her life to find what was there all along—to find the sustenance that is life—to eat, to pray, and to love.  She finds that she cannot exist without each of them and that they were in her life all along.

She says that “the search for God is a reversal of the normal, mundane worldly order.  In the search for God, you revert from what attracts you and swim toward that which is difficult.  You abandon your comforting and familiar habits with the hope that something greater will be offered you in return for what you’ve given up.  Every religion in the world,” she says, “ operates on the same common understandings of what it means to be a good disciple—get up early and pray to God, hone your virtues, be a good neighbor, respect yourself and others, master your cravings.” [Goodness, that sort of sounds like that prayer we know so well!]  She goes on:  “We all agree that it would be easier to sleep in, and many of us do, but for millennia there have been others who choose instead to get up before the sun and wash their faces and go to their prayers.  And then fiercely try to hold on to their devotional convictions throughout the lunacy of another day…Faith is belief in what you cannot see or prove or touch.  Faith is walking face-first and full-speed into the dark.  If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be…a prudent insurance policy…I couldn’t care less,” she says, “ about evidence and proof and assurances.  I just want God.  I want God inside me.  I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on water.”( Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (New York, NY:  Penguin Books, 2006), 175-176.)

 

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does prayer mean for you?  What difficulties with it do you have?

3)      What would it mean for us to see prayer as a “minimum daily requirement”, as life-sustaining?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Prayer is not merely an occasional impulse to which we respond when we are in trouble:  prayer is a life attitude.  (Wayne Mueller)

Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place…to which we may continuously return.  Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us…calling us home unto Itself.  Yielding to these persuasions…utterly and completely, to the Light within, is the beginning of true life. (Thomas R. Kelly)

If you begin to live life looking for God that is all around you, every moment becomes a prayer.  (Frank Bianco)

 

Closing

God, You who are Father and Mother to each of us, but nearer than our own breath; Make yourself the center of our world and our lives:  Reign over us and among us.  Let your creative and life-giving will and dream for us happen right now and right here in our world; Make every bite of bread a taste of your loving presence; Don’t make us relive our failures day after day, and help us not to make others relive their own failures.  And do not abandon us to our own violence, but show us the way out of the cycle of violence that threatens to destroy us.  Because your Reign and your Power and your Glory are finally all that matter.  Amen. (The Lord’s Prayer (Paraphrased), by Dr. Virgil Howard, (1936-2006)

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