Saturday, February 05, 2011

Shining Light

Ethics and Prayer

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 5:13-20

When three- and four-year-olds in the day school of a parish where I was priest gathered for daily chapel, they used to compete to light the two candles on the small altar. Our standard ritual was my question, “Who did Jesus say was the light of the world?” For the first several weeks of the term or maybe longer there would be a choral answer: “God!”

“That is a very good answer, but not quite the one I’m looking for,” I’d say.

With a little training, they learned to say, “Jesus.” And I would affirm that Jesus did say that he was the light of the world.

“But who else did Jesus say was the light of the world?”

“We are!” they would shout out.

We do not know what preschoolers will remember, or whether or not down the road it will make much difference that they were taught this or that. I suspect that it is a very uneven thing, some children remembering things that others quickly forget. But it was my prayer that somehow, as those little ones saw the two candles burning on their altar, they would make the connection that Jesus and we were in this together. He who said, “I am the light of the world” also said, “You are the light of the world,” howbeit in two different gospels.

Because this year I set myself the task of looking when I preach at each Sunday’s texts with you through the lens of prayer, I am hearing all of these scriptures today in a different key from how I have heard them before. The passage from Isaiah, for instance, is one we frequently read on Ash Wednesday. Fasting is no good if it is divorced from the ethical behavior that God enjoins. It is easy enough to make the connection between the Lenten fast and the ethical imperative to do right by the poor and the oppressed. And the piece of the Sermon on the Mount that we hear in today’s gospel: it really is about integrity, isn’t it? Tasteless salt or a smothered light are contradictions in terms. If we are salt, we have something to flavor. If we are light, we are the means by which people see. We have to exercise our properties in a way that is congruent with who we are. In other words, we are not worth much if we do not have and act with integrity. The “righteousness,” of which Jesus speaks, the righteousness that his community must have that exceeds the so-called righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is a sense of right action. It involves the practice of justice. That righteousness is different from moral priggishness or pious fussiness. It is the righteousness of profound integrity.

What happens, however, when we start hearing these things in relation to prayer? We find, first, that prayer itself takes on a fresh meaning. Often we assume prayer to be the words we say in the context of a talk, formal or informal, we have with the Divine. But that is only a fraction of what prayer is. Prayer is a way of living. In the Christian sense, prayer is a way of maintaining our relationship with God. I would put it even more simply and say that prayer is the Life of God in us. But in a larger sense, isn’t it possible that our prayer is our life with our god, whichever god we happen to have? Think about it. Somebody asked me just this week what the commandment on idolatry meant. “What is it to have an idol?” he asked. “Idol” is only a word denoting whatever it is that is the god we bow down to, other than the Author and Giver of Life itself. Those gods can be security or money or education or family or sports or career or one of a couple of thousand other things. But whatever the god is that we are worshiping, the substance of the life we are living with that god is our prayer. That is, by the way, what is so sad about idols, and even sadder about prayers to idols. Idols have no way of doing much for us, except by giving us a temporary fix that meets a need such as self-assurance or the staving off of fear. As the psalmist says in once place, “…eyes have they, but they cannot see; ears but they cannot hear; noses but they cannot smell….” And when we give our lives to what cannot give life back, we are the ultimate losers. So the question is not whether we are going to pray. The question is to whom we are going to pray. And you know already that the biblical deck is loaded. There is only One worth praying to, for there is only One who is living and true.

All of that is well and good, until we start trying to figure out what life with God actually involves. I’ll tell you right now that I have discovered no way to get even all the important pieces of the answer to that question into one sermon. I invariably skip something. Yet there is no question that the Law, the Prophets, and Jesus himself leave little doubt that God’s life involves right relationships. To put it that way brings us squarely into the sphere of ethics. When we start thinking of prayer as a deeply ethical activity, or ethics as prayerful, the whole notion of ethics takes on an interesting meaning. Much of the time, “ethics” seems to mean conformity to a standard of professional conduct, such as medical ethics or congressional ethics (don’t laugh), or the ethics of academe. But the Bible knows nothing about that—which fact doesn’t mean that a code of ethics, for example, is a bad idea. Instead, prophets like Isaiah know a good deal about integrity. The great insight of the old prophets was that spirituality without ethical behavior was vapid, hollow, useless. You can fast while you are oppressing your employees, but it won’t do you any good at all. To put it in human terms, God does not even bat an eye. Fasting while quarreling and plotting schisms and sewing the seeds of division? Don’t waste your time! To put it in human terms, God does not hear as much as a grunt from you. But, true fasting is humility. It is loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing those things that keep people down, coming down on the side of the oppressed, exercising power for the sake of right. To live a life like that is to live the life of God, because those are the ethical things God is interested in. To be absolutely clear, Isaiah does not say that these things go hand in hand with a good fast—and if you aren’t into fasting, read “general spirituality.” These things are fasting or “general spirituality,” if the latter is worth its salt. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, being available to those “strangers” who really are our own kin: these things are the fast that God desires.

So, then, is prayer as we usually think of it a waste of time? In the total context of the prophets, even the book of Isaiah itself, it would be wrong to suppose that the prophets condemn all liturgy, all ritual, all prayer as we practice it in the formal sense. No, when the people are wrapped up in religiosity and are all fascinated with how spiritual they are, the prophets remind them that there is a world out there that sweats under the yoke of bondage and groans from pure physical hardship—a world God calls them to care about. But when the people (that is to say the majority) are beaten down, depressed, hopeless, the prophets, like Malachi and Zechariah and Haggai, call for a renewal of the worshiping community.

Interestingly enough, Isaiah winds up his sermon on true fasting by talking about “your light,” and “your healing,” meaning ours. When we have integrated the practice of justice and the practice of worship, we in fact will have arrived at the place of true prayer. Our light will shine, not on us, but on the One whose life we are living, the One whose life is in us. It is the life of the One whom Jesus calls “our Abba in heaven.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

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