Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Sermon on the Mount

Prayer and Worry

Matthew 6:19-34

In the middle of composing my sermon for today, which I have capriciously entitled “My Sermon on the Mount,” I found myself wondering if Jesus worried as much about his Sermon on the Mount as I was worrying about mine. Well, if you know much about Jesus, I am sure you will agree with me that I outstrip him in the worrying department.

Jesus had some things to say about worrying. In the process, he did not bash worriers and say that they were bad people. But if we take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, especially this slice of it we heard as the gospel today, it is hard to come away with some impression other than that Jesus is doing his best to talk us out of worrying. And, in no small measure, to be honest, that is what I want to do too. I want my Sermon on the Mount to reduce the total amount of worrying, or anxiety, that most of us keep going.

Some people are natural worriers. I have known a few in my lifetime. I suppose if you are a worrier, you might not appreciate having the homiletical spotlight shine on you, especially if you should not look too attractive under that light. You might want to point out to me, for example, that people who worry a lot simply cannot help themselves, in which case there is little good to be gained by suggesting that they change. Or you might point out one of a number of recent studies that suggest worrying is a good thing, and that the matter with a lot of us is that we don’t do enough of it, or at least don’t do enough of the right kind of worrying.

Jesus actually does not address what some psychologists would call “the good kind of worry.” Not, at least, in his Sermon on the Mount. I think it is fair to say that he would have advised the Scribes and Pharisees of his day to do a bit more worrying about the plight of the poor, to worry somewhat more about the marginalized and dispossessed, and to worry about the effect of burdensome laws and regulations upon a sin-conscious and spiritually oppressed population. That is not the kind of worrying he focuses on in the Sermon on the Mount. There he talks about worrying which is antithetical to a life of prayer.

And that brings us swiftly to the topic of My Sermon on the Mount. For, like all the others that I am preaching for the time being, this one is about prayer. Jesus says some things about prayer in his Sermon on the Mount, but not in the passage we are examining right now. He talks elsewhere about how when we pray we are to go into a private place and not to “heap up empty phrases.” He then gives us the model prayer, which we have come to know as The Lord’s Prayer or the “Our Father,” as an example of the way to pray. But in a larger sense, prayer, as we have noted before, is a way of life, a pattern of continuous communication with God. So in that sense, worry very much gets in the way of prayer because worry wears away at one of the cornerstone elements of life with God. That element is trust.

Worry and the stress it engenders were not invented a few years ago when people entered a post-industrial world. Worry has been around a long time. In fact, one can make a case that worry, if anything, was even more prevalent in times like Jesus’, because proportionately a great many more people lived on the edge of starvation or some other cause of death. On top of all that, they, like many in the underdeveloped parts of the modern world, lived much of their days in the shadow of political oppression. So Jesus and his listeners knew something about worry. It does not make much difference if you are worrying about what you are to eat because you are a first century Palestinian peasant or whether you are worrying about how you will pay the bill in an entirely too expensive restaurant to which you have taken your spouse for Valentine’s Day. Worry is not going to prove too helpful in either situation. The constant thing is that, no matter what our circumstances, we always have a choice as to how we are going to approach life. We can either live out of the context of the lilies of the field or we can live out of the context of the rich fool of another gospel, who amassed a great many things to give him security but which availed nothing when he suddenly died. We can either live out of a basic sense of trust, or we can live out of a basic sense of fear.

Now fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on what we fear and how we fear. As the Collect of the Day—one of the best in the Prayer Book, in my opinion—says, God wills us “to give thanks in all things, to dread nothing but the loss of [God]....” So there is at least one thing to fear—and that is the loss of God, which means the loss of an awareness of God’s Presence and utter reliability. And there are some fears that function to keep us appropriately cautious of things that can harm us or others. But runaway fear, basic fear, all-encompassing anxiety, even if it is well masked, gets in the way of doing what we pray for in the same collect: it gets in the way of casting “all our care upon [God], who care[s] for us.” The “faithless fears” and “worldly anxieties” we ask to be spared are those things that can “hide from us the light of that love which is immortal.” And that, you see, is the crux of the matter. The heart of prayer—the prayer that we live, not only the prayer that we say—is letting go of those things that, if we hold on to them, become the center of our preoccupations and thus our gods.

Why is it so hard to let go, even if we are not worriers by nature? The psychologist Erik Erikson posited a basic stage in human development, which he called “infant trust.” The very first stage in psychosocial development is the crisis of trust versus mistrust, a crisis out of which the little human being either learns or does not learn the fundamental dynamic of hope. If the infant does not learn that he or she can trust caregivers, then that crisis is not resolved. In a sense it colors the rest of life, until in some sense it is resolved. Viewed through that lens, the phenomenon of worrying, or chronic anxiety, might well be traced to the lack of completion of that very first developmental task: learning to trust. If we have not learned that, it is quite likely that we will have trouble trusting generally. It is even more likely that we will find it difficult to trust that the world is a basically good place, let alone trust a God whom we do not see.

I would argue that we can indeed learn to trust. Like most things learned, trust is best learned by practice. We don’t get very far from chronic worrying if we simply give in to it all the time. Many find that meditation is a powerful antidote to worrying. Some find help through counseling or psychotherapy. Others turn to spiritual direction with a skilled soul friend, and learn to reflect on their lives in the light of God’s Providence. But I think there is a way, in addition to all of these, that is available to every last one of us. And that way is simple prayer. And here I am talking about prayer in the narrow sense of focused thoughts, if not words. Often prayer is generated directly out of anxiety as we whisper or scream or mutter or cry out to God, “Please help me!” It does not necessarily make anxiety or fear go away, but sometimes it can lead us to unexpected grace.

Something happened to me about a dozen years ago that captures what I am talking about. I had gone on a cross-country trip, a sabbatical I had dreamed about for years. The first week into this three-month journey, I was hiking alone and found myself quite suddenly half-way up a rock formation that was far steeper and sharper than I had imagined. I froze about fifty or sixty feet up a wall impossible for me to continue scaling, with nothing to hold on to. The thought of backing down the rock petrified me and the thought of continuing was equally paralyzing. I literally hung for minutes not knowing what to do, palms sweating. I visualized myself falling all the way down, breaking a leg, arm, back, or neck. Never in my life to this day have I been more frightened. You don’t need a lesson in prayer at a point like that. You just pray, hoping to God or whoever is out there that something will save you. Out of my mouth came, “Lord, save me!” and in my head or heart or somewhere I heard, “He will not suffer your foot to be moved.” To my left, about fifteen feet away was a crevice in the rock. I took a breath and, thanks to some good hiking boots and a gust of trust, I scampered (I lack a more accurate verb) over to the crevice, grabbed its jagged edge, and backed down the rock formation. Then I had to go about a quarter of the way up again to retrieve my hiking stick, which I had thrown down. Thank God, such moments of abject terror do not come too often in my life. But when they do, there is nothing much to do but cry out in utter helplessness, believing that on some level, the Great Consciousness of the Universe (I nickname it “God”) will hear the cry and come to aid. Do you have to put it that way? No. Do you have to believe in God? Not really. Do you have to trust? Absolutely. And in my book, it all amounts to the same thing.

Prayer does not have to be that nail-biting, palm-sweating experience, however. And usually it isn’t. Prayer can as easily be what you do when you sit down to pay your bills, or when you wring your hands over what your daughter will do on her first date, or when you think about how you will get through the morning of tough meetings, or when you start cleaning out the attic of your mother’s house that she didn’t touch the last thirty years of her life. And even those things are more dramatic than prayer needs to be. Little by little, day by day, it is practicing letting go: a little bit here, a little bit there, until we come to find ourselves a bit freer than we were last year this time, a bit more able to trust that the one who clothes the grass of the fields, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, will clothe us of little faith.

And as for the birds, I recall a rhyme I heard as a child, which still inspires me during the times when clouds darken and fears mount:

Said the robin to the sparrow,
“There’s one thing I’d like to know—
Why these anxious human beings
Rush around and worry so.”

Said the sparrow to the robin,
“I think that it must be
That they have no heavenly Father
Such as cares for you and me.”

Even in our darkest hour, whether of our own making or despite our best efforts or quite by cosmic chance, we are undergirded by a fundamental Goodness, protected by countless throngs of ancestors and spirits, loved everlastingly by the Mother of God and the hosts of heaven, saved by the strong hand of the Son of Man, shielded by the Love of a Provident God who values each one of us as if we were the one and only inhabitant of the world. Then when Fear knocks at the door and Trust answers, Trust always finds that no one is there.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2011

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