Become The Prayer – Sermon Oct. 16, 2016 United Ministry of Aurora


Do you have a time of the week when you pray? A time of day? How long do we pray? The Lord's prayer takes less than thirty seconds.  Ten seconds if we "speed-pray" and say it real fast.  Or, if we add a long prayer list, maybe two or three minutes to run through it.  Our scripture today is focused on prayer. There is more to prayer than an urgent request for an outcome you think you want. The lesson in today's readings is on persistence in prayer.

In our Torah lesson from Genesis 32, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, has left the house of his in-laws in Syria and with his family and flocks is heading home after twenty years away. After seeing his family safely across a tributary of the Jordan River, Jacob spends the night alone on the other side. An angel in the form of a man confronts him, and the two wrestle all night. As dawn comes, the stranger says to Jacob, "Let me go." Jacob refuses until the stranger blesses him - even then Jacob senses this is not an ordinary fight nor an ordinary man. Maybe this is all a dream, but the angel reaches out and strikes Jacob on the hip, crippling him with a limp that remains for life. Nope, no dream. And then the angel blesses him. "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[f] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

The name Israel means 'he wrestles with God.' Jacob wrestled persistently - even when the angel asked him to 'cut it out, already.' Jacob kept at it until the angel gave him a whack he remembered for the rest of his life. But, by his persistent grappling until he received the blessing, Jacob was transformed into Israel, the wrestler with God. Jacob, renamed Israel, is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, each named for one of his twelve sons. Israel's fourth son, Judah, is the patriarch of a family which grew into a large tribe. Judah was the last large tribe left after the pre-BC wars and deportations. The name "Jew" comes from Judah.  King David was from the tribe of Judah. Jesus, Yeshua, the Messiah and son of God was descended from Judah on the human level. You'll notice throughout scripture the Jewish People is sometimes referred to as Jacob, sometimes Israel. But the name "Israel" is a reminder that it is the obligation of the Jewish People to persist as wrestlers and witnesses to God's teaching. Their continued existence as a People is a form of persistent prayer - on behalf of all Creation.

The reading from Paul's second letter to Timothy; "... I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable..."  Here, Paul specifically urges Timothy (and us) to be persistent in proclaiming the message, no matter what else is going on in your life. Proclaiming is not just speaking from the pulpit or discussion in Bible study. It is the ongoing persistent prayer of how we live our lives, what we value.

Jesus drives this home in the Gospel message. After telling the parable of how the unjust, corrupt judge who had no regard for Man or God was finally moved by the persistence of the widow, Jesus assures us how much more our just and merciful God cares about the persistent prayers of our hearts. But Jesus then asks a pointed question: "When the son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?"  What an odd question to follow this parable. But, Jesus makes us think. Who is the judge? Who is the widow? Craig Lindsey, my Pastor at Skaneateles First Presbyterian mentioned this parable with me after Bible study this week. Craig had the brilliant insight that the corrupt judge who has no respect for Man or for God, is us, the people. The widow, pleading with the judge to listen to her case? That's God. What a reversal! Craig painted the insightful picture of the Lord reaching out to us with mercy and love, but we aren't listening. Yet the Lord persists, hoping we will come to our senses and tune in to him, hear him.

How do we hear? First, we have to be quiet. Sometimes our religion gets in the way of our discovering this pearl of great price. Our traditions have us speaking to God and to each other more than listening to God.

When I first became a Christian as a young man, I was moved by the power of the Word. I thought it was the words that were moving me, but it was more than the words. The words conveyed a power and spirit that cracked my shell of rationality and changed me inside. I thought it was the words, but it was the presence and spirit of God changing me. The words were just an access point to the spiritual mystery, the silence which is beyond words.

A few years back work brought me to live in Washington, DC. Having been a Presbyterian back in Skaneateles, I looked up the nearest D.C. Presbyterian church. Closed for the summer. But, right down the end of my street, just north of Dupont Circle was St. Margaret's Episcopal Church. A tall, black man dressed in full priestly regalia stood smiling at the door, waving us in. I didn't know then that Eugene Sutton would become the canon Pastor at the Washington National Cathedral and later Episcopal Bishop of Maryland.  We became good friends. Gene introduced me to Centering Prayer. Centering prayer is a contemplative movement sparked by Thomas Merton in the 1950s, developed by Thomas Keating and other Trappist monks, and also popularized by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk. This led me to take retreats for many years at St. Benedict's Monastery in Old Snowmass, Colorado and sit at Thomas Keating's feet. But the greatest blessing was feeling the persistent presence of God in silence. Silence. Wordlessness. I began to understand the 19th Psalm,
The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

God's first language is silence. Prayer is more than words. The Franciscan Richard Rohr did a conference at Norwich Cathedral last year, and he captured some thoughts about prayer and the persistence of prayer.  We said sometimes it seems like religion gets in the way of our discovering this great truth. Our Western approach to religion is very rational and dualistic - either/or. Things are black or white - one thing or another. We get caught up in theology, and approach God with creeds and assertions and theological teaching of exactly how and with what words we are to worship. We are not comfortable with paradox and mystery. Rohr points out that often we get so caught up in the container of our religions that we miss the content. We often fall so in love with our explanations of God, our certainties, sometimes it seems as if we worship our explanations of God more than God himself. God is mystery. God is silence.

We in the West are uncomfortable with the mystery of God, the uncertainty. A great 14th Century contemplative classic by an unknown author is titled, "The Cloud of Unknowing." This is the cloud that descended on Moses at the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai and enveloped Jesus on Mt. Tabor at the Transfiguration. Yet we want to sweep away the cloud. We persist, not in prayer, but in wordy explanations.

Fr. Rohr described two events at this conference. He was at an eight-day retreat at the Abbey of Gesthemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton's home monastery. He knew there were some recluses among the monks. Recluses are more than  hermits. They completely recuse themselves from the world to live in constant communion with God. The only time the other monks get to see them is at Easter Vigil and Christmas Eve Mass. Everyone comes eager to see whether the recluses have gone crazy yet, or are glowing.  Rohr was out walking deep in the Western Kentucky woods and came across a recluse on the path, a former abbot, and he was glowing. He walked towards Rohr and gave a warm, gracious smile. And, he said, "Richard, you get to speak all over the world. I don't. So please, just tell the people one thing."  Pointing upward, he said, "God is not out there!" And he walked on, glowing.

God is not "out there." The experience, the inner experience of God is right here. This is the pearl of great price. To know this and live this. The truth is, content of religion has no form. God is a mystery too great for us to conceptualize. But, this mystery, God, seeks us out and wants to be with us always and everywhere. Shouldn't we be with God always and everywhere?

Rohr finished his conference with  a teaching that helped me understand persistent prayer. It has to do with the very name of God. The third commandment is to not take the name of the Lord in vain. We usually think of this as not saying, "God damn you." True, this is not a very nice thing to say, but that is not what the commandment is about. In vain is from the Latin vanus - empty, void. God is so outside our ability to conceptualize, so holy, so mysterious the ancient rabbis would never even pronounce the name of God. Whenever the name of God appears in writing or speech, to this day they substitute the word Adonai or Hashem. Adonai means "Lord." Hashem means, "The Name."

In Hebrew, the vowels are not shown. An educated Jew is expected to know from the consonants alone how the word is pronounced. Vowels are implicit.  In the 9th Century AD, the Masoretes added vowel points. But, in the original texts there were no vowel points. The name of God is represented by four consonants. These are Anglicized and mispronounced as if they were English JHVH. We fill in these consonants with vowels and create the made-up name, Jehovah. But that is not God's name.  

In Hebrew, these consonants are the only consonants pronounced without use of the lips or tongue. The name, if pronounced in correct Hebrew, sounds like this: (Inhalation/exhalation) (yyahhh-whhey). (Inhale/Exhale)
In fact, the very first sound we make when we come out from our mother's womb, is the name of God. (Inhale/Exhale) And the very last word we say on earth as we lie on our deathbed is the Name of God. (Inhale/Exhale). Yes, the breath we breathe is the Name of God. The spirit of God is everywhere, and necessary for life. The Name of God, breath itself,  is the same if you are Catholic or Jew, if you are Hindu or Muslim, Buddhist or Shinto, Presbyterian or Episcopal. The form of our worship makes no difference to God. What matters is the persistence of our prayer. Yes, saying the name of God, breathing itself, if you are intentional, breathing itself can be prayer. Spirit, Ruach, is wind, is breath. We do not know what to pray for, but the spirit of God knows and intercedes for us. Persistently.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how they should pray, he gave them very few words. Our very breath, in silence, can also be prayer. Pray persistently, internalize the prayer. Become the prayer. Become mindful of the immanence of Hashem. As Christians, we are free to name the Son of God, Jesus. Jesus came for all who breathe, that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

As we live and breathe, be mindful of the persistent love of God, and the complete forgiveness of our sins. If we are mindful of our breath as prayer, if we are mindful of the presence and loving kindness of God around us and within us, we are on the way to becoming the prayer. We are on the path to becoming adopted sons and daughters of God. I urge you, my brothers and sisters, be persistent in prayer. Be the prayer.