Sermon – Proper 17 - Sept 1, 2019
Saint. Andrew’s, Marianna, AR
The Rev. Canon Renee Miller
“How to Pray, Part 7”
May the sacraments and the Word and the hunger of our souls meet, and lead us ever more deeply into the heart of God. Al-hamdu-lillah. Amen.
So, what’s the question? You should know it well by now! (What is the first thing you think of when I say the word prayer?”) Any new answers? Any new reflections?
Anne sent me a wonderful quote this week about prayer; “The first ever cordless phone was created by God. God named it ‘Prayer.’ It never loses its signal and you never have to recharge it. Use it anywhere!” That could serve as the complete sermon today and I could just sit down!
The most essential form of the Lord’s Prayer that we began with from the Gospel of Luke ends with this short prayer: “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” What can this possibly mean? We all know that none of us are spared trials in life. The version of the Lord’s Prayer we’re most familiar with has it worded as “lead us not into temptation.” God doesn’t lead us into temptation, so why would we ask God not to do what God doesn’t do anyway? Neither does God capriciously bring us trial. Most of the trials we experience in life are of our own making or simply the result of being human and living with other humans in an earthly and imperfect world.
Jesus included this phrase “Do not bring us to the time of trial,” when he was teaching the disciples how to pray, perhaps for 2 reasons. First, it may have been a prayer he prayed himself. He may have had some idea of the ultimate trial he would face and wanted to be saved from having to experience the inevitable. His words in the garden on the night before his death give some confirmation of this, “Let this cup pass from me.....nevertheless, not mine but thy will be done.”
Second, he may have taught this to the disciples because he knew that if he wanted to be spared a trial he didn’t want to face, the disciples, too, would want to be spared trials that were difficult, demanding, distressing.
I want to say here, however, that trials don’t need to be something big like crucifixion, or death by cancer. Trials can come in all disguises: a water pipe breaking, getting the flu right before we’re going on a vacation, having the car break down between Memphis and Hughes. Whatever interrupts our plans, or causes us disturbance and distraction can qualify as a trial and we would love to be spared from them all!
This takes us back to what I preached about with the phrase ‘Your kingdom come.’ I said that while we would all prefer not to have troubles; if we pray ‘Your kingdom come’ we’ll be able to stay in a place of peace even in the midst of trouble. That’s really the goal - not so much to be free of trial, but to remain ‘at peace in God’ in the midst of trial. So, when Jesus taught the disciples to pray ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial,’ he was affirming what he knew was already deep in their hearts -the desire to be spared difficulty in life. And, he also knew that sometimes --- such a prayer does indeed avert disaster.
Take one of my favorite guys from the Hebrew Scriptures (or what we know as the Old Testament). Good old Hezekiah. I’ve preached about him before because he’s so ‘preachable!’ Hezekiah had learned that he had a terminal illness and was going to die. This was a trial he did not want to face. He sequestered himself in his room, turned his face to the wall and wept. He didn’t want to die. He begged to be spared the trial. And surprise of surprises, his prayer was answered! God told Hezekiah that he would be given another 15 years of life. Imagine his joy at that news! In that particular case, the prayer to be spared trial worked in the way Hezekiah hoped. Of course, 15 years later, he was at the same place as before. Death would not be forever be kept at bay.
We might well ask, “Is this part of the Lord’s Prayer worth praying at all? If the trials are going to come anyway, if the prayer is only answered sometimes, and then only temporarily, why bother with it at all?” Let me suggest three reasons why we most definitely should pray : “Do not bring us to the time of trial.”
First, that prayer really does lie deep in our heart of each of us – even if we don’t acknowledge it outwardly. We might put on a brave face about some trial that we fear is coming our way (Southerners seem to do this by nature!) but deep inside we’re crying out, “Do not bring me to the time of trial!” Haven’t you experienced this when you had to face something you didn’t want to face? Didn’t you plead with everything in you to be spared? “Please, God, just this time. Just this once! I can’t face this! Please, please let this pass from me.”
If you think about it, “Do not bring us to the time of trial” is probably the most truly authentic prayer we ever really pray because it’s what we really mean. We are the ‘beggar’ before God. We are begging with every ounce of faith we have in us. God honors that kind of prayer because it’s intense and it’s real. It’s a true prayer of faith. Whether or not we are spared the trial as Hezekiah was, that authentic, true prayer deepens and strengthens our faith muscles. We are willing to surrender ourselves completely to God’s mercy. And that will always result in a transformed spiritual life and a stronger faith.
Second, we need to pray “Do not bring us to the time of trial” because it’s prayed in the context of the other short prayers of the Lord’s Prayer. It has balance — it’s doesn't just hang out there by itself. We’re not just praying it like a spoiled child screaming for another toy at Walmart. It’s prayed within the other prayers: ‘hallowed be your name,’ ‘your kingdom come,’ ‘give us our daily bread – our daily nourishment whatever that may be,’ forgive us and help us to forgive.’ Because it’s held with other prayers of hope and faith and surrender, it keeps us aware of the other important parts of God’s action in our lives. It keeps us focused on God being God, on the breadth of God’s kingdom of peace, on the many ways God may use to nourish us (even through trials,) on letting go of anger, the need to blame, and retribution. Yet, at the same time, it acknowledges the truth that we are afraid, anxious, vulnerable, unsettled and uncertain.
Finally, when we pray “Do not bring us to the time of trial” we are praying. Yes, when we pray it, we are praying. Meaning, we are not stewing, or worrying, or complaining, or asking our friend to fix things for us. We’re going to God. We’re getting in the habit of going to God. We’re doing what Vince and Steve said last week: We are praying more often and with greater confidence. We’re aligning with God – reducing ourselves to that single straight line with God.
Often we just silently worry inside about the possible trials and tribulations that could come upon us. We feel that somehow worry will keep the trials from actually happening. Then, once they have happened, we complain about them, thinking and hoping that our constant recital of them will somehow help us get through them. But, when we pray, “Do not bring us to the time of trial” we are bypassing all that useless emotional activity and going straight to the Source which is a much more useful response, because, when we go straight to the Source, straight to God, the relief we experience is instantaneous.
So, never be afraid or ashamed to pray “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” It is, quite likely, the fullest and truest prayer you will ever pray and it may just be the fullest and truest prayer within the Lord’s Prayer. Amen.
Sermon - Proper 16 - Aug 25, 2019
St. Andrew’s, Marianna
The Rev. Canon Renee Miller
How to Pray, Part 6
May the sacraments and the Word and the hunger of our souls meet, and lead us ever more deeply into the heart of God. Al-hamdu-lillah. Amen.
What is the first thing you think of when I say the word “prayer?“ I want to add a second question: “How are you using these prayers and are you noticing any difference? By that, I do not mean are you getting answers you want. I mean are you finding any inward changes? What do you still need? Where are you feeling stuck?
We come today to another short prayer in the Lord’s Prayer that seems not only familiar to us, but understandable. “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” We know that we are meant to forgive others, and we certainly want to be forgiven ourselves. We also know that it can be very difficult to forgive others and even harder to accept forgiveness for ourselves. I have preached many times about the elements of forgiveness and why it’s hard — our sense that forgiveness is saying what was done was okay, fear that forgiveness leads others to feel that they can hurt us again, the concern that forgiveness lets people off the hook, and the freedom that we feel when we forgive or are forgiven. I’m not going to rehash that. I want us to think instead about forgiveness as prayer - how to pray forgiveness into ourselves and others.
Interestingly, the meaning of the word forgiveness means to give up desire or power to punish. Let me say that again: to give up desire or power to punish. Sometimes we have the desire to punish ourselves or others for bad behavior and sometimes we have the power to actually do so. We seem to be hard-wired to think that punishment is necessary in order to wipe the slate clean; that we and others should ’pay’ for our misdeeds; that inflicting a penalty for misbehavior will ensure future good behavior. But is that accurate? Does punishment produce positive results and guarantee good behavior? And what if the opposite approach is taken? What if misdeeds are just passed over and there’s no accountability? Does a lack of punishment guarantee better behavior in the future? And, finally, does punishment erase the pain of the misdeed? I think the answer is “No” in all cases. Punishment sometimes is a deterrent. Love and forgiveness are sometimes a deterrent. But neither guarantee good behavior. So, what’s the deal then?
Let’s think of the prayer of forgiveness in terms of memory and peace. The first part is to attend to memory. You know how this works. You made a decision at one point to give up gluten. But, when that nice basket of biscuits came around, you just couldn’t help yourself — you took 2. Never mind they had gluten in them. But, you probably felt guilty because you had failed to do what you said you were going to do. Later when you decide to go on a diet and cut back on gluten you already have a failure stored in your memory bank. You remember how you couldn’t pass up those 2 biscuits last time. And, you automatically plant a seed in yourself that you won’t be able to keep to your gluten decision this time either. And, as a result, you probably don’t!
Or, let’s say a friend once manipulated you or defrauded you in some way. You thought you’d gotten past it, but they call you and want to do some deal with you. Immediately, you’re on your guard, because you have the memory in your memory bank about how manipulative and conniving they were, and how they took advantage of your relationship before. These are just 2 examples, but we have hundreds of these over the course of just one year! Our memory banks get overloaded.
When a computer or phone is overfull with all the actions that have been done on it, it’s unable to process more actions until some clearing is done. Sometimes a simple reboot of the phone or computer is enough to clear its most recent memory; sometimes a hard reset is required; sometimes the history or cache needs to be manually erased; and sometimes an anti-spyware program must do a big sweep of the memory banks quarantine the viruses and malware and delete them, in order for the computer to be ‘inwardly peaceful’ — that is, so it can perform at optimal efficiency without constantly going through all the old memories before completing a new task.
We function in a similar way. We commit actions that hurt ourselves or others, and others commit actions that disturb or hurt us. The memory of those actions gets filed in the hard drive of our heart and emotions. Every time another action like it occurs, it gets piled up in the memory of what happened in the past. We apply the same filters to the new situation as we did to the last and our heart and emotions get clogged up. Over time we get dragged down. Misdeeds that we have done or hurtful actions others have done to us are like those viruses on a computer. They need a heavy-duty program that will quarantine and delete them. Forgiveness is that heavy-duty program. It isolates and deletes all the bad actions we have done and the bad actions that have been done to us.
The power of this erasing of memory is illustrated by animals and children. We’ve all witnessed a dog or cat getting into a scuffle with another dog or cat; batting at them or growling at them with irritation. Yet, after the tiff was over, it was as if nothing bad had ever occurred between them. Or, think of children at play. They get mad at each other over something. There may be harsh words, fights, tears, even pleas to parents to punish the offending party. But, after a few minutes they’re playing again naturally as if nothing had ever occurred. There seem to be no remnants of anger or a desire to keep punishing their playmate. What makes it so easy for children and animals and so difficult for us? Spoiler alert! Children and animals don’t have overfull memory banks!
When we pray “Forgive us our sins for we forgive everyone who is indebted to us” we are given the opportunity to clear the memory, and when we do it with real intention, we hardly even remember the misdeed when next we want to go on a gluten-free diet, or deal with that person who manipulated us in the past. You may be thinking, “Oh, that might work for some small offense but you don’t know what has been done to me. And even if I forgive, I’ll never be able to forget.” So, let’s move to the next solution for that.
Let’s hear again a portion of the very hard, hard words of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the famous Russian saint. He says "We cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other.... All condemnation is of the devil. Never condemn each other. Not even those whom you catch at the evil deed. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a morass of filth that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach the inner peace.” Strive to reach the inner peace. This is the solution to forgetting — no matter how difficult the offense has been. Seraphim’s words are hard, harsh, honest, yet liberating.
If we can strive to reach the inner peace, forgiveness for ourselves and forgiveness of others will come naturally, without condition, and in freedom. The truth is this: anger and retribution cannot reside very long in the heart of someone who has inner peace. When we have inner peace, forgiveness of ourselves and others is so natural, it isn’t even an issue worth thinking about. In other words, we are free. It’s as simple as that. We’re free.
Consider this: God has forgiven us for things we’ve done, things we’ve thought about doing, things we’re now thinking about doing, things we will do! If we are aligned with God— reduced to that single straight line — we will try to be like God. We will forget what has been done, what has been thought to be done, what is being thought about being done in the future, and what will be done. And when we have been reduced to that single straight line with God; anger, injustice, entitlement, fear, unworthiness, strife, war, will be silenced. I can’t say this strongly enough: There’s hardly anything more important in all of life than striving for the inner peace. And striving for your own inner peace is the only way you’ll be able to completely erase any residual anger at what you have done or at what others have done to you. The prayer of forgiveness really has nothing at all to do with misdeeds done by you or anyone else. It is really only about striving to find the inner peace.
The prayer of forgiveness is a very simple — very simple — 2-step process that removes the viruses in your memory bank that keep you from finding inner peace:
Sermon-Proper 15 - August 18, 2019
St. Andrew’s, Marianna
The Rev. Canon Renee Miller
“How to Pray, Part 5”
May the sacraments and the Word and the hunger of our souls meet and lead us ever more deeply into the heart of God. Al-hamdu-lillah. Amen.
So, what’s the first thing you think of when I say the word ‘prayer?’ Now, that we’re actually getting answers, I’m going to ask the Lay Reader to go to the microphone and repeat them for the benefit of our remote visitors. And, if any remote visitors want to offer an answer, send me a chat.
We come now to one of the parts of the Lord’s Prayer that seems clear and understandable. “Give us each day our daily bread.” It hardly seems like this prayer should even need any explanation. But, if you haven’t figured it out by now, you’ll see that there are a multitude of meanings and applications to each of these short prayers within the Lord’s Prayer.
At a quick glance it seems we’re just asking God to give us food every day or provide for our physical needs. That seems rather straightforward until you realize that it may mean more than food like steak and potatoes. The word food actually means nourishment – so, when we ask God to give us each day our daily bread, we might more broadly say, “Give us each day our daily nourishment.” There are 2 important points about that statement. First, effective nourishment requires a variety of foods and second, nourishment can mean a lot more than mere food.
My grandmother knew how to be a grandmother. She and I had a great thing going at mealtimes. When my mother said I’d had enough watermelon, and couldn’t have any more, my grandmother would pass more to me under the table. When my mother told me I had to eat something I didn’t like, I would pass that to my grandmother under the table! I don’t think my mother ever found out about our devious little ruse! The truth is, we all have our favorite foods, but we know that a steady diet of only those foods will not give us the vitamins, nutrients and minerals we need. Imagine a diet of nothing but watermelon or ice cream, beef tenderloin, peach cobbler, chocolate (perish the thought) or even spinach. None of these would be enough to keep us healthy. And what about the foods we don’t like? Maybe beets, or brussel sprouts, okra or calf's liver? We may not like them, but they may have important and necessary nutrients that will help keep us healthy.
If we were in a modern Healthy Eating 101 class, we would learn that the USDA has updated the Food Pyramid we all grew up with and it is now called My Plate and is a plate with portions dedicated colorfully to the separate groups of food that include: protein, vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy. A good variety and lots of color is what we’re striving to see on our plate.
Yet, we all know that we sometimes have conflicting feelings about being given ‘each day our daily bread.’ Think of the number of diet books written and the billions of dollars spent each year trying to figure out what our daily bread should be. We know we sometimes don’t eat when we should or what we should. A variety of colors would not describe our plate. Unless you consider white potatoes, white bread, white gravy and a little browned meat ‘color.’ We’re more likely to call that ‘comfort food’ than ‘colorful food.’ Sometimes we choose the wrong foods to the exclusion of foods that our body needs for optimal health. Sometimes, we’re greedy for more food than we need or different foods than we have.
This is not a modern problem. It’s the same problem the Israelites faced in the desert. They were used to the colorful plates in Egypt with all kinds of varieties and tastes, and white manna (that looked probably a lot like our communion wafers) day after day was anything but appetizing. “Let us go back to Egypt,” they cried to Moses. They were unhappy with the food they had each day. They were also greedy for more food — not content with the amount they had. So, to bring them into a place of balance, God told them they would be given their bread each day, but they could only collect enough for their family for that day -- except before the Sabbath when they would be able to collect 2 days worth. And if they took more because they thought they might need a second helping or a midnight snack, the manna rotted. Food that is spoiled loses its potency. It is no longer able to nourish us. I think about this when I go to the restaurants and they insist on serving way more than one person my size should eat. I ask for a smaller portion noting that I’m willing to pay the full price but the answer still is, “You can take the rest home for tomorrow!” But tomorrow’s food is for tomorrow. Today’s food, eaten tomorrow doesn’t have the same nutritional quality even though in modern times it may not be spoiled.
Well, what does this have to do with the prayer, “Give us each day our daily bread?” There are several things it means and several ways it can be prayed:
First, “Give us each day our daily bread,” is a prayer of faith that God is looking after our most basic needs. We are as important to God as the sparrow. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount when he was teaching the disciples how to pray “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” We can pray the prayer in its literal sense — with a heart simply asking God to provide for our needs for physical sustenance. Or, it can be a simple gratitude prayer before meals: Thank you, God, for giving us each day our daily bread.”
Second, “Give us each day our daily bread” is an affirmation that the right food is the food of the moment, the food we are given this day. We don’t need to long for what we don’t have, we don’t need to be greedy for more of what we do have. We have enough for this moment — for this day. (The prayer might even help us re-think leftovers. We might make smaller portions of meals to begin with!) When we pray “Give us each day our daily bread” we may find it serves as the dieting tool we’ve been frantically looking for, that might, actually work. If we pray it faithfully and trust its truth, we might find our cravings diminishing and our health and internal satisfaction increasing. If every time we want a second helping, or a big bowl of ice cream just because it tastes good, we might pray “give us each day our daily bread…” I think we’d be surprised to find that we opted for a smaller bowl of ice cream and maybe chose not to have the second helping. We might just lose those extra pounds we’ve been wanting to shed!
Third, “Give us each day our daily bread” is a metaphor for the rest of life. As I said earlier there’s more to nourishment than mere food. When we pray “Give us each day our daily bread” we’re praying to be given whatever will nourish us — not just our body, but our life. For the most part, we seek to avoid any of what we consider the troublesome parts of life. In other words, we would prefer to have a life of ice cream and cake. We don’t want a life of liver and brussel sprouts — in other words, a life of sickness, financial trouble, hurt and betrayal, car breakdowns, injustice, waiting for medical diagnoses, the loss of those we love. We don’t want to have to gnaw away on that kind of food, when comfort, ease, privilege, health, and plenty are so much more delicious. Why would we want to eat the bread of tears when the bread of angels would taste so much better? We prefer the bread of angels because we are not often able to distinguish what is the right food, the right nourishment for our life. We think ease and plenty are what’s nourishing. But, when we pray “Give us each day our daily bread,” we are surrendering to God’s prepared feast for our life - no matter what that might be. It is an act of trust that God knows better what will be nourishing for us - our whole entire life — than we do. Because we don’t have the big vision God has, we really don’t know what will sustain and encourage our growth most effectively. To pray “Give us each day our daily bread” is to acknowledge that fact and surrender to the divine will. It is to align ourselves with God – to be reduced to that single straight line with God that we’ve been talking about throughout this sermon series.
There’s no way of getting around and successfully avoiding the liver and brussel sprouts of life - life will never be just ice cream and cake. The prayer “Give us each day or daily bread” says we’re good with that. The truth is, we need a variety of experiences in order to be nourished and shaped into a whole and holy person.
So the prayer in the Lord’s Prayer that seems so easily understood is one of the most demanding and fearsome prayers to pray. If we have the courage to pray it, we will find that life doesn’t always delight us or suit our palate. We will find that the food we are given may not be what we wanted or expected. But we will also find that when we take the risk to pray the prayer, we are given just what we need in the amounts that are just right. Surprisingly, we’ll find that we are completely full — completely satisfied. Amen.