Matthew 11:28-29: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Today marks the beginning of a forty-day journey with Jesus. A journey that stops for a time in the desert, in the wilderness, and the out-of-the-way places where wisdom is found. A journey of silence, and contemplation, and mystery. For many, this is a season to “give up” foods or habits that may be weighing us down, so that we might step more lightly in the footsteps of Jesus. This is also a season when many will “take up” habits of the heart that wake us to the Divine Presence all around us. We may pray with greater attention, serve with more intention, or meditate upon the Word sets us free.
Lent engenders a kind of paradox for those seeking spiritual maturity. For at once we know that our standing with God is not improved by what we do—even the good things we would do to pray more in no way make us worthy to be loved by God. If they did, then spiritual disciplines would become yet another self-improvement program that we have to master, and all of our activity would take us further from the rest that Jesus promises. But the rest Jesus promises is not the same as laziness and inattention. In order to find the peace that we so desperately desire, we have to take active steps to separate from the noise and strife around us. So then, there are two parts to faith—the active and the passive, both equally important.
During Sunday worship this Lent, we will have opportunities to turn down the noise of our busy lives and listen to the Voice that is closer to us than we are to ourselves. We will rest, listen, and keep silence. In preparation for these unique worship services, I’ve found myself returning to the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. His beautifully spare choral works are filled with quiet and silence, so much so that one comes to hear the silence as the goal of the music, and not as an interruption of it. His insights about the nature of silence would help us maintain tension between active and passive spirituality.
“On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed. On the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe. And when we speak about silence, we must keep in mind that it has two different wings, so to speak. Silence can be both that which is outside of us and that which is inside a person. The silence of our soul, which isn’t even affected by external distractions, is actually more crucial but more difficult to achieve.”
For our part, we have the good work of making time and space for exterior silence, for without that, we have little hope of receiving that more difficult interior silence—the peace that God gives.
Prayer: Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“It’s Only the Beginning”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 5, 2015 • Easter Sunday
Mark’s account of Easter morning is the earliest on record. The women, who had stood by the cross on Friday, go to Jesus’ burial site early on Sunday morning. They are there to do what women traditionally did in those days, anoint the body with spices. There wasn’t time before the Sabbath began on Friday evening to perform this duty, and so Jesus had lain in his borrowed tomb, uncared for, unwashed, unprepared for too long. They’d come now to do at least that for him after the horrible events that had taken place. But they are surprised by what they find. The grave is open. There is a young man in dazzling white standing within, who seems almost like some kind of heavenly administrative assistant explaining why they can’t have a quick word with the boss – “Jesus – no-he’s not here now. You just missed him. But he left a message for you; he wants you to tell the disciples and Peter that he’s gone on to Galilee and will meet them there.” You kind of expect him to say, “Now, is there anything else I can do for you? Have a nice day!”
But it is no longer a nice day for them; shocked and frightened, they run from the tomb and instead of going to tell the disciples, they run the other way. And Mark says, “They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” Finis. Done. The End. Fred Craddock’s response to this version of the first Easter morning is to exclaim “Is this any way to run a resurrection?”[i]
Apparently not, because by the second century, scribes were regularly adding additions to the abrupt ending to bring some kind of closure to the story. If you look at the end of Mark’s gospel you can see both a shorter and a longer ending, where enough is added to make it sound like the other gospels: Jesus appears, the disciples rejoice, and Jesus tells them what they need to do next. These additions seem forced, a little bit too happy, and a little bit too neat and tidy. But we can understand the desire of the scribes to do something with that awkward ending that leaves everything kind of hanging.
But what if Mark meant it to be that way? If we can discount the imaginative stories that surmise he must have been interrupted mid-sentence by some terrible trauma perhaps a heart attack or arrest by a Roman soldier, or that his original conclusion was so shocking that those who’d inherited his manuscript just ripped off the offensive part and pretended that was all there was, we are left with the real possibility that he crafted an incomplete ending by design. That he left the story hanging on this moment of fear and silence for a reason.
What might that be? The women were totally silent. And to my way of thinking, silence is a first appropriate response. There are times, aren’t there, when we are afraid, shocked by what we have learned or seen, when we don’t know exactly what is happening or why, when we can’t figure it all out, and we are aware of how little we really do know and how little we can control. There are those times when silence is required, when we feel overwhelmed and need time to process, to evaluate, to think about what has happened. There will be time to talk later; but first we need to be quiet. Silence can be a good thing – “Be still, and know that I am God,” the psalmist wrote. “Mary pondered these things in her heart,” Luke writes about the birth of Jesus.
Fear is also an appropriate first response. The women have come to the tomb of their good friend who had been executed by the Roman government as a criminal. The disciples had all scattered; they hadn’t even stayed around to watch the crucifixion. Followers of Jesus were few and far between. And they were in a hostile place. What if they’d gone out and started telling the news they’d heard – Jesus is alive again. How long would they have been allowed to get away with that before word would get back to the powers that be? Luke says, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, he had 120 believers. That is less than the membership of this congregation! What chance would they have in a Jerusalem filled with a million or so pilgrims there for the Passover? Of course they’re afraid.
But maybe they are afraid and silent for other reasons as well. Maybe this news frightened them because they had begun to accept the death of the hope they shared earlier because of this friend who had cared for them and taught and shown them more about God than they’d ever imagined, and who had shared with them a dream of the kingdom of God where children had enough to eat, sick people got well, and old people would not worry about who would care for them.
Their hope had come crashing down on Friday when Jesus was put to death and buried. Peace on earth? Dead. Justice for all? Dead. Unconditional love? Dead. But the young man had said Jesus has been raised; Jesus is alive. God’s hope is still alive on earth. They were scared because in some ways, hope is harder than death. And they were silent because they couldn’t begin to imagine what that meant for them and for the others. They were in brand new territory where death was not the final answer. And if this is how God operates in the world, what will happen next? What might be required of them. Maybe they’d had enough excitement and danger; maybe they wanted to go back home and find some degree of normalcy.
Maybe they were afraid and silent because if Jesus were risen from the dead, then it meant that God had vindicated Jesus and was announcing that a new creation had begun, a new kind of order had been inaugurated. Not the order of Caesar, not the Roman rules that said might makes right, strike before your struck, watch your back, fight fire with fire, do unto others before they do unto you, but a reign of peace on earth, justice, equality, and unconditional love for all.
Maybe they were frightened too because this news was an invitation to participate in this hopeful new world. They could stop living scared because death had lost its grip on them, and without fear, there was nothing holding them back. But how do you do that when you’ve been scared for so long?
Fear and silence held them for a time, but not forever, because here we are today. Somebody finally found her voice; somebody finally overcame her fear. And, we have the same choices. Will we tell or won’t we? And each of us will have a different story because of our different experiences and understandings. For me, I have to say that over the years my faith has changed from thinking that resurrection is primarily about what happens after we die. I was taught as a child that God raised Jesus from the dead and took him to heaven, and because we believe in Jesus, God will do the same thing for us.
But I know now that we can’t simply worship Jesus in our private lives alone, look forward to going to “heaven” someday, and not be concerned about creating “heaven on earth” because resurrection is not all about having a get out of jail free card or an escape hatch from the world to an “otherworldly” heaven. Experience has shown me that resurrection is about so much more than life after death. It is about life before death. And our religion is not simply about going to heaven when we die, but about doing everything we can to enable God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We have received the same invitation that the silent women received on that first Easter Sunday so long ago. And just as it was a new beginning for them, so it is for us as well.
But first, we have to overcome our own silence and fear and replace them with resurrection hope that enables us to envision and work for a world where the old rules don’t apply: A world where the meek do inherit the earth. A world where the poor in spirit have the only riches worth having, and where among the poor, bread is blessed and broken and given and everyone has enough. A world where the peacemakers know everyone as children of God, where enemies are turned into sisters and brothers and weapons rust and corrode or are turned into plowshares.
There is still work to do; the kingdom has not come completely yet. Death may be beaten, but it isn’t gone yet. Caesar may be gone, but his successors are still in business. Food may be more plentiful in some places in the world, but not yet everywhere. Prejudice and ignorance and animosity have been overcome in many areas, but we know only too well that they can still raise their ugly heads just when we think they’re done.
The silence at the end of Mark’s gospel waits to be overcome by people of every generation, waits for you and for me to overcome our fears, and to share the good news of Easter, to proclaim through our words and our actions : “God’s hope is alive on earth. Though wounded, peace lives. Though killed, justice rises. Though buried, love goes ahead of us to Galilee; there we will see him, just as he told us.”[ii] Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Fred Craddock, “He is Not Here,” Christian Century, April 2003.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Easter Sunday, 2006,” Canon Chapel, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.
A moment of civil disobedience. A moment that mobilizes a movement. Rosa Parks after a day’s work keeps her seat. Water cannon and savage dogs used on singing marchers. A lone citizen standing up to a tank. Patriots dumping tea in Boston harbor. Gandhi making salt on a beach. A monk setting himself on fire. Matthew Shepard beaten and crucified on a fence. Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. Jesus throwing over the money changers tables in the temples. These are moments and images that rip us out of complacency and compel into action.
What motivated Jesus? How long had he been planning this moment? Or was it a spontaneous reaction? Jesus’ demonstration compelled the temple priest into action. Jesus was no longer just an interesting oddity, he was a direct threat to the order and finances of the temple. He became a public enemy who had to be silenced or eliminated. What had once been called the temple offerings, had become the temple tax. It must be paid in temple coin so we have moneychangers. Need an animal for an offering, we can sell you one to save you the hassle of raising it yourself. Of course your offering is our next meal, but we will burn the inedible parts to create a pleasing aroma for God. You need forgiveness – we can sell you that. We have God on our side, he chose us to be his power on earth not you. You annoying wannabe Rabbi coming in here to declare: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.” Twisting up scripture, trying to mess up our way of life. Jesus you must die.
While we wouldn’t kill them, if someone came into our building and did the same we would certainly have them arrested or barred. So what’s up Jesus? Why are you doing everything you can to ignite a crisis? Your whole ministry has already communicated your point. God is for everyone not just the select few. We hear you, earthly authority is fleeting while heavenly authority endures. You didnt have to die to make your case.
Of course, everything that Jesus said and did would have disappeared within a few generations if not for this act of civil disobedience. He challenged the power structure, and lost. He was arrested, beaten, humiliated, and hung up naked to die nailed to a wooden cross. In loosing however, he won everything. His words and actions were cemented in the hearts and minds of ordinary people for an eternity. Jesus knew somehow, that only this act would make it permanent. We are the living legacy, from generation to generation that, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.”
No spoken words for prayer, instead observe intentional silence.
“The Quiet Center”
March 16, 2014
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Romans 8:14-16, 26-27; Luke 11:1-4
How can we live a devotional life? That is really the question behind our theme of Holy Habits. In seventeenth chapter of Acts Paul tells the Romans that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. But the truth is, most of the time, we’re not fully aware of that. Maybe sometimes God seems vaguely there, but often feels remote, somewhere else, far off, removed from everyday life. How often do we think that we are really in God, having our being I God, when we’re brushing our teeth, or are stuck in traffic; or are fidgeting impatiently in the checkout line? My guess is rarely. We come here on Sundays to find God. We take time out of our weekday life to spend some “quality” time with the Creator of the Universe, and then at noon, and it’s back out into the fray until this time next week.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our primary purpose in life really isn’t to amass a great retirement account, or to be hugely successful in whatever line of work we enter. And as wonderful as family life is, our purpose is not to worship the family as the single most important entity in our lives. We were created to worship and to praise God, and to partner with God in the work of God’s kingdom. But we struggle with that constantly. Other things, more pressing things, more urgent things move to the top of the list, and “God-time” gets relegated to maybe reading a devotion from time to time, shooting up a quick one or two word prayer in a moment of distress, and, as I said last week, dusting that nice big coffee table Bible in the living room.
But we’re made for better than that. We’re made for a devotional life, not just brief, sporadic moments of devotional time. Our lives are meant to be continual expressions of our love for God and one another. Holy Habits, or what John Wesley called “means of Grace,” are intended to create a spirit of devotion within us continually throughout our days. They are a means of spiritual formation, so that we can see and feel every moment as a God-moment; so that it can be as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
For Wesley, the two central acts of Christian devotion that lead to a devotional life are reading scripture and praying daily. These two activities are “for our lives,” he said. These activities are meant to condition us in ways that enable God’s presence to be felt and experienced always and everywhere. As such, they are not simply dreary duties, obligations that must be or ought to be performed – they are our part in the development of a relationship between ourselves and God.[i]
Maybe reading scripture and praying can be seen as the two sides of that relationship – reading scripture gives God a chance to speak to us; and praying gives us a chance to speak to God. Both are exercises in receiving and responding, both necessary to developing an ongoing relationship.
There are all kinds of ways to pray – privately, corporately, out loud, silently, extemporaneously, or using a book of written prayers, or praying the scriptures. We have a whole book of prayers in the Bible – Psalms – 150 prayers ready to be prayed. There are various times to pray, both spur-of-the moment times and fixed times. Psalm 119 says “seven times a day I will rise to praise your name.” And these hours are still observed today in some monastic settings, but rarely among those outside that cloistered life. However, over the years the daily office, as it was called, was abbreviated and set into a set of four offices or offerings –morning, noon, evening, and night prayer.[ii] Wesley would have known these and prayed these daily.
Maybe you have fixed times to pray each day – in the morning when you wake up – to thank God for the day about to begin, to ask God to give you strength and purpose for the day, to pray for the events of the day and that God’s will be done. Praying in the morning first thing starts the day in relationship.
Praying as the last thing before bedtime is another fixed time for many of us. It is a time to recall andt o thank God for the day’s blessings; some days there don’t seem to be many, but with some reflection the memories return. It is a time to turn over the cares and worries of the day to God and to ask for sleep. I remember after my husband died, I couldn’t sleep. I’d toss and turn, worry about things, and wonder what was going to happen to us. I dreaded the night time. But then one night, after many sleepless ones, I prayed very simply and directly to God: “They tell me you never sleep. But I have to sleep. So I going to turn all of these problems and worries over to you to keep for me overnight. I’ll take them back in the morning, but for now, God, I need to sleep. Thank you. Amen.” And I had my first good night’s sleep in weeks. So I can recommend from personal experience, the efficacy of bedtime prayer.
Of course in addition to fixed times, there are those extemporaneous prayers that simply bubble up depending on the situation, prayers my friend Faye Hudnall used to call “rocket prayers.” “Help,” “Thanks,” “Wow” are Anne Lamott’s favorites and she’s written a book about them.
There are various places to pray – Wesley made his own prayer closet just off of his bedroom. He had a kneeler in it, and there was only room for him. Of course, if I had to use a kneeler, I wouldn’t stay there very long! The important thing is to have a place – whether it’s at the kitchen table, beside your bed, in a chair, or a special room or area in your home, have a place that when you go there, prayer is the first thing that comes to your mind. Our call to worship encourages us to find the quiet center, a place where “we can see all the things that really matter, be a peace, and simply be.”
There are various postures for prayer too. We are most familiar with sitting and kneeling. Kneeling was a traditional posture for requesting favors from a king, but is now is a sign of humility. Sitting, which we think of as the “normal” posture for prayer, is the newest, having only become prevalent after the invention of pews during the middle ages. The oldest posture is to stand with eyes open and hands lifted with palms up. This position is traditionally associated with thanksgiving, praise, blessing, and benediction. You can also stand looking down with eyes closed and your hands clasped at your waist, a sign of submission and penitence. Lying down prostrate on the floor with eyes closed is a position of submission and of petition.
Now, I am telling you all this first, because it’s kind of interesting, but mostly because I’d like to you try new things during this time of developing Holy Habits. Pray in different places, at different times of the day, with different postures, and a variety of kinds of prayers. Shake it up a little bit; make it intentional; focus; don’t put your prayers on automatic pilot!
I don’t know if praying comes naturally or not, even if the old military maxim is that there are no atheists in foxholes! Scripture seems to indicate that prayer is learned. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Maybe they’d watched him and wondered if he was doing something different from what they’d been doing. It’s not that they were ignorant about prayer. They had grown up in the synagogue, the house of prayer, and they’d learned the many prayers of their faith. They had sung the psalms in worship, and every psalm is a prayer. So it is not like prayer was unknown territory.
But Jesus often went aside to pray and maybe it’s there that they saw something new; he’d invite the disciples, at least some of them to go along with him, but most of the time, they got bored; they took naps; they twiddled their thumbs until he was through. But according to our gospel reading for today, one time after Jesus had spent some time alone in prayer, the disciples finally asked him to teach them how to pray his way. Maybe they saw the way prayer seemed to allow him to focus clearly and be at peace with what he had to do; maybe they saw the power and energy he seemed to derive from prayer; maybe they sensed the closeness, the intimacy, he seemed to feel with God and the love and support he seemed to receive from God. Whatever it was, they wanted some of it for themselves as well.
Wesley called the Lord’s Prayer the model and standard for all of our prayers. And all over the world, in Christian churches of various denominations and practices, some form of this prayer is probably said almost every Sunday. It contains both praise and petition. It offers praise to God asks God for the basics in life – food, forgiveness, and freedom from fear. And in that, it is a comforting prayer. But it also petitions that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; and that’s a prayer about the future, a future where we do not make, shape or control what happens; a future where God’s justice is realized, and our power, security, and control are things of the past. And so it is also a prayer of submission, which is perhaps the most difficult prayer we’ll ever pray. – Not our will, but God’s be done.
You might think that this kind of prayer, the submission of your will to God’s will – the kind of prayer Jesus prayed in the garden at Gethsemane, is too difficult, beyond your ability, beyond the limits of your faith and trust. But that’s OK. God’s spirit is with us, communing with us when we pray in our developing relationship with God. Paul reminds us in the passage Chris read earlier, even though we may feel ignorant in our prayers; the spirit does not. Though we may feel lacking in faith, or feel exhausted or confused, the spirit does not.[iii] So, we don’t really need to say anything at all because “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
I hope that you will pray this week – pray in ways you never have before – and notice and be mindful of what happens. Maybe, amid your daily labor washing dishes, driving to work, grocery shopping, or even, picking blackberries, you’ll begin to realize too that earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush is afire with God.
May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.
[i] Steve Harper, Prayer and Devotional Life of United Methodists, 1999, 45.