St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Always, and with Heart”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
"The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children's teeth are set on edge."
But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
Jesus loves us, wants what is best for us, celebrates our joys, grieves our sorrows, and will be with us through whatever this life may throw at us. Hold that. Claim it. It does not make the bad go away. Lazarus died and Jesus wept. Nor does God want you rich and prosperous. But God wants us to be faithful and in relationship, we are given today’s story very clearly to show us our “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And it says as much.
Pray changes us for things more than it changes things for us. I know godly people who suffer deeply, who go through the trials of Job and still find the ability to praise God. And like the unjust judge, I have met some who “neither [fear] God nor [have] respect for people.” This is a cautionary tale. DO NOT BE LIKE THIS JUDGE. And also, GOD IS NOT LIKE THIS JUDGE.
Prayer is a practice and prayer is an art. Prayer is when communicate with God. As simple as a “Wow!” at a sunset, or a “Why?” at a tragedy. And just as much it is a silence, a time to listen. Communication is a two-way street. We need to be heard, and we need to hear. Prayer is making time for both.
Interesting fact. The only character in all the Monty Python films? Do you know? God. And in the Holy Grail, God says very clearly to stop our sniveling! God does not want our drivel, but God wants our authentic real selves. Like the widow in the story demanding justice, even an unjust judge will pay attention just to get her quiet. God is not like the judge, but we should be like the widow.
If it is on your heart, if it is on your mind, if it weighs on your soul, give it to God in prayer. One of the greatest strengths we have as the people of God is that we can take it, WHATEVER IT IS, to God in prayer. And as a group, we do not have a Book of Common Service, nor do we have a Book of Common Attitude, nor do we have a Book of Common Whatever. As Episcopalians we have a Book of Common Prayer. It is the hallmark of our faith, our approach, and our understanding of following Jesus. One reason why we can absorb and include people from so many backgrounds is for this very reason. Baptists pray. Catholics pray. Presbyterians pray. Pentecostals pray. When we gather with so many from around Ashland here on November 4 it will be to pray. We are calling on our community to pray.
We pray together. You probably have heard the cliche, “The family that prays together stays together.” My hope for this place, this space, this fellowship, your homes and families, and for you personally, is that the hallmark of who we are as a people is that we are a people of prayer. And Jesus says we are to pray always and not lose heart.
The word we have for having heart might be a surprise for you. We often tie it to other things. It comes from the Latin through French, COURAGE. The French Coeur, from the Latin Cor. Courage may seem to be about bravery, but what is bravery, but getting back up when we are knocked down and taking the next step even though we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. May our blood keep pumping and may we never stop moving forward, especially when the days are hard and evidence points away from faith.
There are times and places when we are called to go where we do not want to go, to do what we do not want to do. That tends to be the times when I am in direct and constant connection to God in prayer. In my mind and heart, the pleas do not cease. It is a constant stream. But that comes from a place of training.
One of my music professors in college talked about his day. He started his days with playing scales on his instrument for about 45 minutes. Daily. After decades you would think that he knew how to play scales. That is a beginner activity. But he explained it. By playing scales daily, his body and his instrument became one. When he looked at a hard and impossible (seemingly) piece of music, he asked “How can I play this? What is my approach?” I would look at it and say, “That’s impossible.” But because it had become so much a part of who he was and what he did, impossible was not even on the radar. His identity was in his horn.
Our prayers are much like that. I read the Bible daily not because I do not know it. I read it so it will read me. I have changed, much of that because it has changed me, and in so doing it reads me differently and so I read it differently. My prayers are the same. I bring who I am to God and God starts tinkering.
Why think of prayer too often like a Vending Machine, or on On/Off switch. Yes. No. Put in a prayer, get out a reward.
Pray is more for me like a sound board, and our prayers are like our Sound Check, our daily Sound Check where God can hear us, where we are and what we are dealing with, and then God starts working the board, a little more here, a little less there. Subtlety, nuance, always taking what we offer and make it better.
But how do we get to that place?
Time. Day in, day out. Time with God. How can a relationship survive when no time or energy is given? God speaking to us through Scripture, prayer, meditation. Our spending time with God throughout our days.
A phrase that grates my nerves is “Quality Time.” It is even more disturbing because it is how we deal with our kids. Quality Time only happens through Quantity Time, the special moments only happen in the In-Between. We cannot schedule them, plan them, or create them. They happen when the planets unknowingly align. And just like with our kids, we never know when our Quality Time, our Mountaintop Moment, with our Father in heaven might happen. It only is available in the day in, day out magic of discipline and time. My music professor accomplished amazing feats on his horn because he made it a part of who he was and he found his identity in it.
Like my professor, a story is told of a maestro playing Carnegie Hall. After a prolonged standing ovation, the maestro left the stage with the thunderous applause still echoing. A fan, backstage, approaches the maestro and says, “I would give my life to play like you!” Surprised and taken aback, the maestro responds, “Oh, but I have!”
Jesus tells us this story to show us our “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Even in closing he brings it back to that. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Jesus is getting to the fulfillment of that prophecy we read from Jeremiah. If we are still having to ask about right and wrong, we have not made God’s ways a part of us, of who we are. Like my professor and his trumpet, it has become an extension of who he is. Through his breath, that trumpet becomes a living, breathing thing. No accident that wind and breath and spirit are all the same word in both Hebrew and Greek. God is wanting for us to be so intimately connected to God’s ways that it is not something we do, it is our identity, an extension of who we were born to be…
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.So often we are told that goal in life is to find out who we are. More and more I am seeing that the only way for me to do that is for me to seek the answer through that question by knowing first whose I am. I find my identity, meaning, purpose, and future in this relationship I have with the one who made me, the one who knows my highest and best, and guides me in right paths for God’s name’s sake. God’s law, written on my heart, enables and empowers me through thick and thin, the highs and lows, and will lead me, I trust, safely home. Amen.