Monday, August 27, 2012

Where Do You Look?

Where Do You Look?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 26, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:12c
Luke 11: 5-13

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

I talked last week about suffering, and abiding, and how important it is and how we find God often in the midst of our biggest struggles, in many ways that is the what, and in many ways you could say that this week deals with the how because this week's aspect of the marks of a Christian is "Persevere in Prayer" Romans 12:12c. Let's take a look back at where we've come in our marks of a Christian journey.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.e 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering,  

And now this week, "persevere in prayer." I chose to compliment this with a famous passage of Jesus, teaching about prayer from Luke 11: 5-13:

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” [1]  

Perseverance is one of those virtues that human beings hold highest because of how important it is. Characters throughout literature have embodied this important virtue inspiring readers for centuries, ever since Homer's Odyssey, we have seen characters face trials, beating the odds, and growing in attributes; modern video games are built on this premise, where the character fights, survives, and grows stronger as the player makes his way through the game. Our lives are the same. We face trials, and the persevering souls become heroes in our world. Perseverance is important because we want to be surrounded by those we can count on no matter what. We want to be those people who people count on. A place of honor is set for those who in life overcome the odds to be more than they are and do more than anyone could ever have imagined possible. To persevere is the opposite of quitting, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how steep the climb, no matter how much the rain falls, or how hot the sun burns, or how lonely it gets, abandoned by everyone, abandoned by friends, left alone to make it on your own, each step, step by step, inch by inch, against it all, impossible, can't be done, you must be crazy, are you kidding, what are you thinking, you can't, you can't, hello, you just can't, you are simply kidding yourself, or sometimes people start telling you it's ok if you fail, don't worry about it, it was just too hard, it's fine, it's not that important anyway, no one could do it, you did your best, it was just too hard. But to persevere means you put all of that away and you do, you strive, you compete all the way until the finish.
There are two ways to think about what our passage for this morning is saying, in its description of the true Christian, and I think it is valuable either way, so I want to look at both. The first way to look at is that we “persevere in prayer,” meaning we continue to pray no matter what. The other way to think about it is that we are supposed to “persevere in prayer,” meaning, that we actually can only persevere by and through praying. Let's take both of these in turn because they are both important, both give us insight, and honestly are related, and simply the opposite sides of the same coin, as we will hopefully see in a moment. I would like to use the Gospel reading to get at the first, and the Old Testament reading to get at the other.
So look at this gospel reading, it talks about persistence in prayer, suggesting that prayer is a process that should be repeated, much like the shampoo instructions say, lather, rinse, repeat, though I don't think I've ever repeated with shampoo, but have I in prayer, either? I wonder about that, have I ever prayed, and prayed, and prayed for or about something? Perseverance is an interesting word to describe prayer, because prayer seems so passive. I mean we typically do it kneeling, or sitting, or many cases even lying down. Especially our personal prayer time is like that, but no we are to persevere. How hard can that be? When I stop and think about there are a lot of things that I would choose prayer over if given the choice, at least I think I would, but then why don't I Why? Is it because I don't think prayer will have a difference? It is an interesting thing to think about.
It brings to mind Huck Finn and his fish hooks. Huck is told that he can pray for anything he wants and he'll get it, so he prays for fish hooks and they don't magically appear, so he gives up, saying, "that's why I put no stock in prayer." I wonder how long he persevered in prayer though. I get the feeling that he prayed, kinda like this:

Dear God, you don't know me, I've never been much a nobody, but Miss Watson, she done told me that if I'd up and prayed, that you would come through, so I really need some fish hooks, do you think you could spare some? I'd be mighty grateful. Thanks, your friend Huck. Amen.  

Now I've never been one to judge and condemn someone else's prayers, because I know that it's not about the words, and not about the length, but I'm not sure you could call this prayer persistent. And I wonder how much faith was there before hand, especially since when the fish hooks don't appear, Huck's not shocked, but rather, relieved, vindicated, and therefore freed from all that hypocrisy and book learnin' Miss Watson was forcing on him. Miss Watson tries to tell Huck he's foolish, that you are supposed to pray for spiritual gifts and such, but look at Jesus' metaphor. He talks about bread, the need for bread, not because the person is starving, but because he's got a guest he needs to feed, he says bang on the door, keep banging on the door, and eventually the friend will come to your aid.
Now let's look at that. Have you ever needed to borrow something? Who do you go to? Who? Yeah you go to the friend first who you think will help you. You go to the most likely of candidates, the friend you have faith in, the one you’re sure has the bread, is home, and will give you some. That's it. . . Where do you go? And where do you go often? When we are in our greatest need, when we are suffering, when we have nowhere else to turn, do we go to God because we know he is the friend who will deliver? The friend who is home, has what we need, and will give it, Or not? Think about this. You bang on the door, the friend isn't home. How long do you keep banging? Eventually after not too much time passes you get tired of banging, and you leave, probably sooner rather than later, being embarrassed a bit by your desperation, embarrassed by being so far out on a limb. Now God is always home, and Jesus seems to be saying that you should stand there and keep on banging on the door. Again and again, that's faith, and that's persevering in prayer.
And that brings us to the second way to look at this, that prayer allows us to persevere. Last week we took a look at suffering. We looked at how Paul is suggesting that the true Christian does not avoid suffering, but seeks out suffering and abides with those who suffer. And we looked at how that idea just doesn't sell in our culture. Human beings do not like to suffer, and tend to avoid suffering at all cost. Now though this week, we look at how perseverance is key and that strength to persevere is found in prayer. Our Old Testament Lesson, the story of Elijah comes to mind. Now Elijah has ticked off the queen, queen Jezebel, a name synonymous in the history of the world with villainy and evil. Elijah has killed a bunch of Jezebels priests and prophets, and now Jezebel has vowed revenge, and you can imagine it is never good to have the queen mad at you, especially one as vindictive as Jezebel, so Elijah flees and prays, speaking to God awaiting God's message to him. The angel tells him,

11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13[2]  

How often in our prayer do we expect God to come to us loud and effective, like a wind splitting mountains and breaking rocks? How often do we expect God to come in an Earthquake, or God in a fire? Huck wanted God to come in some fishhooks. I've wanted God to come in major ways, visible ways, ways of my choosing, but many times instead God comes in a still small voice, and sometimes the way that God comes is not at all what you expected, but something all so much more full. Perhaps Elijah wanted to be taken out of the situation. Perhaps Elijah wanted Jezebel killed, or at least rendered powerless, so that Elijah could once again be safe. Perhaps Elijah wanted a bunch of different things. But what Elijah got was just what he needed. The strength and the gift of companionship to allow him to persevere through the situation he was in.
I'm not sure if you've noticed, but in the Joys and Concerns I rarely ask for God to remove pain from people, I rarely ask for God to cure disease, I rarely ask for God to take away suffering, instead I ask for God's presence to bring strength to those we pray for. Some may think that I do this because I don't think God has the power to heal, but it’s not that; I do certainly know God does. It might be that people think I don't think God does those types of healings anymore, no I believe in that, too. I do it because the value and presence of God in our lives and the lives of others is more valuable than healing, more valuable than being outside of suffering. The presence of God in our lives is life, and if it takes suffering for us to feel that strength, that hope, that sense of redemption, and love, and compassion, and reconciliation, then great, amen, hallelujah. May we all be given that strength, may we all be given that hope. Pray, grow your relationship with God, constantly, daily. Dedicate time, action, devotion to building up relation to God.
One of the things I think is cool about Celtic Christianity is that they saw life and work as prayer, and their music and their words they would repeat and memorize and it would fill their days as they worked. No matter the activity they had a prayer that went with it, so that the work itself could be dedicated in prayer. Have you ever prayed through a day of work, persevering in prayer in that way? Imagine what the day would be like, you may just get those fish hooks after all. Pray, pray, pray without ceasing. I want to close this morning with one of those Celtic prayers. This one was for prayer while reaping:

God, bless Thou Thyself my reaping
Each ridge, and plain, and field,
Each sickle curved, shapely, hard,
Each ear and handful in the sheaf,
      Each ear and handful in the sheaf.
Bless each maiden and youth,
Each woman and tender youngling,
Safeguard them beneath They shield of strength,
And guard them in the house of the saints,
      Guard them in the house of the saints.

 Encompass each goat, sheep, and lamb,
Each cow and horse and store,
Surround the flocks and herds,
And tend them to a kindly fold,
      Tend them to a kindly fold.
For the sake of Michael head of hosts,
Of Mary fair-skinned branch of grace,
Of bride smooth-white of ringleted locks,
Of Columba of the grave and tombs,
      Columba of the graves and tombs.
It's interesting to see how fast the prayer goes away from the person and their work to the other. Imagine how much faster and more effective that makes the work. Imagine how much of a difference that makes for the other. Someone just may get some fishhooks afterall.
Go forth and pray, pray, pray, pray without ceasing, and only when necessary use the words. Amen.

e Other ancient authorities read serve the opportune time
[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 11:5-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Ki 19:11-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.