A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 23, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:1, 5-15
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A minister died and, resplendent in his clerical collar, Geneva robe and colorful stole, waited in line at the Pearly Gates.  Just ahead of him was a guy dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans.  Saint Peter addressed the guy in the leather jacket, “Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?”

The guy replied, “I’m Josh Cohen, a cabbie from Boston.”

Saint Peter consulted his list, smiled and said to the taxi-driver, “Take this silken robe and golden staff, and enter into the Kingdom.”  So the taxi-driver entered Heaven with his robe and staff.

The minister, next in line, without being asked, announced, “I am Michael Kenney, head pastor of Saint Paul’s for the last twenty-three years.”

Saint Peter consulted his list and says, “Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

“Just a minute,” said the preacher, “that man was a taxi-driver, and you issued him a silken robe and golden staff.  But I get wood and cotton.  How can this be?”

“Up here, we go by results,” says Saint Peter. “While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.”[1]

We heard the section from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus teaches about prayer.  He includes an example of how to pray, a prayer that we know as “the Lord’s Prayer.”  Luke also includes a version of this prayer in his gospel.  There are differences in the content, but more interestingly, at least for today’s sermon, is the difference in the context.

In Matthew’s version, Jesus is teaching and turns his attention to almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  In Luke’s version, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray.  We assume these were all good Jewish men who would have been praying since they could talk.  And yet they ask Jesus to teach them to pray.  You may have been praying your whole life and you are still learning.  Any music teacher will tell you:  practice does not make perfect.  Practice makes better.

The advice Jesus’ gives about prayer in Matthew’s gospel is against being showy in your spiritual practices.  Whether it’s almsgiving, fasting, or praying, he encourages us to practice for the sake of the practice.  Don’t use it to impress others, he says.  Is it hyperbole when he says to pray in secret?  I think to an extent it is.  Yes, he’s encouraging personal prayer time.  And he’s encouraging us not to pray to impress or brag.  But I think he’s okay with us praying together in worship.

It is a relief that he says not to worry about the words we use.  Keep it simple, Jesus seems to be saying.  Just talk to God.  Whether it’s here in worship or at home or in the car or any other place you’re on your own, just say it.
God, thank you for …
God, I’m concerned about …
God I’m afraid because …
God, I praise you for …
God, I’m sorry about …
God, I’m hurting because …
Just say it.

And I think that’s a great place to begin.  But it’s only the beginning of learning to pray.  And we’re all still learning.

The story is told of St. Sarapion the Sindonite, a Desert Father of fourth-century Egypt.  “He ‘traveled once on pilgrimage to Rome.  Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out.  Sceptical (sic) about her way of life – for he was himself a great wanderer – Sarapion called on her and asked: “Why are you sitting here?”  To this she replied: “I am not sitting.  I am on a journey.”’”[2]

We are all on a journey.  We are all on a spiritual pilgrimage, whether we realize it or not.  For me, one of the purposes of prayer, or really of any spiritual practice, is to help me realize that I am on a spiritual pilgrimage, and to help move that pilgrimage, and to deepen that pilgrimage.

We are also all different; that’s something we have in common.  The truth is that different personality types, different spiritual types will find different spiritual practices more challenging than others, just as we will find different spiritual practices more fruitful in deepening our journeys into the heart of God.  That is why we are looking at different spiritual practices in this sermon series.  Some will resonate with you; others won’t.

One way of looking[3] at the differences is to consider two axes.  Perhaps it’s the former math teacher in me, but imagine a graph, and x-y plane.  One line, say the horizontal line, can represent a scale of how important words or silence are for your spirituality.  The other line, say the vertical line, can represent a scale of how important thinking or feelings are for your spirituality.

So, you might be someone for whom thinking about the realities of the world are important, but you don’t need to talk about it.  You want to act.  So service is an important spiritual practice for you.  That’s what we talked about two weeks ago.

Or you might be someone for whom feeling a poem or a song is important, and so you might really be nourished by a Taizé-style worship service.  That’s what we experienced last week.

Or you might be someone for whom words and thinking are very important, and so spoken prayers and devotional reading may be important spiritual practices for you.  That’s what I’m talking about today.

Or you could be someone for whom stillness and feeling are very important, and so meditation may be an important practice for you.  That’s what Pastor Brenda will be talking about next week.

In all of these spiritual practices, for every spiritual type or approach, needs gifts from the other spiritual approaches.  We all need:
silence, if our words are to mean anything
reflection, if our actions are to have any significance;
contemplation, if we are to see the world as it really is;
prayer, if we are going to be conscious of God, if we are to “know God and enjoy God forever.”[4]

One of the beauties of being in Taizé for a week was how easy it became to pray.  The community was called together three times a day for prayer.    In addition, there were early morning eucharist services one could chose to participate in.  The structure for the rest of the day was quite simple:  Bible study in the morning, some brief work project in the afternoon, and the rest of the afternoon and evening for reflection, reading, taking a walk, etc.  There was no distraction from the internet, so I couldn’t do any work (even answering emails) long distance.  There were no household chores that needed attention; my house was 5,000 miles away.  There were no English language newspapers to haunt me with the latest world crisis (at least none that I found).  So I found myself engaging in one from of prayer or another – reading and journaling and being – even when the community was not gathered in the church building.

When I returned from sabbatical I so wanted to keep the slower pace I had learned to love, a pace where there was plenty of room for God.  But life rushed in to fill what it perceived was a vacuum.  Carving out space for God became, again, an effort.

But carving out that space is important to our spiritual pilgrimages.  Making space in our schedules and in our hearts for God is the only way to grow in that relationship.  And that’s what the spiritual practice I’m talking about today really comes down to.

Creating a space for a daily devotional is a particular gift of Protestant spirituality to the rest of Christianity.  There is even a comic strip that has come out of the practice.  The strip, “Coffee with Jesus,”[5] got its name from how some people see their daily devotional time – as sitting down with Jesus for a morning cup of coffee, and having a chat.  Other people use daily emails to prompt their daily prayer time.  Some use books.  Some use booklets that are published monthly or quarterly.  I’ll have examples of these at the “tasting” following worship today.

The thing that all these tend to have in common is a piece of scripture (often a single verse), a written reflection of some sort, and a prayer or a prayer prompt.  Some people add journaling to this daily practice.

Sometimes, the daily devotional guides will include a time for intercessory prayer.  Intercessory prayer is prayer offered on behalf of others.  It happens any time we pray, any time we intercede on behalf of someone else or some situation outside ourselves.  It is a type of prayer that can be challenging, for scripture tells us both to tell God what we want and not to treat God like a cosmic bellhop.

So I’ve come to see that intercessory prayer is not about changing God’s heart and mind for another person; it’s about joining with God’s desires for another person.  When we ask God for a specific outcome for someone or some situation, we are sort of saying that we are smarter than God when it comes to what outcomes would be best.  So, instead, I generally do intercessory prayer by simply holding someone in God’s embrace.  Sometimes I visualize this.  Or I’ll use words like, “God, I place ____ in the care of your unending love.”

Another form of daily prayer that I think is worth mentioning dates back to the early 16th century.  St. Ignatius of Loyola suggested a daily prayer called the examen.  A friend and colleague, John Mabry,[6] has adapted and modernized it into these five steps:

  1. Review the day – noticing what leaps out at you, what and when feels emotionally charged, and especially what and when God felt either close or far away.
  2. Give thanks – praise God for those events of the day that brought you pleasure, joy, or satisfaction.  Give thanks, especially for moments of spiritual insight or intimacy.
  3. Express remorse – Hold before God those things you are not proud of, the things you said or did that you shouldn’t have, and the things you didn’t say or didn’t do that you should have.
  4. Ask for forgiveness – Ask God to forgive you for those things you feel remorseful about.  Also ask for forgiveness for not noticing or appreciating the gifts in your life.
  5. Ask for grace – Ask God to help you do better tomorrow, to be more mindful of God’s presence in everyone and everything, to notice when the Spirit is speaking and leading.

If a daily devotional is a good way to being the day, the daily examen is a good way to end each day.

Creating some sort of daily prayer practice is good for many reasons.  It will deepen your relationship with God.  It will nurture your spiritual pilgrimage.  It will help you reflect on other spiritual practices you engage it.  It will help you turn over you day, even your life, to the will of God.

I’ve been told that C.S. Lewis once said, “Every morning I turn my life over to God, and by the time I finish shaving I’ve taken it back.”  If he didn’t say it, well someone else did.  And I totally get the sentiment.

Finding some form of daily devotional can help us lengthen the time we let God be God in our lives.  And what a gift that is.

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] There are lots of versions of this joke floating around.  This one is tweaked a bit from a version I found at http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/taxi_driver_made_them_pray_joke (22 March 2014).

[2] Don Postema, Space for God (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1983) 9; quoting Fr Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p 7.

[3] This is based on Corinne Ware, Discovery Your Spiritual Type.  I was unable to find my copy of the book to get the full credit information.  This also means my representation of her work is from my memory.

[4] Don Postema, op. cit., 16.

[5] See the photos on the Radio Free Babylon Facebook page, www.facebook.com/RadioFreeBabylon.

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