This past Sunday I preached at the Episcopal Church of the Savior in Hanford. Father Luis had arranged guest preachers during Lent (all who are in part of the Discernment Process towards Ordination) with the theme of "Prayer".
The challenge of writing this sermon was extracting the theme of prayer out of the readings. At first I had wondered if the thesis was a bit stretch, but it seemed it was well received, and (mostly) well delivered. If you'd like to hear to me speak nervously and fumbled over words, you can do so here (click on Sermons and find my name).
Without giving too much away, in researching I discovered that families and individuals from liturgical backgrounds use Psalm 121 as a prayer before travel. I think it is a lovely tradition and adopted it this past week when journeying to the central coast.
2nd Sunday in Lent
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Next to the 23rd Psalm, John 3:16 is probably the most quoted verse in the Bible. I remember countless Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings hearing this verse from the Pastor urging those who have not been “born again” to come forward, repent, and amend their lives to Christ and become Christians. Yup, a good old fashioned altar call, and I responded to that call as often as I could. Not wanting to sin anymore, and hoping that in my sincerity God would undo the “abomination” of my sexuality, I would repeat after the pastor the “Sinner’s Prayer”. The Sinner’s Prayer is directly linked to John 3:16 and Romans 10:9; it goes something like this: Dear God, I know that I am a sinner and that am going to hell. I’m sorry for my sins and I believe that you sent your son Jesus to come and die for me. I accept him as my Lord and Savior. Amen. Bam, after that God heard your prayer and life was awesome, or at least supposed to be. Now, I am not one to condemn the honest and sincere expression of lamenting one’s sin and wanting to make spiritual amends to follow Christ, but I will point out how the Sinner’s Prayer affected my attitude and conditioning towards prayer: I treated it like it was magic and acted like the most important thing which should result from prayer was obviously that answer, the end result, everything after the “Amen”. No matter how much I tried, I was never able to “pray the gay away” and looking back at it all I have realized that I had missed the point of prayer completely. I had a petition that I wanted answered immediately. God however had something more substantial and more engaging once I was ready to start listening, which wasn’t until I grew out of my adolescence into my adulthood where I learned that prayer is about the journey at hand.
Prayer in its simplest definition is conversing with God. Asking God’s blessing, provision, and protection for ourselves and those we care about. It is also communing with God in silence or in nature. Prayer is not just limited to our thoughts, words, or deeds. It is choosing to engage with God by acknowledging that God is always engaging with us.
Psalm 121 is in a section of the Psalter known as the “Songs of Ascent”, which were used by the Hebrews when making pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Scholars suggest this psalm was used liturgically when beginning the journey. The traveler, using the pronouns “I” and “my”, would say to the priest at the temple, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and Earth”. The priest changing the pronoun would respond saying “He will not let your foot be moved and he watches over you shall neither slumber nor sleep”. The psalm speaks in declaration in God who protects us from dangers of travel: the surrounding hills hiding the bandits, from the beating hot sun, the dangers in the night, from the deception from the moon, in the God who is the foundation of creation, the maker of Heaven and Earth. The psalm speaks of trusting in God not so much for the arriving at the destination, but for the journey at hand.
Having made the first pilgrimage to the Promised Land, Abraham would have well appreciated this psalm. Though Abraham is commended in Romans for his faith in God who would make him father of a great nation and secure salvation in the world to come, one can wonder about his own initial fears in making the first pilgrimage to the land of Canaan. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never cared for things which are sprung at me last minute, even if it involves traveling anywhere more than 30 minutes away. Traveling takes preparation of departure, time, what to bring, route deciding, and hoping you know what to expect when the destination is reached. And in Abraham’s case I’m sure nothing could have prepared him for having to round up the family, load up the camel and leave everything behind and relocate to an unfamiliar place.
Now, Abraham might serve us as an inspiration and a model as he didn’t complain or turn back. He can also serve as an unfair measure of judgment as one would think it would be easier to follow divine command when God himself appeared right before him. Insert Nicodemus here, the one who might be more relatable to us, the one who actually had God right in front of him. Scholars debate whether he was just up late studying the Torah, as was common for teachers of the Law, or if he was fearful of being found out for inquiring of Jesus, something that the writer’s style could imply. But nevertheless Nicodemus’ journey leads him to Jesus one night. His journey at this point is full “Huh? Did I get that right? I’m not sure I follow”. I’m sure all of us have these conversations with God at one point or another.
Paul Miller writes that, "Prayer is a moment of incarnation - God with us. God involved in the details of my life." Abraham, Nicodemus, and the writer of Psalm 121 all have this in common: they allowed God to be involved in the details of their lives, and allowed themselves to be vulnerable. Abraham trusted in God and allowed himself to be moved to a new location and set the world on a new course. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, in coming to Jesus showed he knew that he had more to learn and understand. Through the perils of primitive travel, the writer of Psalm 121 trusts in God for a safe journey. When we acknowledge that we are vulnerable, the journey of prayer begins and we come to find that prayer isn’t necessarily for God so much it is for us. We who are vulnerable can come to see that God is for us and walking with us in the very moment of our vulnerability. In Lent, we focus on our need for the Word made flesh, we emphasize the existence of our human condition by prayer and fasting, trusting to be accounted for like the forerunners of our faith in today’s readings. May we who are wonderfully created, yet inherently vulnerable, find God’s presence in our vulnerability. May our vulnerability be our own cross to carry while journeying to the Promise of the Resurrection to come. Amen.