ACTS, with a focus on the T

       Nearly a quarter century after my Young Life days came to an end, there is plenty that I would quibble with their leadership about these days.  My understanding of God’s grace, of atonement, human sexuality, and gender have all changed in the last 25 years. Yet, I still find myself recalling fondly many of the memories from those halcyon days.  One of the best lessons I learned from my Young Life leader, Fletch, is the ACTS form of prayer.  Not as in the book of Acts, from which the Pentecost Day story comes, but the acrostic, ACTS.  When my prayer life gets dry, I’m grateful that the foundation of ACTS is always there to catch me.

       I have probably told you this before, but in case you don’t recall, ACTS stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.   A prayer that follows that pattern can never go wrong.  Adoration, as defined in our Book of Common Prayer, “is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.”[1]  This comes first as a means to enter into the presence of God in prayer.  Rather than flinging our requests up to some far away God, we seek first to come into God’s presence, so that we can enter into a conversation with the God of all creation.  Confession, an action we do corporately every Sunday, is the act of acknowledging our sins in the hope of repentance and forgiveness.  It comes second so as to wipe the slate clean before diving into deeper conversation.  Thanksgiving is also defined in the Prayer Book as the act of thanking God “for all the blessings of this life, for our redemption, and for whatever draws us closer to God.”  I often wonder if human beings put this third, not because it makes ACTS easier to remember than ACST, but because we feel the need to butter God up before we move onto the fourth step.  Supplication is asking God to do or provide something.  Supplication can be split into two foci: intercession, wherein we bring to God the needs of others, and petition, where we ask God’s will be done upon our own needs.

       ACTS is a simple way to begin, or restart for the 4,000th time, a routine of regular prayer and conversation with God.  If I’m honest, however, I’ve found the Thanksgiving piece to be increasingly difficult over the last 15 months.  I suspect I’m not the only one.  As I said on Wednesday evening, COVID-19 has taken so much from us, there have been times when it felt nearly impossible to come up with things to be thankful for.  When you are working, schooling, cooking, cleaning, and everything else from home, it can be hard to even be thankful for that dang roof over your head.  I guess that’s why I’ve found myself drawn not to the typical Pentecost lesson from Acts, or even Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit in John, but to Paul’s short little lesson on the Holy Spirit from Romans.

       “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.”  Tell me about it.  Whether it isn’t knowing how to give thanks for the little things when COVID was raging, or not knowing how to pray through such weighty issues as police violence against our black and brown siblings, assaults on the democratic process in this country, white supremacist Christian nationalism, or the return of mass shootings in the post-COVID world, I have found myself stuck, not knowing how to pray as I ought, again and again.  Thankfully, the redemption of the world is not dependent on my ability to pray, and even if it was, my ability to pray isn’t even dependent on my ability to pray.  “The Spirit helps us in our weakness…” Paul asserts, “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

       Off the top of my head, I can think of three famous prayer scenes in movies from the last three decades.  There is the grace prayed over Christmas dinner by Aunt Bethany that is nothing more than the Pledge of Allegiance in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  There is the grace prayed to tiny infant Jesus in his golden fleece diaper by Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights.  And finally, there is the dinner prayer of Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act.  “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts … and, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food, I shall fear no hunger. We want you to give us this day our daily bread … and to the republic for which it stands … by the power vested in me, I now pronounce us, ready to eat. Amen.”[2]  None of them know how to pray as they ought, and even though each prayer is ridiculous in its own right, I still firmly believe that the Spirit can translate even those prayers into words of thanks and praise.  Just imagine what the Holy Spirit can do with whatever prayers you or I might come up with.

       To further assuage my worry that my prayers aren’t up to snuff, Paul goes on to remind us that the reason the Spirit can take our deepest prayers to God using language that beyond words is that the mind of the Spirit is fully known to God the Father.  As we’ll hear again on Trinity Sunday next week, there is no brokenness in the relationship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The mind of the Spirit, which knows what is on the hearts of each of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ, is the same mind that is in God the Father.  The Spirit knows that even in my inability to be thankful during this difficult season, my desire to be thankful is enough. 

       Sometimes, I worry that the reason the Holy Spirit doesn’t get much love in the denominations of the former Mainline Christianity is that we think we’re too proper for such things.  The Spirit is so often associated with ecstatic outbursts like praying in tongues or Benny Hinn type healing miracles, and we prefer a more polite version of God, thank you very much.  On this Day of Pentecost, however, in the midst of a long, difficult journey through the COVID-19 pandemic, a long overdue racial reckoning, and a highly polarized and often violent political climate, I wonder if we might be well served to remember that for all the wind and flames and foreign languages, what the Spirit is really about in our lives is carrying the mind of humans to heart of God, and mind of God to the heart of humans.

This morning, as we gather to celebrate Holy Eucharist together for the first time since March of 2020, I’m reminded that Eucharist means Thanksgiving.  We begin this morning, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a long-overdue season of Thanksgiving, for all that is past, for what is, for what is to come, but especially for the gift of God’s grace in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  Come Holy Spirit.  Come and intercede to God on our behalf.  Come and show us the will of the Father.  Come and teach us to be thankful.  Come and refresh us, that we might help renew the face of the earth.  Amen.


[1] BCP, p. 857

[2] Thanks to Pastor Charlie Woodward at Epiphany Lutheran Church for transcribing this one. https://www.epiphanydayton.org/sighs-too-deep-for-words/

Lord, teach us to pray

I’ve always read Luke 11:1-13 as a two only somewhat related stories.  First, the disciples, jealous that John’s disciples have a prayer they’ve learned from their Rabbi, ask Jesus to teach them to pray, and Jesus gives them the Lord’s Prayer.  Then, sometime later, but within the construct of Luke’s narrative, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent neighbor.  It’s always felt really disjointed to me, as if there was some kind of record scratch in between.

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Luke B All

This reading is probably due to my Episcopalianism.  As a priest in a tradition that is tied heavily to prayers written in a book, my inclination is to hear the disciples asking Jesus for the words to say in prayer, not necessarily how it should happen.  For some reason this morning, however, I read the text as a singular encounter between Jesus and he disciples.  When they ask Jesus to teach them to pray, first he gives them a basic framework of words to use and then he goes on teach them how often they should use them.

Father, hallowed be your name – The prayer begins by addressing God and articulating that God is God.  In the Jewish tradition, this would be in line with Shema which states that the Lord is God and the Lord is one.

Your kingdom come – This is the core message that Jesus came to bring, that the Kingdom of God has come near.  The prayer of Jesus’ disciples, it would follow, should be primarily focused on seeing that come to fruition.

Give us each day our daily bread – The story of the relationship between God and God’s people is one of faith renewed each morning.  As the Hebrews travelled for 40 years in the wilderness, they were given manna, bread from heaven, that was only enough for the day.  If they took any more than that, it would spoil.  As inheritors of that faith tradition, we look only for enough to deal with today, for tomorrow has its own worries.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us – Jesus steers clear of the sins/trespasses/debts debate by using two different words here.  We pray for forgiveness of our sins as we attempt to learn what it means to forgive others who we perceive owe us something.  This is the only place in this prayer where we are invited to directly ask God to change us – from those who do not forgive to those who are and can forgive.

And do not bring us to the time of trial – By far the most difficult petition to understand.  Not only do we pray for forgiveness, but we also pray that God might protect us from situations that would lead us into sin.  Maybe, if we are going to take this prayer seriously, we should all delete our Twitter accounts in order to not be led into a time of trial.

What follows then is a parable from Jesus about how often we should pray.  We know that God knows our needs before we ask and our ignorance in asking, so I don’t think that Jesus is saying that God needs us to be pesterful in order for prayers to be answered.  Many a hospital room has been sullied by such bad theology of “if you only prayed harder” or “if you had more faith.”  Rather, if our relationship with God is to develop, we need to approach God in prayer with great regularity, not merely asking for God to fix those things that are in crisis, but above all, asking God for the Holy Spirit to be our advocate and guide.  “How much more willing will your heavenly Father be to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”

The Power of the Psalms

Despite the fact that you will rarely hear a sermon on them, the Psalms are by far the most read book of the Bible within my denomination.  With a few exceptions, in the Daily Office, we read the Psalter through every seven weeks.  In the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalter is still marked for reading them in a thirty day cycle.  Almost every Sunday, a portion of the Psalter is appointed in the Lectionary.  It is a gift that we are able to borrow from our Jewish sisters and brothers their ancient songs of praise, lament, thanksgiving, and wisdom sharing.

As with any set of texts, some speak more to me than others.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Psalm 121 is a go-to for me in challenging times.  Psalms 1, 122, 133, and even the weighty Psalm 22 have all been important to me at times in my life.  Of course, there is Psalm 23, which has almost universally been used at the funerals over which I have presided in my decade plus of ordained ministry.   Psalm 23 has a tendency to show up just when I need it to.  It was there on the week of the Boston Marathon bombing.  There have been several experiencing where I was ministering to someone who was deep in the symptoms of Alzheimers and watched as they mouthed the words of the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm along with me.

This week, as we had to make the Closing the Porch to close our porches to overnight sleeping.  Through tears and hugs, last night we announced to the Cloister Community that it would be the final night they could find shelter in our shelter.  Our ministry with this community isn’t ending, but it is drastically changing, and as I grieve all that is lost in this transition – seeing folks daily, praying for them, sharing coffee and a breakfast – I’m holding on to these words of lament that are also words of hope.  In minutes that seem to last for days where I feel acutely the shadow of death, stuck as I am on Holy Saturday, but I know that in due time, blessings and mercy will find me, and that grace abounds.

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Take your cute lamb and stuff it.

Of course, the reality of grief is that if anyone says that to me right now, I will be hard-pressed not to throat-punch them theologically, but just as those souls wracked with dementia had the 23rd Psalm hard-wired into their bones, it is there, deep within me, sustaining me through what are some pretty painful days.

Caught Unexpectedly

I’ve long since decided that social media is bad for your health.  Yet, like my love for potato chips, I keep at it.  Day after day.  I scroll through my newsfeeds, filled with anger, arrogance, and vitriol.  It certainly doesn’t bring as much satisfaction as the crisp of a kettle cooked and salted to perfection chip, but addicted as I am, my thumb slides, almost as if uncontrolled by my brain, up, and up, and up.

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At some point, it seemed like I had seen it all.  Obama didn’t do this.  Trump did that.  Hilary and Mitch did this or that.  If I wasn’t addicted to the swipe, I’d certainly be hooked on the anger.  The rage cycle is designed to keep us coming back so that the advertisers can get eyeballs on their links.  I’d probably gotten to the point of ennui, If I’m honest.  I couldn’t get angry one more time.  I couldn’t be sad again.  It was all, in the great biblical euphemism, vanity.  Yet, like a dog to its own vomit, I keep going back.

And then it happened.  I was caught unexpectedly by the image of a mother and who two young children, running away from a grenade of billowing smoke designed to sear the eyes and lungs.  What do I do with this information?  How do I react?  What do I feel?  I had nothing.  I was angry, sad, horrified, and embarrassed all at the same time.  I knew as a leader of a faith community that I was being called to say something, but I had no idea what.  So I posted this:

When words fail, I’m grateful for the wisdom contained in our BCP:‬
‪“Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us…”‬
‪And if you could take away tear gas, that’d be good too.‬
‪Amen.‬

Then, I opened the readings for Sunday and I saw this warning from Jesus, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”  He is talking about the eschaton here, but I think maybe he’s talking generically as well.  Don’t let that day, or any day, catch you unexpectedly.  There will come times when your faith will lead to you question the world in which you live.  Don’t be weighed down by worry, frivolity, or the swipe of your right thumb.  Don’t be so used to the noise that you miss the cries of the oppressed.  I still don’t know what to do or what to say, but I know that I can still pray.

Almighty God, tear down the walls that separate us, human beings divided and enslaved by sin, and gather us up on the banner of your Son, the Prince of Peace, the King of kings, and the hope of all humanity.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer – Good Book Club Week 3

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In partnership with the Good Book Club, this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question deals with the lesson that we will read on Saturday (Luke 11:1-13): What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples?

Based on the request of Jesus’ disciples, it was not uncommon for a Rabbi to teach his disciples how to pray.  This makes sense, given that each Rabbi, steeped in the tradition of his school, would have different areas of focus.  The same is true, one might say, of Episcopal priests.  If it is true, and I think it is, that each of us only really has three sermons that we say in different ways, over and over again, then it would follow that our prayers and those we invite from our congregations, would fall in line with those areas of interest.

What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus teaches?  We learn his priorities.  By addressing God as Father, Jesus invites us to pray to one whom we know and who knows us deeply.  We hear echos of his first sermon from the scroll of Isaiah.  The Kingdom of God, that place where the blind see and those who are oppressed are set free, is at hand.  We are reminded that throughout history, God has been faithful, offering the sustenance needed for today, with the call to faith that comes with the promise that tomorrow will be the same.  In asking God that we might be forgiven, we are called to repentance, and by suggesting that we might forgive others, we are being called to follow the example of God’s steadfast love (hesed) and peace (shalom).

Finally, by asking God to save us from the time of trial, as my friend Scott Gunn noted in a piece on the Pope’s suggested edit to the Lord’s Prayer, we are naming our dependence upon God, asking that God might be at work in our lives, steering us clear of those things that would lead us from the path of righteousness.  We are, in effect, asking God for the road map to the Kingdom.

I am often asked why Episcopalians say the same things all the time.  Doesn’t it eventually just get said by rote?  Well, unfortunately, it does, but the same temptation exists in the “Father WeJus” model of prayer.  Rather than getting lost in the saying, the Lord’s Prayer, and others like it, that we say with regularity, invites us to dig deep into its meaning, to understand the words we are saying, and to live into the ramifications of our prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we learn that Kingdom Living is a two way street, God provides us plenty of opportunity and grace, but ultimately, we have a part to play in the work of re-creation.


Blog Force Participant

 

He Healed Many?

One of the more challenging components of Sunday’s Gospel lesson is how a preacher chooses to handle Jesus’ ministry of healing.  This issue comes up quite often, especially as it pertains to the mass healings that Jesus took part in during his earthly ministry.  These events raise real concerns for those of us who are engaged in pastoral care and believe in the power of prayer.  “Why did Jesus heal so-and-so, but let my child suffer?” is a real and honest question.  One for which there is no answer.

This is made all the more difficult as Biblical scholars make new advancements in understanding the Greek language and its idioms.  The King James Version, Young’s Literal Translation, NRSV, NIV, and even NLT all translate Mark 1:34 with the English word “many.”  “He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”  This translation is helpful because many doesn’t mean all.  Ergo, we see that even in these mass healing events, Jesus didn’t heal everyone.  There were, presumably, reasons for that.  We have no idea what they are, but we do know that even Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, died again, one day.  Death is batting 1.000.  Always has.  Always will.  (Yes, I’m aware of the mythology surrounding Enoch, Elijah, and Mary.)

What happens when many doesn’t mean many?  There is a shift afoot amongst liturgical scholars to shift the language of the words of institution in the Eucharist away from many and toward all.  Unlike the soft theology around Communion without Baptism, this isn’t being done under the safe blanket of “inclusion” or “hospitality,” but rather, with Biblical scholarship in hand.  In their notes on the changes in Eucharistic Prayers in Enriching our Worship 1, the SCLM elaborates on this shift from “many” to “all.”

The use of “all”… in the institution narrative emphasize that forgives of sins is made available to all through Christ’s sacrifice.  While the Greek word is literally translated “many,” biblical scholars have pointed out that in the context of the passage it means that the sacrifice is made not just for a large number of persons, but for all humanity. (77)

This may not be true in every usage of the word, but it seems reasonable to think it might apply in this case.  Or, if not, it at least raises the question.  If Jesus healed many, couldn’t he have healed all?  There are ways to talk about this that don’t fall into cheap platitudes like “God has a plan.”  Sometimes, it comes down to the difficult discussion of what healing actually looks like.  Isn’t death the ultimate healing?

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I don’t have the answers, but I’m happy to raise the questions.  If you are preaching about Jesus’ healing ministry, how do you plan to handle the challenges it raises?  Will you talk about the differences between many and all?  Are you prepared to engage those whom you will lose in your sermon before the Gospel is done being read?  It is a difficult Sunday to preach, dear reader, and you are in my prayers.

Our Unending Prayer

As I write this post, police are on the scene at yet another school shooting.  This one happens to have occurred in the geographical confines of the Diocese of Kentucky, where I am canonically resident.  I have a friend who graduated from Marshall County High School.  Because of these things, in spite of living in a world that has made me numb to such tragedy, this one feels different.

It won’t take but but few hours before the lives turned upside-down by this act of violence will be traded for political capital.  The sides will line up as they always do, wagging their fingers at the other.  Religious leaders will follow suit.  People will offer thoughts and prayers.  Others will respond by lambasting their thoughts and prayers as hollow.  I fear that we are on the verge of an era in which things are so politicized that as Christians, we forget what a powerful force prayer is.

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I received word of the Marshall County High School shooting while reading the Collect for Epiphany 4.  According to Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, this prayer was originally found in the Gregorian Sacramentary, which means that it is roughly 900 years old.  For 900 years, the people of God have prayed this prayer.  For eleven hundred years of Christian history before that, it can be assured that people prayed that God might grant peace.  Even before the advent of Christ, the Jewish word of greeting to stranger and friend alike was Shalom, a wish for peace and wholeness.  It is our unending prayer.

I agree with Pope Francis who said, “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  When we pray for peace, it requires that we are ready to work for it.  This doesn’t mean that we work only so our political agenda can win the day, but rather, we work toward the restoration of all of humanity to right relationship with God and with each other.  It means praying for and working toward a spirit of cooperation, in which our government can make sensible choices around gun control, mental health spending, and law enforcement policy.  It means praying and caring for those who are ostracized and marginalized.  It means sacrifices on our part in order to make the world a safer, healthier, and holier place than it is right now.

Prayer works.  And so, today, I invite us all to add our voices to the unending prayers of the saints who have asked God to bring peace to our world.

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Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Thankfulness Doublecheck

When State Farm signed Aaron Rodgers to be a celebrity endorser, they brought along his touchdown celebration as well.  Rodgers was known to do a championship-belt-wrestler-type move which is now better known for the Discount Doublecheck than it is for the star quarterback’s touchdown dance.  They even did a humorous spoof on his confusion for one of their 30 second ads.

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While I am not a State Farm customer, I do appreciate the doublecheck idea as the downhill slide toward Christmas begins.  With mere hours between Advent 4 and Christmas Eve, Advent 2 means you best be on the ball when it comes to Christmas preparations.  In the world, that means gifts should be purchased, cards mailed, parties planned, and above all, money must be spent.  In the church it means bulletins should be prepared, special music practiced, pageants rehearsed, and above all, money must be spent.  Unfortunately, the differences between how the world and the church celebrate Christmas can be difficult to discern.  The number of faithful Christians who flock to Black Friday sales on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day are a clear indicator of that.

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Must spend money!!!!

This is why I’m digging the idea of a thankfulness doublecheck as we begin preparations for Advent 3.  In what seems like an oddly timed lesson from 1 Thessalonians, Paul admonishes his readers, and, by extension, us, to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  In the midst of a season predicated on spending money to buy stuff that people don’t need and likely don’t even want, this advice should catch us short.  Advent 3 is a time for a thankfulness doublecheck.

Am I so caught up in the Christmas Industrial Complex that I have forgotten to find joy in the gifts that God has given me?  Am I so busy running around like a chicken with my head cut off getting all my secular plans in place that I’ve forgotten to pray today?  Am I so obsessed with more that I am incapable of being thankful for what I already have?

I’m not trying to be a Scrooge about Christmas, just inviting us to gain some perspective on what this season has become for many.  Rather than it being about stress and debt, Paul invites us to make this Christmas about joy, prayer, and thanksgiving.  Today seems like as good a day as any for a Thanksgiving Doublecheck.  Won’t you join me?

Staying Awake is Prayer and Action

I’ve written so many of these posts over the years that I’m tired.  So tired, in fact, that I contemplated not doing it.  You no doubt noticed that I skipped it yesterday.  I just couldn’t bring myself to write another post about another mass shooting.  I was on vacation the week that Las Vegas happened.  I posted on Facebook, but didn’t have a chance to write anything here.

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But honestly, after Sandy Hook and the Pulse Nightclub, I really thought I had written my last post about people being slaughtered in a place where they should have been safe from the evils of anger, mental illness, domestic violence, and semi-automatic machine guns.  And then Sunday happened, and while the people of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs were saying their prayers, at least 27 of them were killed by an angry white man hellbent on destroying the world as he had come to understand it.

The doors of FBC Sutherland Springs are red, just like the doors of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green and thousands of others around the world.  The red doors can symbolize many things, from a mortgage free church to a welcoming congregation, but if you ask around, you are most likely to hear that it means a place of sanctuary.  Soldiers and law enforcement, it is said, are unable to pursue someone inside the red doors of a church.  It is supposed to be a place of safety.  While harm has come to worshipers inside the safety of the red doors before, this time, we have a 24 hour news cycle and social media to ensure that every person on the planet knows that it happened.  And, as if like clockwork, the various sides began to circle their wagons.

As has been a growing trend of late, the zero sum game between those who would offer prayer and those who would work for change has come to the forefront in the aftermath of Sunday’s tragedy.  It has become as if praying for the victims of such events is now offensive while only those who are actively working for reasonable gun control are real disciples of Jesus.  This is, of course, absurd.  The zero sum game between prayer and work is a falsehood, most likely handed to us by the devil himself, to make sure Christians continue to present in the wider culture as angry, ill mannered, and hypocritical.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson invites us to consider that famous seminary phrase, “both/and.”  In the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In it, Jesus seemingly admonishes his disciples to not be like either set of bridesmaids, since they all fell asleep, but rather, we are called to keep awake for the return of the bridegroom.  For those who know the larger story, this will immediately bring to mind the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night Jesus was arrested.  Despite Jesus imploring them to keep awake and pray with him, they fell asleep.  Three times, they failed to stay awake.

In times like these, disciples of Jesus are certainly called to stay awake and pray, but I think we are also called to the obvious meaning of the parable as well.  In order to be like the wise bridesmaids, we are called to do the work required to be ready when Jesus comes.  That work of preparation means working toward just solutions on topics like common sense gun control, funding for mental health, social safety nets, and quality public education.  Can we just pray?  Probably not.  Can we just call our Senators?  No, that won’t work either.  It is only through both prayer and work that we will be able to join with God in building the Kingdom Jesus describes in his parables.

Approaching Jesus with good intentions

This Sunday is one of those weeks where preachers can do a lot of unintentional damage.  I’ve done some, over the years.  I’d be willing to be most of us have because when it comes to the dichotomy setup between Jesus and the Pharisees, it all seems so easy.  The Gospels often use the Pharisees as a foil against Jesus the hero.  They are the theological straw men upon which the Gospel writer builds their theology of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Pharisees play interlocutor to teacher Jesus so that he can expound a deep piece of wisdom.  And we, 21st century preachers, don’t know enough about the Pharisees/inherit two millenia of anti-Judiasm/succumb to the temptation of supersessionism and we put them before out congregations as sacrificial lambs for our sermon’s narrative arc.  We can do better, if, for on other reason than we are the modern day Pharisees and we ought to be careful.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus can read the intentions of the Pharisees.  As a reminder, it is Holy Week, and tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is about to boil over.  He’s come to town riding a donkey to cries of “Hosanna” and “Son of David.”  He has flipped the tables of the money changers in the Temple.  He has engaged in theological debate.  He has threatened their understanding of the way in which God works.  That Jesus perceives malice in their question about paying taxes makes perfect sense.  This up and coming Rabbi is threatening not just their piety, but the foundation of the Pax Romana, and when one upsets Rome, the collateral damage is extensive.

It would be easy to say, “those Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, don’t be like them,” but how often do we approach the throne of grace with 100% pure intentions?  What percentage of the time are our prayers self-serving?  How often does fear of losing the comfort of the status quo motivate us to pray?  When do we not come before our Lord hoping to get something from him?  If Jesus was able to discern the motivations of the Pharisees, he is able to do the same with us.  As you say your prayers today, come with a clean heart and a settled spirit.  Come not looking for anything in return.  Don’t expect good feelings, comfort, or joy.  Before we look down our noses at the Pharisees, we ought check ourselves.

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