Sermon: Prayerfully Present, June 1, 2014

June 1, 2014

Ascension Sunday

Scripture: John 17:1-12 Message

17 1-5 Jesus said these things. Then, raising his eyes in prayer, he said:

Father, it’s time.
Display the bright splendor of your Son so the Son in turn may show your bright splendor.
You put him in charge of everything human so he might give real and eternal life to all in his charge.
And this is the real and eternal life:
That they know you, the one and only true God,
and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.
I glorified you on earth by completing down to the last detail what you assigned me to do.
And now, Father, glorify me with your very own splendor, the very splendor I had in your presence before there was a world.

6-12 I spelled out your character in detail to the men and women you gave me.
They were yours in the first place; then you gave them to me, and they have now done what you said.
They know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that everything you gave me is firsthand from you, for the message you gave me, I gave them;
and they took it, and were convinced that I came from you.
They believed that you sent me.
I pray for them.
I’m not praying for the God-rejecting world but for those you gave me,
for they are yours by right.
Everything mine is yours, and yours mine, and my life is on display in them.
For I’m no longer going to be visible in the world; they’ll continue in the world While I return to you.
Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life that you conferred as a gift through me, so they can be one heart and mind as we are one heart and mind.
As long as I was with them, I guarded them in the pursuit of the life you gave through me; I even posted a night watch. And not one of them got away, except for the rebel bent on destruction
(the exception that proved the rule of Scripture).

Prayer

Come, Holy Spirit, come to us in this time and place, in the reading of these words and in the preaching of this message. Come to us when we sit in silence and when we are moving too fast. Surprise us, revive us, and shape us into the Body of Christ. Amen.

Our Experience

            The elevator in my condo building is less than reliable and this is after tens of thousands of dollars in repair work and new parts, even a total rebuilding of it several years ago.  It is a very intuitive elevator! It always seems to break down when I have six loads of laundry to haul down three flights of stairs to the basement. I also recall being in the elevator when it made an unscheduled stop between floors. It only takes a few seconds for major anxiety to set in when I am trapped in a really confined space, (I absolutely cannot go spelunking) but fortunately for me the hold-up was temporary and there was as lovely phone operator to keep me company  while I waited to be rescued by the fire department.                                            When I find myself trapped in small, enclosed places, or feeling overwhelmed, or panicked or in a hurry and there are circumstances way beyond my control I usually find myself confronted with three different voices in my head:  the voice of judgment, the voice of cynicism or the voice of fear. “OK, why is this happening to me?”  “This is just wonderful!” and “Who is going to believe that I actually got stuck in an elevator? I mean, really?”  Sometimes when all the forces of evil all line up I could swear my trio of voices sings in three part harmony.

My Voice of Judgment kicks in and immediately blocks the gate to my mind. I can just hear it slam shut. This is the voice that passes judgment on the people and events surrounding the discussion or the experience at hand. Now the really astounding thing about my voice of judgment is that it often represents ideas and thought patterns that are oppositional to my own point of view. The judgment voice may sound something like this: “These elevator repair guys have been out here weekly for months to fix this elevator!  Why can’t they get it right?  How hard can it be to fix an elevator?”                            My Voice of Cynicism clogs the arteries to my heart, almost closes them down completely.  This voice is engaged in the emotional act of distancing me from whatever uncomfortable situation I may find myself. It stops me from becoming too vulnerable. It sounds something like this: “It certainly is a good thing Jesus didn’t need to rely on this elevator for his ascension!  He never would have made it.”                                            My Voice of Fear totally obstructs my freedom. It seeks to prevent me from letting go of what I am holding on to for dear life and from living out God’s best intentions for me and who I am. It seeks to protect me from my own insecurities, from being ostracized, from being mortified by some glaring error or oversight. It sounds something like this, “What if no one ever finds me in here?  What if this elevator goes crashing to the ground?  What if the fire department can’t pry the doors open?”

Our Experience Expanded

For the purposes of my message this morning I am going to extend my stuck in the elevator analogy to St. Paul’s.  A number of you over the past five years have said to me that St. Paul’s feels stuck.  That is a word I have heard a lot.  More recently, however, I have picked up on what I would call a sense of urgency related to St. Paul’s future.  Now I am hearing, “What is going to happen to us?”  “What will we look like in three years?  Five years?”  “Are we capable of making the changes that need to be made for us to survive?”  “What do we have to do to attract the next generation to St. Paul’s?”  “Who is going to step into our shoes and keep this place running?” and frequently I hear, “What if we can never afford a full time pastor again?”

Yes, the elevator is wedged in.  It is somewhere between floors, or maybe it won’t go to the floor that we want to be on, or it isn’t leveling itself when it lands on the top floor and people are tripping as they try to get in or out, or the doors won’t open on the first floor, but they will open on the second floor, so we end up taking the stairs after all.  With a deep appreciation for the 105 year history of this congregation we recognize that when the elevator was first installed it worked fine!  It wasn’t until they computerized it that we started having trouble with it.  What do you mean we need a new motherboard?  Didn’t they do that when it was down for three months being overhauled?

Our Traditions

My cynicism not withstanding Jesus didn’t have to put up with mal-functioning elevators. He could get where he needed to go under his own power.  He actually rose up away from the pull of gravity. He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of the disciples’ sight. Even after Jesus had disappeared, they kept gazing up toward heaven, until suddenly two angels in white robes appeared and asked them, “You, Galileans, (which by the way was a putdown – the angels might as well have called them all hicks!) why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Now, that seems a silly question. Wouldn’t you stand looking up toward heaven if you had seen Jesus rising up? Maybe we remember another time when two angels appeared, two angels in dazzling clothes who stood beside the women who had come to the tomb on Easter morning. Those angels, too, had asked a question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It must have seemed an absurd question to the sad and heartbroken women for they had NOT come to the tomb looking for the living.                                                           Jesus, like St. Paul’s, doesn’t seem to be where he’s supposed to be. He was not in the tomb, but risen and gone to Galilee. Then, later, Jesus is no longer on earth, but risen beyond the clouds, beyond human sight. So it does seem that to be with Jesus means to be somewhere other than where we are now. Even if we don’t believe heaven is up there, we still find ourselves looking up beyond the pull of gravity. We who dance and climb and run, we who lie on the grass or sit watching the late-night news, we are waiting to be surprised by Jesus’ hands over our eyes and a voice saying, “Guess who?” But don’t we have to rise above the ground floor, above the pews in this room, above this tired and weary body? How can we enter the pure life of the Spirit to be for Jesus what he wants us to be as a church?

Re-mything Our Traditions

Jesus had big plans for his disciples after he was gone and his send off was to pray for them. And I feel strongly that God has a plan for St. Paul’s.  It is up to us to discern just what that might be.  But how do we do that?  Do we all get to have a say in what the future will look like or will it be up to our session and deacons to decide?  What about all the work we did with the New Beginnings?  How will we know if we are on target, doing what God wants us to do and becoming what God wants us to be or merely doing what we think God wants us to do?                                                                     What is the difference between group decision making and authentic communal discernment? Group decision making typically involves a cadre of people or leaders who are individually invested in particular outcomes, who come together to iron out and resolve their differences, often to represent the good of the whole. I expect to encounter this later this month when I attend our General Assembly in Detroit for a week. By contrast, authentic communal discernment requires sincere and committed prayers, people who are unencumbered by preconceived notions and outcomes. To move from deciding to discerning, we must free ourselves from inordinate attachments. We must assume an indifference to anything but the will of the divine One as discovered collectively by the group; setting aside matters of ego, politics, personal opinion, and vested interest. We begin the process of discernment with the basic stance of freedom, unknowing, or indifference that always underlies a group discernment process.  This is a path along which anyone who wants to participate is invited.                                                              We all know a lot of stuff, some of us have advanced degrees, some of us have been lifelong teachers and school principles. So how do we adopt a stance of unknowing? After all, how can we be indifferent or unknowing and plan any kind of future for this church? We start with prayer.  We begin by fine tuning our own personal prayer lives and building up our own personal discernment muscles.        We start by silencing those voices of judgment, cynicism and fear and we pray daily, “Thy will be done!”                                   I distinctly remember going through a period of time where praying was difficult for me.  It just wasn’t satisfying or even helpful. I described it back then as a “dull thud.”  I sought the help of a spiritual advisor who told me to journal for one week about my prayer life. When I returned she looked briefly at my journal and then she asked me who I prayed to and, of course, I said God.  She looked at me and said, ”A tree or a refrigerator could answer your prayers.”   And then she asked me if I truly believed that prayer changed things?  Jesus tells his disciples to think big for Him, to be bold for Him, to do courageous work in His name, and, yet, there was indeed a part of me that didn’t totally believe His promises. I had to face it!  I came to realize that often my prayers were a desperate attempt, a last resort, in a particular situation in my life, and more likely than not, I had an agenda, even if it wasn’t verbalized.  My spiritual director told me that I had to release my voices of judgment, cynicism and fear if I hoped to have any kind of quality prayer life.                                                                           The journaling was important and I don’t know if any of you are currently doing this, but my spiritual director instructed me to begin with prayerful silence, followed by writing from the perspective of each of my three voices. She had assigned me five different passages of scripture and this eventually framed what she called a “dialogue topic.” Once a topic had been established then I was instructed to adopt the voice of judgment with regard to the topic and to write only from that voice for a period of 5 minutes. I would then take a brief rest and then repeat the exercise assuming the voice of cynicism, and finally the voice of fear. When the writing exercise was completed she would lead me through a guided meditation, inviting the Divine to release me from each of the voices. This would be followed with a period of silence.  Now, this exercise went on for several weeks before I could truly grasp its importance and begin to pry loose  in what I had often taken pride.                                                    We can never fully release ourselves from the vested voices in our head, but I experienced a remarkably different frame of mind having completed this exercise.  When I was more prayerfully present, I became more likely to function on both a day to day and a spiritual level with a discerning head and heart.                                                                 If St. Paul’s is going to continue its legacy of witnessing to Christ on the corner of La Brea and Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA, it will be because we prayed it into being, not because we willed it into being.                               So I must ask, “How is it between God and the faithful at St. Pauls?”  I want you to answer these questions quickly, off the top of your head, without much thinking about your answers, but by just reacting to them:            Yes or No:  It is OK to try and manipulate God with our prayers? //  Our intentions are good and there is so much work to be done.                                Yes or No: Persistent prayers, day by day prayers, are more successful than prayers prayed ONLY when things get tough or bad?                              Yes or No: (1) Does prayer really change things? (2) Do we really believe that moving mountains is God’s specialty? // What if God doesn’t always move them in the way we want, think or pray?                                  Yes or No: Is your prayer life meaningful and growing? Are you bold in your prayers?                                                                                    Yes or No:  Do you expect results from your praying? Or do you think “it’s fixed” and nothing will change, no matter how much you pray?                          Yes or No: That need in your life, that burden you are carrying, do you just not pray about it because you think nothing can be done about it?     Yes or No:  Is prayer important? // Jesus prayed for hours that God’s mind would change and the cross could be avoided, but God said “No” to Jesus. Jesus didn’t hesitate to pray, to let His request be known to God.        Yes or No:  Are there some mountains in your life that need moving?        Yes or No: Are you carrying burdens around that only God can move?   Yes or No:  Is God big enough to help us turn off our voices of judgment, cynicism and fear and show us a plan for the future of this church? How big, then is our God?                                                                     Are we ready for big?  Are we ready for anything or anyone God sends our way?  There was a sign on a elevator door in Brittain that reads   Capacity: 9 persons max, 1000 kg., 1 horse,  5,050 bananas; 6,666 hens eggs; 2,941 pigeons; 88 haddock; or 10,526 pound coins.  Now, I am quite sure that I don’t want to get on an elevator that has been occupied by 2,941 pigeons, but if through prayer we discern that this is God’s plan, then who am I to question it?  Amen!

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, keep us from getting bogged down, held down, kept down. As you have risen and ascended, so may we. As you have overcome death and the grave, so may we. As you have gone home to God, so may we. Lift us, we pray, to your love and your glory that we may be with you forever and ever. Amen.