Scripture - Luke 19:28-44
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.
*Hymn - Mantos y Palmas (UMH 279)
These past few weeks we’ve been talking about prayer - the prayer practices that make up this central discipline of the Christian faith and are woven throughout our daily lives. We began with the prayers we say before we eat - table blessings - where we pause and give thanks to God and the most central Table Blessing of the Great Thanksgiving that we pray before we share in Communion, where we recall God’s salvation story and our role in the God’s redeeming work in the world. We then moved to Prayers of Intercession - the prayers we pray as petitioners on behalf of others and ourselves, using the image of a prayer shawl as a way to understand that our prayers are part of how God is knitting the world back into wholeness. Last week we explored prayers of Lament - sharing those honest, vulnerable, and raw emotions with God and how worship is a place where we can bring our full selves.
This week brings us toward the end of Lent with Palm Sunday - the day we remember Jesus entering into Jerusalem to shouts of joy and acclimation as the people looked to Jesus to fulfill their messianic hopes. We envision the crowds lining the pathway into the city watching Jesus and his followers make their way down the Mount of Olives. This scene was prayer in action - a radical prayer for the Reign of Peace to come upon them - for God’s kingdom to be established among them.
Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The Last Week give a compelling image and context for why this parade was so radically subversive and problematic for the Roman Empire - and why these shouts from the crowd were prayers that put into action a faith that would place them on the edges of both Jewish and Greco-Roman society. I invite you to imagine this scene...
Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year . . .
. . . . One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north.
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.
. . . . Imagine the imperial procession's arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.
Jesus's procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate's proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus's crucifixion . . .
Pilate’s presence in Jerusalem for the Passover festival wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. It was not for some religious observance - after all, the religion of the Empire was that Caesar was the Son of God. Pilate’s presence wasn’t out of some deference to the local cultural customs, but to be on hand in case there was any trouble - which there often was as the Passover commemorates God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt...God’s saving presence among the people, delivering them from under the hand of the oppressor into a Promised Land where they were their own people.
Pilate’s processional, with all the pomp and circumstance, would have been a strong reminder of the power of the Roman Empire, a reminder of just who was in charge, a reminder of this way of life where you climbed the ladder by currying favor with the Romans, where wealth and status grant power over others, where might made right, where the great Pax Romana had been forged through conquest, oppression, and exploitation.
So when we have Jesus coming into town, with an ordinary robe, riding on a donkey with his rag-tag band of disciples following on foot - no neat rows of tight discipline, no shiny banners but rather branches of palm and peasant clothing on the pathway before him into the city - we see that Jesus is coming as a new kind of king - a king of peace that will break the bonds of war, a king of peace come to challenge and change the kingdoms of this world, a king of peace that refused the temptations of earthly power based in domination and oppression. In Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims, we see a different way of life emerge that causes those in power to tremble because his message threatens to undo the very fabric upon which their whole Empire was built.
And the choice comes - the peace of Christ or the peace of Caesar? To which kingdom will we owe allegiance?
Jesus’ life - and that of his disciples - looked vastly different than the life of those whose identity was wrapped up in that of the Empire. The shouts of alleluia were prayers that placed hope in Jesus’ radical message of hope and peace, a cry to God for salvation, a witness to the movement of God’s kingdom among them -- a rejection of what the Empire stood for. Their very lives became a way in which God’s kingdom became real - a living witness that life could be oriented around compassion and forgiveness, mercy and justice, reconciliation and redemption, new life and hope and in the love of God. And we see all of that in Jesus, who healed the sick, ate with tax collectors and sinners, spent time with the forgotten people of his day and who gave of his very self to restore wholeness to humankind.
As we are invited to choose the peace of Christ over the peace of Empire -- our lives are also called to look different - our very lives transformed into prayers of action that call witness to the self-emptying power of Christ’s love and the way of life in the kingdom of God that seeks to look at others the way God does.
Richard Foster wrote, “Each activity of daily life in which we stretch ourselves on behalf of others is a prayer of action.”
Life in the kingdom means that we move beyond ourselves to consider how we are in the world - that we move beyond ourselves to choose the peace of Christ over the values of this world. When we stretch ourselves to forgive someone who wronged us - that’s life in the kingdom and a prayer of action. When we stretch ourselves to ask for forgiveness to someone we have wronged - it’s a prayer of action. When we open our doors to the stranger, to the lonely child, to the people who can’t seem to get it together - it’s a prayer of action. When we intentionally stretch ourselves to include those who don’t have a place at the table, it’s a prayer of action. When we prioritize our time and energy and resources to take note of, include, and engage the people who are forgotten in our world, it’s a prayer of action. When we give up our place at the center - giving away our privilege and emptying ourselves in the way of Jesus - it’s a prayer of action. When we orient our lives around Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed was near, when we choose to live a life following in the footsteps of Jesus, who gave up everything that the world had to offer, we make the kingdom more real here on earth, and our lives join those of the disciples throughout the ages who have worked for, prayed for, and lived for God’s reign of peace and justice.
These two processions are as real today as they were two thousand years ago. One that promises you peace and security paid for by war, that is shiny and respectable, that gives you a ladder to climb, that is full of might and wealth and splendor...the other a procession that cannot give you money or power or status or security or success, but a parade that proclaims the way of self-emptying love, promises peace beyond our understanding, that will join and march with you - no matter who you are or what state you are in - that promises life, grace, and freedom in God’s love.
Which do you join with your life?
Scripture - Psalm 22; Lamentations 1:1-7
Psalm 22 (The Message)
1-2 God, God . . . my God!
Why did you dump me
miles from nowhere?
Doubled up with pain, I call to God
all the day long. No answer. Nothing.
I keep at it all night, tossing and turning.
3-5 And you! Are you indifferent, above it all,
leaning back on the cushions of Israel’s praise?
We know you were there for our parents:
they cried for your help and you gave it;
they trusted and lived a good life.
6-8 And here I am, a nothing—an earthworm,
something to step on, to squash.
Everyone pokes fun at me;
they make faces at me, they shake their heads:
“Let’s see how God handles this one;
since God likes him so much, let him help him!”
9-11 And to think you were midwife at my birth,
setting me at my mother’s breasts!
When I left the womb you cradled me;
since the moment of birth you’ve been my God.
Then you moved far away
and trouble moved in next door.
I need a neighbor.
12-13 Herds of bulls come at me,
the raging bulls stampede,
Horns lowered, nostrils flaring,
like a herd of buffalo on the move.
14-15 I’m a bucket kicked over and spilled,
every joint in my body has been pulled apart.
My heart is a blob
of melted wax in my gut.
I’m dry as a bone,
my tongue black and swollen.
They have laid me out for burial
in the dirt.
16-18 Now packs of wild dogs come at me;
thugs gang up on me.
They pin me down hand and foot,
and lock me in a cage—a bag
Of bones in a cage, stared at
by every passerby.
They take my wallet and the shirt off my back,
and then throw dice for my clothes.
19-21 You, God—don’t put off my rescue!
Hurry and help me!
Don’t let them cut my throat;
don’t let those mongrels devour me.
If you don’t show up soon,
I’m done for—gored by the bulls,
meat for the lions.
22-24 Here’s the story I’ll tell my friends when they come to worship,
and punctuate it with Hallelujahs:
Shout Hallelujah, you God-worshipers;
give glory, you sons of Jacob;
adore him, you daughters of Israel.
He has never let you down,
never looked the other way
when you were being kicked around.
He has never wandered off to do his own thing;
he has been right there, listening.
25-26 Here in this great gathering for worship
I have discovered this praise-life.
And I’ll do what I promised right here
in front of the God-worshipers.
Down-and-outers sit at God’s table
and eat their fill.
Everyone on the hunt for God
is here, praising him.
“Live it up, from head to toe.
Don’t ever quit!”
27-28 From the four corners of the earth
people are coming to their senses,
are running back to God.
are falling on their faces before him.
God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word.
29 All the power-mongers are before him
All the poor and powerless, too
Along with those who never got it together
30-31 Our children and their children
will get in on this
As the word is passed along
from parent to child.
Babies not yet conceived
will hear the good news--
that God does what he says.
Lamentations 1:1-7 (NRSV)
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering
and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
4 The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter.
5 Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
6 From daughter Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like stags
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
7 Jerusalem remembers,
in the days of her affliction and wandering,
all the precious things
that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
and there was no one to help her,
the foe looked on mocking
over her downfall.
*Hymn - I Want Jesus to Walk with Me (UMH 521)
What breaks your heart? What are the deep burdens that you carry - the places where maybe you and God have had a screaming match or two, the wounds that never quite seem to heal, the places where you feel raw right down to your core?
This week, we’re working with Prayers of Lament - those prayers where we cry out to God and share the places where we are aware of the pain and suffering and doubt that resides in our hearts and out in the world.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
God shouts in our pains to rouse a deaf world.
I believe that it is in our prayers of lament that we are moved to be our fullest, most honest selves before God - to express the anger, hurt, anguish, betrayal, anxiety, bewilderment, pain, doubt, and suffering we feel -- perhaps even directing that anger directly at God. It is the place we mourn and grieve what once was and is no more - taking note of our losses and sadness and aches and frustrations and hurt. It is the place we cry to God, “Why God, oh why is my life this way? Why is the world this way?”
This rich tradition of lament within the Hebrew scriptures I believe has been lost to the church - a church that so often pushes a life and faith that has it all together, that is always joyful and reassuring, that rationalizes tragedy and suffering in the scheme of some larger “plan” that we humans haven’t been clued in on.
I often hear from people - both those who come to worship regularly and those who never come - as to why they chose not to come some particular Sunday or why they feel like they can’t come at all - and most often the reason given for their absence (aside from just falling out of the habit) is because they feel like they were too much of a mess to be there that day - that they were too sad or upset about something, or because they felt like they had to have their life perfectly in order before coming, or they were having a bad day, or a whole host of other reasons that all point to the fact that they felt like there was no space for them in the church for them to be fully themselves, with all their faults, failings, and messes -- that somehow, it wasn’t acceptable to bring that part of them into the building or even bring it before God. I think it’s because we’ve been taught to put on our Sunday best - not just our nice clothes, but our nice selves - checking our hurt and pain and anger at the door - and the church has not done a good job of giving permission for the full range of human expression and emotion..
Reading these psalms of lament - like Psalm 22 - or the book of Lamentations - remind us that our hurt and anger and frustration - at God, at the world, even at one another - have a place in the life of any worshipping community, and certainly a place in our own life of faith.
Our reading from Lamentations points to the heart of the Israelites’ experience of lament. The book was written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE - a defining event for God’s people. The land that they had understood had been given to them by God had been taken from them. Their holy city - the place they understood God to reside - was destroyed. People had been killed as the Babylonians laid siege to the city for 18 months and after the fall, many had been taken captive and ripped away from their homeland. Their whole sense of identity had been taken away from them - all meaning stripped away in the loss of the Davidic monarchy, the temple, their holy city, the promised land. All gone. And so this piece of survivor’s literature turns to poetry in an attempt to give voice to the depth of their suffering.
What we read about in Lamentations is a corporate experience of lament - a people mourning what has passed away, grieving what is lost and naming their honest and raw pain. Our psalm is a much more personal expression of suffering and despair - crying out his feeling of abandonment by God and the misery of his current circumstances, a very visceral description of his state -- “I’m a bucket kicked over and spilled, every joint in my body has been pulled apart. My heart is a blob of melted wax in my gut. I’m dry as a bone, my tongue black and swollen. They have laid me out for burial in the dirt.” --- Anyone ever felt like that? Anyone ever named that before God in prayer?
Yet we don’t often do words like this in church, do we?
And yet, church - in the presence of God and our community of faith - is precisely the place to deal with our hurt and pain and suffering. The Israelites understood this -- they took their frustrations, anger, doubts and addressed them directly to God. In the facing of life fully, they name reality and wrestle with it before God. Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and preacher, writes, “Nowhere but with God does Israel vent its greatest doubt, its bitterest resentments, its deepest anger. Israel nows that one need not fake it or be polite and pretend in the divine presence, nor need one face the hurts alone. I the dialogue, Israel expects to understand what is happening and even to have it changed.”
Brueggemann continues on to say, in reference to the church, “If we are dialogic at all, we think it must be polite and positive and filled only with gratitude. So little do our liturgies bring to expression our anger and hatred, our sense of betrayal and absurdity. But even more acutely, with our failure of nerve and our refusal to presume upon our partner in dialogue, we are seduced into nondialogic forms of faith, as though we were the only ones there; and so we settle for meditation and reflection or bootstrap operations of resolve to alter our situation.”
Lament takes seriously the relationship we have with God - all aspects of it - and demands that we are our full selves before God - and that worship is the place where we can bring our fears and hurts, our challenges and struggle - and work them out with God in and among a community of others that are doing the same.
The point of laments isn’t that we are venting our hurt and anger - but that we are doing so in conversation with God - that God takes note of our condition - that God pays attention to our wrestling and struggling - and moreover, that God cares about us and suffers with us.
That is the beautiful thing about laments - that in our suffering, we have a God who suffers with us - who came to be with us as one of us in Jesus and in Jesus experienced pain and suffering, even feeling abandoned by God on the cross. We have a God who knows our hurt and sorrows and anger, our faults and failings and frustrations, and continues to surround us in love. We have a God who is not driven away by these things - by our sin or our lack of faithfulness or our woundedness - but draws ever closer to us, who shouts to remind us of how close God is to us in these places.
We don’t have a God who offers to us a quick fix, or an explanation of why bad things happen - but we have a God who enters in to dialogue and community with us to share our pain and frustrations. It out of this place of dialogue and relationship, of acknowledging the God who bears with us in our suffering, that so many of the psalms of lament end in this place of finding comfort and relief in God - of authentic and real gratitude and thanksgiving - praise that is all the more real and genuine because of the pain that has been carried and witnessed.
That’s why in worship, we need the space for lament - we have a God who suffers with us….and we are invited into each other’s brokenness and suffering. It is why precisely when we feel like we are a mess that we need to be in worship - to be our full selves, to voice - either aloud or in our hearts - the wounds we bear - to the God who bears those wounds with us...and who was wounded so that we might be brought to wholeness. It is in those places of pain where God speaks to us and moves us to attend to the needs of one another.
I invite us - as we continue to prepare ourselves during this season of lent - to consider what it would mean for us as a church to be that space for one another - a church where we could be free to bring all of who we are into worship - the places of authentic joy and celebration, the places of honest grief and lament - a community that felt free to pour our hearts out to God in anger and longing before one another - knowing that as we did so, we were putting everything into the hands of the God who loves us, who listens to us, who suffers with us, and who will never leave us.
May we step into that kind of richer, fuller faith together - trusting in the God who is big enough for our anger, who is always in community with us, who will never leave or forsake us. Amen.
Scripture - Psalm 86:1-6, Luke 11:1-13
1 Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
2 Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; 3 be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
4 Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
6 Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
7 In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.
Luke 11:1-13 (New Revised Standard Version)
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
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!”
*Hymn - It’s Me, It’s Me, O Lord (UMH 352)
We’re continuing our Lent series on prayer - it’s centrality to Christian practice and the ways that it’s woven throughout our daily lives. Last week we focused on perhaps the most common of prayers - that of saying grace at the table, and talked particularly about The Great Thanksgiving that we pray as part of our Communion liturgy - the ultimate Table prayer so to speak.
This week we’ll take a look more closely at intercession - prayers of petition - asking God for the things that we want or need - for ourselves or for others.
Again, this is a common way we think about prayer, right? Someone gets sick, we offer to pray for them. We’re going through a tough time in our lives, and we pray for God to help us. Big, scary events happen in the world and we offer thoughts and prayers to the victims.
But I think many of us, at times, struggle with this kind of prayer. I know I have gone through times in my life where I would sit down to pray and feel like I was talking to empty air. Or I would wonder if my prayers would make any difference at all - some problems seemed just too big, or some people were healed miraculously while others just got sicker. I grew up in a congregation that did Joys and Concerns every week and we did a lot of praying for people who were sick or those who had just lost a loved one. As a kid, I would hear each request named and then the pastor would say her or his prayer and I never really got the sense that this was something we were doing together. It was like the pastor was the one doing the praying and we were being quiet and listening. It was rote and routine - something we did together but I wasn’t able to connect this kind of prayer to prayer in my own life or what it meant to pray with others.
Fast forward a few years to college - I attended a Methodist church in a nearby town - and the spirit was different. Maybe I had changed - I had come to worship there after some time in a church that didn’t have community prayer and I had found that I missed that part of the service - or maybe the community had a different perspective on prayer and the difference it made. What I found, though, was I was in the midst of a worshipping community where prayer mattered. More than that - where prayer together mattered. In the sharing of joys and concerns there was a sense of how we are all part of things together - there was one individual who would always ask for prayers for his upcoming cribbage tournaments, and teens who would pray for upcoming exams, and those who would lift up issues in the world. I remember one Sunday in particular when a girl who was starting her freshman year in college lifted up a concern that she didn’t know if she was going to be able to afford books for her courses. This was a group of people who sensed God’s work in the world and weren’t afraid to take those requests to God in prayer.
It was an attitude mirrored by the Psalmist in our first reading this morning - and indeed, one that is found throughout the Psalms. There’s a boldness to this prayer - in many of the Psalms, there’s no hesitation around asking God for exactly what was needed, particularly when it came to themselves, telling God exactly what they were thinking and feeling and what they wanted God to do. There’s a sense of honest vulnerability before God - the God that knows us inside and out and loves all of who we are - and a bold presence before God in prayer. So many of the Psalms start out as if they were reminding God who God is - you are good and loving and forgiving, you are my God and I am devoted to you so answer my prayer - be there when I call - listen to my supplication. I find that to be such a refreshingly bold statement to make to the God of the universe. There’s a certain degree of trust and security in that kind of relationship to make such a daring request. As I was reading that Psalm this week it reminded me of a lesson that my youth group leader taught me as a teen that God was big enough to take anything that we shared - our anger, our frustration, our sadness, our celebrations - that that kind of boldness in prayer is something God wants and desires from us.
And to pair this kind of boldness with our reading from the Gospel of Luke - where Jesus’ disciples are yearning for him to teach them how to pray...and as we read the passage we are drawn in relationship from the recitation of these words that have been passed down by Christians for generations to the little parable comparing prayer to asking a friend for bread in the middle of the night to the ultimate relationship between that of parent and child and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
There’s a wonderful balance here - the freedom and ability to make our desires known to God - our deepest wants and wishes, our longings for ourselves and for the world, our honest pleas for help and desires for our loved ones to be healed or experience wholeness or for everything to be made right around us -- and these lines in the Lord’s Prayer about a focus on God’s kingdom, God’s perspective. There’s nothing in the prayer about perfect health, material wealth, lack of suffering - but in this small prayer there is a lot about getting just what we need for spiritual and physical sustenance, about asking for and receiving forgiveness, and about asking for freedom from that which pulls us away from God’s kingdom. There’s a lot about the Holy Spirit at work as we ask God to Give us our daily bread, to Forgive our sins, to Lead us and Deliver us - again, direct and bold asks...but ones that God wants to hear from us.
When we gather here for worship we take all of these prayers - the ones that come from deep within us and the ones that we share on behalf of others. We - together - petition God for the needs of friends and family members, of our community and of the world, for those who are close to us and those we have never met. I like to think that when we are doing this, we are wrapping the world, those whom we love, and even our very selves, in our care and prayerful intentions - like we become one great big prayer shawl for the world.
I love that we have a practice of sharing prayer shawls with those who need our love and care - and I’m grateful to Gloria who knits many of them. Prayer shawls are based on an ancient practice that developed during the time of Moses - the word in Hebrew for this garment is “talith” meaning “Little Tent” and came about, according to the story, because not all of the Hebrews could fit under the portable Tent of Meeting during the Exodus from Egypt, so these prayer shawls became “little tents” for the purpose of prayer and worship. We use them now to remind people that they are surrounded by the love and prayers of this church. We usually give them out to those who are undergoing medical procedures, but they can also be given to grieving families, as part of a marriage or baptismal celebration, birthday or anniversary or welcome -- any occasion to help folks know that the church is here to remind them of God’s unconditional love and to hold them before God in prayer.
There’s a reflection by Parker Palmer that appeared in the Journal Weavings that ties together this notion of the image of the prayer shawls and the idea that we are those who wrap the world in prayer - that praying for others is like being weavers who create cloaks in the midst of tattered lives.
[He begins by talking about remembering the death of President Kennedy and how his world seemed to unravel when this happened....]
"... I grieved my loss, our loss, then started to reweave–a work, a life, a world–not knowing what I know now: the world unravels always and needs to be rewoven time and time again. You must keep collecting threads: threads of meaning, threads of hope, threads of purpose, energy and will, along with all the knowledge, all the skill that every weaver needs. You must keep on weaving – stopping sometimes only to repair your broken loom–weave a cloak of warmth and light against the dark and cold (oh, all that dark and cold!), a cloak in which to wrap whoever comes to you in need: the world with all its suffering, those near at hand, yourself.
And, if you are lucky, you will find along the way the thread with which you may reweave your own tattered life, the thread that more than any other weaves in warmth and light, making both the weaver and the weaving true–the red thread they call love, the thread you hold, then hand along, saying to another, 'You.'"
That’s what we are doing in prayer - as we pray, we are part of God weaving this world back together, weaving us one to another - as we petition God to restore wholeness to those who are suffering, to those who are struggling, to a fractured world needing to be knit back together, and even to our own souls.
Prayer for and with and on behalf of others springs out of this deep relationship of love and trust that we have in God - the God who holds us through the peaks and valleys of life, who comes and walks beside us in Jesus, and who binds us together in the mystery of the Holy Spirit.
And although we do this every week, share Joys and Concerns to hold before one another and before God, I invite us to do so this week knowing that our prayer does matter. That our prayers for ourselves, others, and the world make a difference as we seek to live life in the kingdom Jesus came to bring. That through the Holy Spirit, our prayers are woven together in ways that enable us to make God’s presence with us and with others known -- and that we do so with the boldness and trust of being God’s beloved children.
With that, I invite us to enter into this time of sharing of prayers with one another - what would we like to hold before God and one another this morning - so that we can pray here in this place but also take these prayers home with us and be in prayer for and with one another throughout the week?
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 (The Message)
17-19 Regarding this next item, I’m not at all pleased. I am getting the picture that when you meet together it brings out your worst side instead of your best! First, I get this report on your divisiveness, competing with and criticizing each other. I’m reluctant to believe it, but there it is. The best that can be said for it is that the testing process will bring truth into the open and confirm it.
20-22 And then I find that you bring your divisions to worship—you come together, and instead of eating the Lord’s Supper, you bring in a lot of food from the outside and make pigs of yourselves. Some are left out, and go home hungry. Others have to be carried out, too drunk to walk. I can’t believe it! Don’t you have your own homes to eat and drink in? Why would you stoop to desecrating God’s church? Why would you actually shame God’s poor? I never would have believed you would stoop to this. And I’m not going to stand by and say nothing.
23-26 Let me go over with you again exactly what goes on in the Lord’s Supper and why it is so centrally important. I received my instructions from the Master himself and passed them on to you. The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said,
This is my body, broken for you.
Do this to remember me.
After supper, he did the same thing with the cup:
This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you.
Each time you drink this cup, remember me.
What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.
27-28 Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of “remembrance” you want to be part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.
29-32 If you give no thought (or worse, don’t care) about the broken body of the Master when you eat and drink, you’re running the risk of serious consequences. That’s why so many of you even now are listless and sick, and others have gone to an early grave. If we get this straight now, we won’t have to be straightened out later on. Better to be confronted by the Master now than to face a fiery confrontation later.
33-34 So, my friends, when you come together to the Lord’s Table, be reverent and courteous with one another. If you’re so hungry that you can’t wait to be served, go home and get a sandwich. But by no means risk turning this Meal into an eating and drinking binge or a family squabble. It is a spiritual meal—a love feast.
*Hymn - You Satisfy the Hungry Heart (UMH 629)
During the rest of the season of Lent, we’re taking some time to explore prayer - and how prayer is one of the core practices of the Christian life. In Jesus’ day, prayer was experienced in many forms and contexts - from the family Sabbath prayers to daily prayer in the synagogues to times of corporate worship to the regular rhythm of prayer and ritual at the Temple.
Many of these practices have changed and evolved, but prayer in the Christian life is best understood when we think about Jesus and his context. His teachings and proclamations about the kingdom of God are rooted in the richness of a people at prayer. According to Marcia McFee, “The teaching of Jesus makes little sense and lacks power abstracted from the practices of prayer and community life in which they were articulated. Attempting to follow Jesus today, to be his disciple, living out the baptismal covenant, likewise becomes almost incoherent without a lively, rich set of practices of prayer in many forms and formats of community (family, small group, congregation, personal).
And so together, during Lent, we’ll be spending time re-grounding ourselves in these practices of prayer as we prepare ourselves for the season of Easter ahead -- reorienting ourselves as a church community as a people following Jesus in making real God’s kingdom here on earth.
We start with perhaps the most common of prayers - one that most everyone is familiar with -- that of saying grace.
We didn’t always say grace in my family growing up. My first memories of praying before a meal were actually at the house of a friend from church; I had gone over to her house after worship and when their family sat down to lunch, they all held hands a prayed together to thank God for the food. I thought this was a pretty neat tradition, so I told my parents about it when we got home and asked if we could do it too. At least - this is what I remember of how we started saying grace together as a family - my parents have a different version of events. In any case, when we sat down to dinner together, it was a different family member’s “turn” each night - meaning that we got to pick which prayer we said or sung as we held hands around the table. A big favorite of ours was singing the Doxology - but not to the traditional tune - but to Hernando’s Hideaway or to the William Tell Overture.
We’d then end with a “Friendship squeeze” with one person squeezing the hand of the person next to them and having that passed around the circle - twice - and then we’d be ready to eat.
When Ben and I started dating, his family would sometimes sing “Be Present at our Table, Lord” as their grace. Sometimes, the duty fell to whoever was the hungriest and wanted to eat!
When we started doing grace as a family with Michael before our meals, he pretty quickly picked up on the ritual. Before he started speaking, he’d hold his hands out to each of us and then point to all the people around the table when we asked what he was thankful for. Now he enthusiastically points to all the items on his plate and says “mommy”, “daddy” and “the woof-woof” before raising his arms with a flourish at the end when we say “Amen.”
Saying Grace is all about thanking God for the blessings that we have, remembering God as the source of our being, and reminding ourselves to be grateful. But in the Christian tradition, it is only one of the prayers we say around a table -- the other prayer is the Great Thanksgiving, the one that places us in the midst of God’s salvation story. Our scripture passage for this morning refers to the early church’s practice of The Great Thanksgiving, also known as the Eucharist or Communion or the Lord’s Supper.
In those days, the Lord’s Supper wasn’t taking a tiny piece of bread and dipping it into a bit of grape juice. It wasn’t tacked on to the end of a worship gathering, as an extra or addendum to the service. Rather, it was a full on meal - a feast - and it was the whole point of getting together.
So Paul’s harsh words to the Corinthian church about the divisions around the Lord’s Supper is a big deal. What was happening is that not everyone was able to participate equally in this meal. In order to understand why, we need to know a bit about the culture of Corinth. Greco-Roman culture was highly stratified, and you always knew your social position relative to others -- where you stood in the pecking order - who was above you and who was below you. This spilled over into all areas of life -- practically all social interaction was shaped by this hierarchy of status. The church in Corinth had members of all different social statuses - both high - with its powers and wealth and privileges - and low. How these different cross-sections of social status mixed was a constant challenge for the Christian Church in Corinth.
One of the more shocking ways this stratification showed up in the culture of the time was around meals. For instance, if a host had guests for dinner, it was common for guests of high status to be served more and better food and drink than others, and for guests of lower status to be served less food and drink of poorer quality. Differences in status resulted in differences in treatment. This was just accepted as the way the world worked; people may not have been happy about the arrangement, but no one really questioned it - it was just the way it was.
So when this was happening during the practice of the Lord’s Supper, Paul is rightfully angry, and takes them to task for what is happening because of the way that the Lord’s Supper was intended to be a remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, an invitation to be a part of the larger story of God’s redeeming power here on earth. Instead, we had a meal where different people were receiving different amounts and qualities of food based on their background - and some were so drunk they had to be carried out while others went hungry.
This is what Paul is talking about when referring to participating in this meal with reverence - other translations use the word “worthiness”. He’s asking the Corinthians to examine their motivations in participating in this feast -- is it to demonstrate and further highlight the social divisions that existed within the church? Or is it to participate in the greater story of the new covenant Jesus came to make, to show the unity in the body of Christ, and to witness to the new way of life that there is to be found in Jesus Christ? For Paul, of course, there’s only one right answer, and to use the Lord’s Supper to be just another feast was to sin against Jesus.
Now, our practice of Communion is vastly different from that of the early Church - it’s not a lavish feast, but pared down to the essential symbols of bread and cup. There’s no barrier to participation in this meal - in the United Methodist tradition, there’s nothing to prevent anyone from sharing in Communion - no theological litmus test, no requirements for membership or baptism - merely a simple desire to take the bread and cup. And yet, I wonder if we all have our own set of hangups around the Table that we need to work on together.
When we pray through the prayer of the Great Thanksgiving - when we recount God’s history with the God’s people, remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, and invoke the Holy Spirit’s presence in the bread and the cup, we become part of the Great Story of God’s relationship with the world - from the very creation of the universe to Jesus’s ministry to the hope of the kingdom that is present yet always coming and that great banquet that awaits us all. We take our place with all those who dined with Jesus - with all who shared in this meal before us - and all who will one day eat the bread and drink the cup. In this prayer, we proclaim the radical message of love, grace, and justice that Jesus came to share with all humanity. In this prayer, we reenact the heart of our faith - that we remember Jesus - we remember his body broken - and our brokenness -- and his love poured out in the new covenant - and our love shared with a hurting world.
And isn’t this something to celebrate?
This isn’t a solemn procession - this is a joyful feast! This isn’t about tiny pieces of bread dipped delicately into grape juice, but about great big hunks of bread dunked and dripping - taking in fistfuls of love and grace with every bite.
I love watching children come up to receive communion, because in many ways they get it more than we do. I remember one girl in particular when we were serving in Haverhill - and we celebrated communion every week - who would always come up and ask for a big piece of bread. The kids would sit up in the front row and wait for Communion - and when we prayed the Great Thanksgiving, we had their attention. They understood that what we were doing was something deep and meaningful and joyful and beautiful - They wanted to help serve and they wanted to be a part of what was going on.
The Great Thanksgiving - it’s like the grace we say before meals - it’s about thanking God - thanking God for bringing us into the story; it’s about remembering - remembering Jesus as the one who is with us whenever we eat together; it’s about reminding ourselves - reminding ourselves who we are as the body of Christ, broken and poured out for the world.
But it’s also about joy - about celebration - about our place in God’s kingdom as God’s beloved children. It’s - as Paul puts it - a spiritual meal—a love feast.
And so as we come to the table later this morning, let’s keep that in mind. When we pray through the Great Thanksgiving together - place yourself in the story of God’s redeeming love. When we examine ourselves coming up to receive, let us consider the state of our hearts. Let us come forward with joy and thanksgiving - for we gather with friends and neighbors around the table of grace - where all are welcomed and none are turned away - where we celebrate and feast together - and where we remember Jesus and his love for us. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.