glory of god

glory of god

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hear Our Prayer: A Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

After hearing today’s interesting readings—with Hosea’s rather bizarre talk of whoredom, Jesus calling his disciples evil, and his unexpected sayings about giving children snakes and scorpions instead of fish and eggs—you can maybe see why we had scheduled a hymn sing for this morning. But God clearly had other plans. And behind the somewhat strange language at the end, this morning’s gospel reading is focused on an important subject for Christians and people of faith: prayer, both how we pray and what we are to pray for. It is an especially useful and timely topic, I think, given the state of the world, and the intense realities of our lives. Lately, it seems that we—collectively, and some of us individually—are being inundated with trials, tribulations, and concerns.

All you need do is turn on the TV or open the newspaper to find stories of shootings or worse. I watched Friday’s news of the shooting spree in Munich with particular horror, as I was just there two weeks ago. It’s both saddening and frightening to think of the places I saw and the people I met under siege, being told by the police that they need to shelter at home and not go out on a beautiful Friday night. It leads us to wonder just what has happened to the world. What has happened to human life?

Some of us may even wonder—at least some of the time—whether there is any point to prayer, whether God listens at all, let alone answers our prayers, at least in any of kind of recognizable way. I confess that I have pondered these questions myself from time to time. And yet at other times, we may well believe that maintaining a life of prayer is the only way to find the strength we need to make it from one day and one trial to another. For many, prayer is a source of comfort and hope and perseverance.

Now, when it comes to the subject prayer I can’t claim to be an expert. Just yesterday I was saying to Dave Sullivan, after the Rev. David Prentice’s priesthood ordination celebration, that for the 20 years that Tom Shaw was our bishop I always had this inner feeling of unworthiness when it came to prayer, since unlike Bishop Shaw I wasn’t able to spend two or three hours every morning in prayer. Then, again, Bishop Shaw was a monk. Prayer is their expertise. And I don’t think monks would expect everyone to adopt prayer lives like that. In fact, I think they know that most of us won’t be able to share in that same prayer focus, and so they pray for us, on our behalf. Bishop Gates, by the way, is a less intimidating to me that way, though I am sure he has a rich and full prayer life as well. He loves to sing, and I suspect that singing is prayer for him, as it is for me as well.

Interestingly, 20 years ago, in the spring of 1996, I took a seminary class called “The Life of Prayer,” which was very popular—not only with seminarians, but people from the wider community. I think it was the highest enrolled seminary course at that point. We met in the chapel and each week there would be an initial lecture by the professor, and then we would try on different prayer models—usually types quiet contemplative prayer—for at least an hour or more. Unfortunately, at age 23 I found it really hard to settle into that life or style of prayer—either on my own or in the classroom. Thoughts were so busy bouncing around in my mind that it was hard to quiet things down and move into a quieter and more contemplative space. And often, once I started to get into that mental state, the professor would say something and I’d lose it again, ending up more frustrated than prayerful. So, developing that deeper personal prayer practice is something that has come later in life, on my own, as I have sought a deeper connection with God. I kind of wish I could go back and retake that “Life of Prayer” class now. I think I would appreciate it far more. 

In any case, what I do know about prayer is that when it comes to intercessory prayer—when we pray for certain intentions, as we often do—I don’t subscribe to the idea that God is a giant supernatural Pez Dispenser or Santa Claus up in the sky, who just gives us what we ask for at any particular moment. While Jesus does say in today’s gospel, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,” I have to imagine that he was not focused on the attainment of material goods or even the fulfilling of wishes. 

Perhaps like many of you, I was disabused of that idea when I was a kid. As you know, I was brought up in a religious family, so prayer was part of our lives—not necessarily always in a deep way, but it was there. We prayed before dinner, every night before bed and if we were struggling with something. I remember in particular, when I was maybe 5 or 6, standing outside on a very clear and starry night, praying and praying with great fervency. And what, you may wonder, was I praying for? 

Wizard of Oz toys.

I wanted them so badly. The Wizard of Oz was my favorite movie, and of course it was only on TV once a year in those days—with no VCRs or DVD players, no Netflix or youtube, so these toys were, I suppose, a way to keep those wonderful characters with me all the time. So I prayed and prayed, not just once, but night after night after night—I prayed for my birthday. But nothing came. Then I prayed for Christmas, but sadly again nothing came. And then I prayed just because. Still nothing. I couldn't have prayed harder. But somehow those much longed for toys just never showed up. This leads me to believe that either God either must not care too much about Wizard of Oz toys. Or maybe, prayer just doesn’t work that way.

Maybe, prayer is not so much about asking for things, or getting things, but instead maybe it is about communicating our concerns with God. Even communicating ourselves with God. Maybe, and I suspect this is true, maybe prayer is about keeping the lines of communication open between us and God, and offering the deepest and truest concerns of our hearts to God, in as open and vulnerable a way as possible. That can be frightening, of course. Vulnerability is not easy, even when it is just between you and God. It can be tremendously hard to explore and name the deepest questions and concerns, and also the hopes and desires, of our hearts and souls. It requires that we grapple with and confront some hidden aspects of ourselves. 

We contend with health scares or ongoing, chronic conditions; some of us struggle with job and money insecurity; others with loneliness, depression, or questions of meaning; some of us fight addictions that weigh us down and prevent us from living freely and fully; and of course, eventually all of us are forced to deal with the deaths of those dearest to us, leading us to ponder questions of eternity. Just this week, two members of our parish family lost those closest to them—Colleen Moran’s father died while out for a swim, and Bernie Hutchens lost his brother after a plane crash. And, of course, on the societal or global scale nearly every day we hear of shootings, of cities and nations at war, of people fearing for their lives. There is so much to pray for, and sometimes it can be so hard to find the words, or the openness or vulnerability necessary to communicate with God, to truly commune with God.

That’s why Jesus offers us a guide, a road map, really. When you pray, he says, try praying like this:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

I do not think Jesus means that we have to use these words exactly, though Christians pretty much have for 2000 years. But, I think, he means that these are the concerns that we should have at the forefront of our minds and hearts and souls—when we come to God in prayer and probably at all times.

We pray for the coming kingdom of God—in contrast with the kingdoms of the world. We pray for the place and the time in which all people will be free, in which all people are reconciled, and in which war and pain, conflict, death, and illness are ended. Pray for that, he says. And pray for daily bread—the food we need to survive, though probably not the excess that we are so accustomed to in the west and especially in the United States. And pray that others have enough to eat as well.

We pray to be forgiven for our sins, for our faults, for the things we do and the things we say that hurt others and that hurt ourselves. Of course, to receive this forgiveness we have to acknowledge to God, to ourselves, and to others, that we are not perfect. We are compelled to search our hearts and souls and lay them open, to become vulnerable, so that we can freed, so that we can be liberated really, from all that weighs us down. Of course, this also means that we likewise have to forgive others—of their debts, whether financial, spiritual, or moral. For our own good we can’t go on carrying our baggage forever—dragging garbage bags full of hurts and mistakes, frustrations and disappointments behind us. And neither can we go on dragging others’ baggage behind us either, holding onto old hurts and grudges and debts, sometimes for years and years. Instead, Jesus tells us, when we forgive and when accept forgiveness, we experience liberation. We experience resurrection life. Pray for that liberation, he says. Pray for that resurrection life.

In fact, when you think about it, prayer—as offered to us by Jesus—is all about liberation. It’s all about real, abundant, resurrection life. Sometimes we may use words when we pray, since that’s largely how we communicate. But then again, sometimes words are completely inadequate, and all we have is our breath, our touch, or the beating of our hearts. Because really prayer, however, wherever, and whenever it happens, is about opening ourselves and opening our hearts to God—so that we allow God in, so that we allow God to take root in us, so that we allow God to live and grow in us and through us and among us. That’s why we pray.

At its deepest and most profound, in prayer we invite God to bring God’s kingdom to life in us—whether that prayer happens at home at the dinner table or before bed; in a hospital nursery at the joyous birth of a baby, or gathered around a bed in the ICU,  even after life support systems have been shut down. It happens here in church, in words and in song and in quiet moments of solitude. And it also happens before a job interview and maybe even sometimes before a first date. Prayer can be hard. And it can also be a source of life.

Too often in church we feel rushed and we don’t allow ourselves enough time to pray. So, as I close today, I invite you to take a few moments to pray. With words or in silence, offering the concerns of your heart, or maybe quietly opening yourself to what God may be want to say to you now. After a few moments, I will gather us back together. So, let us pray….

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.  And may God’s kingdom live and grow in you and those you love, now and always. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Faith, Heritage, and Liberty: A Sermon for Independence Day Weekend

St. Paul writes: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

This gem of a passage, tucked into Paul’s letter to the Galatians, offers helpful and encouraging words on this holiday weekend as we celebrate Independence Day and all that is good and true in our nation. Often, on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, I preach about the American Revolution and, in particular, how the Episcopal Church came to be—born or forged, as we were, in the crucible of that war. We are tied to England in our theology and rich traditions, especially the Book of Common Prayer, but we are also uniquely American. So much so, in fact, that our British cousins have difficulty understanding us. They don’t understand, for example, how it is that we elect our bishops. Bishops in England are selected by a commission, and ultimately appointed by the Queen herself, a direct chain from God, since they believe that kings and queens are divinely appointed and anointed—God’s chosen representatives on the throne. We prefer a more democratic approach. Though, each has its limitations. Democracy can be just as problematic as monarchy. The British are contending with the complexity of democracy just now in the aftermath of the European Union vote.

I’ve also sometimes talked about how decimated the Episcopalians were in New England during and after the war. Most of the Anglicans here were loyalists, so they fled to Canada or some went back to England. In Massachusetts there were only two Anglican priests left in the whole state at the conclusion of the war. Probably not too many parishioners, either. This was Puritan, Congregationalist territory and the Episcopal Church was suspect as the religion of the king. Maybe that’s why Emmanuel is such a small church while the Congregational church in town in so large. Perhaps it reflects our colonial heritage.

I’ve also talked about how, despite that bleak New England history, in the Middle and Southern states things were different and the Episcopalians often still called the shots. People you’ve probably heard of, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and even Betsy Ross were Episcopalian, at least some of the time. Albeit with eclectic understandings and approaches to religious faith.

George Washington, for example, was a vestryman, but he never received communion in his adulthood. Martha always did, though, perhaps on behalf of the whole family. Ben Franklin rewrote the Book of Common Prayer to bring it closer to his own unusual faith (See here). Betsy Ross was a refugee from Quakerism, expelled when she married an Anglican. And Thomas Jefferson, well, he rewrote the whole New Testament, taking out the miracle stories because he didn’t believe in them. When Jefferson ran for president New England Congregationalists warned that if elected, he would confiscate all Bibles and convert churches into temples of prostitution. 

Like a number of people today, many of our colonial forebears preferred a more enlightened or scientific approach to the faith. You might also say that it was a somewhat more boring approach to faith—since everything one believed had to be subject to easy or scientific or verifiable explanation, with little room or justification for mystery. This was so much true that in the earliest proposed version of the Book of Common Prayer for the United States, they had wanted to omit the Nicene Creed from the Communion Service, because it was too hard for people to believe in it, and they condensed the psalms down to just a few. Ultimately, that proposed Prayer Book failed and the church officially adopted a more traditional faith, but with room for all sorts of questions and different interpretations. In the process, they embraced as much, if not more, diversity of belief as we have among us today.

Diversity of belief is not only at the heart of the Episcopal Church. It is also at the heart of American society. In fact, it is what we celebrate, really, on Independence Day. We celebrate the freedom to worship God in whatever way makes sense to us, as communities and as individuals—whether that’s with candles, chanting, and incense; with praise bands and hands uplifted in prayer; in Jewish synagogues praying and chanting in ancient Hebrew, thousands of years old; or even kneeling on carpets in a mosque. Central to who we are as Americans is the freedom, the liberty, to practice our faith and to speak to God and listen for God in the language of our hearts. Our responsibility, as Americans, and especially as Americans of faith, is to protect and preserve that freedom, that liberty, for others, and ultimately for ourselves. Yesterday we learned of the death of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. His life, his story, is the most profound and powerful reminder and witness to how important freedom of religion is for all of us, whatever our faith tradition, and how we have to defend it on behalf of each other.

Related to that idea, I think, is the belief, the value, that people don’t have to jettison their rich cultural backgrounds when they make their home here. Of course it’s important to try to live within the rules and structures of society—to follow the laws and such. But there’s nothing wrong, and probably there’s much right, with being proud of who you are, and where your family came from, and the traditions they brought with them—whether that’s pasta and tomato sauce, haggis and bagpipes, bagels and lox, or Lutefisk and St. Lucia. As you know, I largely identify with my Scandinavian heritage—Swedish and Finnish, that’s half of me. But I also have German and Irish and English heritage. Each is interesting, and each tells a story.

I had always thought that my ancestors, to a person, arrived in the United States during the waves of 19th century immigration. However, in doing research on I discovered recently that my Cadwell heritage goes back to the 1600s here in New England, when the first Cadwell—Thomas—emigrated from Braintree, England and settled in Hartford, CT. In fact, he married the daughter of one of the founders of Hartford. His great grandson, John Cadwell, fought in the American Revolution for the patriots. So I could apply to be a son of the American Revolution if I wanted.

I also discovered that on my mom’s side, there was a German immigrant named George Kentner—something like my 5th great-grandfather, who came to the American colonies as an indentured servant in 1764. Eventually he earned his freedom and began life as a farmer in Pennsylvania. When the Revolution broke out, he sided with England and fought for the King. Ironically, he was captured and jailed in Hartford, CT—who knows, maybe he crossed paths with John Cadwell there. Great-grandpa George won his freedom by lying and saying that he would support the American cause. But he didn’t. He fled to Canada to regroup with the Loyalist soldiers called the Butler's Rangers. After the war, he and other German immigrants settled in a rural area of Ontario. They named their town Matilda, after a daughter of King George III. She later became the Queen of Wurttemburg in Germany. Eventually, a few generations later, after things calmed down his family filtered back down into New York and west to Minnesota and finally out to Oregon, where my grandmother was born. Thus, my family tree includes patriots and loyalists alike, as well as later arrivals from Sweden, Finland, and Ireland. I wouldn’t be who I am without that rich mix of backgrounds. And you wouldn’t be who you are without yours—loyalists, patriots, and later arrivals from Germany, Ireland, China, India, Italy, Mexico, and Armenia, to say nothing of the Native Americans who were already here and those who arrived in chains against their will.

That diverse combination of heritages and races, stories, beliefs and values is all part of the American fabric. And what a strong and durable fabric it is, too. The whole world is present here—every race, every religion, every background. We have Democrats and we have Republicans. We have socialists and libertarians, too. There are big sprawling farms in the Midwest—as in my home state of Minnesota—and there are massive cities teeming people speaking multiple languages and making a veritable smörgåsbord of ethnic foods (“smörgåsbord” —that’s a Swedish word, by the way, it literally means “sandwich table”—but now it’s part of our American English vocabulary as well). This country is so different, and I would say so much better, than anything our colonial ancestors could possibly have imagined when they declared their freedom and independence in 1776. We might add that England and Canada are a lot better, too.

Of course, it has not come to be without considerable struggle, pain, loss, and war along the way. We have not and we do not always live up to our full potential as a nation, as a people. Americans have sometimes kept other Americans in bondage—physical, emotional, and spiritual bondage. We have too often denied each other’s humanity and dignity, despite the fact that we declared our independence with words that have echoed through the centuries: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We have not and we still do not always live up to these ideals. In fact the author of these extraordinary words didn’t live up to them himself, keeping his fellow human beings in slavery.

And yet, that transcendent vision, idea, and hope, first set to parchment by Thomas Jefferson so long ago, still calls to us today. In particular, it calls us embrace what it truly means to be American—which ultimately doesn’t have much to do with flying the flag or colorful bombs bursting in air, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with such acts of patriotism. Instead, it has everything to do with how we treat one another, with how we uphold one another, and with how we welcome, respect, and honor one another—not despite our differences, but because of them. Because these differences make us who we are—as a people, as God’s holy people—in this place, at this time. What an awesome calling it is. What a weighty responsibility it is. But also, what an example we can share and leave—not only for our fellow Americans, but for all people everywhere, longing for life, longing for liberty, and longing for the ability to pursue happiness, in freedom and in hope. 

Let’s hear again those words from St. Paul: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

That’s our charge, today and every day— do what is right, and work for the good of all—as Episcopalians, as Americans, and most especially and most importantly, as the people of God.

So let us pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: 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; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD