Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pray Until the Kingdom Comes

July 24, 2016 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 12C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I am a man of routine, and part of my weekly routine is to wake up on Sunday morning, review the sermon that I have written and the Sunday school lesson that I have prepared, and organize the readings and the Prayers of the People so that they can be printed out and placed in this binder. Occasionally, if I’ll be coming back into town late on Saturday night or know I’ll be staying up to watch the end of an Alabama football game (only 41 days until kickoff, but who’s counting?), I’ll get them ready earlier in the week to save myself seven or eight extra minutes of sleep. But I have a running joke with myself because I know that if I print them out ahead of time a grandbaby will be born or someone will head to the hospital over the weekend, meaning that I have to print them out all over again.

Lately, however, any trace of humor in that has disappeared as I find myself over and over again needing to add one more tragedy, one more terrorist attack, one more police shooting to the list. Somehow, between the time I leave the office on Thursday evening and the time we gather in church on Sunday, violence and hatred and evil have their way. A month ago, when it felt like I had needed to change the prayers for three weeks in a row, I thought about writing a newsletter article that highlighted that macabre reality. Now, the regularity of this practice has surpassed the absurd and become genuinely insane. I actually have to stop and concentrate to be sure that there really have been this many tragedies and that I’m not just dreaming or making this up. Last week, in between the services, I learned of the three police officers who were shot and killed in Baton Rouge, so I scribbled in the margin a prayer for them to be read at the 10:30 service. But, when Chuck Puckett climbed to the lectern to read the prayers and saw mention of “Baton Rouge,” he initially believed it to be a mistaken addition leftover from the previous week, but, when he read that we were also praying for those affected by the attack in Nice, France, he realized that there must have been yet another shooting in Baton Rouge—yet another shooting. When will it end? What should we do?

We should pray. At least, that’s what people like me—people who are supposed to have a godly answer but actually have no earthly idea—will say. People ask me, “What can I do? What can we do?” But I have those same questions myself. All of us are searching for something—a direction, a response, a gesture of clarity instead of confusion, of confidence instead of fear. And so we pray. Pray for Paris. Pray for Dallas. Pray for Nice. Pray for Baton Rouge. Pray for Munich. People have changed their temporary Facebook profile picture so many times in recent weeks that they can’t even remember what they’re praying for. And still they tell us to pray. It seems so cheap—like an escape. The call to prayer feels like a desperate retreat into that last shaky stronghold of a religious bubble within which we hope and pray that the danger will not reach us but from which our confidence is crumbling.

But prayer isn’t cheap. And it isn’t an escape. We might mutter wishful words that ask God to separate us from all that threatens us, but that’s not prayer. Prayer isn’t a way out of this broken world. Real prayer—the kind of prayer that Jesus teaches us—is a nosedive straight into the middle of it. And that’s far more difficult and far more dangerous and far more powerful. As Michael Curry said after the attack in Nice, “It is important for us, as followers of Jesus, to remember that prayer is not an escape from the world but a way of deeper engagement with it by drawing closer to God and closer to each other.” In other words, we pray not to remove ourselves from the tragedy but to immerse ourselves in it and, in so doing, to become vessels through which God’s reign might be further established as a transformative agent that will change the world and heal its brokenness. That is to say that we pray until we make a difference. But how do we pray like that?

“Lord, teach us to pray,” one of Jesus’ disciples said to him, after watching him pray off by himself for a while. “You’re the expert. We want to pray like you. Teach us how to pray.” I doubt that the disciple knew what he was asking, and I certainly don’t think that he knew the kind of answer he would get: “When you pray, say, ‘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 from the time of trial.’” The end. It’s shockingly short and simple—just five little petitions, each linked to the others. There’s no place within them for individualistic concerns. There’s no room for variation or flourish. There’s no request for escape. Just God, the kingdom, and us.

Even from the opening word, Luke lets us know that he means business, omitting the possessive pronoun “our” by which Matthew’s version of this prayer begins. There’s no mention of heaven either. Not a syllable is wasted. Instead, the prayer moves immediately to the first petition: “hallowed be your name.” May God’s holy name be revered, respected, and honored throughout the world. And how will that happen? That brings us straight to the second petition—the line upon which the whole prayer hinges: “Your kingdom come.” It’s that simple. No need to elaborate about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. May God’s kingdom come. May God’s will, God’s reign, God’s authority, be fully manifest right here on earth. We’re not asking God to take us to heaven. We’re asking him to be in control here on earth. Those three little words comprise the absolute core of the Christian hope. In them, we ask God to make this world completely and totally the world that God created it to be.

But how will that happen? The rest of the prayer is made up of three petitions, each of which is an image of God’s kingdom that unfolds as we pray it. “Give us this day our daily bread.” No more, no less. Just enough. In God’s kingdom, the children of God have enough for today and need not worry about tomorrow. The immediacy of the kingdom doesn’t allow us to dwell on what lies ahead. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive those indebted to us.” Another characteristic of God’s kingdom is perfect, interlocking forgiveness. Jesus makes it clear that God’s forgiveness of us is inseparable from our forgiveness of each other. We cannot be forgiven except as we forgive, and we cannot forgive unless we, too, are forgiven. Thus, in God’s kingdom, forgiveness builds upon itself without end. If we withhold forgiveness, even from those who hurt us most deeply, we cannot know what it means to be forgiven, and how could we ever hope to forgive unless we knew the limitlessness of God’s forgiving love? Finally, “do not bring us to the time of trial.” May our faith not be tested beyond our limits. May we not lose heart. May our confidence in God’s kingdom persist even when chaos ensues. Even when the walls around us begin to crumble, may the certainty of God’s kingdom keep us steadfast in our faith.

This is our prayer. It’s about God, God’s kingdom, and us, and it’s about now. We pray these words not asking God to give us what we want—our hopes and dreams. We pray them so that God might use us to make our lives and the world we live in God’s hope and God’s dream. We pray this prayer until God’s kingdom comes through us. And it is no accident that we pray this prayer at the Eucharist, where it has always belonged. Like us, the earliest Christians said this prayer when they gathered around the table and shared the bread and wine as a testament to the coming of God’s kingdom. They knew that Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything. They had seen God’s will—God’s reign—disclosed in the cross and empty tomb. They were so sure that God’s kingdom had come that they were willing to give everything they had—even their lives—in the service of that kingdom. But the threat of persecution, torture, and death was a constant reminder that God’s kingdom might have come in the person of Jesus, but the world still needed God’s reign to be complete.

Just like God’s kingdom, God’s table is the place where everyone is welcome, where everyone gets what he or she needs, where forgiveness reigns, and where the certainty of God’s kingdom is unequivocally manifest. But that kingdom cannot be confined to the space within the altar rail. We live in a world that needs God’s kingdom. And, in the face of repeated tragedy, we need God’s kingdom to break into this world more fully. And so we pray. The prayer that Jesus taught us isn’t a collection of words to be spoken out of habit. It’s a window through which God’s power flows into this world. And we say it so that God might open that window in us.

Hear again the words that Jesus taught us. Pray again, “Your kingdom come.” Allow the brokenness of this world to fill your heart. Then come to this table and experience the fullness of God’s kingdom and be dissatisfied that the world isn’t the way it should be. Let that disconnect disturb you. And then pray that God will use you—your hands, your feet, your heart, and your voice—to make his kingdom come. Every time you say this prayer for the rest of your life, may it be an invitation to God that he would use you to make his dream for this world come true.