St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • As We Pray, We Believe – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    July 31, 2022

    Today’s story from Luke is a bit tricky.
    Jesus is asked by “someone in the crowd” to be the arbiter in a brotherly dispute over inheritance. One might think of it as a prayer, actually, Especially after our Gospel message from last week where Jesus told us to “ask and it will be given you.”

    There’s a saying in the church – Lex orandi, lex credendi. It’s Latin. And it roughly translates to: how we pray, is how we believe. It points to the importance of worship and prayer in forming what we believe about God. And in today’s Gospel we have a man in the crowd who is, essentially, praying to Jesus. So, let’s unpack this a bit.

    On the one hand, we can understand the plight of the one who cries out for help… wouldn’t we feel the same if we were cut out of the family inheritance? Wouldn’t we want to see justice done? Meaning, the thing that we think is just, the thing that would make our life easier? Wouldn’t we want to appeal to a wise judge to get what we believe to be fair? And don’t we expect Jesus to be just that kind of judge – someone who preaches “love your neighbor as yourself”? Wouldn’t we expect him to be that kind of savior? The one who will save us by giving us the thing we want or need?

    Poverty and Wealth (1888) William Powell Frith

    But he doesn’t take it on.  Jesus resists the role of champion to this man’s plea.  He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  He tells the man, “no.”

    This passage is clearly about greed and about how we can all get sidetracked by the trappings of the culture around us. It’s what advertising is meant to do. We end up putting more faith in the things that will make our lives feel easier so we can “relax, eat, drink, and be merry,” than putting our faith in God. And we do this to such an extent sometimes that our prayers look kind of like this man’s who yells from the crowd: “God, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

    But this passage is about more than just greed.  It’s about how we try to conform the world to our desires, our needs, our expectations. Lex orandi.  Lex credendi.  How we pray is how we believe. Prayer forms our belief. Sort of like practice makes perfect. Prayer re-wires our brain.

    Jesus refuses this request because he perceives this man has a skewed understanding of what prayer is for – that it’s not about what we can obtain, but is about what we are already given. It’s not about making the world conform to our own needs and desires, it’s about opening up to how we can help one another in our lives together. It’s about the Reign of God.

    How do we pray?  What do we pray for? Do we pray?  Do we offer prayers? And how does this practice of prayer reflect or inform our belief about God?

    It’s curious, the things we expect God to provide us. The things we expect God to do for us. The things we expect God to be for us. What we don’t often realize about ourselves, is that we are theologians. All of us are theologians. Because we all have a way in which we’ve defined God, defined our relationship with God. Even if we haven’t thought about it much.

    So, let’s think about it a little bit right now. Take a few moments and reflect… What are your expectations of God
    When you pray, what do you pray for? How do you participate in that prayer?
    What if you don’t get what you pray for? How does that make you feel about God?
    What if you’re going through something incredibly difficult? How does that change your understanding of God?

    You don’t have to share this reflection with anyone.  Just try to be as honest as you can with yourself.

    What do you expect in your relationship with God? How do you expect God to treat you?
    How do you expect God to treat others? How do you pray?

    Now, take a few more moments and consider how this shapes your belief in God.  What does your prayer life tell you about what you believe about your relationship with God? This is the work of theology.  Whenever we take the time to reflect on our relationship with God.  When we take the time to name it and express it… we are being theologians.

    It’s not always easy to accurately describe our relationship with God – God is hard to define and, is therefore a mystery to us in many ways. And it’s also not always easy to admit our deepest beliefs. But it’s important to reflect on our own theology:

    • So that we can be more clear with ourselves about our relationship with God. Taking the time to reflect on and articulate our theology is integral to our faith. And know that it’s not a done deal.  As we learn and grow as human beings, God expects us to continue to grow and mature in our own faith.
    • So that we come to be more appreciative of this process in others, knowing that not everyone is going to believe the same things about God that we do. And, most importantly, the fact that someone believes something else doesn’t diminish our own faith.
    • So that we can give voice to our beliefs and talk about our faith with others and come to understand one another more deeply. Not trying to get them to conform to your expectations, but, instead, wondering what can you learn from them and how we can accompany each other on our journey in faith.

    None of this is easy.  Because it is all deeply personal. And it can make us feel anxious to share it because sharing our faith is a vulnerable thing.

    The world is an anxious place these days. Politics, pandemic, inflation, gun violence, the removal of rights… the list goes on. And when we feel anxious, we tend to pull inward with concern for our own needs and desires.  And we look for other people who have the same needs and desires. We look for like-minded people. We try to get others on our side and end up creating division as we look for the people or the person to blame for our anxiety.

    Jesus’ refusal in today’s Gospel reading is a helpful reminder about this anxiety. This person shouting out to Jesus from the crowd, is insisting that God take sides, specifically his side. And this isn’t about social justice, this is about his own need to condemn his own brother.

    Luke has designed this scene to make us more aware of how and when we do this ourselves. How and when we try to make the world conform to our own needs and desires. How, sometimes, we let anxiety get the better of us and believe that my need is more important than your need.

    And Jesus understands this in an instant. Without skipping a beat, he responds with: `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

    And this is exactly what happens.  When anxiety is pulling us inward and we start making demands that the world conform to our own personal needs and desires, our very soul is on the line. Our very life is being demanded of us. We are on the precipice of a very dangerous place. A place that takes us down the road of addiction, greed, anger, manipulation… this is the place where, if we take a breath, we might be able to see what we’re doing to ourselves.

    Here’s what helps us with this: developing a practice of prayer. Cultivating a space in your life where you give your whole being over to God. Not prayer as in asking for things, but prayer as in quieting ourselves. Quieting the patterns of thoughts and feelings. Catching ourselves in the act of reacting in our typical ways or comforting ourselves with our usual methods.

    And it’s why taking the time to be reflective is important. Prayer is important. And so is worshipping in community.

    The act of Eucharist is a prayer, you see. By bringing ourselves to the Table of Reconciliation, we are asking to be reconciled ourselves so that we can become reconcilers in and for the world. The Eucharistic meal was created to bring us all into a vulnerable space where all of the ways of the world are overturned, if even for just one moment, because we meet God and know that nothing else really matters.

    The Eucharist has the capacity to open us up when we feel scared. To restore our unity with one another when we feel divided. It returns us to God. And it returns us to one another. Because how we pray is how we believe.

    We belong to a church – the Episcopal Church – that not only tolerates but embraces a wide range of theology. And we honor these differences in one another, learning from one another and coming to know God more deeply as our own personal faith changes and matures. As a community, we extend gracious curiosity to one another rather than expecting others to conform.

    The Episcopal Church isn’t a church that tells you exactly what you are supposed to believe about God. This is a church that helps you ask and reflect on your own questions about God so that you might deepen your own faith as a member of a diverse community. And I love to have conversations with people about what they believe, not so I can convince them to believe what I believe.  That would be folly.

    The reason I love to have those conversations is because it is my sincere joy to help people find the next question on their journey of faith. To help people deepen their faith so that their lives are less and less governed by fear – the fear that leads us to try to make the world conform to our needs and expectations… and more and more opened by love. So that we might glimpse the Reign of God.

    And the Reign of God is wider, more inclusive than anything we could imagine, we might be able to walk alongside one another instead of needing to have our desires met. Our unity is not found in thinking alike. Our unity is found in diversity… all of God’s children… coming to the Table of Reconciliation together.

    Because…
    What divides us is not the fact that we all have different ways of seeing things.
    What divides us is not that we all have different theologies and different needs and desires.
    What divides us is not that we look differently and love differently and live differently.

    What divides us is when we insist that division exists, when we insist that there is an “other.”
    But there is no other in the Reign of God.
    Everyone belongs.  Everyone belongs.

    How we pray is how we believe.