This is my sermon of June 24 2018 shared at St John’s Norwood Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland. We do revisit my recent trip to the MVA a bit, but in light of God’s promise and presence in the middle of trouble. =)
“Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ. Blessed be Abba God, the God of our Savior Jesus Christ, the Source of all mercies and the God of all consoling, who comforts us in all our troubles…” These words were part of the greeting from the Apostle Paul to the Church of Corinth, opening his letter to them, the one we call 2 Corinthians.
In that letter to the Christians in Corinth Paul digs deeply into trouble and being troubled. He speaks of despair, of hope, of opposition and of faith, both the troubles and the faith of those Christians when facing hard times, and his own as an apostle, teacher and prophetic voice for Christ. Paul believes that we have in us from God a deep and strong vein of treasure to be accessed, a wealth of blessing completing us in our spiritual lives and also strengthening us in our daily lives. In chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians he’ll speak of that deep treasure and the troubled storms of life very poetically, “But this treasure we possess is in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we are full of doubts, but we never despair; we are persecuted, but never abandoned; we are struck down, but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”
Paul knew something about the storms of life. In his letters he often speaks of the trials of being beaten, ship-wrecked, rejected and neglected. He knew all about the storms of life. Our Gospel passage today is about a storm, an unexpected storm that stirred up an otherwise routine and placid trip across the Sea of Galilee. Now, this is a Pilgrim Church, so may I see a show of hands of everyone who has taken a boat out on the Sea of Galilee? I was also there, with a group of pilgrims from this parish, just a couple of months ago… but my boat ride was as calm and serene as expected. No surprise winds or sudden storms came upon us, but just the lap of the waters against the sides of our boat overseen by that platinum sky and the pounding midday heat.
We’ve not all been on the Sea of Galilee, but we all know what its like when storms brew up in life, right? I went been through a storm recently, church… I had to go last week to the MVA… the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association. Sometimes our storms in life are less sudden and more directly linked to our procrastination, and I’m not going to lie about it. My car’s registration had expired a couple of weeks before, and I had spend the previous week and several hundred dollars getting various fines and parking tickets cleared up, but I was at the MVA believing that I was all done and ready to get things squared away. Come on… who can ever anticipate what will happen once you get to the MVA, right? I arrived, waited in a long line to share with a very pleasant woman why I was there, just to be told that I had some things to clear up with EZPass. I had spoken with them the previous week and paid about $50 to get that account cleared up, as my transponder hadn’t had funds for a some toll runs, but apparently there was more to do… a storm began brew for my quick run to the MVA. Thankfully EZPass is housed at the MVA, so I just had to go hop in another line and wait a bit to speak to another every pleasant person there. She pulled up my registration and said I had fines of around $650 to clear up before they would release my registration to be renewed. How does that happen? I had not had funds for about $30 in tolls, but they add gigantic “civil penalties” to those tolls, which added up in my case to over $650. Didn’t sound very “civil” to me. My storm was in full swing. I did not have $650+ to spend on these fines, and I had a real problem with their legitimacy and right to so outrageously fine me.
What do we do in these kinds of storms? When sudden storms pop up in our lives, people seem to be arrayed against us, and seems so unjust, that even if I didn’t keep my account current with EZPass, they had said the week before I was fine, and now I see these incredible fines before me… what do I do? Have you ever been in a storm like this? Have you ever just raged along with the storm? Fight fire with fire and all that? Certainly, I felt the storm pulling me into its embrace and tempting me to lash about and blow a lot of hot air of my own.
But thank God, I didn’t. I took a deep breath and composed myself. I didn’t have $650, or even a clue what to do next, but I wasn’t going to rage with the storm or give up or give in, and I would certainly not attack this person before me who neither let my account run out of money (that was me) or was responsible for imposing the fines on my overdrawn account. I took a moment of silence to breath deep and settle myself, and in that moment of quiet I heard her voice again, this time asking me a question, “Have you ever had a one-time waiver?” A one-time waiver? I’ve never heard of this thing, but wow does it sound promising! “No, I don’t believe I have ever had that waiver” I answered. If you don’t know this thing either, ONCE IN YOUR LIFE the folks at EZPass will waive the giant civil penalties by changing every $50 fine into $3! I got away from that little window spending about $70 total instead of nearly $700, and was out of the MVA in about 30 minutes with a renewed registration and an updated Driver’s License. Storm defeated, but not because I out-raged it or fought it to a stand-still or because I had any power at all in the storm except power over myself. I believe that if I had raged and fought and filled the stormy day at the MVA with my own ragings, I probably wouldn’t have heard that important question she asked me, or at least wouldn’t have been able to hear it as the gift and blessing that it was.
So In our Gospel reading today we find our friends, the friends of Jesus, in a boat and in a storm, and they are freaking out. The storm is raging and so are they! They wake Jesus up exclaiming, “You don’t care if we die!” They feel neglected, ignored and they feel acutely the injustice of this storm in their lives. They don’t deserve this storm, they’re serving Jesus! And Jesus isn’t doing anything they can see, so he doesn’t care. And you know how we keep hearing in scripture over and over “Do not be afraid” when God speaks or angels arrive unexpectedly we hear “Do not be afraid.” Well not this time! This time Jesus doesn’t say don’t be afraid, he basically asks, “What’s wrong with you?” Don’t you have any faith? He questions their raging along with the storm. Yes, they were scared. True, they did not have the power of Jesus to dispel the storm. But they had given up the only control they had in that storm, which was their ability to still themselves.
Not all storms in life are going to finish us off, as not all storms are just, not all are deserved, but all of them are opportunities to be faithful to the people that God has called and created us to be. Sometimes we can see God working in those storms, and sometimes we can’t see God in the midst of the trouble. But we know that God has loved us and called us and given us hope to be calm in those storms, true and just in those storms and gracious in the middle of turmoil. We have God’s promise to be with us. In a storm tossed world, we are so greatly needed, church. For we not only ride out the storms for our sakes, but for the sake of those within our reach.
In no way would I ever want to downplay some of the real struggles we face in life with an overly simple comparison to a trip to the MVA: those disciples in the boat sound as though they really thought they were going to die. But I do know that I need the occasional reminder that God’s grace, God’s love and God’s presence are not lost in the troubles of a day, the storms of this life. In these storms God’s grace, love and presence are the truly lasting things to which we cling and claim the power to remain ourselves. Perhaps some of the storms we have most feared will actually become moments of faith, gratitude and potential, when we remember who God has made and enabled us to be. “…this treasure we possess is in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we are full of doubts, but we never despair; we are persecuted, but never abandoned; we are struck down, but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”
When the wind kicks up in the coming week, and the storms of life begin to move around us, unjust and unwanted, may we remember that we are still God’s beloved people. When the fear begins to creep in and our hearts race and our minds reel, and when we don’t immediately see the God in whom we have hoped, may we remember that God is still with us. When we are tempted to rage along with the unexpected twists and turns of the day, may we remember to still ourselves, to remain faithful, just and kind.
As we began with Paul’s greeting to Corinth, we’ll end with his farewell to that church and to us all, “And now, sisters and brothers, I must say goodbye. Mend your ways. Encourage one another. Live in harmony and peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones send you greetings. The grace of our Savior Jesus Christ and the love of God and the friendship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Amen.
The audio of my sermon should be posted soon at St John’s: https://stjohnsnorwood.org/sermons/
This is my sermon transcript for July 30, 2017, and the promised resources to follow up on the idea of daily prayer, weekly spiritual practice and making your own daily prayer (mantra or litany). Be blessed, Beloved of God!
Sermon of July 30, The Practice of Daily Prayer
Good morning, I come to you today in the name of the God who infuses matter with divinity, who does not hold aloof, but enters into our world, our lives and our moments. I come to you as a fellow observer of the God whose Spirit is here and whose essence is love.
From Romans 8, one of our readings for today: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Do we have any fans of Dean Koontz, the author, here? He’s one of my favorites… he writes in a genre blending style, some horror, some mystery, always with some humor and something more than just a little supernatural. One of his most endearing characters is named Odd Thomas, a young man who can see (though not hear) the spirits of the dead. Anyone else an Odd Thomas fan? Among Odd’s colorful family is his very old, salty gambler of a grandmother, Granny Sugars, who taught him her daily prayer, waking each morning to ask God, “Spare me that I may serve.” It became Odd’s daily prayer.
I love to find these little, yet large, things in novels, songs and movies: glimpses of profound truths maybe embedded in fiction or simple daily life. These are reminders that more might be happening and might be present than just what I’m seeing, hearing or noticing.
Finding the profound in the ordinary is a way of describing what I wanted to chat about with you, today. Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a saint, a sinner, one of the last Don Quixote’s in his own right, a Basque soldier, a preacher, an armchair theologian and a particularly astute observer of the human spirit. He founded the religious order The Society of Jesus, most known by the moniker The Jesuits.
St. Ignatius has in many ways been a spiritual friend and father to me, through my Spiritual Director Fr Leo Murray and other Jesuit writers, helping me construct a bit of the missing framework to exercising and daily exploring my faith in ways that help me grow, finding new vistas instead of simply struggling to maintain a place where I have arrived. My father Ignatius famously wrote his guide to hearing and recognizing God’s voice and direction in daily life, The Spiritual Exercises, before any theological education. Central to those Exercises, whether you complete them in the intended 30 day retreat or a one week to a nine month adaptation, is the idea of daily giving oneself to an intention and reflecting on the day that’s gone by. Each morning begins with a prayer of intention, a grace he called it; it’s something we hope to realize in the course of that day.
I’d like to chat about daily prayer, fresh on the heels of hearing Granny Sugar’s daily devotion, “Spare me that I may serve.” I know that Dean Koontz’s books are works of fiction, but he’s so good at developing characters that you can see the way this morning mantra, spare me that I may serve, shapes the life of Odd Thomas. He’s a character wholly devoted to helping others, often at a cost to himself. Granny Sugars’ simple prayer shapes his life and keeps him rooted on a chosen path regardless of the circumstances of any given day.
There’s a deep wisdom in this character and this little prayer. Our intentions do shape us, intentions like daily prayers that reflect the basic decisions we make for the day before the day happens. So, in Romans Paul can say that daily trials don’t reflect the love of God for us, or a lack of God’s love, for he’s predetermined that God’s love is consistent regardless of what any day brings us. Granny Sugars prayed a prayer that assumed she would serve if spared. And we make choices and can affirm intentions before our days happen, choices and intentions that when held closely and believed in will lead us, shape us and sustain us with God’s help.
This is something I think I knew before I realized it was really true. I had an experience four years ago when I went up to Princeton Theological Seminary for a week long summer session on preaching. As I usually do when I travel I became a militant introvert. I’m always an introvert, but I have to act like an extrovert whether I’m working in religious vocation or at Apple at the mall, so when I travel I tend to curl inward and soak up some me time. And I was doing this at Princeton. Here’s the picture: at one point between classes I was out on the campus lawn, sitting under a tree, writing a haiku. That’s the kind of stuff introverts do when surrounded by strangers.
I began to notice that everyone else seemed to be walking around between classes in groups, social arrangements in which they were getting to know each other, and I thought, “What am I doing?” I was like, “I need to go interact with these people and not just play introvert for the week. We’re only here together a few days, and I could easily waste this opportunity to make some new friends.” Its not wrong to be an introvert, and I still am an introvert, but there was something here not to be missed. I ended up composing a prayer instead of a haiku under the tree that day, eventually writing these simple words: Let me love. Let me learn. Let me serve.
As I sat and watched people, people with people, it dawned on me that I needed that connection, or a similar connection with the people around me. I needed connection so that I could better love, better learn what needed to be learned, and to be ready to serve and be served. I was there to learn, it was a preaching class and conference, but learning is not the only value of my life. I sat with that prayer, tweaked it a bit, and came to these three things: loving, learning, serving… my heart, my head and my hands.
I’ve carried that prayer with me now for four years and found it resilient to the different themes and movements of life. I’ve used it as a beginning place of reflection when my day is not going well or when I feel a dissonance within my life; often I find that I’ve neglected one or two of these movements, not loving enough, missing what needed to be learned, or having arrived in a place of detachment and self-service.
The first experience I had of this sort of practice was really years and years ago when studying Eastern Orthodox Theology and I learned about the Jesus Prayer: “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is an ancient adaptation of a prayer Jesus himself shared in a parable about a two men who went to pray at the Temple, a religious leader and a despised tax collector. The Jesus Prayer is a breath prayer, a mantra and a litany. Here’s an exercise for you to try sometime… I will sometimes want to pray, but not really know where to start or how to begin. I’ll start with the Jesus Prayer and then slowly, as I repeat it, change the words to be prayers for specific change in me that I want to see around me, or for the needs of people I love, or just different expressions of praise for Christ, God or the Holy Spirit.
in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, praying for a specific grace throughout a week or month is foundational to keeping focus and attention on what God is doing in my life and how the Spirit is speaking to me, and how to recognize the other voices and spirits in my life to ignore.
One last example, from our time here at St. John’s, and an example of adapting scripture into a daily prayer, is something Teresa and I did with our Sunday School class this past year. We wanted a binding theme throughout the year and began by choosing a passage of scripture to be our anthem. We chose Micah 6:8: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? This passage presents three main ideas: justice, kindness and humility. Justice, kindness and humility.
We spent time with our kids explaining what it means to be just, which is to be true, trustworthy, fair & honorable. We talked about kindness, being compassionate and good to the people around us. We spoke about humbly seeking to walk with God, to draw close to God and to follow God. We eventually comprised our weekly prayer for class and daily prayer for any day of the year: Help me be kind, help me be true, God I give myself to you. After using it a few times, it sticks and has meaning. Who doesn’t face an opportunity in any given day to be more kind, true in our words and actions, and more in tune with following God?
Prayers like these have a way of changing us. They keep us focused and they help us hold up certain truths as a compass for our faith, our emotional well being and our daily walk. As a mantra or a litany I often use my prayer Let me love Let me learn Let me serve reciting in over and over on my drive to work as way of storing up the energy and reserve of intention for my day. This way no matter what comes why way, no matter how people find me or I find them, no matter the moment, my choice has been made to love, to learn and to serve. As I go through my day I draw on that reserve of God’s will and my intention.
This is similar to what Paul is doing in the passage from Romans 8. He knows that some days and some seasons of life can be tough. He knows that we struggle and we experience pain. He himself struggles and faces hurt of many kinds. He also has learned that these daily hurts do not mean that God loves us less, but God’s love is steadfast even in the hardest of days. So he speaks it: God’s love and our lives are inseparable. Bad days don’t mean that God loves us less. God’s love and our lives are inseparable. It’s good to hear this and sit with it before the worst days roll around, so that when they do we have a starting place to deal with those painful times. This is what daily prayers can do for us, helping shape us for the best and worst of life, strength when needed, extra joy when happy and wisdom when pressed.
What’s your prayer? I invite you this week to make an exercise of distilling down a favorite or a meaningful passage into an expression of prayer. Or maybe not a passage, but an expression of the great themes of your faith as you understand them. It doesn’t have to rhyme. You could take something from the end of Romans 8. You could use Micah 6:8. Maybe use the way that Jesus sums up the Law in Matthew 22: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
To help you do this, if I can, I’ve put some resources on my personal blog, and I invite you check them out. First, I’ve prepared a short one-week guide for daily prayer and reflection modeled after the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. That includes a sheet for each day which gives a grace to pray for, a passage to read, and prompts for reflection and prayer. This is best done shared with a spiritual friend, so I invite you to try it out and share the experience with someone else. You’re invited and welcome to bounce reflections and things off me as you pray and reflect through the week. My contact information is in the document. Secondly, there’s a little one page guide on making a personal daily prayer that includes the ones we’ve mentioned today and some helpful tips on making your own. This is all at toddthomas.net, and I invite you to share some of the journey with me and with one another.
I’m no Saint as Ignatius was in his life. I’m not an author like Dean Koontz. I don’t see dead people like Odd Thomas. I’m not even a rough and tumble cool 90 year old gambler like Odd’s Granny Sugars. But I am on this same road with Micah and those Roman believers, as are you. We are each set on a path of life, which is a path of will. It’s a path of choices, intentions and experiences. Our prayers are strength for that walk. Our prayers prepare us for the choices, the forks and turns we will take.
May God bless your path in the coming week. May we all in new and fresh ways, love the world and it’s people around us, learn something which we didn’t know or understand last week, and may our loving and knowing the world lead us to serve it’s needs with greater joy. Amen.