Monday, October 22, 2007

Oct. 21 Sermon: Overhearing Prayers

This sermon was an adaptation of one my dad preached a couple years ago. It fit with the theme we're on lately--"Prayer Life of a Christian." Thanks for the help, dad.

LUKE 18:9-14

My grand-father was a self-educated Pentecostal preacher on the weekends and a skilled carpenter throughout the week. Consequently, my father has told me that my grandfather’s nighttimes were often devoted to bible study and sermon preparation, as well as prayer. As a young boy, my father’s bedroom was the converted utility room right off the kitchen, and he often overheard his father’s prayers. Though my grandfather died almost twenty-five years ago, my father still cherishes the memory of those overheard prayers, because many of those prayers were for him!
You can tell a lot about people by listening to how they pray. Praying is absolutely vital to the church. Prayers are vital for the spiritual well-being of the Christian. This is one reason we are creating a prayer chapel off the sanctuary in this room to the right. It will be a visible and practical encouragement to this faith community to make prayer a discipline. We read in the letter of James that “the prayer of a righteous person availeth much.” (James 5:16)
But perhaps, as we see in the parable, we do not intuit what righteousness truly is! Prayer gets to the heart of the relationship between God and us. Is prayer knowing all the right words to say? Sometimes, not knowing the right words to say communicates more effectively the depth of the experience of a relationship than being an articulate word-smith.
Sometimes, if we cannot find the words, we may turn to the beautiful resources in our hymnal and book of worship and resonate with the spirit led words of others. Other times, if we turn simply to what writer Anne Lamott calls the only two prayers: “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you,” and “Help me, Help me, Help me!” God will respond to us, indeed!
Jesus also believed in the vitality of prayer, but he also sought to expose the futility of trusting in your self alone. He did so by telling the parable you heard this morning.
Let’s review something very important about parables. By their very nature, parables draw the listener into the story, and, before you know it, we (the listeners) are involved like one of the characters actually in the story! In a parable, one states a truth but disguises it so that the meaning is not quickly and immediately obvious. Its meaning is to be deduced, and when you finally do get the “point,” you might even have a great “ah-haa” experience.
In telling a parable, you change the scene to throw the listener off a bit until you can insert your needle without the listener knowing it has been inserted. John Killenger has called such practice, “literary Novocain.” If you tried to get in your point without the “parable-Novocain” your “patient” would run a way and your point is then rendered useless. Likewise, if you brought up your subject directly, it could easily fall flat.
The parable Jesus tells about he Pharisee and the tax collector who prayed is a perfect example. The problem is, in the many years that have passed since Jesus first told this parable to his first listeners, the two characters in the story have virtually changed places, and we’re in danger of losing the “ah-haa” that I believe Jesus intended.
In our day, it’s easy to not despise the tax collector and instead, despise the Pharisee! Fred Craddock has rightly said, “Popular caricatures present the Pharisee as a hollow hypocrite and the tax collector or publican as generous Joe, the Bartender or Goldie, the hooker, both whom we might admire for the rejection of religion!” (Interpretation, Fred Craddock: John Knox Press-1990, pg.211).
But, you can be certain that this is not the way Jesus’ original hearers first reacted. To them, the Pharisee was a true pillar of society, the kind of material respectable communities desire. In fact, if the Nominations Committee of First Church, Palestine was meeting to gather names for submitting to the Charge Conference for election to the Church Board, you can rest assured this Pharisee’s name would be at the top of the list! If the Evangelism Committee was seeking to respond with hospitality to newcomers who had visited the church, you’d be safe to assume this Pharisee would be one of the most sought after.
Why? Not only does he fast once a week, as some Jews did, he fasts twice a week! He was zealous, not merely to keep the law, but to go beyond it. He’s not an extortionist; he’s not a swindler or an adulterer. And when it comes to the temple budget, not only did he tithe 10%, he went even further and tithed on all he bought! Ordinarily, in buying corn, new wine, and oil, he could have assumed that a tithe had already been paid by the one who had produced it. But this Pharisee took no chances, so he paid a tithe on these purchase as well! You could call him a religious neurotic, if you wanted to, but he meant well. In any case, those who first heard this parable would easily recognize this man to be unusually diligent and upright.
Likewise, in our modern attempts to romanticize the tax collector/publican, we often forget just how revolting and mean his lifestyle really was! Publicans not only cooperated with a foreign occupying power, Rome, but padded their living by defrauding others as well. True repentance of such reprehensible activity required that they quit their job as tax collectors and restore all that they had illegally taken, plus 20%. Since it was unlikely that they could even name, let alone repay all those whom they had defrauded, they were treated by others as robbers—and essentially, they were! They were hated, so it’s no wonder he’s found praying in the shadows of the temple, certainly not in full view of everyone. It’s a wonder the Pharisee even sees him!
Now I’m not one who would say you should keep your eyes closed during prayer, as we discussed last week, but it would be helpful to keep your focus on God and your praying, not looking around the temple to see who’s there------.
I think I recognize what the Pharisee does in his prayer.
“I may have failed you Lord, but, compared to _____, I’m
not half-bad!”
I recognize that kind of praying, because I’ve done it!
Have you noticed, though, that most of the times when we pray like that, we’re making the wrong comparisons? Rarely do we compare ourselves with our moral superiors. Instead, we compare ourselves with scoundrels and pridefully say, “Hey God, comparatively speaking, I’m not so bad…” Employing that same tactic in woodworking or sewing can have disastrous results. Constantly cutting new pieces from a faulty pattern might be quicker than measuring each time, but the end product might be grossly distorted.
Yes, it seems the final offense of the Pharisee’s prayer is his sidelong glances toward the publican/tax collector in the shadows, instead of his focus on God. Without denying all of those things he did, fasting, tithing, upstanding behavior… all very good, he was NOT looking in the direction of God. Smugly seeing how much better he fared (he thought) in the conduct of life than the poor sinner standing in the shadows.
The hated and despised tax collector had nothing to gain in prayer by comparing himself to others or contemplating how others felt about him. He knew already! All he could do was throw himself on the mercy of God, who is the God of saints and sinners alike.
Would that the poor Pharisee knew the song, “It’s not my brother, nor my sister, but it’s me oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer!” For you see, the prayer of a truly righteous person has nothing to do with a religious “pedigree” or our church work experience—time spent teaching Sunday School, or even how much or how little we give to the church. The prayer of a truly righteous person has everything to do with whom we gaze upon in prayer—so we should ask ourselves. Is prayer to contemplate God or is it to announce to God who we are? The prayer which justifies the person is the prayer which seeks God and leaves self behind. And thus, we arrive at this parable’s “bottom line.” The Pharisee trusts in self and all his accomplishments. The Publican trusts in God alone. That is the difference.
You see, the world can still make judgments as to who in human eyes is justified. God, however, makes another. Some truly righteous people are not the world’s so-called perfect people. And therein lies Jesus’ agenda, so remarkably told by Luke in his radical “upside-down” way.
Even though many times Jesus seems to exalt those whom the “respectable” deem to be morally inferior, Jesus, in so doing, is after something deeper than “respectability”…something far more crucial than observing religious rituals. Instead, he’s intent on doing business in each human heart, where there are no secrets, not pretenses. So yes, each of us can say, “it’s me, it’s me oh lord, standing in the need of prayer.

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