electronic Common Prayer: an app version of the Book of Common Prayer, with daily readings
Daily Readings from Forward Movement
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
In this seven-week season of Advent…getting ready for Christ to come (as a king to rule, or as an infant to adore?), we’re talking about the Way of Love and the practices for living a Jesus-centered life. In the past couple of weeks I’ve talked about the practices of turning—turning back toward God, like a flower turns toward the sun, and I encouraged you to either begin formulation a rule of life, or to revise one you already have. I’ve begun reviewing mine…and I’ll get to that in a minute…Last week, we talked about the practice of Learn, and I encourage us to develop practices that allow us to have daily encounters with scripture…so that we can not just read, mark, and learn scripture, but so that we can actually inwardly digest it in such a way that scripture becomes the lens through which we see all of life.
Today, the practice is Prayer. Now I realize that a month ago, I preached a sermon about the unjust judge and the persistent widow (and about Dorothy Day) which was all about prayer…so when I came to this one, I thought..uh oh… I’ve now set myself up for being super redundant, and when I mentioned this to my spouse, she wisely asked, “and you think you said everything there is to say about prayer in that Dorothy Day sermon?” (and yes, I asked her if it was ok to quote her and she said, “yes.”
Fair enough…so…prayer. As I said, I’m in the process of reviewing my own rule of life. And making some changes here and there—turning back toward God—and one of the turnings has to do with prayer. One of the most important questions I ask myself when I review my rule of life is: Can I still pray in church? Now, this might seem like an odd question for a priest to ask…”isn’t that sort of your job?” you might be saying…but that’s precisely why it’s such an important question.
When I was newly ordained, I had the good fortune to have a very short, class, with just a few other clergy, on prayer with the former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. And one of the things he warned us about was the real risk of becoming, as he put it, “technicians of the sacred.” Like a divine IT person…someone you call in just to “fix a problem” or “say the magic words.” When your vocation, and profession is to be a person of prayer…and a spiritual leader of a community…there is a real danger in becoming a technician rather than an actual living, breathing, praying human being. And so, this question: can I still pray in church is vital, because it’s a check on whether or not I’m slipping into a routine…on whether or not I’m becoming a technician…and the good news is…the answer is, “yes.” The most significant and profound praying I do each week…the moments when I feel most connected to God and to my true self…is at the altar praying the Eucharistic prayer, and distributing communion. So that’s good. But in terms of being a living, breathing, praying human being more than just on Sunday, that I need to pay attention to…some of my prayer time, and prayer practices the rest of the week, have become a somewhat mechanical…and maybe a little dusty.
Kenneth Leech, an English priest who wrote a wonderfully dense and insightful book called “True Prayer” said: “To know God is to know one’s own true Self, the ground of one’s being […] to pray is to enter into a relationship with God and to be transformed by [God]. […] Prayer is about participation in God. […] It is the movement of God to [humans], and of [humans] to God, the rhythm of encounter and response. [AND] this continuous ‘practice of the presence of God’ depends upon cultivation.” Kenneth Leech, True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality, Morehouse Publishing, 1995, pp. 3-8
This continuous practice depends upon cultivation. That’s where I need some work…where I need to turn back, I need to be more intentional about cultivating this continuous practice. And I’ve been getting this message from a couple of different places. For the past year and a half, I’ve been taking Tai Chi classes, and one thing our instructor keeps emphasizing over and over is…coming to class is good, and it’s important…but in order to really progress…you have to do work on your own…you have to practice at home. “It’s pretty simple,” he says, “if you put in the time—even just 10-20 minutes a day—you’ll get the results…if you don’t, you won’t.” And every time he says this, I think “The continuous practice depends on cultivation”… it’s true for any exercise routine…it’s true of prayer…coming here and praying on Sunday in community is good…and if you want to really get the upgrade…you need to be doing some practice on your own…you need to be engaged in some continuous cultivation…and in order to avoid becoming a technician of the sacred…I need to do the same.
Did you notice how much prayer there is in today’s scripture readings? In Jeremiah, God is speaking through the prophet—that’s really what prayer is…it’s that “movement of God to [humans], and of [humans] to God”…being open enough, that God can function through you…speak through you…act through you…Jeremiah’s is a prophetic prayer, but it’s prayer. The response—the song of Zechariah—is a prayer. Zechariah is the Father of John the Baptist, remember. And the angel comes to tell him that he is going to be a father and have a son named John, and Zechariah says…”she’yeah. Right. I’m like ancient…” and and angel takes away his voice until in the temple when the baby is named John, and Zechariah bursts out with this prayer of praise…”Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, he has come to his people to set them free.”
The author of the letter to the Colossians composes this beautiful prayer for the community…It’s a prayer for spiritual guidance and wisdom, and then moves into what is likely an early Christian hymn to Christ…again hymns are a form of prayer…all of these beautiful, eloquent, powerful words…are prayer…but that’s not all that prayer is…Because we love the language of the prayerbook, we sometimes think that all prayers should sound like this…and can be really intimidating…Remember what I said last week, whatever you think you should do…cut it in half, and make that your goal not your starting place? We love the language of the prayerbook, but that’s not necessarily where we start…it’s hard to cultivate a continuous practice if THIS is your starting place…you need to stretch up here occasionally, but a better place to start and where most of the work is done is down here…most of the continuous daily prayers we need practice with are more like the simple, core, basic ones uttered in the Gospel reading…”father, forgive them,” and since most of us might not even be ready for that…”Jesus, remember me.” That’s where we start. And so as I’m revising my own practices, I’m returning again to some of those basic, core prayers…Father, forgive them…Jesus, remember me…help, thanks, wow! (Anne Lamott)…and in returning to those core prayers, I’m also returning to being more intentional about cultivating a continuous practice of them…throughout the week…(not just on Sunday) and I welcome you checking in with me about how it’s going…and if you’d like, I’ll do the same for you.