Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

As always, the community gathers on the first day of the week, the Lord's Day, for nurture and sustenance and community and to renew connections to God, each other, and ourselves. In Eastertide on this Sixth Sunday of Easter we continued to hear from the Acts of the Apostles and the First Letter of Peter. And in the Gospel we continue to read from John, this time the very enigmatic metaphor of Jesus as the Vine. We're the branches, Jesus says, and in what I suspect is typical Johannine hyperbole, those branches that aren't making grapes get cut out and burnt. The others get pruned (the same Greek root also means "cleansed") so that there can be even more grapes. There's always so much we can say about the Johannine Easter images, but this week I had food and hunger on my mind:

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
The Sixth Sunday of Easter (BCP) 2008
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 148; 1 Peter 3:8-18; John 15:1-8
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr. Vicar

May these words be in the name of the True Vine, Jesus our risen Lord. Amen.

This past week you may have heard that the United Nations has declared a food emergency globally, and has requested an additional half billion right now in order to help purchase food needed in those areas where it is scarce. Apparently, it’s a combination of high fuel prices, bad harvests, and the instability of the value of the dollar that has led to this situation. Many are blaming the US for a lot of what’s going on. I admit to having somewhat of an understanding, at a high level, of everything that’s happening, but I also confess that I haven’t felt too much of the pain that millions are facing now. The price of beans for the Sudan, for example, was around $200 per ton less than two years ago and is now $1100 per ton. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen any prices in the A&P quintuple. So listening to the news on this has been a bit theoretical. Even in this age of global connection, it’s kind of hard sometimes to really feel affected.

And yet, we have been affected, there’s no doubt. I’m sure you’ve noticed, as have I, that the prices of dairy products have gone way up in the last few months. I happen to like eggs and cheese a lot, so I definitely have been aware of the rising prices. And at least one store I was in recently had a big sign up in the dairy case, explaining that the costs had risen beyond the control of the store and they were sorry they had to raise their prices. And I’ve noticed what seems like a few more calls than earlier from folks locally, who need food and are hoping we can help. I’m always pleased that I can invite them to our food pantry, but almost always they also want to know if I can help with dairy or meat. I feel uneasy when I can’t help, although sometimes I can if we have food cards from A&P at hand. The Sparta Ecumenical Council Food pantry confirms this. Where they used to give out 15 or 20 bags of groceries a week, now it’s more like 90 or a hundred. And you will have seen the insert we’ve been putting in the bulletin about ways to help right here in Sussex County. So the global food crisis is definitely affecting us here as well. It’s not just something we see in the news. It’s real and it’s personal.

I’m reminded of all this not only because I drive past the Super A&P regularly. I don’t know exactly how much food there is in there at any given time, but I imagine it’s enough to feed the entire township of 25,000 people for several days or even longer. But this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in the Great Fifty Days of Easter, has traditionally been know as Rogation Sunday. Now, it has nothing to do with how long the hair of the disciples was or anything like that! Rather, it’s because in the gospel for today, Jesus says, “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” The word “ask” in Latin, the language the Church used for hundreds of years, is “rogare.” And the next three days, the three days before Ascension Day, are called the Rogation Days, or the Days of Asking. It was traditional that on these days there were special celebrations of the Eucharist to pray for the harvest that, even this year when everything is so early, is just being prepared and planted. It originally came about nearly 1700 years ago in what is now France, when there were severe food shortages in the area. Sound familiar? The practice eventually spread throughout the Christian west. And even our own Book of Common Prayer offers liturgies for these days. On Monday is the commemoration for fruitful seasons, on Tuesday for commerce and industry, and on Wednesday for stewardship of creation. I used to think of the Rogation Days as quaint, hardly needed in the 20th and 21st centuries. We’ve solved hunger, right? Well, now I’m not so sure.

I think there’s a real tension within our spiritual lives regarding asking God for things. True, every Sunday we pray for all sorts and conditions of people in the Prayers of the People. And we have special celebrations like the Rogation Days and Rogation Sunday that are designed to encourage people to pray for their needs. And there are several passages in Matthew, Luke, and of course John that all seem to encourage us to “bring it to the Lord in prayer.” “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find, knock, and the door will be opened.” is a famous passage from the Sermon on the Mount. And of course in the Lord’s Prayer itself we are told to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Last week, you might recall we heard, “I, Jesus, will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” And today, from John, “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Asking God for our needs seems like a reasonable, even laudatory, thing to do.

The tension, the problem is, of course, that often it seems that, no matter what the Gospels seem to promise, we often, even usually, don’t get what we ask for. And there is a strand of Christianity that even goes so far as to suggest that if you don’t have all the material things in life – because surely that’s what everyone wants and what God wants for you too – then you must not be a good Christian, because God rewards good people in this life with abundance, and does not reward those who don’t deserve it.

The problem with this is that it turns God into a giant ATM machine. It implies that you only have to be good enough, only have to pray enough or in the right way, to get what you want. It takes God’s grace right out of the picture. Salvation becomes something you can earn if you just pray hard enough. But of course, that isn’t how God works at all. In every one of the passages that encourage us to ask for what we need, ever notice that’s only about the needs of this life and not the wants? We’re never encouraged to ask for more than what we need. And the Gospels are very very clear about what excessive stuff can do to one’s life with God. When we orient our lives towards things we can’t orient them toward God.

More than that, Jesus actually reminds us that God already knows that we need the things of this life. And that, for me, begs the question: why pray at all? God already knows everything. He doesn’t need me to tell him that I’m hungry, or that my best friend is ill and needs healing, or that my job might be ending and I’m worried about how to pay the bills.

I think there are at least two answers for this. The first one, the simple one is, “Because Jesus told us to.” And he did. “Give us this day our daily bread” is a prayer we Christians pray all the time, even in the midst of our Eucharist when we thank God for what God is doing in Jesus in our lives. We pray that because Jesus commanded us to. And we who claim to be followers of Christ try to do the things he commanded. Not because we’re in trouble if we don’t, but because we know that Jesus, the embodiment of Wisdom incarnate, intends only the good for us in the things he asks us to do.

The other reason is perhaps a bit less obvious. We pray because in doing, so we practice orienting ourselves to God. We don’t pray because God needs it, we pray because we do. In all our prayer we are, consciously or not, renewing our connections to God thought Christ. We often pray more frequently when we can sense that our connection is weakened or fraying.
Sometimes, like on Sundays, we pray in thanksgiving as well as intercession. Sometimes all we can do is cry out to God in anger or frustration or fear or sadness or simple begging. Sometimes our prayers might be for things more than our daily needs. I’m pretty sure that God really doesn’t care too much whether or not my Mets win this series against the Braves, but I sure would like them to. And that new whatever it is you’ve had your eye on? Perhaps you’ve asked God for that, too.

I truly believe that, at its most basic level, in the act of prayer itself the content doesn’t much matter. What’s most important is that in the act of prayer we are consciously reaching out for God. We are aligning ourselves with God when we pray, and in doing so, we open ourselves up to God’s will and purpose for us, even when we don’t know it.

Notice I didn’t say that what we pray for doesn’t matter at all. It does. In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Jesus is telling us that the prerequisite for asking for whatever we wish, is each of us being first in the mind of Christ and having Christ’s words in us. What are those words? We hear them a bit later in this chapter of John. Christ’s words are that we are to love one another as he has loved us. Then we are abiding in Christ and then his words are abiding in us. If we are truly loving one another, if we are truly always seeking the best of the other knowing that he or she is doing the same, then what we ask for is going to be for things that are needed by those we are in relationship with, those people we are loving. And God will be pleased to do that. That’s the kind of prayer – prayer on behalf of others – that God gets into. We aren’t going to be asking for the new car, or the next version of the cool but expensive video game, or anything like that. We will be asking for food, and clothes, and shelter, and stability, and health, and wholeness for those whom we are trying to love as Christ already loves each of us. That’s the more excellent way. That’s the good fruit that Jesus alludes to in his metaphor of the Vine and the Branches. Our prayers for others become the seeds in us of the good fruit we will eventually produce. As Jesus said, “My father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

And there are two really good examples of what that good fruit looks like, those spiritually delicious apples and pears and plums and oranges. Recall that we’ve been hearing from the Acts of the Apostles during Eastertide. We do that every year, to remind us in vivid picture, with real people doing real tings, that in the season of new life that the Church was once new and experienced that new life directly. The sacred story of what the first generation of apostles said and did is meant to inspire and ground and encourage us. They started with nothing, and look at what fruit they bore! Can you imagine what Christ’s new life can do for this community of St. Thomas’s?

And we also continue to hear from the First Letter of Peter. Today we heard, “Now all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called-- that you might inherit a blessing.” Now those are some very specific ways to recognize the good fruit that Jesus invited us to be. Aren’t sure if you are living out a fruitful life in Christ? Check the list. Do those things describe you? If not, time for more prayer. If they do, don’t rest on your laurels. Pray for more!

My friends, prayer is important. In fact, it’s critical to a renewed life in the Lord. The Good News is that God can and does take all our prayers and makes good use of them. Even if you’re afraid your prayers aren’t worthy, that they aren’t selfless enough, don’t worry too much. Yes, we have lots of guidance about what are better ways to pray. And it’s good to examine ourselves and see what and how we are praying. But God has big shoulders. God can take whatever we pray. Whether it’s for our needs, those of others, or seemingly more blasé, like that new computer or hitting the lottery, remember that God did ask us to pray. Our prayer first and foremost keeps us online with God, connected to him even in the midst of this ever-more-dangerous world that wants nothing more than for us to forget God and lose our connections to him. And so we pray. This week we pray for our own needs and the needs of the world in the traditional Rogation Day prayers. Hunger is on the rise, in the entire world, here in the US, and especially right here in Sussex County. It is a good and noble thing to pray for those needs, even for the billions of people we will never see otherwise. Yes, God knows what we need before we ask. But it is the asking itself, and especially who we are asking, that’s the important thing. That asking, that rogare, our prayers, are the seeds of the good fruit we are already becoming. And as Jesus tells us, “Our Father is glorified in this, that we bear much fruit and become his disciples.”
We - you and I, this community of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church - are the good fruit that can feed the hungry world, this hungry nation, this hungry township. Won’t it be wonderful to see what kind of good fruit each of us will bear in the days and weeks to come!

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Bob, it's a lovely sermon. Here's what stood out for me:

Why do we pray? Because Jesus told us to and to make a conscious connection with God, who is already present with us, but when we pray we acknowledge the relationship. An instance from my own life - when we are warned that a hurricans may approach our way, I pray. It's not that I believe that God will change the direction of the hurricane, but because in a frightening time, I want to reach out to God and connect.

As you say, we pray for sufficiency for ourselves, but not for over and above a sufficiency - our daily bread.

The sermon had lots more good stuff, but those points resonated the most for me.

RFSJ said...

Grandmere Mimi -

Thank you for reading it, and thank you too for the feedback and kind words! I do think that to pray for sufficiency is fine, and as I tried to say, if we go overboard, it's OK too, up to a point. It's the "Prayer of Jabez" crowd that really gets me going.

Happy Rogation Days!