November 18, 2018
Prayer is not easy. It is not easy to define because it is both simple and complex. If we think of it at either extreme, we will not understand prayer. It often is not easy to do, either. Or at least, it is not easy to recognize that we are praying. I am standing before you as one example of someone who once thought they didn’t know how to pray. I can tell you, though, the place I was standing when I learned otherwise.
Today, we have Hannah’s story about prayer that begs to be heard, begs to be understood. Hannah prays twice. In the first, we have a visual—we can only see her praying because she speaks no “words.” In the second, we hear her prayer— and it is a SONG.
In Hannah’s first prayer, this is what we see: a woman, alone, intentionally coming to the sanctuary, a safe place, to honestly present herself directly before her Lord. If we only stand at the entrance to watch Hannah, we like Eli, might not see a person in prayer. But if we are willing to go further in to look closer, to look into Hannah’s eyes, to look into her heart, we will see, we might even feel, we might even hear: an unspeakable distress, a bitter weeping, a great anxiety, a troubled self-image, a broken heart, a deep longing, a desperate sadness, a crushed aching and pleading spirit.
This is a picture of Hannah pouring out her heart to God, a prayer of petition and oblation. But no doubt, the picture captures some of our own silent prayers—yours and mine. I understand this prayer because I’ve been there myself, and I’ve been with fiends who have prayed without words, directly from their heart. I’m thinking you also understand this prayer for the same reasons.
In Hannah’s second prayer, time has passed, she has given birth to a new life, and she sings her prayer of adoration and praise and thanksgiving with gusto--“bursting with God-news!” . . . and “dancing her salvation,” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message Bible. I understand this prayer, too. I can also burst with God-news. I’ve seen some of you bursting with God-news.
Our lectionary places Hannah’s Song as our Response to her first prayer—we responded this morning with a powerful song about a God who embraces the world in Love, turns the world upside down, and invites us to see it as God intends it to be. It is a song that will later influence The Song of Mary, the Magnificat.
There is a part of Hannah’s story that I haven’t mentioned. We need to look again at Hannah’s first prayer. Eli, the priest, finally understands that Hannah is not drunk, but instead has been praying. Once understood, Eli sends Hannah on her way to go in peace, sends her out with a blessing and a prayer of his own that God will grant Hannah’s petition. Scripture tells us that Hannah turned to leave the sanctuary “. . . and her countenance was sad no longer.”
Her countenance was sad no longer. Something happens; something shifts. What had seemed so extremely sad, took on a quality of joy. Hannah has poured out her heart to God, and in the waiting for God’s response, her countenance was sad no longer, she is already at peace. This a picture of what faith and hope can look like in the face of despair. This is a picture of true grit and grace. This is a picture of a transforming encounter with God. Hannah shows us that we can touch the place where God IS a prayer within us and it is at the intersection of despair and Hope.
In October, 11 people were killed in the Tree of Life synagogue, in their safe place, while they worshiped and prayed and celebrated a new life. During the following weeks, I prayed: I lit candles for the victims, I lit candles to shine upon the conditions of hearts that created this tragedy, I lit candles for the survivors, I meditated on a stained glass piece of art that represented the Jewish Tree of Life, I prayed with my Jewish community at a Memorial Service at Congregation B’Nai Israel, and I meditated on our liturgical readings for today with the events of October still heavy on my mind and heart. I was still meditating on Hannah’s prayer when another gunman killed 12 in a horrific mass shooting at a California bar that was packed with college students.
Hannah’s countenance was sad no longer. Those words came back to me, again and again as I prayed, as I pleaded for guidance. I came to recognize that the lump in my throat that would not go away, was prayer. I recognized that the heaviness on my chest and the sick feeling in my stomach were prayers. But they are more than my petitions for God to do something, they are my answers to the God of Love who ached with me, they are my response to the God, revealed in Jesus, who repeatedly seeks us out and asks us to follow his ways of showing what Love looks like. We have seen hate explode into violence. But the ache within us that won’t go away can move our feet to step out onto the strong foundation of faith and hope--so we can be a living witness to the power of Love.
Prayer is not easy because it prompts us to question and to imagine possibilities. Prayer is not easy because it calls us into action.
Hannah’s story is our story. It is a story about real pain and real joy. It is a story about seeking God with all our hearts, a story about realizing that we are already loved and already heard and already in the process of healing. Listen to the Hope in Hannah’s story.
Listen to the knowing words from Anne Frank: “Where there is hope, there is life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again,” [i] she says.
Listen to and act upon the covenant that God has made with us—the innate sense of right and wrong that has been written in our hearts and minds.
Say the words in our Eucharistic Prayer with gusto: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Know that like Hannah, we can come to our sanctuary to stand directly before our Lord in all our brokenness.
Pray the words from today’s Epistle: let us come to the sanctuary with a true heart in complete assurance of faith . . . let us hold on tightly to our confession of our hope without being diverted, for he who has promised is faithful.
He who has promised is faithful. Scripture is the grand story of God’s faithfulness, and our Collect this morning prays that we will inwardly digest that faithfulness.
Reflect on our aching hearts and notice that the ache within us is sacred energy that wants to move us into action.
Respond to another prayer from today’s Epistle: Let us stir up one another to love and good deeds, meeting together to encourage one another.
Go in peace to love and serve your Lord, knowing that at every turn you are writing your own SONG.
[i] Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, page 314.
King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”
So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.
What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.
Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.
When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”
If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”
“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.
Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”
For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:
Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?
Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.
SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’
For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.” Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.
In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me. (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”
For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”
Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.
Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.
By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.
We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.
We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.