Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 18 September, 2022. Readings for this Sunday: Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1; Psalms 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
“You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk 16.13)
What is the church for? Why are we at All Saints here? If we were to do some brainstorming and wrote out a list, we would I’m sure come up with some interesting answers.
“Teach people about Jesus and spread the gospel” might be one, and it would certainly be in keeping with Jesus’ great commandment.
“Show the love of God” “Care for the least among us” “Feed the hungry” – all good answers and very gospel centred.
“Community and fellowship” – would also be an excellent answer.
“Pray” would probably be on that list, and that’s one I want to focus on today, following the prompting of our second lesson from 1 Timothy. We do pray on Sunday mornings, to be sure, but scripture would have us go further. St. Paul, in one of his letters, tells the church to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5.17).
“Pray without ceasing” seems like a tall order. Can we stop for coffee? Are naps allowed? How do we pray? What if we’re not good at prayer? These are all legitimate questions, but we can’t deny that among the things that God wants the church to do, prayer is right up there on the brainstorming list.
One of my favourite places to go to rest and spiritually recharge is to the Anglican monastery in Boston, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, on the doorstep of Harvard University. The brothers are prayer professionals. Visitors to their guesthouse are invited to join them at prayer, before breakfast, at midday, before dinner, in the evening and finally before bedtime. The brothers practice follow the ancient customs of regular, fixed hour prayer which goes back to the very early church and beyond that to ancient Jewish faith as we see in some of the psalms. This practice is rooted in the idea that some should hold the world and its concerns in a gentle embrace of prayer, a constant murmur rising to heaven like smoke or incense, asking God to show love and mercy to those who need it.
Fortunately, guests at the monastery are not expected to participate in all five daily services, but are encouraged to visit the chapel as they wish. Because the brothers are very skilled at chanting the psalms and prayers, in the Gregorian tradition, most visitors just sit and listen. Joy and I have attended and have felt a kind of serenity as the prayers and chanting of the brothers washes over us, like being in a canoe on a slow moving river carrying you gently forward. When I’ve come home from the monastery, I fall into the business of my daily routine, and often don’t have time to pray as I would like to, but maybe that’s why the brothers are there, to pray for the world without ceasing.
Something the brothers have taught me, however, is that prayer doesn’t have to be sung, read, or spoken. Prayer can be a quiet attentiveness to God, finding moments of calm to reflect, to listen for that quiet voice that prompts us, of waiting for that moment of spiritual and mental clarity where something falls into place in our minds. I like to think of prayer as an orientation of the self, a way of pointing our hearts and minds towards God in the way that flowers track the sun as it moves across the sky. This sort of prayer can be done as we do things that fill us with joy, particularly in moments of service or creativity, like cooking a meal, tending a garden, or working on a craft or art project, something that uses our gifts and which connects us with others.
Seen in this way, prayer is self-offering, a way of giving ourselves back to the God who created all things. One of the Boston monks, Brother Lucas, puts it this way. Prayer, he says, is “Always offering up, in some way, what we have been given by God, what God has provided us for sacrifice. And with that understanding, we may begin to enter into a new way of self-knowledge, a new way of understanding our feelings, thoughts, and actions: if it’s all prayer, we can ask ourselves about any given experience, no matter how mundane or “un-spiritual”, “Who was I praying to there? To whom was I sacrificing? Was it God, or an idol?”
I think Brother Lucas chose the word “idol” deliberately. An idol is something created by human hands, something we offer ourselves to and so leads us away from God. If we don’t try to orientate ourselves to God, then we run the risk of being captured by something else and falling into its service. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable of a cunning scoundrel who colludes with others to cheat his master. Jesus concludes with the message, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16.13).
An idol is something created by human hands, which can end up leading us away from God. Again to quote Brother Lucas, he reminds us that throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches us that “all creation, and thus all that we might call material wealth, is the work of God. All wealth that we possess, whether meagre or great, is given to us by God’s providence, not as some reward for being very good or very special, but rather, as an act of God’s call to us. God places us in a position of stewardship, authority, and responsibility. He provides for sacrifice, and money cannot go un-sacrificed. Whether we spend it or keep it, we always offer it to someone, and it is always appropriate to ask ourselves, “To whom [are we offering it]?”
Brother Lucas is right to see wealth as part of God’s providence. If prayer is the direction of our hearts and if prayer is the offering of ourselves, then wealth is part of prayer. We can’t see our wealth and our gifts as solely ours, wholly walled off from others and their needs, because then we only praying to an idol of selfishness. We exist in community and wealth is part of community, and prayer is part of community, which is why in our prayers we pray for those around us, near and far.
Our sense of community is thus shaped by prayer, because we have an idea of what God wants community to look like. In 1 Timothy we hear that we are supposed to pray for our leaders “and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2.2). Further, we hear that we are to pray for our leaders (not to our leaders – we can easily elevate out leaders to idol status) for a particular purpose, “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (2 Tim 2.2). What does that mean?
“Quiet and peaceable” can just mean we want to be left alone, but then we aren’t giving of ourselves if we understand prayer as self-giving. Can we settle for peace and quiet just for ourselves? We are also called to live in “godliness and dignity” and those are gospel values? Can someone live in dignity if they are degraded by poverty, or demonized because of their race, or political views, or their orientation? Can a community be considered “godly” if its leaders incite hate or fear or violent thoughts? In other words, we don’t pray that our favourite candidates win at all costs. We don’t pray fo them to tear down, we pray for them to build up.
To return to my original question, what is church for? Among other things, church is a place of prayer, provided that we understand prayer as lives that are oriented to God and hearts (and yes, wallets), that are open to the giving back of what God has given to us. Prayer is seeking a peaceful and a better life not just for us, but for our neighbours. Prayer is care for the dignity of others, and prayer is properly angry when the dignity of others is violated. Prayer is living a proper life, because, just as flowers wither when they are not facing the sun, so do our souls and hearts wither when they are not facing God.