November 14, 2021, The 25th Sunday After Pentecost

November 14, 2021, The 25th Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

From Hebrews, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful". I speak to you in the Name God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     There are two occasions in the Bible where people at prayer are mistaken for being drunk. In today’s Old Testament reading, Hannah, standing at the threshold of the Temple of Shiloh and very close to the Ark of the Covenant, is praying for a son when she is confronted by Eli who says, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine!” On the day of Pentecost the apostles, filled with the power of the holy spirit, begin to speak in many languages. Those around them are amazed that although it is only 9 o’clock in the morning these guys are already drunk. But no, they, like Hannah, are praying and praying deeply.

That does make one wonder what deep prayer looks like. Think about that. Have you ever noticed how often prayer comes across as dour and sapped of any power, or joy, or any sense of thrill? Ask someone to say “Grace” just before a meal and after they moan about being asked, watch how quickly the room becomes solemn and those who are laughing and talking are shot looks that could kill. “Shhhh … It’s time to pray.”  And then almost on cue, we edit our words thinking that by doing so our prayers will be more acceptable to God or at the least more pleasing to those around us.

     In the film, “Meet the Parents” Greg Focker spends a weekend at the home of his fiancé’s parents. This is the first time they have met each other. Understandably, he is pretty nervous. Well, at their first dinner together, Greg is asked to say the grace. Like many tend to do when asked to pray on the spur of the moment, Greg quickly changes over to Elizabethan-English using all sorts of “thees” and “thous.” After what seems an endless prayer of clichéd gibberish, he finally concludes saying, “And we thank thee, O sweet, sweet Lord of hosts for the … Smorgasbord thou hast so aptly lain at our table this day, each day. Day, by day, by day. Amen.”

Greg’s hackneyed prayer aside, I think that how we pray would never even remotely looks like drunkenness. And maybe that’s because we misunderstand what prayer is about: what it should look like, what it should contain, what it should reveal about us and, not only what we believe is acceptable to God, but what our prayers reveal about our understanding of God.

     Our scripture readings this morning urge us to always pray from the depths of our being; to let it all out and in plain language tell God exactly how we feel; what we are thinking; our fears; our worries; our anger; our joys and our hopes. Such honesty is the kind of prayer that reflects a healthy and authentic relationship with God; it is the kind of prayer that demonstrates our trust in God’s love and, and as our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews affirms, our belief in God’s faithfulness.

    The 1st Book of Samuel tells the story of Hannah who has been ridiculed by everyone because she is barren and desperate for a child. In today’s reading we hear her lament before God: a lament from the very depths of her beingas Hannah pours out her soul to God and shares her anguish and fear for the future. Our text says that she wept bitterly before the Lord. If we were to read on a little further into Chapter 2 (1-10), we would find Hannah at prayer once again. But this time she bursts into song that also comes from the depths of her very being. On both occasions, Hannah is honest in her prayers and such authenticity is demonstrated not only in her words, but in her day-to-day relationship with God and even with those who make fun of her. She lives life to its fullest because she has immersedherself in a form or style of prayer that at all times speaks honestly with God in whom she has placed her complete and total trust.

    The Letter to the Hebrews tells us what Jesus looks like at prayer and how he prays. Jesus, our great high priest, the Letter to the Hebrews says, forever pleads – pleads – on our behalf before God, our Father and Creator. Jesus prays from the heart, from the very depths of his being at all times for our benefit. The Psalmist prays for God to protect him and goes back and forth in his prayers offering up his fears in one verse and then proclaiming his confidence and hope in God in the next. We might think he is flip-flopping but that is what authentic prayer does. Authentic prayer shares one’s hopes and fears, and doesn’t worry what someone else might think.

     Our scriptures urge us to grasp that prayer that is effective and life-changing is prayer that comes from our souls, our very spirits; it is prayer that speaks honestly with God who, in turn, has promised to embrace us just like the father embraced his prodigal son. Prayer nurtures our relationship God and deeply honest prayer begins with opening our hearts to say what we really think and feel. That is how true friends speak to one another and scripture affirms over and again that God desires that same intimate relationship with us.

     I find this reminder of what prayer should look like, from where in depths of our being it should flow, and the urging to be truthful with God about what we’re thinking and feeling, and our hopes and our fears, our dreams for the future, fits perfectly with today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark. Jesus’ words, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” seem rather scary. Now, I know that our Lord was foretelling the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in AD 70, and yet, Jesus’ words burned in my ears as I meditated on today’s readings. See, I read this passage and wonder if Jesus is saying that all our work and all that we accomplish here might be for nothing. Before you panic, let me assure you that the answer is a resounding, “No.” But, I do believe God is forever calling the Church into new adventures in mission and ministry together.

See, unless we are oblivious to what’s happening around us, we can’t help but realize that today’s institutional Church is changing all around us: in many ways, it is being taken apart brick by brick, stone by stone. That can sound scary. But like most situations, fear is often the result of one’s perspective. If we look at stones being pulled down as the end of all that we hold dear, the end of our hopes and dreams, then fear could be an understandable response. But what if stones and bricks being pulled down is understood not as ending, but a welcome sign that God is rebuilding the Church, rebuilding each one of us and reshaping us into people of God who embrace daily – minute by minute – prayer and communion with God just as passionately and honestly as we seek to serve and better the lives of this community. See, prayer asks everything of us and yet costs us nothing but willing, honest, and open hearts. And therein lies our challenge because one thing society avoids today is honesty.

Yes, the Church is changing, not in a destructive way, but rather, in order to be rebuilt as God’s spirit moves ever more deeply into the very hearts of God’s people. God’s spirit, just like Hannah’s prayers, and our Lord’s prayers, asks us, begs us, pleads with us to rethink how we serve and commune with God, with our neighbor, and each other.

In her book, The Great Emergence, the late Phyllis Tickle described how every 500 years or so the Church undergoes some form of radical reformation. And Tickle offered that what we see unfolding around us today may be that next reformation; that next Great Awakening in the lives and ministries of God’s people who are learning to pray with newvitality and with greater sincerity; learning to speak from the depths of our hearts, just like Hannah. And, in so doing, we are deepening our relationships with God and with each other. 

     Our scripture lessons this morning offer a glimpse of how even when stones are pulled down around us, prayer canstill transform lives, heal divisions, foster hope, and build community, if such prayer is authentic: when it comes from the very depths of our being and isn’t afraid to reveal who we really are and what we feel. Christians are called to demonstrate our faith, our hope, our trust, and our love for God in Christ. And that can only begin by opening our hearts – our souls – in honest prayer. Prayer that doesn’t worry about thees and thous; prayer that isn’t stilted in formality, but rather, prayer that, like Hannah, comes from a deep sense of longing. Prayer so moving we might appear drunk.

     Imagine for a moment if we, by God’s grace, were known not just as the little church that helps people, but the church that knows what it really means to pray and, without any fear, honestly bare one’s soul to God. I believe we would affirm, as the writer to the Hebrews proclaimed, that God is faithful and faithful forever. That, beloved, is the essence of prayer. May it be the essence of our continuing life together. Amen.