The 26th Sunday after Pentecost

November 18, 2018
The 26th Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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

From the Letter to the 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 of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     As adults, my sisters and I would each celebrate one of the major holidays of the year by hosting the entire extended family of relatives and friends in our respective homes. I always hosted Thanksgiving because Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Oh, I love Christmas with its mystery of God incarnate: The Word made flesh and dwelling among us. That thrills my heart. And the astounding bodily Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ – Easter - is truly, my hope and my redemption. But, Thanksgiving with its absence of pressure to bring a gift and, instead, just be present with family and friends even if some of them do get on our nerves after a while, has always been my personal favorite.  

    Well, the climax of our yearly gatherings was my Dad’s offering of the Thanksgiving blessing at the dinner table. At times, that prayer tended to get a little long especially in those later years when his Alzheimer’s had set in. He would forget where he was in his prayer and start all over again. And when it was an election year, sometimes he would digress into thanking God that some politician he didn’t like was voted out of office, and so on. But we all took it in stride. Nevertheless, I will never forget the time when Dad got very confused, turned to me in the middle of his prayer, and said, “Take over.” I panicked! I panicked because, frankly, at this point he had gone on for so long I had stopped listening. I didn’t know what to say. So I stammered out “We … thhhhhhank you God for good food … for safe travel … for family and friends … for this lovely day.” And then I stopped. I was stuck. Then, out of nowhere, my whole demeanor changed as did my voice and language. Suddenly, and with confidence, in perfect Elizabethan English I continued, “But above all things we give Thee thanks for Thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray Thee, give us such an awareness of Thy mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth Thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to Thy service, and by walking before Thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with Thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory forever and ever, world without end.” And everyone present shouted a hearty “Amen!” And my mom turned to me and said, “That was lovely. You should write that down.” Well it is written down. It is from the Daily Office in the Prayer Book.

     Have you ever noticed that when it comes to prayer, we tend to edit our words and tone of voice thinking that by doing so our prayers will be more acceptable to God or pleasing to those around us? Our scripture readings this morning urge us to pray from the depths of our very being; to be completely honest with God; to let it all out and in plain language tell God exactly how we feel; what we are thinking; our fears; our worries; our angers; our joys and our hopes. Such 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 faithfulness. 

     Our reading from 1stSamuel tells the story of Hannah. She has been ridiculed by everyone because she is barren and desperate for a child. In today’s reading we hear her lament before God. From the very depths of her being, Hannah pours out her soul to God and shares her anguish and fear for the future. Our text says she wept bitterly before the Lord. Now, today’s lectionary also included an additional reading from the 2ndChapter of 1stSamuel. We chose to offer the Psalm instead. But I urge you to read that passage this afternoon. In Chapter 2:1-10, Hannah is at prayer once again. But this time she bursts into song that also comes from the depths of her heart. Hannah is honest in her prayers and such authenticity is demonstrated in her day-to-day relationship with God and even with those who make fun of her, and even with her priest who thinks she is drunk. She lives life to its fullest because she has immersed herself in a kind of prayer that allows her to speak honestly with God in whom she has placed her complete and total trust.

     The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus, our great high priest, doesn’t just pray for us or pray with flowery words like I did at that family Thanksgiving dinner, but rather, he forever pleads – pleads – on our behalf before God, our Father. Jesus prays from the heart at all times and does so 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. It shares our hopes and our fears, and it doesn’t worry what someone else might think.

      Our gospel lesson this morning seems to shift our focus away from prayer and, instead, speaks about the timing of Christ’s eventual return at the end of this age – the promise of which we will celebrate next Sunday on the Feast of Christ the King. Mark tells us that the disciples were consumed with looking for signs of that second coming. We see that same obsession at work in many Christian Churches today; many look at world events as one continuous sign after another that Jesus will return any moment. But, Jesus reminds his followers and us, that signs are not the message of the Gospel. The message of the Gospel is the faith, hope, and love shown to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus tells his disciples that the day and hour of his return is not important because his return is not the point of the gospel. We are not to worry about the future, but rather, we are to live honestly and authentically today: live lives committed to making our Lord’s Prayer “thy Kingdom come” a reality for all humankind.

     You know, one of the exciting movements within the institutional church these past few years has been the rediscovery of prayer. The Daily Office, almost relegated to the trash heap of liturgies from days gone by, has found a resurgence especially among those often referred to as the “unchurched,” the millennials and others who until now have shown no interest in organized religion. In many ways, this new movement is a turning over of stone after stone as mentioned in today’s gospel lesson. 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. 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 new vitality and greater sincerity; speaking from the depths of their hearts. And, in so doing, deepening their relationships with God and with one another.

     Our scripture lessons this morning affirm that effective and life-changing prayer is prayer that comes from the very depths of our souls; it is prayer that speaks honestly with God who, in turn, has promised to embrace us as mercifully and lovingly as the father embraced his prodigal son. Prayer transforms lives, heals division, fosters hope, builds community and deepens our relationship with God and one another when such prayer is authentic: when, like Hannah, it comes from the very depths of our being. As Mark reminds us, we are called to live the gospel in ways that demonstrate our faith, our hope, and our love for God in Christ. And living that gospel begins by opening our hearts – our souls – in prayer.

     As the Season of Pentecost draws to a close and we prepare to begin a new year together, may God increase in us a true sense of prayer; prayer from the heart; from the soul; prayer that will continue to reform, rebuild, and reshape this community, stone by stone and heart by heart. For it is prayer, beloved, that, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, will enable us to “hold fast to our confession of hope” in Christ today and forever. Amen.