The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I see the moon

Pentecost 9; Proper 12C
Luke 11:1-13

**NOTE: This was my last sermon at St. Paul's, Chatham.  I was there for two years as seminarian, then away for two years, and now have been back for one interim year.  I'll begin on September 1st as Priest-in-Charge at St. Paul's, Jersey City

In the name of God. Amen.

I got a text message last night. It was from my Aunt Janet. She also sent it to my brother, her daughter, and our cousins. It simply said, in quotes, “I see the moon…”

It was a beautiful, very-nearly full moon last night.

Before long, texts were swirling back and forth between all of us. “Me, too!” “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” And my own favorite: “It’s cloudy here, but I know it’s out there!”

There are a thousand variations of the song to which Aunt Janet was referring, but the one we sing in our family is pretty simple:

I see the moon, the moon sees me,
The moon sees somebody I want to see.
So God bless the moon, and God bless me,
And God bless the somebody I want to see.

It’s just a simple old nursery rhyme that someone, somewhere decided should be sung. It was taught to me when I was a young child, and it’s always one of the “Greatest Hits” that we sing on porches and in back yards along with a symphony of bull frogs and cicadas whenever we are together.

As I’ve grown into an adult, and particularly in the years since I’ve moved away from my family, that simple little song has become more to me. I began to see that it’s not really about the moon, but about the “somebody”. Or in our case, the community of “somebodys” that make up a family. We sing it when we’re together and it brings us together when we’re apart.

Even in those times when no one emails or texts or calls, I doubt there is one of us who can ever look at the moon without thinking of that shared connection – without knowing that it shines on all of our others whether they see it or not. So it’s not just a song anymore. It’s a prayer that cuts through everything that might separate us and connects us to each other and to God who brings us together.

That’s exactly what prayer should do. It should cut through those things of the world that make us feel alone or unloved and unite us to the God who shows us that those separations we perceive simply aren’t true.

In the Gospel lesson today we hear shadows of another familiar prayer: “Our Father, hallowed be your name…” It’s almost hard not to join in. Like “Amazing Grace” or the 23rd Psalm, those words seem meant for community. We can sing them or say them alone, but they’re never better than when they’re recited in unison with a community of faith.

The disciples – the earliest community of people who followed Christ – were looking for a prayer to unite them. As John had taught his disciples to pray, Jesus’ disciples hoped for a prayer that would be their own – a prayer that would connect them not only to God, but also to each other.

I love Jesus’ response. He gives them a prayer – the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. We say it each time we come together in worship. It is taught to us from the earliest ages. Even before we can really begin to wrap our minds around what prayer is, we are given an example of a prayer to guide us through our lives.

But more than just the words of a single prayer, Jesus tries to teach the disciples about the nature of prayer. Essentially, the lesson is this: be honest. Say what you need to say, and ask for what you need to ask for, and trust in the loving relationship with God that I’ve tried to show you. God is not someone distant and to be feared, but someone intimate and to be trusted.

For nearly the whole of human history – as long as we have perceived of any kind of god interacting with the people and things of the world – we have been afraid. Because we don’t interact with spiritual realities in the same ways that we interact with our temporal world, we don’t always understand them. Most of us simply haven’t had enough practice. And it is only natural to fear that which is either misunderstood or perhaps not understood at all.

We can see vestiges of that propensity for understanding God through lenses of fear around the Old Testament lesson for today. It’s a piece of the story about Sodom and Gomorrah. If someone had walked up to you on the street yesterday and asked you to explain the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah to them, what would you have said?

Many Christians would say that it’s a story of God’s judgment and wrath against a community of unbelievers who had given themselves over to uncontrolled sexual immorality.

Perhaps some who have had exposure to biblical scholarship and theology might suggest that it’s an object lesson about Ancient Near Eastern values, and specifically about hospitality to the stranger.

But as I was reading through the excerpt that we read this morning, I heard something different: I heard the tale of a faithful person’s interaction with a God who was desperate to find a way to acquit the condemned community.

I remember hearing these words as a child and thinking how funny it was that Abraham was able to “talk God down” – like he was bargaining over the price of a car. But upon reading this again, I hear something different. God allowed God’s-self to be talked down. It was almost as if God was looking for a way out.

And it would make sense that God would be looking for a way out. What we know about God from Jesus is that God is never one who is looking for a way to punish, but one who is always looking for a way to forgive. God is neither as distant nor anachronistic as we often make God out to be. God is intimately connected with our lives right here and right now – wherever and whenever that here and now may be.

That’s how Jesus taught us to pray: to speak to God as we would speak to a friend.

As the moon rose last night a thin, but steady cover of cloud slid in to obscure my view. The moon that had been crisp at dusk, showing all of its fine detail, lost its focus in the haze. It was little more than a diffuse pool of light in the night sky. But still, I knew it was there.

And when I feel alone and unloved, and when I can’t find the words for any other prayer to surpass those feelings of separation, I can always walk outside and see the moon. And even if I can’t, I can still hear those words of my family prayer: “I see the moon…”

Jesus taught us to pray with a heart that mirrors the intimacy and openness of God’s heart to us.

But even when we can’t, we can always hear the words of our Christian family prayer, and they will bring us home.

Say it with me: “Our Father….” Amen.