Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Practicing Prayer

23 October 2016
Proper 25C

There are a lot of sayings out there about practice, especially in the realm of sports. "Practice, practice, practice." "If you don't practice, you don't deserve to win." "If you think practice is boring, try sitting on the bench." "Don't practice until you get it right, practice until you can't get it wrong." "You play the way you practice." Then there are the longer ones written on gym posters and websites.  "Be patient, the results will speak for themselves." You have heard these kinds of sayings shouted out on sports fields, you have seen these sayings on tee shirts, you have said these things to yourself in the midst of challenges. These are normal parts of daily life, especially for anyone involved in any athletic endeavor. But I've never heard any of these applied to life in the church.

Yet, there are many things that we do in the community of the church that require practice. The first things that come to mind are probably things like being an acolyte or being on the Altar Guild. Those do require practice in order to put things in the right places, in order to get the timing right. However, what I am talking about is something we all do. What I want to talk about practicing today is prayer. Prayer requires daily practice. Why would we practice prayer? So that we will be transformed into whom God is calling us to be individually and as a community.

Transformation is a buzz word in the church. Yet, true transformation as a Christian is a hard path to follow. It requires time and effort and discipline and letting go of all the things that you could (and would) rather be doing. Transformation is a slow process, a growing process, a process over time which changes our hearts, our minds, and our behaviors. It reconnects us to ourselves and to God. In a nutshell, transformation means practicing the new behaviors that transform us. In the Christian tradition, the biggest behavior that transforms us is prayer.

One of the reasons practice helps in sports is that it builds muscle memory. Muscle memory is what keeps your body throwing or kicking or catching a ball properly when your mind is thinking about other things, like who is covering you or where the ball is going next. Muscle memory develops when you practice prayer as well. When I was in seminary, I attended Morning Prayer almost every day of the week. As I practiced praying every day in the morning with the rest of the seminary, I learned how to get into a head space for prayer, and it got easier over time to get up in the morning and start my day with Morning Prayer. When I moved away from the seminary and I was in a community that didn't do Morning Prayer together every day, I fell out of practice and I noticed that I stopped praying first thing in the morning. However, since moving here, to this community that does Morning Prayer together every day at 8am, I have started getting back into the practice of prayer in the morning and I have been grateful that my body remembers and is able to fall into the space to be able to pray more easily once again. Sometimes it is my body's muscle memory for prayer that keeps me being able to pray when I am having a hard time.

In the gospel passage this morning, we hear a parable about two men praying in the temple. Many of you have heard this parable so many times that it is not surprising anymore. However, this parable would be a serious surprise and shock to the people listening to Jesus share this parable. The first surprise would be the fact that a tax collector is in the temple praying! That is situational irony at play right there, it would be having a member of Hell’s Angels biker gang walk into our church. The suggestion that a tax collector was praying in the temple would have gotten some laughs. Yeah, right. And the fact that the tax collector's prayer was cleaner and more pure would have been shocking. As if the biggest, lifelong jerk had sincerely apologized. You would be taken aback. What? Come again? Then, we have the Pharisee and his prayer in the temple. . The Pharisee does put a lot of effort and gratitude into his prayer, despite the way it sounds. And that Pharisee is not supposed to be all Pharisees. This kind of behavior isn't normal. This would have been a shock. Throughout the centuries, we have loaded the word Pharisee so that this is what we expect, but this is not the kind of behavior that the crowd listening to Jesus would have expected. Interestingly, while we hear the verdict about these men’s prayers, neither of these men knew the verdict on their prayers. The Pharisee didn't know that his prayer did not help him be right with God, but the parable also doesn't say it was rejected. It just says that the tax collector was justified, he became right with God. It doesn't say that the Pharisee wasn't already right with God, although his behavior doesn't necessarily show that kind of relationship. The way the Pharisee prays in this passage is simply a self-comparison to other people. On the other hand, the tax collector doesn't compare himself to anyone else. He doesn't mention anyone else at all. His relationship with God is between himself and God. Somehow God was working in this tax collector’s life and he was beginning to be transformed.

As Episcopalians, Anglicans, we have a history of being the via media, the middle way. We seek to walk the line between liturgy and word, between contemplation and the world. Part of our inheritance is the tension of paradox that we have been given. It is not our doctrines or dogmas that bind us together, but our prayer life, especially as it is rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. This passage suggests that the kind of Christians we are is defined by our prayer. That how we pray reveals who we are, because prayer is the act of our relationship with God. Prayer is the substance of our relationship with God.

So we have to ask ourselves, how is our prayer life? How do we speak with God? How do we listen to God? For Luke, the author of this gospel passage, prayer is faith in action. We have to acknowledge our need for God's mercy, but also understand that God does not have to give it. That may seem harsh, but if we expect God's mercy, then we feel entitled to God's mercy. There can be no entitlement between us as human beings and God. We do rely on God and we do have to act in obedience, even if God has a tendency to give grace to those who haven't been acting properly. That is not our judgement. While the people in the crowd and the sharers of the gospel passage are judging the Pharisee and tax collector that is not our role. Judgement is not how Jesus teaches us to look at other people. Jesus teaches us that we are all God's beloved children.

"Not only does God see us as we truly are, not only does he love and accept us as we are – but he also challenges us to change and be transformed – to become that unique person whom God made us to be." (Br. Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE)

So come, join. Pray and practice. Pray and be transformed.