Monday, January 25, 2016

Longing and Fulfillment

Luke 4:14-21 

Lord Jesus, who fulfills our deepest desires and longings when we don't even know how to express them, open our hearts to hear your good news this day, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The Israelites had been waiting for many years. In Egypt, they yearned for freedom, In the desert, they yearned to find a new home, When they were settled, they wanted a king, and when their kingdom was overthrown, they wanted to be released from exile. Throughout all that time, they wanted a messiah, an anointed one. Those who were living by the commandments of Moses knew that as much as they tried to keep all the commandments, they couldn't. They kept having to be cleansed and restart. We get distracted so easily. We forget so easily. We are fallen and sinful creatures despite not wanting to be. And so the Israelites longed for a Messiah, someone to save them. To put them in alignment with God, to make them at one with God.

In walks Jesus walks into the synagogue he has been to many times before in his hometown of Nazareth and offers to read. This is the synagogue in Jesus' hometown. The synagogue where Jesus probably first read the Torah. The synagogue community in which he grew and learned and played and fought and patiently waited to be an adult, patiently waved off efforts to marry him off to good Jewish girls, participating in the life and business and community of Nazareth. And on this sabbath day in the synagogue, Jesus gets up to share in the worship of God and the readings and chooses these verses to read. He picks a passage from the 61st chapter of Isaiah, known as the part of Isaiah where he proclaims the Good News of deliverance.

As Luke tells the story, this is when Jesus so simply tells the people that the deep seated longing that they have had for generations and generations has finally been fulfilled. And so they go forth saying great things about him, and rightfully so!

But what about us? We have longings and desires. Perhaps I should speak for myself, but I assume that all of you in this room also have desires and holes in your lives. Most of us do not lack basic essentials, food, or water, but perhaps we want more sleep, more time with our loved ones all the way through to more material or complex desires, wanting our loved ones to be happy, a new car, to serve others, or to be cured of disease or cancer. Unfortunately in the society we live in, we think of most of these things in market terms, wanting our desires to be able to be filled quickly and easily with the right amount of money. There are plenty of fulfillment companies out there, and it would be great if along with our Amazon purchases, they could fulfill our spiritual and emotional desires with as much ease of purchase and perhaps free shipping.

Unfortunately many of us have learned and continue to learn time and time again, when it comes to some of the deeper spiritual and emotional desires in our lives, we are very often disappointed when we depend on other people. When we expect other people to fill those holes in our lives which we have a hard time naming and facing, we create impossible expectations that no one can ever fill. These longings often times can be named as wanting to always know you are loved and accepted for who you are.

One of the theologian philosophers I studied in college struggled with the human longings we all feel, but particularly the longing that we can never fill. Blaise Pascal wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425))

Pascal was speaking of the human condition of longing that most of us feel to know ourselves part of something greater, part of something that has meaning in this world. He concluded after much deliberation that this was part of the way that we human beings knew God. And this quote was the start of the phrase, "God-shaped hole." Basically, Pascal said, Don't bother looking anywhere else. God is the only one who can fulfill all your deepest longings.

And what did Jesus say in the gospel passage this morning? “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We have no idea what else he said that day in the synagogue, but Luke says everyone spoke highly of him. And while Luke has this story in what seems like a funny place since Jesus hasn't actually done any of those things yet, we know that he will. We know the later stories of the blind man who was able to see and the poor multitudes that were fed and walked away with extra on the hillside of Galilee. And beyond the stories written in the gospel books, are the myriad of stories throughout the centuries that form the living gospel story, because each Christian that has ever gone before us was in some way blind or poor, held captive or oppressed and was given the good news by Jesus and found new life with God.

Each of us is in some way part of Jesus' mission to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to give sight to the blind, or to let the oppressed go free, because in some way each of us is poor, held captive, blind, or oppressed by the evil forces of this world. We can be spiritually or emotionally poor, blind to the sufferings of others, held captive by fear or worry or anxiety and oppressed by the socially enforced ideas that keep us from being fully ourselves. Jesus has come into this world to proclaim the good news of our release and beloved status to each and every one of us.

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing because Jesus is here speaking to each and every one of you in this room. You have been set free. You have been given new sight. You are loved. What you have been longing for and trying to fill with other things in this world can be named and fulfilled only with Jesus. Let us open our hearts and minds and eyes with new sight, for the Lord is doing marvelous works in each and every one of us. 

Amen. 

Prayer

Baptism of our Lord
Heavenly Father, who creates in us the longing to be reunited with you in relationship through prayer, help us to seek your will, listen to your answers, and walk in your ways, through your Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is a compelling scene, Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River. There are hundreds of paintings and drawings, icons and statues of this scene. Jesus standing next to John the Baptist with all those people milling about on the banks of the river. With the dove over his head and a voice that comes out of nowhere. But the way Luke tells the story, its only after Jesus starts praying that the voice and the dove appear, showing the full Trinity. Wouldn't we all love such an immediate answer to our prayers?! If only every time I prayed, I heard an audible answer!

Throughout Luke's gospel, prayer plays an integral part of the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus wanders off by himself to pray, Jesus asks the disciples to pray with him, Jesus spends those hours in the garden praying before he is betrayed. Its only through prayer that God's voice is heard and the heavens are opened. But what is prayer? We don't know how or what Jesus was doing when he was praying in this instance. Was he speaking out loud with the people around him? Was he standing by himself, or kneeling, or sitting? Were there even words involved? And what did Jesus pray about that God's answer was to have the Holy Spirit descend upon him and to tell him that he is the beloved, God's son, and that God is truly pleased with him?

We don't know. There is a lot about prayer that we don't know. There are many misconceptions about prayer in this world. Some people believe that all prayer needs to be in the form of words, sometimes even in very specific words. Another misconception about prayer is the "ask and you shall receive" idea. The thought is that if you ask with enough faith, you will get what you asked for. Lets talk about these two ideas, before we talk about what prayer is.

As Episcopalians, we have many beautiful traditional prayers. We have a whole prayer book full of prayers that have been handed down to us over the years by many gifted writers and poets. Even before our Book of Common Prayer, there were the lord's Prayer and the Jesus Prayer, and the rosary prayers that grounded people in their relationship with Christ and allowed them to be in the presence of God. However, these prayers are not magic spells or incantations. These prayers are prayers to broaden our own time with God, to help the community give voice to some common issues and problems that we keep coming up against, and to help us pray when we don't know what to say. And sometimes it is perfectly good prayer practice to tell God that you have no words to say, just to share with God your feelings and pain as an act of relationship.
And then we have the "ask and you shall receive" idea. Where prayer is the mystical ability to ask God for anything in good faith and you will get it. This is based in part on the verse from the Sermon on the Mount, found in various words in all the gospels. There are many who base their whole faith on this kind of understanding and we see this in many who proclaim what we call a prosperity gospel. That if you are good, you will prosper, partly because whatever you ask for, you shall receive.

I found this poem written about this "ask and you shall receive" understanding of prayer, and I found the last line of it rather amusing.

Ask and you shall receive
but receive what?
Couldn't He have been more specific
will I receive for which I ask
or something different in return
and all those questions shouted out
without answer, without hope
what gift shall be made of them
when only silence
(what kind of answer is silence?)
when only silence
silence is all that's given to receive
emptiness - yet in overwhelmed states
what I would do for some empty silence rest
yes, ask, I wonder,
for I shall always ask
and for every asking shall receive
but He did not promise the two would correlate.
I wonder in some ways if this is what happened to Jesus when he was baptized and was praying. Knowing the ministry that he was about to begin, my head overflows with the number of thing he could have been praying for in that moment. That perhaps he didn't have to go through with it, for strength, or guidance. But what we hear is God voicing his love and confidence in Jesus. And I am sure that was enough for Jesus. When I think about the ask and you shall receive idea of prayer, I am grateful that I do not always get what I ask for. I rely instead on Gods understanding to give me what God thinks is best. Sometimes we learn as we pray that what we have prayed for wouldn't be the best thing for us. Sometimes when we get an answer that is different or exactly what we wanted, we realize it wasn't the best idea.

So what is prayer?
Prayer is the communication between you and God that forms the working relationship between you. Just as our relationships with people involve so much more than just the words we say or write to them, our relationship with God is so much more than just the words we say in prayer.

Prayer is God at work in us, some of the ancient fathers said that we could not manage to pray without the Holy Spirit already at work within us. We believe that every act of prayer involves the full Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A theologian I once read wrote that prayer is the voice of God within us that is longing for reunion with God outside of us.

Like our relationships with other people which go deeper than words, into time spent living with them, helping them, working besides them, laughing with them, giving them looks across the room, and sharing moments of pain with them, our relationship with God can include all of that, and all of that is prayer. When we acknowledge that the work we do is done with God, when we share our pain and joy with God without words. When we rest in silence, and when we try to listen to what God is saying to us.

I hope you will take some time this evening in this lovely setting to share with God beyond the words that we say together, to open yourself up to hear what God is saying to you.

Amen.