A sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, CT.
- The Second Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 4, Year C
- 1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39
- Luke 7:1-10
Where do you put your trust? What helps you to pray?
About a year ago a friend in Columbia, SC bought a little St. Joseph statue and buried it — deep and upside down — next to the “For Sale” sign on his front lawn. Now Roger is a faithful guy who has worked in church settings all his life. But he was not going to take any chances. His house had to sell. He had just accepted a new position in Houston and couldn’t rent a house for his family there while also making mortgage payments on a house they no longer lived in. So he followed the ritual of purchasing St. Joseph off the Internet to ensure his house sold. He was taking no chances, and wanted to play the odds in every way he could to make sure he would come out a winner. And of course he prayed. A lot. But just in case, perhaps St. Joseph would intercede for him with God in bringing the right buyer to the front door. He was willing to put his trust into just about anything if it would sell his house. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Several of our readings today have to do with who or what we put our trust in to help us out in difficult times. And they are desperate times in our biblical stories. And perhaps they parallel some themes in your life or in our country at this time. Some might say we live in desperate times.
Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah. What a great story, with all the pyrotechnics of a great George Lucas movie. Ahab is one of the ungodly kings of the northern kingdom. He marries Jezebel, a princess from what is now Lebanon. She kills most of the prophets of Yahweh (aka God), and imports her own prophets of Baal, god of rain. Yahweh punishes Israel with a three-year drought. Then he orders the prophet Elijah to challenge Jezebel’s 450 prophets to a contest, while crowds of Israelites watch. At the holy site of Mt. Carmel, Baal’s prophets and Elijah are to each offer a sacrificed bull, laid on a pile of wood. The deity that starts the fire on the altar will be the god of Israel. Baal’s prophets pray for hours in what we might describe as an orgy. Nothing happens.
But this narrative isn’t about fire, rain, and blood spilled. Fundamentally it is not a power contest at all. At stake is which God answers prayer. In other words, whom could the people truly trust with their petitions? Which of the two deities would actually deliver on promises? And the narrative makes abundantly clear that there can be only one answer to these questions.
What gives Elijah prayerful access to the one true God is God’s name and the promises that God has made for generation upon generation since the time of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the time of Moses. Elijah prepares the altar; Elijah prepares himself for prayer. This is all it takes for Elijah to prevail over the prophets of Baal, who have no ground for their hope. Their dancing and limping gyrations have no effect. What the false prophets find is a god who is hidden, out of sight and out of earshot. Elijah prays one short prayer, and the fire falls from heaven. Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of Elijah, is always present.
Elijah put his trust in the one true God.
Today’s Gospel is also a story of life and death, about making choices and having faith. This time it comes from an outsider, a centurion who is not part of the inner circle – he is associated with the oppressors, the Romans. He crosses borders to seek healing for his beloved slave. Biblical scholar Bruce Epperly writes,
“He recognizes that he himself may be unclean and unworthy, but this Jesus can heal energetically regardless of boundaries of distance, ethnicity, gender, or economics. Divine love knows no distance. It is present here and everywhere, embracing all things, enlivening all things, transforming all things. Prayer connects us with God’s graceful interdependence.”
The centurion’s simple prayer is all that is needed. Jesus recognizes his faith. Nothing else is needed.
What is prayer? Are we to pray like Elijah or the centurion? In my teaching with children I say that prayer is conversation with God. We start the conversation by saying, “Our Father” or “Dear God.” Martin Smith, an Episcopal priest who has written a great deal about prayer disagrees. In his book, The Word is Very Near You, he states,
“A breakthrough of faith occurs when we recognize that our desire for God originates not in ourselves but in God. It is God who gives, kindles, and fuels the desire for God. What we feel as our desire is the effect of God desiring to be desired, knowing that our responsive desiring will bring us to life.” (p. 10).
Put in other words, The Book of Common Prayer states,
“prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” (BCP, 856)
God is with us – whether we pray or not. God’s desire for us sparks our desire for God. That is what Elijah and the centurion experience.
Back to Roger and his real estate woes. While he put his trust in God, he still had a little bit of trust (and hope) invested in St. Joseph. After all, it worked for a bunch of nuns around 1500 CE in Europe who needed more land to plant vegetables and raise livestock. They had little medals imprinted with St. Joseph’s image on them and wondered if burying them in the ground would help their prayers be heard and answered more quickly. Evidently, it worked because the nuns gained more land after burying their medals and were able to remain self-sufficient at their cloister. By engaging in this ritual, the nuns essentially reinforced the concept of turning something over to the will of God. Catholics and anyone else who believes that having faith can cause good things to happen believe that it is not the act of burying a medal or statue that precipitates the sale of house but that it is faith in the Lord who stands besides us throughout the whole ordeal.
By the way, it took about nine months for his house to sell. Who’s not to say that Joseph didn’t help, but the prayers and support of his new community of colleagues and friends in Houston helped all of them make it through.
What is the ultimate concern in your life today? Where will you put your trust? Will you bury it in the soil? Will you lift it up in prayer? Will you choose life or death, God or idols? Will you follow the path of Jesus or the wayward meanderings of materialism, individualism, and xenophobia? Will you open your heart to the stranger or mire in wall-building fear and self-interest? We have choices to make, and while they are seldom as dramatic as those facing the Israelites in the contest between Ahab and Elijah, moment-by-moment we can choose between beauty or ugliness, life or death, abundance or scarcity for those we love, the world, and even ourselves.
Let our concerns be grounded in loving our neighbor as ourselves. As we pray for those who have died when using Form VI of the Prayers of the People (BCP, 193):
Lord, let your loving kindness be upon them;
Who put their trust in you.
Let our prayers be grounded in as much compassion as God has for us. Let us trust God in prayer and action; God will always be at our side.