Uniqueness does not mean entitlement

Deuteronomy warns us that we will perish if we turn our hearts away from God; Paul tells the church at Corinth that he can’t talk to them as spiritual people because they continue to not understand what that means, they continue to be concerned with human matters and not spiritual ones, which is what the law is intended to help us do; Matthew has Jesus tell us many, kind of confusing, things that make it sound like following the law is not enough, which it isn’t because not murdering your neighbor is not the same as loving them. To love something, we need to interact with it and to truly follow the commandments of God we need to put aside our desires and our egos because all the commandments, all the laws are about relationship building, they are about putting aside the things that get in the way of the deep connection God desires for us to have with the Trinity and each other. A connection that is tied to the spiritual, not the material world of human desire and ego.

As I work with teenagers and because I have two at home, I encounter inflated egos daily. The teenage sense of entitlement is staggering to me, the tiniest thing can be twisted into a personal attack, and if they believe that you have wronged them in some way, buckle up, because you are about to be hit with the most intense barrage of circular logic you have ever experienced in your life. I think this sense of themselves stems from two sources, one is the process of transitioning from being a child to being an adult and learning to figure out everything that entails and the other is related to the emphasis our culture places on competition. I have discerned a trend in the last few years of people teaching their children that they are unique, which is fine because it is true as every part of God’s creation is unique. However, when uniqueness is combined with and corrupted by competition, we get entitlement. Uniqueness does not entitle us to dominate other people, it does not entitle us to receive better treatment, it does not entitle us to deny someone else their hope for the future; yet there are countless examples of uniqueness being mistaken for entitlement. I believe that one of the purposes of Gods commandments is to combat the idea of entitlement by asking us to build positive relationships with one another. The first four commandments are about our relationship with God. God asks us to be committed to our relationship, to set aside some time to chat, to not bad mouth God to people because we are upset that we haven’t gotten our way. The other six commandments are about our relationship with one another, but if we only focus on what is literally written in the law we are missing the point. The 4th commandment is honor your father and your mother, but what does that mean? Does it means be respectful and don’t back talk? It does mean to have respect for your parents, for the things they have done to support you. I do recognize that not all parents have supported their children, and that is unfortunate, and in those cases I would say don’t take Father and Mother so literally, replace those terms with ‘the people who have loved and supported you’ because that is what being a father or a mother is all about. The last six commandments are targeted at all the things we know are bad, like killing and stealing and we should absolutely not do these things, but if we only focus on the specifics in these situations then we are once again missing the point. It isn’t enough to just not kill your neighbor, it isn’t enough to just not steal the apple, it isn’t enough to just avoid jealousy and telling lies, it isn’t enough to just remain faithful to your partner. We have to not kill our neighbor and then talk to them; we have to not steal the apple and then share the food that we do have; we have to avoid the temptation to be jealous of our friends iPhone and be grateful for the things we do have; we have to avoid telling lies and then speak out when we see someone else doing it; we have to remain faithful to our partners and then show them why we are. We are not entitled to take a life, no matter how justified we think we may be; we are not entitled to anything another person has; we are not entitled to anything except God’s love.

Believing that we are entitled to anything other than God’s love does nothing but interfere with our ability to experience God’s love. God’s sole desire is to have a loving, spirit filled relationship will all of creation and it is our love affair with our uniqueness and how that defines us that gets in the way because by focusing on our uniqueness we are emphasizing the importance of one and not the importance of all. As difficult as it can be to work and live with egomaniac teenagers, I do so because I have hope that they will change, and most of them will and if they don’t I will not worry about it because it is not my job to change them, it is only my job to have a relationship with them where I strive to model what it means to have a deep and meaningful relationship with other people, to show them that life is not about things, or jobs, or money even though everything around them is stressing that it is. Those things are of our own making, they are simply the things we use to distract ourselves from God. Life is about people, it is about relationships, and everything that is written in the law and everything that Jesus taught points us in that direction; they point us to building relationships that foster love for creation, love for people, and love for God; but in order for those relationships to grow we must rid ourselves of the idea that our uniqueness entitles us anything other than Gods love because only then will we be ready to enter the kingdom of God.

A call to adventure

In the Lord of the Rings Trilogy Frodo Baggins leads a simple and comfortable life. He is wealthy, has one of the most comfortable homes in the village, and he spends his time reading, fishing, and going to the pub with his friends; he has everything a young man could ever want; one day, the wizard Gandalf shows up and urges him to leave everything behind and set off on a quest, which turns out to be a quest to save the world. Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature, called this moment in a story the Call to Adventure and said that such moments signify “that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity to a zone unknown.” All of us face these types of turning points in our lives, a moment when we sense a desire to shift our focus away from ourselves and onto something with deeper meaning.

Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all issued a call to adventure and as fisherman, they were not likely leading comfortable lives as the fishing industry was heavily regulated to ensure that the profits flowed into the treasury of the elite, so it is unlikely that Jesus’ first four disciples had it as easy as Frodo Baggins; instead their lives probably hovered around the subsistence level, meaning they worked hard every day so that they might be able to eat. I find it hard to understand why these men would drop everything and follow a stranger just because he asked them to. Even if their lives were nothing to write home about, I am sure that they had the same fears we have all had about losing our livelihoods, about not being able to pay that one unexpected bill and if they did have those fears, how could they just drop what they were doing? How could they walk away from their families? Their friends? Their community? How could they answer a call to adventure that would take them away from their entire life?

As we unpack what Matthew is trying to tell us in this passage, I think that it is important that we remember he is trying to convey a message, not the historical record, so what message is he trying to convey? If viewed within the context of the entire story of Jesus, Matthew is showing us that following Jesus takes commitment. It requires a willingness to commit our entire selves to a new way of living, the four fishermen left their lives behind, not fully aware of what they were getting themselves into, but they really had very little, if anything, to lose; leaving meant only that they were walking away from a bad situation. A situation with no social mobility and an existence bordering on the verge of homelessness and starvation. Jesus gave them hope that life could be different, in fact his teachings about the good news of the kingdom promised that things would be different, but to participate in the kingdom we must be prepared to change. We can assume that these four gentlemen were willing to make a change because we know that they put down their nets and went with Jesus.

In the past seven years I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on God’s call and as I reflected on the scripture for this morning I was reminded of some of the times I felt change was probably necessary, but also scary. They were times when I felt as though nothing made sense anymore; things that I loved, things that had always been a source of support and inspiration, left me feeling empty and it felt as though nothing would change that. Little did I know that God had plans for me; exciting, frightening, and hope filled plans. I imagine the same was true for the four fishermen. They likely felt stuck, they likely felt like change was necessary, but had no hope that it was possible. I believe that when a person hits rock bottom, whether it be physically, financially, socially, or emotionally they are finally ready to shift their focus away from themselves and onto something with deeper meaning; and they are finally able to actually hear God’s call; not because God wasn’t knocking the entire time, but because they were too busy worshipping false idols to hear the knock. For the four fishermen, their idol could have been the belief that their existence, the life that they were leading, was the only option for them, because that was how their society was structured; but Jesus showed them that there is another way and that way rejects the social, economic, and political norms of human society; it promises that all is equal before God. Jesus demonstrates this by treating every person the same, he does not discriminate based on age, gender, nationality, race, or any other category we can think of. Every person who comes to him and asks for healing is healed; every person who asks a question, receives an answer; every person who is hungry, is fed. No one is turned away. This type of equality, in fact the entire concept of equality, was a radical idea in the 1st century, and unfortunately it seems to be a somewhat radical idea in the 21st century as well, because even though we talk about equality being a core value of our society; our collective actions rarely live up to that value. If our actions matched our values no one would go hungry; no one would freeze to death under a bridge; no one would die of a curable disease; and no one would feel ashamed because they have a mental illness. God has invited us all to go on an adventure; God has called us change our spiritual center of gravity away from the things that we believe are important, away from the things that separate us and onto the things that will bring about true equality for all, we simply need to answer God’s call and let God’s vision for the kingdom guide us.

 

 

The path to joy

In my last homily I focused on the idea of a savior and I asked you to wrestle with the idea of what you might need saving from. Symbolically we need saving from the darkness, whatever that may mean for you. Over the past month we have been using the idea of light as a symbol for God and we have explored the meaning of light in our own faith as we have lit the advent wreath and talked about the symbolism of light in our lives. These activities culminated with the lighting of the Christ Candle, which symbolizes the arrival of the long-awaited savior, who brings joy to the world. For many people it is easy to feel joyous during the Christmas season, there are many reminders for them of the joy that they have in their lives, but there are also many people who struggle to see “the light in the darkness”, who struggle to find a source of joy. They may feel alone or abandoned; they may feel as though they are stuck in an impossible situation. For some these situations look like poverty or homelessness; for some it is a struggle with substance abuse; for some it appears as depression or anxiety; and for others it may simply seem like their life has no purpose. Regardless of the reasons, the good news is that Jesus, the light of the world, the Word that became flesh and lived among us, has provided a path to joy.

In The Message, which is contemporary rendering of the bible, Eugene Peterson says “The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” What would it look like if God moved into your neighborhood? I can remember living in at least seven different neighborhoods in my life, all of them different, and I struggle to think why God would have moved into any of them. None of them were ever dangerous, I was never surrounded by abject poverty, and I can’t remember ever feeling like my neighbors were in great need, so why would God even need to come there? Well, arguably God needs to be everywhere, because God’s saving presence has little to do with any of the struggles we can perceive. God is not going to end poverty and crime; God is not going to fix our annoying neighbors, not because God can’t, but because these things are human problems that we have created by the collective choices we have made. Jesus did not come to live among us to end these human problems, he came to show us that if we make better choices then these problems will go away on their own. God’s saving grace, in the form of the teachings of Jesus and the ever-present Holy Spirit, can and does provide us with a path to joy, but that path is neither straight nor easy. I have often spoken of the need to put God first in our lives, which does not mean that we need to spend our lives in isolated prayer, instead it means that we need to embrace the Holy Spirit and mimic the life of Jesus as best we can because I have news for us all, God already lives in all of our neighborhoods, because God lives in us. Jesus was the word made flesh and within that flesh resided the wisdom of the God life. That wisdom has been passed to us through scripture and to ensure that we are able to understand it God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us interpret and act on that wisdom; but in order to do so we have to be willing participants, which is why we need a savior. We need a savior to help us make better choices so that we can live God centered lives. If every person, and I mean every person, chose to live the God centered life as Jesus did. If every person chose to live as we have been called to, then most, if not all, of the problems that lead to the struggle to find joy would disappear.

Let’s not kid ourselves though, the likelihood of every person choosing to lead a God centered life is slim to none, so then why bother? Well, everyone needs to answer that question for themselves, but for me it is simple. Embracing the God life and striving to place God at the center of all that I do has led to the healing of many wounds and it has given me the strength to hope that others will also find the healing power of God. Through God, I have overcome many things, I have emerged from some very dark places and I have found joy in my life and that joy is what pushes me to help God forge a better world. The path to joy is long, it is difficult, and it requires a great deal of effort. It requires that we embrace our role as active participants in the God life, it requires us to be the eyes and ears and hands of God. I think that Teresa of Avila, who was a 16th century Spanish nun, put it best when she said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassionately on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  By embracing the God life, by being the body of Christ, we are all capable of helping God bring change to the world. Sometimes that change will be small and we won’t be able to detect and sometimes it will be so profound that we will be awestruck, the degree of change is irrelevant because measuring our effectiveness is a human thing, not a God thing, our job is to just be willing participants in the process. Amen

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The Gospel today is a very familiar one, Joseph is getting ready to quietly dump his girlfriend because she is pregnant and he isn’t the father, but before he does it he has a dream in which an angel tells him it’s God’s baby who is going to be the promised savior and he needs to raise it. I can tell you that scholars have a field day with this passage, but I will not bore you with the details of that because there is a far more important message in this story that I believe are worth spending some time on, namely, God’s work often upsets comfortable social conventions.

Under 1st century Jewish law, Joseph had every right to kick Mary to the side in a very public and shameful way, but he didn’t plan to do that, he planned to quietly dissolve their relationship and move on, which speaks volumes about Joseph’s humility and gentleness as a person and as a son of God. As nothing with God is an accident, it should not be a surprise that God would choose such a person to be the caretaker of the messiah. Joseph, who was clearly a faithful man, was ready and able to provide a good home for Mary, but the fact that she was pregnant had the potential to ruin him socially, which doesn’t just mean his status, it could mean his livelihood. Their community would not have batted an eye at them parting ways over Mary’s pregnancy, but Joseph didn’t do that. Instead, because God asked him to, Joseph stayed with Mary and he adopted Jesus as his own, and he turned his world upside down to love and protect a tiny little baby. Joseph’s actions were not typical, they were rooted in a quiet trust in God, who had asked Joseph to upset his social norms and the amazing thing is that he did it, he trusted that God would have his back and based on that he stayed with Mary and together they raised their family.

As we move towards Christmas, we are going to be tempted to proclaim that the savior has come, but before we do so we should be asking ourselves a very important question, which is why do we need a savior? When Isaiah foretold of the virgin birth of Emmanuel the Israelites were in the midst of their captivity in Babylon; when Mary and Joseph were upsetting social norms their home was under the control of the Roman Empire and a Jewish monarch who was more concerned with his own power than protecting his own people from the Romans; and when Matthew reminded his readers of Isaiah’s words he did so approximately 70 years after the birth of Jesus when the Israelites were under the direct control of a Roman governor. There is a very clear need for the hope that someone will save them in all these situations, but what do we need saving from? We do not live in captivity, we are not slaves to a foreign power, we are not forced to live under the rule of a foreign governor; so why then are we getting ready to shout for joy that the savior, the messiah, that Emmanuel has come? I think that if we dig deep and if we ask ourselves some tough questions; questions that will be difficult to answer, questions that may lead to a need for change in our lives, then we will understand why we need a savior.

The most profound and difficult question I was ever asked was asked within the context of a discernment group. Everyone at the daylong seminar was trying to figure out what God was calling them to do with their lives. So, we sat in groups of three and within our group we each took turns doing one of three jobs, timekeeper, question asker and responder. When it was my turn to be the responder, I was asked the same question as everyone else and after I answered it, the same question was asked again and again, and again, and again, until the time had expired. Every time the question was asked, I found myself digging deeper and deeper for my responses. My initial response was superficial and rehearsed; my second response was less rehearsed, and by the 4th or 5th time responding my responses were beginning to become genuine and far more God centered. The experience was profound and even though it was more than four years ago I can still recall the joy and sense of relief I realized what God was asking of me. The question that changed my life was, what do you want? There was no other context given, just what do you want? By the time you answer this question for the 4th time within three minutes you will find that the thing that you want most in life may not actually be what you initially thought, that was certainly true for me.

The question for today is, why do we need a savior? Well, I needed a savior to help me figure out my purpose and with the help of The Trinity, to make the changes in my life that are necessary to fulfill that purpose, which is to treat every human being with the respect and dignity that they deserve. This is a lofty goal, it goes against the social conventions of our time, which pressures us to compete to be the best at everything and is probably an impossible goal to achieve; but I believe it is the goal that my savior came to give me, so when Christmas arrives I will praise God for giving me the gift of Jesus, who has taught me that no matter how much pressure I may feel to focus my energy on my own desires, there is only one desire that truly matters and that is the desire to share Gods love with the entire world, which does not come from out there, it comes from the Holy Spirit, who resides in here. Joseph chose to follow the path God put before him, instead of what society expected of him, he chose God over self, and that is the key to understanding why we need a savior. Jesus, Emmanuel, represents a way of being that changes lives, but that change will only come if we willingly and consciously participate in the process and put God first. Amen.

Expectant preparation

1298662The readings today point us to the need to be prepared, which is fitting as Advent is a season of expectant preparation, not of the birth of the messiah, but of his return. It is an annual reminder that we must be prepared for Jesus to show up on our doorstep at any moment; but what does it really mean to be prepared for his return? Is it even possible to prepare for such an event? Per usual, I have no real idea how to answer my own questions, and I suspect that they may not be the questions we should be asking because we know that Jesus, who was and is God incarnate, is already here in the form of the Holy Spirit, and the season of Advent is meant to be a season in which we remind ourselves of the things we already know. Much of the scripture chosen for advent is apocalyptic, which means that something will be revealed, it has nothing to do with the end of the world. Will there be a day when Jesus will return and sit in judgment of humanity? Maybe, I don’t know; frankly I don’t really think it matters. What does matter is that we are prepared to see God when we wake up in the morning; when we leave our house to go to work; when we stop to buy a cup of caffeine; when we greet our co-workers; when we sit at the lunch table; when we stop for groceries on the way home; and before we go to sleep. If we are not able to recognize the presence of God in these instances, then we can’t call ourselves ready to do Gods work in the world, because until we can see God moving in our own lives and in the lives of the people we see every day, we will not be ready to see God in the faces and actions of the perfect stranger, nor would we be able to recognize Jesus if he was walking down the street because he is not likely to look like the pictures from the 70’s.

The Presiding Bishop says that “if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about Jesus”, which is a simple way to reference the commandment to Love both God and our neighbors. I don’t know about you, but when I love someone I think about them all the time.  I think about how they are; I think about what they might be doing; I think about what they might be feeling; and I wonder about how much they might love me in return. In our relationship with God, as revealed through scripture, we know that God loves us 100%; God loves us so much that there are no words in any language that could possibly help us understand what God’s love means. Nothing we can ever imagine could remotely come close to explaining God’s love for us; yet, we try to do so and sometimes even claim to understand it; we also claim to understand what it means to be ready, but we will never be ready? We will never fully understand God’s love for us; we will never be fully ready for the return of Jesus; and we will never be fully ready to do as God as commanded us to do; but, that should not trouble us, because when Jesus told us to Love God and neighbor he said it knowing that we would fail, probably most of the time. Accepting that God  loves us, in spite of our failures, is the first step in being ready for God’s active presence in our lives. The second step is accepting that loving our neighbor means loving them in spite of their flaws, and the best part of this step is that we never have to do it alone, because God’s holy presence in the form of the Holy Spirit is ready, willing and able to do the work, with us, through us and even for us, if we just let it.

Advent reminds me that faith is not passive; it reminds me to think about my own love for God; to reflect on whether or not I actively think about God and our relationship, just like I do when I think about my grandparents, my parents, my wife, my children, and my friends. It reminds me to remember that God is not only found in church, God is not only found in the hearts of the people who gather on Sunday morning. God is and has been in the heart of every human being that has ever and will ever exist. While we struggle to prepare ourselves to embrace God’s loving presence, it is also our responsibility, as people of faith, to help others prepare themselves to do the same by being a witness to God’s love in the world.

As we enter our season of expectant preparation, I encourage you to take the time to reflect on God’s presence in your life. Think about whether you are aware of God’s loving presence and reflect on whether you think of God in the same way that you think of your loved ones. We must be ready, for the son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour and we do not know the form he will take. He may look like the pictures, he may look like one of us, she may look like the little girl who is hugging her father so tight he can’t breathe, they may look like the homeless under the bridge. The form Jesus will take upon their return is not important, what is important is the need to prepare ourselves to see and accept God’s presence in every person, beginning with ourselves.

Life throws us challenges

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Jesus is once again faced with a challenge from yet another group of Jews who are trying to poke holes in what he is teaching. The people in question have already carefully considered the teachings of Jesus and have rejected them, they have rejected the idea of resurrection being possible, they deny the existence of spirits, and they refuse to give any credence to oral tradition. They instead emphasize the importance of the written law, specifically the Torah, which is the law as written and passed to them by Moses. The Sadducees were living what they believed to be a God centered life and they were not ready to accept that God may be calling them in a different direction, which is why they were testing Jesus. Jesus never once denied the law of Moses as being important, but he does push us to realize and accept that there is far more to the God life than following the rules.

One of the hardest aspects of being a person of faith is accepting that the ways of God are not the ways of humanity and this is exactly what Jesus is saying to the Sadducees. Jesus calls us, he asks us, he pushes us to live a resurrected life, which does not mean he is pushing us to follow the rules so that we can go to heaven, it means we need to wake up and accept that the resurrection is not a promise for the future, it is now, it is right here. Luke’s Jesus said that the lowliest of the society would be considered “like angels and children of God, being children of the resurrection.” He does not mean that someday, because they lived a hard life and followed all the rules, they will get to go to heaven where every day will be like their first visit to Disney World. What he has revealed to us is that in a post resurrection world there is no sociopolitical stratification, there is no oppression, there is no subjugation of women, there is no dehumanization; in a resurrection world human rules do not apply.

Every year I show a film to my students about the Spanish American War and during one of the early scenes one of the main characters is arguing with his father about his decision to volunteer to go to war, in response his father says “Life is not Honor and Polo. Life is hunger. Life is anger. Life is pain and dirt. Your grandfather knew life. He didn’t recommend it. That’s why we’re rich” Now I don’t agree with the entire sentiment of this statement, but I do agree with the heart of what he is telling his son, life is not about human made things, it is not about looking honorable in the eyes of your friends and family and no matter what your socioeconomic status is, life does involve hunger, and anger, and pain, and dirt; and I believe it is safe to assume that none of us would hold up those aspects of life as worth writing home about and because of the promise of the resurrection we don’t have to. The resurrection provides us hope that the world can be different, that the world can be redeemed, that the world can be healed and we don’t have to wait until we die to experience it, in fact we are supposed to help reveal it. The purpose of the God life is to assist in the revealing of the kingdom of God to ourselves and to the world, it is not to hope and pray that we will someday get to go to heaven; but revealing the kingdom is hard, it is hard because everywhere we look we see brokenness and we see people who have rejected God or who at least don’t know how to approach God. How can we possibly share the good news of the resurrection with people who don’t want to hear it, how can we possibly change the minds of so many people to see that the kingdom of God is here? The truth is that we cannot change their minds, but God can. Although God can only do that if we allow the Holy Spirit to work through our words and actions. There are times though, that life throws us challenges that test our ability to be faithful to the God life.

This past week I received word that a former student of mine is struggling. Her 2-year-old son has been diagnosed with leukemia and is undergoing intensive treatment at Baystate Children’s Hospital. After he receives a treatment he must remain at the hospital until his immune system recovers enough for him to go home, which can take weeks, so he has been spending up to 30 days at a time in the hospital and because of this, his mother has had to quit her job to be with him and is now struggling to buy food because she wants to make sure she has enough gas to drive to the hospital every day to be with him. I am heartbroken that this little boy must endure such horrors and that his parents must endure the pain of watching their child suffer and I wonder in the face of such pain, and anger, and hunger, how I can possibly share with them the good news and hope of the resurrection? And if I did, why would they even listen to me or anyone else for that matter?

A part of living a God centered life is accepting that we do not understand everything and trusting that God will find a way. Claiming to know the will of God is what the Sadducees were doing by clinging to the law. Jesus’s response to them teaches us that clinging to human thinking does nothing more than separate us from God and deny the power of the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of every person. The rules tell us to love God and to love our neighbor, but how do we do that? For me personally I am wondering how I can love my student and her family in such a way that lets them know that God is with them? I don’t know the answer to my question, but what I do know, is that we must trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide our words and actions and that as long as we keep God at the center of our lives, through prayer, through the study of scripture, and through service to the people of the world the Holy Spirit will find a way to reveal the kingdom and the good news of the resurrection.

We have to pray

When my oldest son was about three, we went to Staples to buy a few things, and when we got into the store, I grabbed a basket because we were only there for one or two items. Well, he wanted a cart because he wanted to sit in the big part, and I told him no. His response was to drop to the ground and start crying. So here I am in the front of Staples, customers and employees are watching us, likely wondering what I did to my kid to make him scream and probably hoping that I would make it stop as soon as possible. I had a choice to make, do I give in and grab a cart, or do I stick to my guns. Well, in a calm voice and in a normal tone I said, “when you are done, I will be over there” and I walked away. I noticed a smirk on one of the employees faces as I began to walk away and within two seconds my son stopped screaming, got up, and followed me down the aisle.

Sometimes, possibly most of the time, we put a great deal of energy into the things that we think are the most important, but truly it is only about our ego. Religious Scholar Huston Smith once wrote that “when the consequences of belief are worldly goods, such as health, fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to decenter the ego, not pander to its desires.” What Smith is saying is that the purpose of religion, the purpose of having a relationship with God, is to center our attention on the kingdom, on God’s plans and not on the things that we desire.

The purpose of prayer, as hinted at by Jesus’ parable, is to assist us in the reorientation process. The woman in the parable consistently asks for justice and she eventually receives it, but let’s be careful here, the message is not that we will get what we want if we ask for it on a regular basis, it is not that if we annoy God enough he will give in. The message is that justice, God’s justice, the kingdom of God will come about when we decentralize our ego and replace it with a God driven life. When we openly, regularly, and sincerely pray we are entering a conversation with God and with ourselves that can help us decenter our ego and reorient our focus onto more important things. The purpose of the parable is to teach us the importance of praying with regularity with the expectation that justice will come, in time, not to teach us that we will get what we want through prayer.

There is a very important concept, that relates to prayer, in the passage from Jeremiah for today. Jeremiah, speaking for God, says “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”  Jeremiah is speaking of the new covenant between God and the people which is based on an internal relationship as opposed to an external set of laws, meaning it is a covenant that we live into, instead of a set of rules that we need to live up to. In order to live into the covenant, we need to place God at the center of our lives instead of placing ourselves there. We do that by reading scripture to help us understand what a God centered life looks like, praying to God for guidance when we are not sure what to do; for strength when we are overwhelmed; for forgiveness when we focus on our own ego; and for comfort when we feel alone.

So far I have talked about how we tend to pay a great deal of attention to ourselves, the importance of making prayer a central part of our lives, and the idea that God has made a covenant with us by placing the law in our hearts, but what I haven’t talked about is what this all means.

As I indicated with my opening story, we tend to focus on the things that we want beginning at a very young age. Our entire culture is centered around the idea of individual desire, which means that our children learn from a very early age that the world revolves around them. There was a time when the church taught that the earth was at the center of the universe because humans are the most important part of creation, but that idea has not only been disproven by science, it has been rejected by theologians. In addition to stressing the importance of individual control, our culture has morphed into a society that expects things to happen immediately. Immediacy and control have nothing to do with the kingdom of God, they are human creations and distractions. The new covenant, written within our hearts, is simple; but in order to understand it and live into it we need to cultivate it and we do that by studying scripture and praying. Prayer is a conversation with God, it is not a laundry list of wants and desires. When we pray for God to intervene in the world we are, as Huston Smith said, turning the church into a service station, we are passing off all responsibility for the current state of the world to others, other people or even God; we are assuming that we have played no role in either creating or sustaining the injustices that are preventing our realization of the kingdom of God. When we pray or as I like to say Talk to God, we need to put aside our ego and instead offer thanksgivings for the blessings that exist in the world, so that we can learn to recognize those blessings as they arrive and not only after they have passed; we should ask God for forgiveness for assuming that they are going to fix the messes that we have made; we should offer the things we know to be injustices, but not with the idea that God will snap their fingers and fix it, but as a part of our understanding that in naming those injustices we are beginning to walk down the path of ending them; and once we have done that we must take the time to listen for a response, knowing that we may not like the answer. It is through our conversations with God that the Holy Spirit is able to awaken the law that has been placed in our hearts which are the seeds that can grow into a desire to love God and to love of each other as much as we love ourselves.

I will end by giving one example. Eighty percent of the world’s population survives on $2 per day, which they use to pay for food, housing, schooling and other necessities of life. Clearly this is an injustice, but is it an injustice because there are not enough resources to go around or is it an injustice because too many people are not willing to share the resources they have? Let’s assume we want to be like the woman in the parable and we want this injustice to be corrected, how should we pray about it? Should we say, Dear God, your people are suffering, please be merciful and help them? Or should we maybe say Dear God, we thank you and praise you for creating the earth to sustain life, so that we would never need to feel hunger, yet so many of your people are forced to go without the food you have provided, help us to understand why this injustice exists and lend us your strength, through the Holy Spirit, to proclaim our love for you and for one another as we work to ensure that all of your people are cared for, as you intended? The answer is hopefully obvious, but the reality of the injustices that exist in the world are not. Prayer is only one aspect of a Christian life, but it is a vital one. If we truly want to restore God’s kingdom, which simply put means a world without injustice, then we have to change our behaviors; we have to let go of our self-centered desires; we have to stop believing that just because we ask, God is going to make it all better, and instead accept that the world is filled with injustice because we continually reject God’s call to love both God and others as much as we love ourselves. Praying and doing so often, is the first step towards repairing the damage we have done to creation because it is through prayer that we can gain the assistance of the Holy Spirit in setting aside our ego. So, pray, pray for forgiveness, pray for assistance, pray that the Holy Spirit will help you understand God’s call for you.